Wednesday, June 25, 2014

SELF 2014: Not my circus; not my monkeys

I just got back in from a road trip on the motorcycle which included a weekend in Atlanta followed by a few days in Tennessee.  I had lots of fun w/ my pack at Southeast Leather Fest last weekend.  It was me, Sir, Hunter, and Gwynn.  We have fun whenever we are together – even though SELF is not one of my/our favorite cons.  I first “attended” it in 2007.  Shdwkitten and I went down and got just a day pass… then we realized that it only bought us access to 3 or 4 classes – not access to the market or to the dungeon party that night.  Ma’am was pissed b/c these day passes cost about as much as Frolicon does for the whole 4-day weekend.  We got our money refunded, hung out w/ friends in the lobby, gave Boymeat an awesome present (an original piece of art I’d made for him), did lunch w/ our friend Andrew G., and then went out to play at 1763 that night… so we had a great time attending SELF by not attending SELF.  But ever since then, just how over-priced this con is in relation to how small it is has always left a bad taste in my mouth.  SELF costs twice as much as Frolicon but offers only about 1/5 the size, classes, parties, dungeon time, music and shows, guests and presenters… and it costs about as much as Dragon*Con which is 5 days, 5 hotels and Stan Lee!  I went to SELF again in 2012 (I won a free pass from CAPEX) and 2013 (I had a pass given to me by a pack-mate) and again had fun w/ the people I was with (those times it was the pack) but was still under-whelmed by the event itself.  Many of my friends think SELF is the greatest event of the year, but I really, really don’t see it – but, if you really do like it and think it’s worth the money, please don’t let me rain on your parade

My list of problems w/ SELF continue beyond just the inflated price… and I promise I will refrain from enumerating them all here on the blog… but I will mention just maybe one or two more.  One is related to the money thing above.  Well, really I just think if you invite someone to be a guest at your event as a presenter or something like that, you really should provide them w/ a +1.  I just think it’s tacky to invite someone to come teach a class at your thing and say, “But if you want to bring your partner, he/she has to pay full admission.”  Really?  And demo bottoms?  Especially if their class requires special demo bottoms and you ask them to teach the class, then you should admit the demo bottoms.  SELF keeps inviting Sir to teach puppy play (this was year 4, and, this year, we also had the mosh on Saturday), but they want to provide only one badge – one for Sir, none for the pack.  Even if the class requires demo bottoms w/ special skills (like pup-space) and equipment (bringing our gear and extra gear for others to borrow)?  No, their policy for demo bottoms is (and this is so odd) they only provide free admission for demo bottoms who bleed or have sex as part of the class.  WTF?  It doesn’t matter if the class requires special skills from the bottoms or not – just, bleed or fuck and you can get in free.

Anyway… I could go on, but like I said, I don’t want to go through my whole list of reasons why I’m not in love w/ SELF (and I certainly don’t hate it; it’s just not my favorite con), nor do I aim to convince anyone they shouldn’t go or enjoy it.  And there are some positive points: especially that SELF is making an effort (albeit a half-assed one) to include puppy play as part of their programming.  I will admit, even half-assed, they are reaching out to our community more than most events do, so we should feel some gratitude for that.

And the waits for the elevators are always short.

What else was good?

Spending time w/ my awesome Alpha pup and two of my pack-mates: Hunter and Gwynn.  Sexy-fun-time in the hotel room.  Edging Hunter in the sleep-sack.  Seeing some of our friends and meeting new people.  Moshing… twice!  (Although Hunter and I were pretty damn tired at the second mosh, and I wore my PVC bodysuit at that one, so I got overheated.)  Time in the swimming pool w/o getting sunburn.  No con crud.  River pours strong drinks!  Introducing Cuddly Pet to puppy play.  Talking about “vaginal mucus” to turn-off Hunter enough to get him to flee from the bed so I could pounce Loki.  Our special snowflake getting stuck when he put his foot through a gap in the stairs.  The cigar-smoking cop offering to let us borrow his cuffs.  Nitro texting Sir more spoons after he ran out.  And: “Not my circus; not my monkeys.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Leather, part 2 – Leather, Crisco, Poppers & Disco

