Part One: Origins 1950s and 1960s

Imagine it is 1938

and you have just celebrated your eighteenth birthday. And you are gay.

To be sure, you would not have called yourself “gay.” You probably have no words at all to describe who you are. All you knew was that some men inspire in you something that was possibly interpreted as “hero worship” by others, you admire them, you emulate them, you want to be close to them. But you know it was more than that, because when you are close to them, so close that you can smell their musk and notice the stubble at the nape of their necks or watch the muscles in their forearms writhe as they struggle at some manual task, your dick gets hard.

You know, instinctively, that these feelings for other men must be your secret, because all animals know when they risk mortal danger. No one can ever suspect.

Carhops at the Log Lodge Tavern in 1940s DallasIn 1938, this country was still very much an agricultural nation. Most of the population lived not in cities but in small towns or the farms that surrounded them. So you live in a place where you knew everyone and everyone knew you and you can expect to spend the rest of your life there.

Because of your desires, your life is going to be one of misery, loneliness, and fear. The overarching fear is that someone will see you and know in a flash what you are. That leads to the loneliness because you could never unburden yourself, never show who you are to anyone, not even the people closest to you. You have to guard yourself constantly. You have to keep others at bay either through cultivating eccentricities, presenting yourself as a fool and a clown, or by a foul disposition and hair trigger temper. And these result in misery. The most you could hope for was to get some clueless young woman to marry you, making two people miserable instead of just one, because she will always sense your distance and lie awake nights wondering why in spite of her best efforts to be for you a good and loving wife she only earns your contempt and derision.

But then, on December 7th, 1941, salvation comes: the Empire of Japan bombs the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Hawaii. The United States enters the Second World War. You and thousands of other young men are swept up from your little farm towns and factory towns and become soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Very quickly, in basic training, on troop ships, in barracks, you discover that far from being “the only one,” your numbers are legion. One night, a little drunk, even though there’s nothfing like a dame, you “help a buddy out,” and he returns the favor, and love blossoms, and soon the two of you are something of an item.

Homosexuality was rife in the armed forces during World War II. Many of the aspects of gay culture today date from this time. On troop ships there were drag shows. We call a blow job a blow job because that was the term invented by our boys in uniform in the 1940s.

Somewhere, some captain was appalled by what he saw going on all around him. He typed out a memorandum to his commanding officer who passed it up to his commanding officer who sent it further up the chain of command and eventually this memorandum landed on the desk of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although Roosevelt had overseen a witch hunt directed at “perverts” when he was Secretary of the Navy in 1917, this was his war to prosecute. Also, Sumner Welles was a close friend to Roosevelt and his Undersecretary of State. Sumner Welles was a homosexual and Roosevelt knew it. Roosevelt did all he could to protect Welles when he was caught up in a scandal after propositioning a hotel porter.

Roosevelt was clear in his directive: leave the queers alone.

After this, there was even less reason to hide.

When the war was over, the military discharged service men primarily through three port cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City.

So after the gay old time you had during the war, let’s say you find yourself again a civilian in Los Angeles. You’re not going back to the Hooterville where you grow up so you decide to stay on there.

Although we associate Los Angeles with Hollywood, in the first half of the twentieth century it was a very conservative town overall, mostly peopled by Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians from the Midwest and the Great Plains who came to grow oranges instead of sugar beets. Using the police to crack down on “vice” was invented in Los Angeles. Also, in the 1940s, Los Angeles was large and mostly rural. Going from Downtown to Long Beach took several hours as you made your way down poorly maintained roads with orange groves on either side.

You need a way to get around. Fortunately the military had used motorcycles for couriers in the field during the war and no longer needing them was practically giving them away. And so you get a motorcycle. In addition to providing you with an affordable means of transportation, you discover that riding a motorcycle is a hell of a lot of fun. You spend your weekends riding motorcycles with your buddies you served with during the war.

In 1953, you all go to see a movie together. That movie is The Wild One starring Marlon Brando. In the movie, although Brando’s character Johnny shows interest in Mary Murphy’s Kathie, at the end he goes riding off with his club brothers. And, Brando in The Wild One is so damn sexy in his black leather jacket, the thick black belt on his jeans, his boots, and his chauffeur’s cap. You and your riding buddies follow suit.

