In the prior installment, we discussed how the familiar elements that comprise Leather.
The leather bars that came to be our sacred sexual spaces, the clubs for men on motorcycles or uniform guys or just leathermen seeking fraternity, and the secret societies of leathermen exploring the rituals and ecstasies of bondage and domination—took shape. All of this occurred in the 1950s and 1960s when homosexuality was not only stigmatized but could and did land homosexuals in jail.
And then came Stonewall.
Prior to the events of June 28, 1969, there had been other instances of gay men, lesbians, and transgender people fighting back against police harassment. What made Stonewall significant was that while the protests were taking place on subsequent nights, flyers were distributed among the protesters exhorting them to “come to a meeting.” Out of these initial meetings came, of course, more meetings (as anyone who has been involved in activist work would know), and in these meetings was born the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activist Alliance, RadicaLesbians, and STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. It was then that the first-time-in-history event occurred: gay men, lesbians, and transgender people made demands. They demanded an end to police harassment. They demanded that they be given equal standing before the law. The Gay Activists Alliance conducted a “zap” at the Manhattan Marriage License Bureau. Same-sex couples showed up early and demanded marriage licenses. When they were refused, they sat down where they stood and no one got marriage licens
It is one thing to plea for consideration, to implore, to request, to beg for tolerance as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had done. It is quite another thing to stand up and angrily make a demand. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
This new posture led to a new way of thinking about being gay: ‘Gay is Good’ was among the slogans of Gay Liberation. We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to apologize for, nothing to hide. This new understanding of ourselves resulted, during the 1970s, in a flourishing of gay culture. There came to be gay books and gay bookstores, gay magazines, gay artists, gay playwrights and gay plays.
Leathermen, being gay themselves, were of course a part of this.
In 1972, Larry Townsend published The Leathermen’s Handbook, discussing in its pages how leathermen thought about themselves and what it meant to be a leatherman. Many gay men came to see themselves as leathermen. This resulted in more leather bars and more leather clubs. In fact, they proliferated.
In 1983, I went off to college in Reading, Pennsylvania, a rustbelt city with a population of fewer than one hundred thousand. Reading was home to the Reading Railmen and their home bar was the Red Star Saloon. By the end of the 1970s, there were so many leather clubs that umbrella organizations were formed, such as the Northeast Conference of Clubs. Their primary purpose was to keep a calendar to ensure that when the Bucks MC planned their annual run (called Santa Saturday, taking place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and still going on today), it would not be in conflict with the annual run being planned by the Baltimore Shipmates or the Pocono Warriors or Empire MC in New York City. And the same was true across the country as other umbrella organizations formed.
All those clubs had a leather bar they claimed as their home bar and where they hung their club colors and showed up wearing their club vests or club uniforms.
In Los Angeles in 1975, a thoughtful and passionate man named John Embry started a magazine called Drummer. His vision was to celebrate in the pages of his magazine the masculine gay male. He took as his model a somewhat obscure literary journal called The Evergreen Review that had published the early work of writers and poets of the Beat Generation such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. With his editor, Jeanne Barney, he sought out leathermen who could write and who had provocative and of
First in the pages of Drummer and then with his own book, Mr. Benson, John Preston explored the idea of two men defining their relationship to one another as Master and slave, not just in role-play over the course of a night, but ongoing. Preston was a gay activist who founded one of the first gay community centers in the United States. His novel tells the story of a young man who meets a sophisticated and worldly man named Aristotle Benson in a leather bar and becomes that man’s slave. Although Preston’s work was erotic fantasy, the Master and slave relationship that he described kindled a desire in many of his readers: Yes. That. That’s what I want. Men started cruising bars and back alleys wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Looking for Mr. Benson.”
And Drummer Magazine also included photography and artwork.
Before Drummer, the only way that gay erotic artists and photographers could have their work seen at all was in the heavily censored physique magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Embry fought the censors repeatedly, insisting on absolute freedom of expression in the pages of his magazine. Drummer Magazine is the reason you are familiar with the work of Touko Laaksonen, although you know him as Tom of Finland.
The influence of Tom of Finland cannot be overstated. In his drawings, muscular cops, lumberjacks, bikers, and army officers fuck, suck dick, fist, tie each other up, and beat and whip each other. The men on the receiving end are as big and strong as the men dishing it out and everyone is obviously enjoying themselves. Importantly, the overwhelming majority of Tom’s drawings have settings in broad daylight, evidently without shame or fear. This must have profoundly moved leathermen who mostly had their encounters the dark of night. Tom influenced many other leathermen artists, such as Rexten controversial things to say to their fellow leathermen. Writers such as Tony DeBlase, Joseph Bean, Guy Baldwin, Race Bannon, and Patrick Califia penned essays that inspired outrage as much as admiration. In the pages of Drummer, leathermen came to a deeper understanding of who they were and how this thing they called Leather had come to be. And, it opened up their imaginations to other aspects to explore: bondage and domination, piss and raunch, fisting and piercing.
