I’m not an expert in leather history or culture, but I play one on TV. I’ve always found leather itself a turn-on (the smell of it makes me hard), but I don’t make it into a whole “lifestyle.” I have a problem w/ how history has turned into myth and myth has turned, for some, into a kind of religion – and some of these leather people are obnoxiously fundamentalist about their Leather religion. Most of you already know what I’m talking about: the worship of and identification w/ a mythical Old Guard, the adherence for “traditions” that are mostly only a decade old, the formalization of rituals, protocols, and creeds, the exclusivity of setting yourselves apart as just “too cool for school,” and (worst of all) the religious attitude which Doris Lessing labeled “we are saved; you are damned” (i.e. an attitude of placing yourself on a pedestal w/ the “good people” and judgmentally looking down on all the others – in this case furries, pups, dipper fetishists, age players, etc.).
In part 1, I looked at the evidence we have regarding the Old Guard. What we really find is that there were some masculine, gay, WWII vets who were into rough sex who saw Marlin Brando in The Wild One, thought he was hot (and… yeah, young Marlin Brando was pretty fucking hot, let’s be honest) and went out to buy the leather outfit. But fundamentally these guys were sexual outlaws cruising as loners or in small bands, deep in the closet (this was the 1950’s for gods’ sakes), and basically their only consistent “creed” was: I’ll leave you alone to what the fuck you want; you leave me alone to do what the fuck I want.
If you want to a slice of "late-Old Guard" caught on tape, I highly recommend Kenneth Anger’s 1963 experimental short film Scorpio Rising. From IMDB: “An army of gay/nazi bikers make their engines roar and ride the way to pain/pleasure as sexual and sadistic symbols are intercut into the dazing chaos and rhythmic experiences of this underground film by cult director Anger.”
In part 2, I looked for the real emergence of Leather culture and found it more in the late 1960’s and 1970’s – a generation after the mythical Old Guard – w/ the emergence of gay publications, porn, biker clubs, leather bars, and title contests… the emergence of media that began to allow isolated men and isolated pockets to start to hook-up and communicate. And what I found was less about protocols and M/s dynamics and hierarchies of rank and a lot of that stuff that gets labeled as “Leather” nowadays, and had a lot more to do w/ cruising, drinking, fisting, and fucking. Raunch was bigger than rank. Poppers were more prevalent than protocols. M/s didn’t seem to be a big thing. Leather was still a fetish, not a “lifestyle.” If leather was gifted/earned it was often for performing sex acts: get fisted, earn your boots; take a hard beating, here’s a vest for you; blow a guy in a jacuzzi and he gives you chaps. Leather was primal; leather was tribal; leather was hot; leather was fucking werewolf sex! Growl!
Then came AIDS.
My own theory is that it was a reaction to the AIDS crisis that largely created the myth of Old Guard Leather. You had three things happen. (1) So many of the older guys who were active in the Leathersex scene in the 60’s and 70’s and early 80’s died. You ended-up w/ a lost generation – which is ripe for mythologizing. (2) Raunchy sex became scary as Hell. In order to survive the Leather scene had to “clean up its act,” so to speak. So, I think, in the late 80’s and 90’s, this is where you get greater emphasis on M/s dynamics and slave protocols. People start to say, “It’s not really about sex,” – a staminate that (I imagine) would be laughable in 1975. “Power exchange.” “Energy dynamics.” “You can’t play if you drink.” “Have a safe call.” (3) The scene starts expanding into the het community and you get more women coming into BDSM. In evolutionary psychology there’s a joke that makes a point about women and men in regards to sexuality: You put 1 man on an island w/ 100 women and a year later you have 1 man, 100 women, and 100 babies. You put 1 woman on an island w/ 100 men and a year later you have 1 woman, 1 man, 1 baby, and 99 rotting corpses. Ho, ho. Up until modern times, back when many women used to die in childbirth, sex was always riskier for women than men (and still is for Hobby Lobby employees). So, I think that as the Leather scene began expanding into the het community, this also contributed to a toning down of the raunchy, primal sex. Even today, as someone who moves in both worlds, I find the gay BDSM scene tends to be a lot more sexual than the het scene.
Mind you, I think it’s good that we did some of this “clean up.” Let’s face it, some of the unsafe shit that was going on in the late 70’s and 80’s… well, we saw where so much of that ended for so far too many. It’s mostly better now that we are finding ways to get our kink on w/o putting one-another at so much crazy risk.
Then came the internet.
More influx of new people and diverse fetishes and subcultures. I think the internet starts to create these never-ending, jerk-off debates about slave vs. submissive, SSC vs. RACK, Old Guard vs. New Guard, inclusive vs. exclusive, twue vs. false, Leather vs. everyone else. Catherine Gross, producer of Southeast Leather Fest said (paraphrasing b/c I don’t have the exact quote) that when she started SELF 19 years ago nobody talked about “leather vs. fetish” or anything like that; back then it was all under the umbrella term “Leather.”
Somewhere in here is where Leather becomes a mythology (w/ fables, signs, symbols, legends, folk stories, sacred places, pilgrimages, rites, rituals…).
Somewhere in here is where some folks become fundamentalists in the fucking Church of Leather. Around 2005-2008, is where I started seeing the emergence of these high protocol, paramilitary rigid, stick-up-their-butt, “You have to earn the right to wear leather by jumping through hoops A-Z,” “Leather is about honor, integrity, service, duty, honesty, thriftiness, cleanliness, and being a good boy scout,” “Fetlife is ruining Leather,” “Puppies are ruining Leather” (apparently someone actually said that to Laura Antoniou), “We’re the real deal and you are just a fetishist” – we are saved; you are damned.
At the same time, you have TNG emerging, and not surprisingly, most of the under-30 crowed (for whom coming out is a lot easier, the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s is something that happened in history, and safe sex is common sense) was rather turned-off by a lot of the BS the fundamentalists were preaching. Many of them turned away from the whole distasteful stigma (as they saw it) of “Leather.” Others (sometimes under the umbrella “New Guard” – although that’s probably a misnomer too) have sought to re-claim the correct history and demythologize Leather. Listen to TNG leader Philip (Boymeat) Wolf from his “Future of Leather” speech: “Leather is not the fabric of your clothing…Leather is not your protocols. Leather is not Master and slave, or hard core SM… Leather is not the rules you keep... Leather is not your gender, or your sexual preferences, top, bottom, Dominant, submissive... Leather is all of those things and then some. Leather has no gatekeeper; it has no board of directors, no leadership committee, and no dictionary definition. Leather is in the hands of the individual, the sexual outlaw, meeting up with other sexual outlaws and doing what feels right to them at that time.”
If you liked this, you might also check out http://pupemrys.blogspot.com/2012/06/what-does-leather-mean-to-me.html