 So, I’m sure there were gay vets who returned home from WWII in 1945.  Some of them, I’m sure, were into rough sex.  Some of those may have bought motorcycles worn leather (but probably only after 1953 when Marlin Brando defined that look in The Wild One).  And I would assume some of these guys must have sought out other locals w/ the same interests and rode together and played together.  But that was as much of an “Old Guard” as there ever was.  They were small in number, isolated, scattered, deep in the closet, and there was just no leather community, leather culture, or cultural norms involving rules, protocols, dress, hierarchies, etc.  That part is all B.S.  You had a spattering of largely unassociated guys cruising for rough sex, each doing their own thing and making it up as they went along.  Larry Townsend first entered the scene in the late ‘50’s, and he describes it thus: “In 1957… I really started going out a lot, and I had a lot of sex scenes, but I wasn’t really involved socially w/ these guys until probably ten years later…”  I gather that was kind of typical of the 1950’s “leather” experience.

This shouldn’t be surprising b/c you can’t have a culture or a community (of any great size) w/ behavioral norms and traditions until you have a medium or media to communicate and network though (contrary to secret society and illuminati conspiracy believers), and, according to Larry Townsend, that didn’t appear until around 1970.

But let me back up first.  During the 1960’s, these really small and scattered groups of masculine gay men grew as younger, non-WWII vets, came in, and they starting finding a couple of footholds.  In 1958 Chuck Renslow opened the Gold Rush in Chicago, the first full-fledged leather bar.  Before that, guys into leather rarely publicly gathered anywhere (at least in Chicago).  Renslow said that once he tried getting a group 5 or 6 leather guys to go to a gay bar together in gear, and they got thrown out b/c they were “scaring the customers.”  So Renslow opened the Gold Rush.  Phoebe’s (or Febe’s – I’ve seen both spellings and I’m not sure if that’s the same bar or two different ones) opened in San Francisco on Folsom St. in 1966, followed (I think) by the Tool Box.  These bars were, at that time, just gathering places – Renslow has mentioned that guys weren’t even allowed to dance together back then (much less fisting or flogging) and so, style of dress aside (and Febe’s did open the first in-bar leather store in ’67), the activity wasn’t really any different than any gay bar (i.e. drinking and cruising) – just that they were places specifically for masculine guys.  So if by “Leather” you mean kinky sex, whips, chains, St. Andrews crosses, water sports, M/s, and slave protocols, it doesn’t sound like there was a lot of that going on then – at least none of it going on publicly.

Also happening around 1960, the first gay leather motorcycle clubs were forming:  CMC and the Recons in San Francisco started in 1960 and ’64, Empire MC in NY started around that same time, and Renslow started Second City MC in Chicago in 1965.  So, in the 60’s, you had two or three leather bars and a spattering of gay motorcycle clubs and everything was still fairly provincial.

In 1970, the country’s third or forth leather bar opened: the Eagle’s Nest in NY (later the “Nest” was dropped, and this became the original Eagle), and over the next few years several other leather bars opened.  Marcus Hernandez said that in five years there went from being three Leather bars in the whole country to “ten or twelve different ones.”  Why?  Stonewall happened in ’69, and that had led directly to the appearance of more gay bars – and leather bars.  Stonewall was (to use an overused word) a game-changer.

Here’s my theory (and I‘ll again remind folks that I am not a leather history expert; there are many others who know this stuff much better than I do, but here’s what I’ve gathered):  The Leather community and culture doesn’t appear until after Stonewall.  To talk about an “Old Guard” of protocol-laden WWII vets as the foundation of Leather is pretty misleading.  And when Leather culture does finally appear, it had more to do w/ poppers than protocols (but I’ll get back to that).