After Stonewall, gay men had gay pornography also, especially after the introduction of the videotape. A man in Los Angeles named Mykal Bales was dissatisfied with what he found. Gay porn in the 1970s mostly depicted young, hairless blond men exchanging blow jobs. This did nothing for Bales. What he wanted to see was mature, muscular men bound and helpless and tormented. He took all the money he had and borrowed quite a bit more and founded his own company which he called Zeus Studios. By portraying actual bondage and whipping perpetuated not by actors but by skilled practitioners, notably Fred Katz, the films Zeus Studios put out were instructive as well as arousing.
Now, in addition to our bars and clubs, leathermen had a literature and art. In the years following Stonewall, Leather developed into a full-fledged subculture. “Folkways” of sorts came to be as men signaled their specific desires by bandanas in the back pockets of their jeans and the placement of keys swinging from belt loops.
During the 1970s, there were depictions of gay men and lesbians on television and in movies. Archie Bunker discovers that the sissy he deplores is straight but his ex-football player drinking buddy is gay. Many of these depictions did us no favors, portraying our lives as sad and lonely and ending in violence or suicide or showing gay men as either predatory and demented or as de-sexualized clowns.
In 1978 in New York City, two record producers and a vocalist and songwriter named Victor Willis had auditions for a group they wanted to form: “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Mustache.” In the group was Glenn Hughes, who joined the lineup of a GI, a cowboy, a construction worker, and a native american as “the leatherman.”
As leathermen crept into the consciousness of mainstream, heterosexual America, they came to symbolize an aspect of the gay male experience that many gay activists thought would be better sidelined well out of the spotlight: sexuality blended with masculinity. And arguably, their instincts were correct. Effeminate gay men and drag queens do not present much of a challenge to straight men who accord them the lower status in the social pecking order that they assign to women. But a manly man, as manly or more as they may be, who also sucks dick and takes it up the ass and enjoys that, raises questions they would rather not explore.
In Los Angeles, a man named Ed Davis was the head of the LAPD. Chief Davis was relentless in his persecution of gay men and in particular leathermen drew his ire. Leather bars were repeatedly raided; leathermen cruising for sex in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles were picked off the street just for wearing leather. So oppressive was Chief Davis’ personal campaign that after an event advertised as a slave auction was raided by the LAPD, Drummer Magazine, the organizer, packed up and left Los Angeles for the more tolerant San Francisco. The California B&B Corps, a uniform club, adopted as their official club uniform what was essentially the dress blues of the LAPD as a pointed ‘Fuck You’ to Chief Davis.
As leather visibility grew, stigma attached itself to leather in general and to the masculine gay men who wore it. And this stigma not only came from the straight majority but from our gay brothers as well.
During the filming of William Friedkin’s movie Cruising, based on a book about a serial killer who targeted gay men, gay activists demonstrated. To some extent the activists had a point: Al Pacino’s character, a straight police detective who goes undercover to catch the killer, is seemingly seduced by the scene, portraying gay male sexuality as something contagious and lethal. Those criticisms aside, it astonishes me still that in 1980 on movie theater screens all across the country (where the movie was not banned), audiences saw gay men in leather giving and receiving blowjobs in bars, cruising in parks, and enjoying tying each other up.
On July 3rd, 1981, buried on page A20 of the New York Times, an article appeared with the headline “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS.” Setting the stage for disaster, Ronald Wilson Reagan had been inaugurated as the fortieth president of the United States of America, brought with him a conservative revolution and the political agenda of the Christian Right began to shape government policy.
What followed, of course, was so terrible it defies description. Gay men started to die, first by the hundreds and then by the thousands, of diseases no one had ever heard of like pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus, and Kaposi’s sarcoma. From the outset, this new disease was associated with gay men, originally being called “GRID” for Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency before being rechristened as “AIDS” (Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome). Gay men were terrified, especially in the early months and years when how the disease was spread was unknown. Was it a bad batch of poppers? Was it the disinfectant used at bathhouses?
Once it was known that it was sexually transmitted and “bodily fluids” entered the lexicon, the stigma that had recently attached itself to leathermen intensified. Even among our gay brothers, we became absolute pariahs.
