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.