“Leather could be termed the art or culture of the forbidden.” – Geoff Mains
Recently my Owner told me that she’s encountered many Leather people who look down on other fetishists as being superficial or not-real-deal or not having the honor & integrity that leather folk have. Now, I’m happy to report I’ve not really encountered this attitude all that much myself – which is good, b/c I find this attitude pretty dopy.
What does it mean to be “leather?” I’ve stated before that from my perspective “leather” is mostly synonymous w/ “urban aboriginals,” “modern tribal,” “sexual outlaws,” and “modern primitive.” Urban Aboriginals is of course the title of Geoff Mains’ fantastic 1984 book that gives an invaluable first-hand look at the gay leathersex scene of the late 70s and early 80s. “Aboriginal” refers to the way “so-called primitive societies have beneficially used many of the same human capacities presently disowned by Western culture”: dominance, extreme sensation and emotion, taboos (like scat, blood, and urine)… Mains, an anthropologist and participant-observer, found something inherently tribal and “Pagan” in the leather scene. “Sexual outlaws” was the phrase Boymeat used in his South Plains speech on the future of leather. I think he was probably about 100% right when he said that what “leather” was always about was mavericks looking to get their rocks off. Pure, simple… and raw.
I’m no expert, but here’s the history of leather as I understand it: It started in the late 40s and early 50s when masculine gay WWII vets formed the first biker gangs. They wore leather b/c they rode motorcycles. (And had they come about 60 years later they would have been riding crotch-rockets and wearing modern, Kevlar plated riding gear.) Now, being masculine gay men, I’m sure they also fetishized their gear (just as many modern gay men fetishize sportbike gear, or sports kit, or uniforms, or rubber…), but it started out w/ a practical function. It had another function and that was to mark what gang you were affiliated with… and only fully pledged members got to wear the leathers and patches (same is true in many modern outlaw-biker gangs). Today I think too much is made of the myth of “earned leather.” I’ve read (from those who were there) that in many of the old biker clubs you, for example, earned your boots by taking a beating, and earned your vest by getting fisted. It had nothing to do w/ your knowledge or wisdom or integrity or honor… that’s (it seems to me) a modern mythology. Back then, it was about: Can you take a Crisco-coated fist shoved up your ass?
This brings to mind one of things that struck me in Geoff Mains’ book: that most of the gay leathermen he described were switches. Not a lot of rigidly defined M/s roles. There didn’t seem to be a lot of pure Tops or bottoms (Is this a convention of the internet age?) and even most of the pure Tops still enjoyed a bottom who played rough and fought back. This reminds me of something Steven Hagen once said, that an old-school gay leather scene looks more like a bar fight. That’s something else leather means to me – it advertised toughness. It says: I can take a beating… and/or I can give a beating. You just put on some combat boots and a biker jacket and you feel like you can kick some ass, right? Leather is outlaw, maverick, and it’s badass.
So if that’s the raw truth about earned leather, what’s the truth about leather titles? My understanding is that these things started as the way Drummer magazine selected its centerfold models. Seriously – it was literally a gay leather beauty pageant, meant only to provide some eye candy and entertainment.
Anyway… as I understand it, in the 70s leather became more of a fetish/fashion statement and the genuine gay biker clubs gave way to nightclubs filled w/ guys dressed as bikers… and policemen, and sailors, and construction workers, and cowboys. Leather biker gear was a fetish – one among many. And by this time, I think few people “earned” their gear; they just bought it to wear when they went out cruising. I doubt it had much to do w/ honor or integrity or community service. I’m not saying that the men who wore leather didn’t have those traits – some did… and some didn’t – but the point wasn’t so somebody would see a man dressed in leather and say, “Oh, there’s a man who’s trustworthy, honest, reliable…” No, rather I get the impression that it was mostly so guys would see him and say, “Damn that is hot!” (And we’re back to Boymeat’s statement: Why leather? So we can get our rocks off.)
Geoff Mains dies from AIDS. So did too many others. This is my theory: I suspect that this whole mythology of Old Guard Leather, earned leather, “walking a leather path” is largely a collective response to the collective trauma of the AIDS epidemic. I suspect that if you got in your time machine and went back to 1979 and said to a bunch of gay leather men, “I’m walking a leather path,” they would have no idea what the fuck that was supposed to mean. Just my guess…
I think maybe another factor driving the leather mythology is the proliferation of these “leather title” contests. I won’t repeat my whole title contest rant, but I have a real problem w/ something that’s set-up and executed as a form of entertainment – a floor show – but then somehow the winners get elevated to the status of community leaders. If it’s done for entertainment and that’s all anybody takes it for, then cool. I have no problem w/ that. But if you are then going to treat the winners like they are now community leaders b/c they had good stage presence and put on a nice show… Sorry, but I just don’t think these title contests are doing our community a whole lot of good. Certainly it didn’t do any great favors to the puppy community to have part of our leadership – such as it is – spend last year bickering on Pupzone about which one is the “real” Mr. International Puppy title. Seriously!? There’s a reason why Frolicon is my favorite con: the only contest there is Most Spankable Ass! – a fun floor show, some eye candy and entertainment, and nobody has delusions that it’s anything more than that. That’s what I’d like to see the International Puppy contest be. (Both of them.)
The funny thing about the leather mythology is that it seems more common in the het community than the gay community… and I’m not seeing it as much in the TNG crowed in either place (which again kind of makes me think that it has something to do w/ a collective reaction to the AIDS epidemic among younger Baby Boomers and older Gen-X). The attitude (which my Owner was reporting to me) that leather fetishists are somehow “better” or more “real deal” than those who fetishize sports kit or corsets or lumberjacks is clearly pretty ridiculous once you scratch the surface of it. I don’t like Christians who think non-Christians aren’t as good as they are. I don’t like Pagans who think non-Pagans aren’t as good as they are. I don’t like Conservatives who think Liberals aren’t as good as they are (or visa-versa). And I don’t like leather fetishists who think other fetishists aren’t as good as they are.
There are many kinksters who wear leather who are really awesome people – and there are just as many who are (to borrow Master Rorie’s phrase) assholes in black vests. There are many leather titleholders who also happen to be community leaders – and there are many more who aren’t. If dressing like a biker gets you hard – cool. If wrestling singlets get you hard – cool. If rubber gets you hard – cool. If fur-suits get you hard – cool. We’re all sexual outlaws and urban aboriginals, and what somebody fetishizes certainly has nothing to do w/ their honor or integrity or “realness.” I think we actually make less of leather when we try to make more of it by inventing this fictionalized Golden Age of Leather in our collective past and “traditions” that (it seems to me) mostly just date back only like 20 years; we make less of it when we exclude our fellow kinksters and sexual mavericks when they don’t follow our “traditions.”
Why do I wear leather? One: I ride a motorcycle. Two: it gets my dick hard. Three: my vest shows my affiliation w/ Sir Loki’s pack. But I guess I’m just Old Guard like that.