Here’s Larry Townsend:  “[In the late ‘50’s] it was just smaller and more scattered. People have been playing these games since the cavemen, but I think that what happened is that we sort of broke the barriers in the late sixties and early seventies. We broke this barrier where you were afraid to write anything. The government wasn't censoring the written word anymore because they'd lost every case they tried to bring up on it. When this happened, then, I think, you were free to put things in the mail that you would've been afraid to put in before.”

It makes sense.  You can’t have even a semi-unified culture w/o some media they communicate and network through – whether it’s the press or radio or the internet.  In 1966 The Song of the Loon, the first gay romance novel, came out.  It wasn’t S/m, but the significant thing was that nobody went to jail for selling it, and it got turned into a film in 1970.  In 1975, the first Leather porn movie came out: Born to Raise Hell.

Townsend published the first real Leather book in 1971: The Leatherman’s Handbook.  Townsend has described the flood of letters he received saying, “Thank you for this; I thought I was the only one!”  Also in 1971, Marcus Hernandez started covering the San Francisco Leather scene in The Advocate and then BAR, and Tony DeBlase started writing gay S/m erotica under the pen name Fladermaus.  Drummer Magazine had started in ’75, and in 1979 DeBlase started Dungeon Master inspired by a trip he took to the West Coast where he discovered totally different play styles and thought, “Why aren’t we talking to each other and sharing these things?”  The networking and had begun.

Meanwhile, Townsend says that the bike runs in the ‘70’s had almost turned into S/m runs as the number of gay leather bike clubs grew and grew.  According to Hernandez, by 1971, there were 13 bike clubs in San Francisco alone.  You also got the appearance of non-motorcycle leather and S/m “social clubs.”  The Chicago Hellfire club started in 1970, and did their first Inferno party in ‘76.  In 1979, when they expanded Inferno to two nights and had to come-up w/ something to fill the in-between daylight hours, Tony DeBlase organized the first BDSM teaching con by organizing lectures, demos and contests to run through the day.  This was around the same time he started publishing Dungeon Master, and in the early ‘80’s, DeBlase started touring the country giving lectures and workshops.  This led to him starting SM University, which the first event in Chicago that was open to women.

Fundraisers also became an important part of the culture in the late 70’s and 80’s.  They had to do w/ the political activism of the time and the necessity for the gay community to band-together for self-protection and to provide for themselves what straight society took for granted.  So, do we call this a “leather value” or was it something that was more properly a value of the 1970’s political and social culture – especially for minority groups?  (Unfortunately, there’s still a need for this kind of charity work: e.g. LGBT kids are vastly disproportionately represented among America’s homeless youth.)

Charity fundraising is where the whole Leather title contest thing came from.  The first were Mr. Gold Rush in Chicago and Mr. Phoebe’s in San Francisco – both in 1972. They were charity events (which, to me, is the only reason to do one of these things… but that rant is a whole other post), and initially they were straight-on beauty pageants judging physique and wardrobe (Renslow was a body-builder and had produced and judged body-builder competitions prior to starting Mr. Gold Rush) w/ no pretense about being anything more serious than “Little Ms. Leather Sunshine.”  By 1979, Mr. Gold Rush had grown too big to fit in the bar, so Chuck Renslow started International Mr. Leather.  He sent posters to every Leather bar he knew of (one in London, one in Germany, etc.) and had 400 people show up from around the world.  The number of title contests grew even more in the 80’s, driven largely by the unfortunate necessity to raise money for AIDS victims.