In 1954, seven gay men in Los Angeles decide to formally organize themselves into a motorcycle club. They pick the name the Satyrs.

The Satyrs are still around today, still going strong. They are the oldest gay organization still in existence in the world. Shortly after their founding, another club forms that includes some members of the Satyrs. They call themselves Oedipus, picking another name from Greek mythology. Why Oedipus? Because Oedipus fucked his mother and everybody was always telling them they were motherfuckers. Gay motorcycle clubs proliferated in and around Los Angeles with a collective membership of hundreds of men. They would do “runs,” riding off into the hills or down to the beach.

This was the 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy instigated a campaign to drive homosexuals and communists out of the Department of Defense and the State Department. The LAPD’s Vice Squad raided bars and entrapped gay men cruising in Griffith Park. In the 1950s, being a homosexual meant that you were constantly in peril. One anonymous letter sent to your employer would mean that it was all over for you. You would be escorted out of your office by security with your personal belongings in a box. You could never list that employer as a reference because they would be happy to tell anyone who called that you were a “goddamned queer.” This danger came not only from the straight people in your life but from other homosexuals: an anonymous letter is anonymous after all. The Mattachine Society, also started in Los Angeles a few years before the Satyrs in 1950, was a secret society. Members would be assigned a name that was not their own and would only be known to other members by this name. Routinely, homosexuals caught up in a sting operation by the police, had their name and place of employment listed in the paper the next day under the headline “PERVERTS ARRESTED.”

And yet, in this dangerous and hostile world, the men in the Satyrs, wearing their tall black boots and leather jackets, found in each other something that had been unavailable to men like them until then: brotherhood, friendship, and a sense of belonging.

Over the following decades, some men in the motorcycle clubs of Los Angeles moved to San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. In their new home towns they would form motorcycle clubs. These clubs could soon be found across the country and even in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The idea of a club, a band of brothers, facing hardship and raising hell together, shoulder to shoulder, from the very start has been an important aspect of the gay male Leather tradition. Many leathermen who did not ride motorcycles found kinship otherwise, forming uniform clubs (starting with the Regiment of the Black and Tans in Los Angeles in 1974), or affiliated with a leather bar, or living in smaller cities across the country. In 2010, a group of Latino leathermen in Los Angeles, sensing that they were somewhat on the outside looking in with the mostly white leather community sought fellowship with each other and formed Los Payasos, (“the clowns” in Spanish), bringing the party, having fun, and raising money for charitable organizations serving children. The tradition of leather clubs working together to put on a big annual event has resulted in Leather Weekends in cities everywhere enjoyed by hundreds, and usually the result of the hard work of about a dozen men. It is difficult to imagine what Leather would be without leather clubs.

Now let’s imagine that you are discharged up the coast in San Francisco.

San Francisco was nothing before James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. As news spread, people came from all over the world to seek their fortunes in the Sierras. A few of them got rich and others got got rich selling provisions to the ‘Forty-Niners, such as Levi Strauss who made rugged dungarees for them to wear. They took their money to San Francisco and spent it in that city’s saloons and brothels. In addition to dreams of wealth, those settlers who landed in San Francisco were wiling to leave behind everything they knew Back East because they found the niceties of civilization suffocating. They were oddballs, roughnecks, and free-spirits. And so, a “live and let live” spirit pervaded the city.

And that was what you found when you got off the ship.

Because of the constant influx of new-comers, labor was cheap in San Francisco. It was a working man’s town. You could find a place to live for not much money. And if you were industrious but didn’t like the idea of working for someone else, an easy way to to get an income was to become a saloonkeeper yourself.

In June of 1964, Life Magazine ran an eight-page story illustrated by photographs called “Homosexuality in America.” Many pearls were clutched as the author noted that homosexuals were eschewing their furtive ways and in many cities, “homosexual drinking places run by homosexuals” could be found. The story included two full page photographs of the interior of the Tool Box, one of San Francisco’s first leather bars, which featured a mural by artist and leatherman Chuck Arnett. The caption accompanying the photograph read: A San Francisco bar run for and by homosexuals is crowded with patrons who wear leather jackets, make a show of masculinity and scorn effeminate members of their world.

