Joseph W Bean. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
The modern leathersex community is a pansexual, diverse subculture united not so much by common practice or ideology as by a shared commitment to a particular aesthetic, a tradition that is inextricably tied up with post-World War II images of American manhood. While sadomasochism (S/M), bondage, sexual discipline, and fisting are popular within the leathersex world and the history of leathersex is intimately linked with the history of gay S/M, the term leathersex should not be taken as synonymous with S/M. Part of leather’s sexual appeal, in fact, speaks to a broad sense of community, a safe space where one’s fantasies and inclinations (whether or not they involve S/M) can be nonjudgmentally realized. Many have also commented on leather’s connotations of toughness; donning black leather is an assertion of power and strength in a society that is often eager to cast men who have sex with men, women who have sex with women, and nonconformists of all sexual preferences as sissies, perverts, and outcasts.
Modern S/M and leathersex have only the vaguest historical continuity with anything that developed before the twentieth century. While fragments of such ideas persisting from the Victorian era can be found and such past luminaries as the Marquis de Sade may be idolized within S/M and leathersex world, these instances do not add up to a credible history. Walter, the diarist of the Victorian erotic classic My Secret Life, mentions that establishments catering to those with a taste for sadism or masochism were in operation in nineteenth-century London; similar houses operated in New York City. Likewise, late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century scientific experts such as Richard Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and Sigmund Freud mentioned the existence of S/M practices, and networks of sadomasochists—acquaintances who felt safe with each other and who referred other acquaintances with similar interests—were already active at the turn of the century.
However, the problem remained that S/M practitioners of all sexual orientations, faced with a disapproving society, had to find safe ways of identifying themselves to others who shared their proclivities. As dual transgressors, homosexual S/M practitioners had particular difficulty doing this. While nightclubs and social organizations that served heterosexuals with a taste for “deviant” sex may have been established in major cities, stories of gay men being excluded from these clubs are more common than stories of their being welcomed. This led to the growth of separate, underground homosexual S/M networks. Meanwhile, women who sought S/M or fetish sex with other women were often accommodated in heterosexual circles. This possibly exploitative accommodation retarded the development of distinct women’s leather, S/M, and fetish communities.
Motorcycle Culture and Early Clubs
Underground S/M networks, especially those involving gay men, experienced a sea change as waves of American boys came home from World War II, bringing with them restless energy, military-surplus riding apparel, and a love for the machines (especially motorcycles and aircraft) that they had used to defeat the Axis powers. There were nongay motorcycle gangs all over the country by the late 1940s, and very few of them included women; thus, the motorcycle gang was a perfect model for homosexual male groups. Looking like heterosexual biker clubs meant that no one stopped to think why there were no women with them when they roared through town. Moreover, the fierce reputation such clubs enjoyed was simultaneously a form of protection against homophobic harassment, a means of self-identification in a society that rejected homosexuals, and a turn-on for those who liked their trade rough.
In 1954, one of the homosexual motorcycle groups in Los Angeles organized itself into an official club, the Satyrs. The bikes, like the leather, were mostly war surplus. In naming themselves, the group followed a tradition established by fighting divisions in the army. They made back patches like the battalion patches they had brought home and called them colors as warriors have done for centuries. They even had medals made, imitating not medals of honor and valor but the sortie pins that were common during the war. In the beginning, the pins were distributed at out-of-town motorcycle runs only. They quickly became proof of longevity and brotherhood, just as wartime sortie pins had been.
The dual influence of the military and the motorcycle gang launched the attitudes and institutions that became the essential features of the modern leather community. According to anthropologist Gayle Rubin, the military and biker influences led to two stylistic poles for leathermen: the military style emphasized “formality, hierarchy, order, and discipline,” while the biker was associated with the “celebration of disorder, rebelliousness, and individualism.” Both styles have had an enduring effect on leather culture. The constructs of respect and mannered protocols in many early male clubs were more or less military, some requiring formal apprenticeships as part of their initiation. Others were less strict, but all were organized for the purpose of facilitating S/M sex. In describing the founding of Second City Motorcycle Club of Chicago, Chuck Renslow states that “motorcycle” was simply code for S/M.
In the 1960s, the motorcycle clubs led to the establishment of bars, some of which were owned by clubs or club officers. From their beginning, the motorcycle clubs stopped at bars on their runs, and members often gathered in bars in town. There were at least two bars in New York intentionally serving leathermen as early as the mid-1950s. In the 1960s, the clubs settled on the idea of having “home bars” in which to hang their “colors” or logos, and leather bars quickly spread across the country. Almost immediately, the bars became community centers for leathermen. Clubs had been only very slightly less private than the networks; bars were many degrees more public, but did not, in the beginning, have a genuine open-door policy. Nonetheless, by the time these gangs moved off their bikes and into clubs, bars, and other organizations, leather fashion had become firmly established, having taken on the mantle of a tribal identifying mark and having been adopted by lesbians and others in the S/M scene.
