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.