Life Magazine was on every coffee table in America. All over the country, gay men who read the article knew what they had to do. They packed up, said their goodbyes, and took a Greyhound bus to the City By The Bay to start a new life. Whereas the Castro was home to most of the gay bars (and a few lesbian bars), the grittier area known as South of Market was home to the leather bars. There was not much risk involved with opening a leather bar. You could rent for cheap a former corner grocery store, paint the walls and the plate glass front windows black, and get at minimum a beer license. With the patronage of sixty or seventy of your friends and ex-lovers, you were in business. Although each bar had a distinct personality of its own—one bar catered mostly to hippies who were also leathermen and leathermen who were also hippies—leather bar culture developed in San Francisco. It was here that the traditions of cruising—what you wore, how you stood, how you signaled what you were looking for that night—were established.

It was also in the leather bars of San Francisco that the role of the bartender as icon and community leader was established. The bartender knew not only what whiskey was favored by his regular customers but also what they were into. If you made friends with the bartender, you would have a busy sex life. “You should talk to the stud over there leaning up against the jukebox. He’s part of the fisting fraternity.”

And bartenders always were interested to hear news of players who played too rough and were quick to steer beginners away from such men lest they bite off more than they could chew.

Leather bars served the purpose that would later be served by gay and lesbian community centers. Leather clubs who hung their colors in their home bar would also conduct meetings there. When a reversal of fortune left a regular customer in dire straights, the bar would host a beer bust and pass the hat to help him out.

After closing, the streets South of Market would be filled with men cruising for sex. The bars of South of Market marked the neighborhood as our territory. It became the spiritual home of leathermen around the world without rival.

And then there’s New York City.

Then, now, and for all time, New York City is an expensive place to live. Luckily for you (as long as you’re White), the G.I. Bill provides money so you can go to college. If you want to stay on here and not go back to that little town on the prairie, you had better take advantage of that and go to Columbia, NYU, Hunter College, the City University of New York, or Parson’s School of Design and become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, commercial artist, or something else that gains you sufficient income.

There were, of course, gay bars in New York City. But running a gay bar was not the easy deal it was in San Francisco. In New York, it meant paying off organized crime, then the cops, and then organized crime again, and still every time there was an election you could count on being raided and shut down.

Because the men who would come to call themselves leathermen in New York were mostly educated professionals, the growth of leather in New York City took an interesting turn.

There you are, wearing your leather jacket and jeans, at a bar along the West Side waterfront. A similarly dressed man walks by you, your eyes meet and you both nod in acknowledgement as he passes. You check out his ass and notice that a pair of handcuffs are sticking out of the back left pocket of his jeans. You get hard. You follow him. Tap him on the shoulder. The two of you talk. You hit it off. You ask about the handcuffs. He just smiles. “So you like that, do you?”

He tells you he would like to invite you to a party taking place a week from Friday. He gives you a card reading “The Saturnalia Society” with a phone number. You will need an invitation to the party and you should call the number on the card to get one.

The next day you call. You are briefly interrogated and then the man on the phone takes your name and address. A few days later you receive an invitation printed on good quality paper in the mail: You are invited to a gathering of The Saturnalia Society to be held Friday, April 9th, 1965. Cocktails at 7 p.m. Dinner at 8 p.m. Festivities afterwards. Dress: Black Leather.

And so you move into a network of private parties held private homes. After dinner, out come the crosses and the benches, the ropes and the whips.

As professional men, you have to be careful as you have much to lose. If a co-worker should see you coming out of the wrong bar it would be disastrous. These private parties offered a way for leathermen to gather safely.

That said, they were private parties. If you said the wrong thing, if you did the wrong thing, if you ate your entree with your salad fork, the invitations would cease and you would be shut out.