By the end of the 1960s, many leather bars had back-rooms, commonly painted black and thus often called black rooms, where gay and S/M sex of all kinds took place. The black rooms flourished, attracting little more legal attention than the bars themselves. A companion development for the black rooms was an S/M-tolerant attitude in some newly available gay bathhouses and sex clubs. Bathhouses amounted to backrooms without the bar. Sex clubs often were said to be bathhouses without the bath. Also in the 1960s, leather clubs, bars, baths, and sex clubs became more visible to the general public. In June 1964, for instance, the editors of Life magazine used a mural of leathermen painted by Chuck Arnett in San Francisco’s infamous Tool Box bar as a two-page illustration in an article called “Homosexuality in America.” In contrast, S/M-seeking heterosexuals and lesbians still had only social networks, which continued to function for gay men as well.
In the postwar years, another powerful force changed the face of leathersex. Physique magazines and their related mail-order films, art folios, and photo sets were both feeding and helping to form the appetites of leathermen. In 1945, these were joined by the newsstand publication Justice Weekly, out of Toronto, Canada. For twenty-seven years, Justice Weekly allowed S/M strangers to meet without being introduced and vetted by other members of a network of acquaintances. Its usefulness to gay men in America was probably slight in the beginning, but grew by the late 1960s. In the 1950s, magazines like Bizarre and Exotique also appeared, but they intentionally did not facilitate contacts, and they were for the heterosexual trade, including the women seeking women who were accommodated in that realm. Meanwhile, the photography and art—especially the Nazi-uniform influenced art of Tom of Finland and the masochistic fantasy art of George Quaintance—found within both newsstand and mail-order publications defined styles of appearance and liberated sexual fantasies. In this context, biker-style black leathers, which were featured both in the new gay media and in a mainstream culture industry that was quick to appropriate and commodify any and all symbols of rebelliousness and dissent, began to eclipse the brown leathers of both the war-surplus and the Western or cowboy model of masculinity.
Growth of the Leather Community
The increased visibility of leathermen in the 1960s continued and accelerated through the end of the century. Magazines for gay men flourished in the 1970s, including many for leathermen. Among them, Drummer magazine, first published in Los Angeles in June 1975, stands out. Not only did Drummer last for twenty-four years, it also launched the careers of many of the leather community’s most important writers, photographers, artists, and thinkers. Perhaps most significantly, Larry Townsend, author of the groundbreaking gay man’s guide to S/M, the Leatherman’s Handbook(1972), came to the attention of an international population in the pages of Drummer.
Motorcycle clubs became increasingly independent of the motorcycle in the 1970s, often choosing to call themselves leather/Levi clubs as they grew, multiplied, and became increasingly liberal about allowing guests. When visitors began to attend both in-town and out-of-town runs, some of the events grew to unexpected scale. As events developed, the emerging businesses supplying leathersex needs—everything from bondage gear and whips to videos and magazines—became a migrating marketplace set up wherever leathermen and leather-women gathered. Leathersex aesthetics also began to spill over into other, not necessarily LGBT, subcultures, such as the science fiction/fantasy/neo-medieval demimonde. One such group is the aggressively heterosexual Tuchux, founded some time in the early 1970s, which based itself on an imaginary tribe described by John Norman in his Gor series of S/M science-fiction novels.
Driven by the energies of a single bisexual woman, the late Cynthia Slater, another important new element was added to the leather community’s resources. As a call-taker and sometime trainer for the San Francisco Sex Information Hotline (SFSI), Slater recognized a need for the people working the hotline to be better informed about S/M. Her efforts resulted in the 1974 formation of the Society of Janus, a pansexual S/M education and support group. About this time, while leatherman groups remained, perforce, exclusively male, some heterosexual groups began experimenting with inclusion or outreach. In New York City, the Eulenspiegel Society (TES) was also inclusive. Founded in 1971 by Pat Bond as a support group for masochists, TES welcomed people of all sexualities. The masochists-only portion of the early mandate was soon left behind, but TES continued to welcome all kinky people, submissive and dominant, switches and the curious, men and women, gay, lesbian and straight, and eventually transsexuals.
In 1975, a fisting club called Catacombs opened in San Francisco. At around the same time, a group of thirteen gay male sadomasochists in Chicago organized the Chicago Hellfire Club (CHC), one of the first clubs formed for the purpose of facilitating S/M sexual encounters that used no code or façade of any sort. CHC chose to use instruments of S/M and torture in its colors and to state plainly that the group was made up of gay sadomasochists seeking others like themselves for sexual purposes. Some gay S/M clubs were formed in reaction to the adoption of leather garb as a sort of gay male uniform by homosexuals who were not involved in S/M.