In 1980, Cruising was made into a film staring Al Pacino.  It was filmed at the Mineshaft and other NY leather bars.  According to Wikipedia: “The Motion Picture Association of America originally gave Cruising an X rating. Friedkin claims he took the film before the MPAA board "50 times" at a cost of $50,000 and deleted 40 minutes of footage from the original cut before he secured an R rating. The deleted footage, according to Friedkin, consisted entirely of footage from the clubs in which portions of the film were shot and consisted of "[a]bsolutely graphic sexuality....that material showed the most graphic homosexuality with Pacino watching, and with the intimation that he may have been participating."”  Friedken later tried to restore the footage for a DVD release only to learn (unfortunately) that it was all destroyed by the studio.  Nonetheless, despite giving a poor depiction of Leatherfolk (the movie is a psychological thriller and generally depicts Letahrfolk as twisted neurotics or abusive psychotics) the remaining footage gives a great idea of what those raunchy late-70’s NY leather clubs were like.

And this finally brings me to “Poppers over protocols.”  I was used to the myth of a protocol heavy Leather community w/ strict rules and ridged hierarchies, where everyone entered as submissive boys and had to wait before becoming Masters, and (according to Guy Baldwin) switches were not respected… so I was really surprised when I first read Geoff Mains’ Urban Aboriginals.  This is a really good book, in which Mains, w/ the eye of a participant-observer anthropologist and psychologist, describes and analyzes the leathersex scene of the West Coast in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s.  Mains talks about S/m, bondage, watersports, fisting, limit-experiences, and lots of rough, raunchy, primal sex… and he talks about modern tribalism and modern primitivism as being the best way to understand this subculture… but he doesn’t talk much about M/s relationships or protocols or hierarchies.  I was surprised that most of the men he profiles in his book were switches, and a lot of the scenes revolved around dominance challenges, or men taking turns beating one-another!  Listen to him:  “[The] leather mythos is a reconciliation of the human and animal… [A] leatherman comes to embrace his animal side freely and w/ joy.  Aggression, sex, dominance, animal marking… a joy found in forbidden behavior.  Behavior that is very animal… Leather itself is the ultimate metaphor, symbol of our animal nature and the dark side of our souls…  Leather is the culture and art of the forbidden… Leather crosses the barriers of cultural sanction to re-embrace animal instincts.”


Screw that paramilitary, ridged, toilet-trained at gunpoint B.S.  That’s my kind of leather!  Primal. Growling. Snarling. Barking. Licking. Drooling. Panting.  Werewolf sex!

Of course Mains is describing the West Coast scene (mostly Vancouver and San Francisco), but the Chicago 1970’s has been described much the same way by Jack Rinella.  Rinealla wrote: “You can read [Townsend’s] Handbook, for instance, all you want and you'll find only few references to slaves… You see, a person into Leather in those days was called an "S" or an "M," which stood for sadist and masochist and had little or nothing to do with dominance or submission.  Even the words top and bottom are rare in the Handbook, as they were rare in the seventies.”

I don’t think D/s or M/s was a big part of the Leather scene until after AIDS scared everyone off from raunchy, primal sex… and that’s where I want to go in Part 3: AIDS, the internet, and the myth of the Old Guard.

Please leave comments and tell me if I’ve got anything wrong; that’s how we learn.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Leather, part 1: There was never an Old Guard

Inspired a bit by Laura Antoniou’s recent post about how there are “no Old Guard Leather traditions,” I wanted to (in what I plan to make a series of posts) think out loud some about Leather history, Leather myth, and my own understanding of it all.

I am no expert in Leather history, and I’m sure some of my info here will be wrong.  (If so, leave a comment and tell me.)  I am not Old Guard or Traditional Leather… I suppose you could call me New Leather, if you must.  My Sir is Loki, so – of course – Midguard Leather – LOL.  For myself, I prefer “Leather Lite” or “Old Guard Pleather” – LOL.  And I guess I’ll have to try and get into what I mean by any of that (at least the less obviously jokey stuff), or if there even are such things, but let’s for now say that I like aspects of the mythology of Leather, and happy to borrow certain pieces I choose, but (1) I know it is largely a myth, and (2) there are many, many aspects of this myth I don’t feel the need to claim for myself (e.g. the heavy emphasis on protocols and ritual formality) – however, I’m not out-right hostile in my rejection of Leather the way some of my friends and family are; I just pick and choose what I like and make no attempt to be “twue” Leather (which isn’t true at all – as I’ll show below).

