I want to thank those mentors that provided me with invaluable insight and corrections for this article, my own Leather journey was greatly advanced with this project. e-mail contact.
This overview was inspired by several common questions in the heterosexual BDSM community: “What is Leather?”, “Who is a Leather person?”, ” Is it the clothes?”,” What is this “Old Guard”?”. I’m going to attempt to provide insight to a primarily gay culture, while being limited by my heterosexuality. My knowledge of Leather was obtained by various books and articles on Leather lifestyle, meeting some of the authors, attendance at local Leather groups programs on this topic, and supportive mentorship by recognized local Leather leaders. By researching for this overview I have learned much myself on the complexity and nuances of this often misunderstood culture and I will only attempt to cover the generalities.
To gain understanding of Leather one must know its history. Homosexuality in the early part of 1900’s was not socially accepted in the US and provided no open avenues for such. There were no socially acceptable outlets for these feelings and passions. The pervasive homophobia and criminalizing of unusual sexual practices forced many to go underground and meet in very discreet manner. Being found out to be homosexual often meant banishment from family, loss of job and social harassment and prosecution. To be found out to participate in unusual sexual practices often resulted in being put in mental or correctional institutions.
Many were looking for a heterosexually acceptable venue to organize, meet and provide support for each other. At this time, it being just after the World Wars, the existence and growth of motorcycle clubs became a socially acceptable way for men to meet, share interests and not be identified as being gay. Riding a motorcycle required wearing protective clothing best when made out of leather material. Solid boots were important, old leather jackets were good wind protection, so were leather chaps to protect jeans. Pretty soon a unique dress code for motorcycle riders developed that included leather vests and hats. It was socially acceptable for heterosexual men to go riding out in the country for motorcycle runs and have camp-outs.
The butch (male identifying) homosexual community readily accepted this motorcycle club venue for their own need to meet and share. Any homosexual activities at the camp-outs were kept secret among its members. The motorcycle clubs were a natural and available venue to share common interest and connect. The leather protocol came out of the gay military men who formed or were part of the biker clubs. It included the use of title (sir, etc.), and a more or less rigid way of identifying with your peer group and an order of respect. It is believed that from this social structure came the credo “Trust, Honor and Respect” which became the common guiding principle of the leather community culture. One would “earn” their first piece of leather when your mentor decided you had learned to become a leatherman.
Membership to these groups was exclusive and designed to protect its members from being “outed” in the regular community. Underground newspaper “rags” provided coded personal advertisements for expressing personal interests and opportunities to meet.
It was not uncommon for a young man that was found out to be homosexual to be kicked out of his heterosexual family house. Older gay men would at times take them in and provide a supportive gay extended family or “House”. This started the concept of Leather Houses and the Imperial Court System. Then, and for many still now, “feminine actions” is not acceptable in a Leather household.
Young men were raised and mentored into the underground Leather lifestyle with Daddy/boy type of relationships. Some with sexual fantasies about domination and submission developed “Master/slave” relationships. Each House developed its own protocols & traditions over time. Seasoned slaves became Masters of their own slaves and passed their own suited protocols and set up their own houses. Some Houses had participation in SM activities, but this was not true with every house.
The 60’s allowed for more open expression of one’s sexual interests and the biker bars became the venue to meet and share. Homosexuality and BDSM interests were still socially repressed, heavily socially discriminated upon, and so it continued in an underground fashion, but became more organized as time went on. Sexual interests were secretly coded and advertised in the bars by colored hankies in back pockets and other items of clothing known as flagging.
Immense and continued harassment of the gay bar patrons by local police eventually resulted in a internationally-wide reported rebellious riot and final stand up for sexual lifestyle rights at Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village in 1972. The following fight for stopping social harassment and legal prosecutions united separate groups with common interests as one sub-culture identifying itself as the “Leather, Fetish & BDSM Community.”
The 60’s and 70’s became the wild decades of sexual exploration and rampant promiscuity and drug use. This was practiced among all and every sexual orientation, not just the homosexual community. It is widely believed that in the early 80’s the then unknown HIV was introduced from Africa’s heterosexual community by a bi-sexual man into the gay male US population. The illnesses from this unknown virus soon became known in the US as the “Gay’s disease” and rampant hysteria and fear developed. Political ignorance and homophobia by government leadership (Reagan era) only created more paranoia when secret discussions of segregated gay camps to isolate the spread of the disease became known to the community. The Gay community at large, looking for a scapegoat to blame, accused the minority gay Leather community “only” of being unsafe in their sexual practices. The educational groups quickly adopted the then just recently coined slogan of “Safe, Sane and Consensual” (for SSC history see http://www.leatherleadership.org/library/safesanestein.htm) to educate and turn public opinion.
The Leather community found itself in a fight for survival and defense of its members and its culture. The community quickly organized and decided they needed to develop strength by increasing their numbers. Alliances were developed with the Fetish and BDSM community and above ground outreach and educational forums/groups were developed. Inclusion was promoted in order to expand a political powerbase. The need to increase community members quickly resulted in more inclusive and more pansexual group educational programs versus the traditional one-on-one mentor/student format as done with the older “House” system.
The group education format allowed quick distribution of safe fetish practices, in which all the communities benefited and learned from each other, but to many the emphasize on “a” proper technique and things as “how to use” safe words grew steadily as the “only-way” dogma. The established “Leather Families” continued to practice their traditions as they always had (for example: safe words are still used for those not familiar with each other yet). Fetish play practices involving health concerns have been updated as the knowledge becomes available. This has been true for all responsible players throughout all Leather history.
The older Leather practitioners found themselves being told they were “Old Guard” by those new to the culture or even unfamiliar with the traditional Leather culture. It was also a justification by those who wanted inclusion without earning it. A variety of loose House protocols and ceremony have been adapted to represent “Old Guard” by the heterosexual and others from influx via the internet for those fantasizing an absolute D/s form of lifestyle. It is not until recent years (last 5 years) that the term “Kink” was introduced in the gay community and “EPE” (Erotic Power Exchange) and “TPE” (Total Power Exchange) in the heterosexual community. Now “RACK” (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) is the latest buzz-phrase.
Currently due to many of the new above-ground groups desire to be politically correct, the Leather culture has again returned underground to pre-HIV/AIDS House type of tradition and to a more exclusive, segregated, “away from the public view” existence.
So, “Leather” is a culture, a state of being… a tradition based on decades of hidden and secret existence. Traditionalists identify themselves with biker leather at social events and continuing a sub-culture still much misunderstood by both the gay and heterosexual communities. Many traditionalists believe Leather cannot be learned in a classroom for it is a concept that matures over years and is never ending, and that’s why we call it a Leather journey.