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The idea of Leather might seem pretty straightforward, but, depending on who you are talking about and what their personal association with leather or Leather is, you could be overhearing a wildly different type of conversation.
One huge difference is the way that the gay/lesbian community thinks and talks about leather as distinct from the way that the straight community thinks and talks about leather. The internet and the widespread mainstreaming of both kink and LGBT people and issues is slowly eroding the differences, but up until recently, the straight kink community and the gay kink community were so separate as to be almost mutually exclusive, and differences to their approaches to some fundamental things - both in actuality and in vocabulary, can often be quite significant.
And one of the biggest vocabulary differences was (and often, still is) the use of the word leather. For the last 50 years at least, much of the gay community has used the word "leather" to mean essentially what the straight community uses the word "kink" for.
It's a generic. In the gay community, you were either vanilla or you were into leather. While some people took that further (just as some kinky people do) and formed specific groups that had high protocol and exclusive memberships and rituals and such, including developing extremely high standards of honor, trust, brotherhood, and such, the term leather still meant "not vanilla." Leathersex was kinky sex. Leather bars were bars where kinky guys hung out, regardless of what they wore. Leathermen were self-identified kinksters. Leather was, indeed, both a uniform, and a fetish for a lot of leathermen, but it wasn't automatic or required. And the whole complicated issue of leather as a dress code is a fascinating peek into history, especially in the days when simply being gay was a crime, but it's a bit of a different topic.
And lesbian leather was similar - a generic that separated the kinky women from the vanilla women. and gay leather and lesbian leather overlapped a bit because of shared resources and shared oppression, but was just as much its own subculture in parallel to both gay leather and straight kink.
This distinction is fading, especially among gay and lesbian people who are entering and engaging in kink via the internet rather than through personal involvement in their local leather community (if there even is one) or their local gay bars (again, if there even is one.)
While "leather" was (and in many places, remains) a generic term for kinky gay and lesbian people, the wearing of leather, and leather-adjacent clothing and accessories became a significant part of the experience of public kink in the gay and lesbian communities. So much so that having and wearing an approved minimum amount of leather was often a requirement for even getting in the door. For gay men, that usually meant, as a minimum a leather vest or jacket. So even people who weren't into leather itself often became leather-wearing folks - leathermen and leatherwomen (often, "leatherdykes") because they had to be to get in the door. And, in a rather weird twist of vocabulary, "leather" in the sense of discussing the range of fetishwear in the gay and lesbian leather community has expanded to include items that never touched a cow, like latex and neoprene and a wide range of uniforms. It's quite possible to be a vegan leatherman, as odd as that sounds to those unfamiliar with the culture.
And, too, remember that for much of our history, being a vanilla gay man meant doing a lot of things that straight people associate with kink - multiple parters, a wide variety of sexual acts, and often, even public and group sex. So "kink" in the gay community often has a slightly different meaning, since it's distinguishing itself from a different baseline of expected "vanilla" standards and behaviors.
So when a gay man or lesbian talks about leather and the leather community, it's possible that all you're hearing is that they are speaking of the gay-specific kinky people and the gay specific community that supports them. Two gay people talking about "being a part of the leather community" or being "into leather" may very well simply mean, for all intents and purposes, "being kinky."
Now, in parallel to all of that matter-of-fact, mundane, largely practical use of the word "leather," there also grew up in the gay community the whole, somewhat nebulous idea of "Leather." That's where those groups with the shared commitment to brotherhood/sisterhood, duty, honor, community commitment, and "being a Tribe" or "being a family" came in. There were, and are, leathermen who have no interest in Leather. There are those who are Leather that don't meet usual definitions of leatherman.
And that sense of family, and connection, and tribe, and protocol and shared tradition and Being a Part of Something Bigger resonated with a lot of kinky straight people, for all the same reasons it resonated for some, but not all, kinky gay men and lesbians. And sometimes, in some communities, the only place it was okay for kinky straight people to meet openly was the local gay leather bar, and those straight people entered kink through the lens of gay leather. So Leather attracted more than a few straight and culturally straight bi people. But they didn't personally need to carry over any of the gay-specific meanings or understanding of other uses of the word "leather" (other than the literal use of it to mean things made out of parts of former cows), and as a result, the Leather community, or Leather culture, both as straight-specific and as a shared tradition with gay and lesbian Leather folk, is a real and thriving thing, but increasingly, uncoupled from its gay roots.