Okay so what is the myth of the OG? (And then we’ll look at evidence for its truth – and why we have it as a guiding mythology.)  I think Guy Baldwin was the first to use the term “OG” c.1989, and in ’91 he wrote a well known essay called The Old Guard in which he outlined the idea that gay WWII vets returned home and, in the late ‘40’s, formed gay leather motorcycle clubs.  They were characterized by:
  • Paramilitary biker uniforms
  • The custom of exchanging insignias w/ friendly clubs
  • Christening rituals (pissing on a new bike)
  • Dress leathers inspired by the military dress uniform
  • Ritual formalism and lots of rules and protocols
  • Exclusivity meant to keep outsiders out
  • Earning leather through challenging “scenes”
  • Switches were second class b/c they “hadn’t made up their minds”
  • Of course: no girls allowed

Baldwin also described a value system:  patriotism, hard work, frugality, independence (do not borrow or lend money), integrity…

Okay, let’s stop here a second and first recognize that these values are typical of the “greatest generation” WWII vets.  So let’s put aside claims about “these are Leather values” b/c actually 1950 gay leathersex was just an epiphenomenon riding on top of cultural norms of 1950… and in San Francisco’s Castro in 1967, “Leather values” were LSD, hashish, and sticking it to the Man. (But we’ll get to that.)  But this is why I get irritated when I hear people talk about “Leather values” – usually loyalty, patriotism, public service, integrity, etc. – I don’t dispute that those are values, but they aren’t values exclusive to, or inherently connected to, leathersex or kinky, gay motorcycle fetishists.  That’s B.S.!

“I’ve never seen one shred of evidence that the OG, as it’s currently mythologized, ever existed.” – Loren Berthelsen, Editor in Chief of Letherati

Let’s start by taking a closer look at Baldwin’s 1991 essay and make a couple of key observations.  First, Baldwin mentions how even “the occasional, qualified kinky woman” was kept out of the clubs – and that implicitly acknowledges that there were kinksters around back then other than just these gay WWII vet bikers.  (For instance: William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman was polyamorus, had a wife and a slave, and filled the 1940’s issues of Wonder Woman w/ tons of fetish and BDSM material.)   Guy Baldwin was describing one small segment of the mid-century kinky/BDSM/fetish population.  (I think it was a very small segment – if it even ever existed at all.)

Also, in that essay, Baldwin notes that, before long, new guys “in their twenties” who were never WWII vets and whose sexual development wasn’t shaped by the military came into the scene and started changing things.  So, this description of the OG might be not only a small segment, but also a short-lived one. 

Finally, Baldwin ends his essay by saying that his 1989 term “OG” was a misnomer, and suggests that he should maybe have used “First Guard” or “Early Guard.”  I would actually suggest “ur-leather” or “proto-leather” would be more appropriate names for these guys – b/c they were NOT the leather community; at most they may have been a little forerunner – or scattered forerunners, like those sporadic, spaced-apart rain drops that fall before it actually starts to rain.  A quick blip here, and a quick blip there…

In later writings, Baldwin has emphasized that there was no consistency of norms in the early days, everything was local.  There was no leather community or leather culture in the 40’s or 50’s or most of the 60’s – there were various communities and cultures in independent pockets all over the country, all very different from one-another.  Most of the things we recognize as Leather actually began w/ baby boomers in the late 60’s through the 1970’s and into the early 80’s (and Larry Townsend has a theory of why that is, which I’ll come back to in my next post).