It was during this time that I was venturing for the first time into leather bars. There were no “mentors” to take me under their wings, show me the ropes, extend to me the welcoming hand of fraternity. I realized only in retrospect that these men were frightened and traumatized. They were grieving their fallen brothers, loss piled on loss. There was no cure for AIDS. Every month they stuck their courage to the sticking place and went for an HIV antibody test to find out if they, too, would be under sentence of death. Leather bars became the venues for “celebrations of life,” where club brothers would gather around a table with photographs and mementoes of the man who would belly up to the bar no more. Tearfully, arms slung around one another, they would share memories, and then many of them would go to hospital wards or home to their lovers to change the sheets and see if the lesions in his throat would allow him to at least have a little soup.
Leather clubs became all important. What we now know as hospice care had not been defined then. Around-the-clock care was provided by friends, lovers, and club brothers, many of them HIV positive themselves, who spent time after work reading silently by the bedside of a once virile and handsome thirty-year-old man now reduced to skin stretched over a skeleton, waiting in case he had to struggle to get to the toilet. There was a long tradition in these leather clubs of mutual aid: when your club brother was knocked off of his motorcycle and couldn’t work for six weeks, you banded together, passed the hat, raised money by doing a beer bust at your home bar to take care of him. Now, this tradition was put to the test. The fundraisers were all but constant.
The psychological toll taken was immense. Because the living were constantly duty-bound to care for the dying, there was no time to process grief or make sense of loss. All you could do was to soldier on. “BDSM”—the erotic ordeals of bondage and pain leathermen lovingly put each other through as a way of establishing intimate bonds between them—now had an added dimension. They were holy undertakings. The fear and unresolved grief found an outlet in the bellows of agony of men lashed to the cross and taking a whipping. I remember witnessing a brutal flogging. The man on the receiving end was coiled like a watch spring, every muscle taut, shivers running up and down his body, his knuckles white as he clutched at the ropes that bound his wrists, his toes curled. The man wielding the flail approached, gently brushed the hairs on the man’s crimson back with his gloved hand, and whispered something in the ear of the man on the receiving end. “I don’t want to die! I’m so afraid…” cried the man on the cross. And with that a torrent of sorrow was released. He was released from his bonds, the Top let fall his flogger, the two of them sat huddled at the foot of the cross, holding each other and weeping.
“Homosexuals have violated the laws of Nature and Nature is exacting the penalty for that,” declared the Reverend Jerry Falwell.
Falwell said what the straight world—and even some gay men—were thinking: the gay men who were dying deserved what they were getting. This especially applied to leathermen: we were erotic outlaws with our dungeons and whips and fist-fucking. The AIDS Crisis further stigmatized leathermen among their gay brothers. We were dangerous, twisted, and sick.
In the early 1980s in New York City, a new kind of leather organization was formed. They were not a club, there were no initiation rituals, the only requirement for membership was to pay your annual dues and this was a nominal amount of money. The name of the group was Gay Male S/M Activists, best known by the acronym GMSMA. They sought to educate gay men about the best practices of BDSM and advocate for their interests. A founding member of the group, slave david stein, articulated a formula describing these best practices: safe, sane, and consensual. As understanding came as to how HIV was transmitted, this informed the how sex and the rituals of bondage and domination could be carried out without risk of transmission of HIV. They undertook an effort to change how practitioners of BDSM were viewed: we were not dangerous hedonists with a death wish; rather, we were careful, sober, and clear-headed.
GMSMA quickly became the largest organization of gay men that had existed until that point and that has existed since then, boasting hundred of members, holding out answers to the question of how gay men could get their erotic needs met yet still keep themselves and their partners safe. Their practices were brought out of the dark dungeons and into the bright lights of the meeting room on the third floor of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center on West 13th Street. Every Wednesday night, a Top would clearly and carefully explain some arcane aspect of bondage, flogging, cock-and-ball torture, passing on helpful hints like putting condoms on dildos and washing any devices used with bleach in between sessions. Many of the tropes of BDSM such as negotiation and consent before the action starts and the use of previously agreed upon safe-words should something go wrong, originated with GMSMA.
Annually, GMSMA would march behind their own banner in New York City’s Gay Pride celebrations. In gratitude, they did an event to raise money for the organizers, Heritage of Pride. They called the event Leather Pride Night. This was the first time that those two words, “leather” and “pride” had been used together. The broad-daylight escapades of the men Tom of Finland had depicted in his drawings came to fruition: no shame and no fear.
In San Francisco, another new type of organization was formed: The 15 Association. Flyers were posted in leather bars throughout the city: TWELVE MEN WANTED by three others to form an elite corps—A Leather-S&M/B&D Fraternity.