For clubs, 1978 was a boom year. In his Leather History Timeline, Tony DeBlase lists twenty-five clubs founded that year, two in Canada and the remaining twenty-three scattered in thirteen different states. Among them, Samois was established in San Francisco in 1978 to serve the interests of women who do S/M with women. It was the first lesbian S/M club and was followed by others, such as Leather and Lace in Los Angeles. In 1980 in New York, Gay Male S/M Activists (GMS/MA) was organized as a direct result of a letter by Brian O’Dell published in Gay Community News. The group became one of the major forces in the S/M technique-training movement, which dominated the development of the leather community in the 1980s.
The National Leather Association (NLA) was different in intent and effect. When Steve Maidhof and a few friends in the Seattle area formed NLA in 1986, they intended to bring together gay men and lesbians in one club and to serve all of the various purposes of clubs: entertainment, education, social interaction, and activism. Before NLA’s second anniversary, it had already become, like Janus and TES, a congregation of all sexualities.
By the late 1980s, the constituency that called itself “the leather community” comprised hundreds of leather, motorcycle, and explicitly S/M clubs, along with leather bars and businesses serving leather, S/M, and fetish needs as well as a growing calendar of special events and a rapidly changing roster of stars. In the absence of any formal governing body, leather people—starting, as was often the case, with gay men—organized socially and to some extent politically around events featuring leather title contests. The phenomenon, which began in 1973 with a Mr. Scene and Machine Contest in Washington, D.C., became stable with the founding of International Mr. Leather (IML) in 1979. Contests provided a forum in which leather men from across the country could communicate and interact with the sexual atmosphere charged but, unlike most club runs, not quite the central reason for the gathering.
The Era of National Organizing
With the advent in Chicago of IML, the leather title idea became a “system,” national in scope and international in appeal. Bars could have local contests, as could clubs and businesses. The contest weekends provided opportunities for political meetings, vendor fairs, sexual interactions, and network development. In the early 1980s, the lesbian S/M group Samois sponsored the first Women’s Leather Dance, the first Ms. Leather Contest, and the first Lesbian Pride Leather Dance. Besides the sixty-five or more contests around the country and internationally that feed into the IML system and those that also recently fed into a similar Mr. Drummer contest (1981-2001), there are now or have been regional, national, and international leather title contests for self-described leather boys, deaf men and women, black men and women, dykes, dads, cowboys, and mommies, to mention only a few.
The previously slight cooperation of gay men and lesbians in leather increased significantly in the 1980s when women joined men in the grassroots AIDS movement. The leather community suffered a high mortality rate, and its radical sex practices were among the targets in the effort to blame the start or spread of AIDS on someone or something. Consequently, leathermen took a prominent lead in the fight for AIDS services and funding. Almost immediately, they were joined by women in leather who often served as caregivers, but no less significantly contributed to the style and energy of the movement as coworkers and allies.
All the elements, institutions, celebrities, and coalitions developed through the mid-1980s were sorely tested toward the end of the decade when the leather community tried to assert its legitimacy within the LGBT community and also attempted to achieve a coordination that would amount to national leadership. Though no longer willing to see themselves as fringe-dwellers, leatherpeople were considered a liability by leaders in the increasingly successful LGB rights movement, which often attempted to put a non-threatening public face on the LGB community. For instance, leather contingents had to fight to get themselves included in the LGB marches on Washington in 1987 and 1993. This attitude was a major obstacle to large-scale organizing in the leather community.
In fact, the overall out leather community, though increasingly unified by just such pressures from outside, was no longer LGB in the majority. Three organizations founded in the 1990s exemplify the current mode of community building. In the fall of 1991, Chuck Renslow and acquaintances founded the Leather Archives and Museum (LA&M), and in April 1996, a coalition of leather people from New York S/M Activists led by Susan Wright started The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) to “fight for sexual freedom and privacy rights for all adults who engage in safe, sane and consensual sexual expression.” In 1997, Jon Weis, again assisted by New York S/M Activists and inspired by the gay community’s Creating Change Conferences, founded the Leather Leadership Conference (LLC). These three pan-sexual organizations are examples of grassroots organizing, but they also provide the leather community with the means to preserve its history, prepare future leaders and activists, and meet current legal challenges. Meanwhile, no major institutional form developed in the leather community has been discarded: the old networks continue to function for those who need them and some of the earliest clubs continue as well, contributing to the ongoing development of the leather community.