William Carney chronicled this world in his 1968 book called The Real Thing. It sounds almost fantastical that this world could have ever existed but it did. One of the hosts of those parties, Wally Wallace, perhaps because he got tired of cleaning up afterwards, bought two adjoining bars down in the Meatpacking District, combined them into one space, and in 1976 opened the legendary Mineshaft, which ran as a private membership club. The dress code of the Mineshaft is notorious and it was strictly enforced. Furthermore, if you pissed off Wally, your name went on a Do Not Invite list and you were denied entrance.

Inside the Mineshaft and at those parties, the erotic escapades were hardcore: whips bloodying backs and fists diving deep into asses. Leathermen rose to prominence as skilled players both as sadists and masochists. Although, of course, very few men were involved in these secretive networks, the dynamics of elitism, unwritten protocols that must be obeyed, and heavy-duty BDSM, can still be discerned in the leather scene in New York City to this day. And these aspects are not unique to New York City. The Chicago Hellfire Club has hosted an annual run called Inferno that attracts the best practitioners of BDSM in the world since the 1970s. To attend, one must be a member or an associate member of Hellfire or be specifically invited by a member. To become a member requires an application endorsed by three full members. By convention, the location of Inferno and even the specific dates on which it is held are not to be discussed outside of the club.

 By the late 1960s, when Larry Townsend, the author of The Leatherman’s Handbook published in 1972, began circulating his survey that would shape his book, these men in the motorcycle clubs in Los Angeles, in the bars in San Francisco, and the shadowy underground networks in New York City, as well as leather cowboys in Denver, good-old-boys in Atlanta, and men in Chicago, Seattle, Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Boston, and across the country were referring to themselves as “leathermen.”

There was no one way of doing leather. There was no one setting the rules. Leathermen were not the Masons. What anthropologists refer to as folkways—the collection of signifiers, behaviors, and garments that become laden with meaning—grew up organically.

This begs the question of why?. Why Leather?

The explanation that makes the most sense is that it was a Darwinian adaptation, like some finches developing beaks strong enough to crack the shells of seeds because those seeds were what there was to eat and therefore needed for survival. The pervasiveness of Leather indicates that this adaption was not frivolous but also a matter of survival.

Peering across the chasm of time it is difficult to discern the difficulty these men faced in their daily lives. At work, on the street, in their families, they were met with mockery and that mockery was backed with the threat of violence.

I remember sitting with my family when I was twelve or thirteen, so this would be in the mid-Seventies, after dinner watching the evening news. It was reported that a man had been found dead in Center City Philadelphia dressed in “a leather jacket and pants,” his body dumped in an alley. The man had died from having a broomstick rammed so far up his ass that it had perforated his chest cavity and punctured his heart.

Possibly this was the result of a scene gone wrong, but the more likely explanation is murder fueled by hate because he was gay. We will never know because the police probably did not spend any time investigating that man’s death. In 1977 and 1978, plastic bags containing the dismembered bodies of men were washing up along the Hudson River in New York City. There was no murder investigation as the police listed them as having dies in “unknown circumstances.” However, the murder of a film critic named Addison Verrill, found beaten to death in his apartment was investigated because the victim was well known and the killer was found, a 38-year-old X-ray technician named Paul Bateson. In prison, Bateson bragged that he had killed many gay men “for fun.”

In photographs these leathermen’s faces exhibit a toughness, even when they capture moments of joy, arm-in-arm with their lovers and brothers. Because they were tough. Because they had to be tough. The bars and the bike clubs were not refuges for them; for them there was no “safe space.” These men were outcasts and nomads. The bars and the clubs only offered brief respite from the hardship they faced.

These men dealt with the stress they faded as people have always dealt with such challenges: by numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol. Those leathermen, our forefathers, were not Masons and neither were they Boy Scouts. In his great book Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco, the author, Jim Stewart, tells us that sex with the man you had brought home from the bar started with lines of cocaine and shots of Wild Turkey.

Leather was about survival in a hostile world, but not just surviving but thriving. Leather indicated to that hostile world—hopefully—that you were not to be fucked with, but also signaled to fellow travelers: I am like you, we are brothers, I know what you want and I want that, too. These leathermen were warriors of love and their leather was their battle gear.

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