The flyer explained:
We envision that THE 15 will become San Francisco’s most exclusive leathermen’s fraternity. We will be PROUD. We will be HOT. We will be NOTICED. We will be RESPECTED. We will be ENVIED. We will be a group of men who will stick together as buddies, providing each other with mutual support and friendship. We will be involved in the community as a group; and we will be involved with each other in private—holding parties and events exclusively for ourselves and our invited guests. We will be highly visible and interface with the open gay community to promote a positive image of gay S&M and leather scenes [emphasis added].
Nothing clandestine here. The formation of such a group would have been met with scorn and derision only a few years earlier. The AIDS Crisis underlined the need that gay men—leathermen and otherwise—had to bond together. An army of lovers cannot be defeated.
And then, leathermen saved the world. Not exactly, but almost.
Early on in the AIDS Crisis it became clear that the healthcare system, the social services bureaucracy, as well as city, state, and the federal government, would do nothing to help us. Nothing whatsoever. Gay men—and, crucially, our lesbian sisters—were left to do for ourselves. And so we did.
What happened in New York City came to be a model for cities in the rest of the country. Playwright and screenwriter Larry Kramer held a meeting in his apartment in 1982. The Centers for Disease Control had declared the new disease to be an epidemic. These men decided to form an organization to raise money for research about the new disease and to provide advocacy and care for gay men living with the disease. Similar organizations were formed soon afterwards in Los Angeles and San Francisco, AIDS Project Los Angeles and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation respectfully.
Building an organization from the ground up takes money. Where was that money going to come from? Philanthropic organizations could not, of course, be less interested. It would be years before the federal government committed any funding to address the crisis. But what about wealthy gay men? A few of them did step forward, but many did not, fearing that should it become know that they had donated to an organization helping gay men with AIDS, the assumption would be made that they were gay (and very often they were deeply closeted) and that they themselves had AIDS resulting in ostracism from their wealth gay friends.
So where would the money come from?
It was previously mentioned that during the 1970s, leather clubs and organizations proliferated across the country. There were now hundreds, perhaps thousands. Each of these clubs had three things: a tradition of mutual support among their members, a charismatic and well-spoken man serving as president, and a checking account so that they could receive and disburse money. Leather clubs and organizations became fundraising powerhouses. In spite of the fact that frequently the organizations they were raising money for did not publicly acknowledge who had donated the money as the stigma surrounding leather and leathermen persisted, the fundraising went on.
A few years earlier, the owner of a leather bar and the adjoining bathhouse in Chicago named Chuck Renslow was presented with an idea by his lover, the erotic artist Dom Orejudas.
“Wouldn’t it be hilarious,” Dom said, “if we held the Miss America Pagent only instead of beauty queens it was leathermen?” Chuck thought this was a great idea. What a hoot: instead of parading across the stage in swimming suits we could have them in boots and jockstraps! He contacted owners of leather bars in other cities and encouraged them to have contests at their bars; the winners would go to Chicago and compete to see who would become Mister Leather America. Because leather bars in Canada and Europe were interested in participating, the name of the title was changed to International Mister Leather.
Since their inception, leather contests were wildly popular with bars filled to capacity, drama and tears as the winner was announced.
With the advent of the AIDS Crisis, they became much more serious. There was work to be done. The winner of a leather contest essentially would be giving up a year of his life and devoting the next twelve months to raising money for the fight against AIDS in any way he could. Collectively in the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised by leather title holders. GMHC, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Shanti Project, God’s Love We Deliver, the AIDS Emergency Fund, Housing Works, the Hyacinth Foundation, Bailey House, ActionAIDS Philadelphia, and countless others quickly grew to become large organizations. The money received from leathermen lent them credibility when approaching legitimate philanthropists.
From the earliest leather clubs and bars in Eisenhower-era America to surviving the AIDS Crisis, the story of Leather is a story of courage, fortitude, and resilience that sprang from the love of brothers for one another. Riding motorcycles in tight and precise formation, in secret dungeons, and in each other’s arms, a love for one another was formed the likes of which the world has rarely seen. And joy… so much joy. Under the weight of brutal persecution and then the burden of grief and loss, leathermen were nonetheless able to make for themselves lives of joyous camaraderie.
We, today, are their heirs.
Let me add my voice to the chorus: that thing called the “Old Guard” never existed. There were no secret societies watched over and policed by a “council of elders.” That’s the Masons you’re thinking of. The most enraging thing about this false narrative is that it obscures something much more wonderful. Leathermen have a history and a legacy of which we can all be proud.