Laura Antoniou is worth quoting at length: 
“In our scene, we have many people who… seek the old guard and enact dramas they imagine have been passed down to them by a group – and I will be so blunt here – a group that did not exist.  I know! You can say, oooh, gay men, post WWII, biker clubs, leather, Larry Townsend! To which I must inform you, even when you find someone who says, yes, I was there… he’s a representative of that bar, that patch club, that town, that circle of gay men….  The 70-year-old man from a Los Angeles area biker club has nothing in common with the 80-year-old New York actor/waiter who has nothing in common with the 85-year-old Florida dock worker. Or rather, they do have one thing enormously in common.  They sucked dick. You want to be old guard? Find a gay senior citizen and suck his cock. …what you’re doing will be more old guard than any ritual of hat giving, any list of kinky rules, [or] any form of dress….”  from Leave the Myth, Take the Cannolli

God bless Laura Antoniou.  I think she’s going to be at SELF, and I think I might have to hug her just for writing that.

Okay, so what is true in this, if anything?  There certainly must have been gay men into rough sex in the late 1940’s and probably some of them rode bikes, but…  Chuck Renslow started visiting gay bars in Chicago in 1948 when he was 18 (he wasn’t a WWII vet) and he’s said that nobody, not even the bikers, wore leather until after Marlon Brando’s iconic look in 1953’s The Wild One.  Before that, according to Renslow, riders wore baseball jackets.

Renslow also has publicly denied (more than once) that Leather is a lifestyle.  “What is Leather?” Rensow asks and answers.  “You know what a drag queen is, right?  Leather is the opposite of that.  Why all the black leather?  It’s a symbol and a fetish.  I don’t think it should be called the Leather community or the S/m community.  I think it should be called the fetish community.  Brando wore a leather jacket in The Wild One, and that became the look.  Nobody wore this jacket before that.  It’s a symbol.  It’s a fetish.”

Just to reiterate:  Here’s one of the most respected elders of our community, a kinky man who was cruising gay bars in the 40’s, co-founder of the freaking Leather Archives & Museum, telling you that there is no such thing as a “leather lifestyle.”  Please put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Another one of our most respected elders, the afore mentioned Larry Townsend, entered the gay kinky scene in late ‘50’s “before there was a Leather community” (his words).  He says that what there was in the ‘50’s was “very small and scattered” – “I mean, if you want to call that a community…”  Everything was VERY deep in the closet, and local.  Townsend refers to a few “cornerstone people” who, if you were traveling out of town, they knew a guy in New York or London or Chicago and could give you a name to look up, but for the most part, it was all very provincial.  Nobody, in the 1950’s, knew that this kinky world out there existed.

There were no leather bars (the first was the Gold Rush in Chicago 1958 or the Eagle’s Nest in NY around the same time).  There were no specifically gay leather motorcycle clubs – those began later: CMC and the Recons in San Francisco started in 1960 and ’64, Empire MC in NY started around that same time, and Renslow started Second City MC in Chicago in 1965… so, likewise, there were no specifically gay leather bike runs in the 1940’s or ‘50’s.  The Chicago Hellfire Club started in 1970, the first leather title contests also started in the 1970, and (according to Guy Baldwin) there was no gay leathermen’s organization in San Francisco until the 15 Association was established in 1980.

Writing in Leatherati, Guy Baldwin has also clarified that, when he entered the San Francisco scene in 1972, it was not true that leathermen earned their way up through a hierarchy of ranks.  It was not true that all leathermen started as bottoms and only later could become Tops.  Bike caps were called “bike caps” – nobody called them “master’s cap” – and they were never received as part of a ceremony – you just went to the god damn store and bought one.

“The oral history work I did with the Leather Archives gave me a great opportunity to talk with many men and woman who remember the old days….  [There] never was, and never will be, an Old Guard.” – Jack Rinella

In future posts I want to write some about the late 60’s and 70’s and where, so far as I can tell, Leather actually did start to congeal as a culture and an identity.  I want to write about AIDS and the internet which ushered in the big generational change in the community and (my theory) created the mythology of the OG… and then come TNG and their general rejection of or suspicion about that mythos.  And finally, I want to look at this as a mythology – a belief, value, and symbol system that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do w/ historical reality – but may, nonetheless, have some value.