And, to the degree that someone speaking about Leather is in fact speaking about things like shared tradition, brotherhood/sisterhood, a commitment to the welfare and wellbeing of both individual Leather people and to the traditions and community of Leather, then while you're certainly still speaking about a kink context, the chances are that you're not so much talking about S&M or "leathersex" any more, but more about the idea of actually creating and maintaining a community or a tribe.
You often hear (absolutely validly, in context) people say "there is no kink community" in the sense that just because someone identifies as kinky it doesn't mean they have your back or your interest, or even your basic safety in mind, much less that you have any sort of shared values, or even an interest in having any shared values beyond having a place to do stuff and people to do it with. Now, of course, there are absolutely and unquestionably plenty of kinky people of exceptional character and high moral standards who make it a point not to harm others. But that's not the central foundation of the kink community as such. And people miss that and seek it - that sort of chosen community and family is, after all, the point of many church communities, and often, those communities are the most hostile to kink, and unfortunately often wildly hostile to LGBT people, whether they're kinky or not. So into that gap stepped the Leather Culture, which is, in many ways, formed around that commitment to gather people who share the values of honor and brother/sisterhood and trustworthiness, and to the degree that such things are possible, to create that sense that Someone Who Identifies This Way IS "My People" And Is Committed To Acting That Way.
One very important thing to understand when this sort of thing comes up is that during the time period that people look back on as "traditional community" (sometimes called "the Old Guard" period), there actually was not a "traditional community" in the sense that people tend to think of. Without the internet, and with any discussion of kink or homosexuality illegal to send through the mail, what there actually was was a series of interlinking and slightly overlapping subcommunities, often each with significantly different local traditions.
As much as people romanticize the Good Old Days when everyone was running around doing High Protocol and the whole community shared common traditions that people can point back to and say that they are continuing to hold onto, those days never existed.
If you read contemporary writings by people in the scene at the time, you'll find that often, even in big cities, the subcommunity and its rules and traditions could vary wildly from place to place - and in places like LA and San Francisco, that could be from bar to bar along the same street. Some bars developed their patronage specifically because of their unique twist on the gay leather culture, which could be wildly different from the one a block away.
It's common to hear that the Old Guard or Traditional Leather, for example, required everyone to start as a Bottom and "work their way up" to being a Top, and then community accolades would make them a Master. And indeed, some specific local subcommunities did that. In other local subcommunities, there was a group of Tops and Masters, and a separate group of Bottoms and Slaves, and a new person would be immediately identified as being either a novice Top or a novice Bottom and taken under the wing of the senior Tops or senior Bottoms in the community, and essentially apprenticed to them and mentored until they were solid in their new role. Still other groups formed around the idea that all that D/s stuff was hogwash, and identified as Sadists (S) or Masochists (M), and didn't recognize the concept of Master at all.
And even then, for the most part, we're only talking about "Master" in the sense of being granted a title that would be used socially by the whole local community, not about the role that the individual had in their own personal relationship. Even then, most groups would have made significant distinctions between the concept of being "Master Bob" and the concept of being "Tom's Master" and the concept of being someone who has or wants to have slaves.
There is a very valid discussion to be had about the formality and community recognition that some local groups and subcommunities attached to the concept of being a Master who is recognized by the community. That was a very real thing and a significant part of the local subculture in some areas in their day. But it was never universal, and while there were some groups that did it, others never did. And some equally established and traditional groups scoffed at the idea that one became a Master because the community declared it, feeling just as strongly that it came from within and was claimed, not bestowed.
In some areas, you were not allowed to wear major items of leather until they were given to you by the community or by a person who was recognized as significant in the community. In other areas you weren't allowed in the door until you'd gotten yourself enough leather to pass as a member of the community and could wear it like you meant it. And other areas couldn't be bothered with either of those ideas.
I'll add, too that much of what has become associated as "traditions" and "protocols" in the leather community were not just about tradition or show or community, but specifically created as self-protection for the community from threats like police entrapment or being outed and arrested.
If you created a "look" that "only people in the know" understood, whether that was types of leather, or leather worn in particular ways, or how keys or hankies were worn, or if you created "standard protocols" and forms of address or social interaction, then you could almost instantly spot a newbie or a potentially dangerous stranger, and react appropriately until you knew what you were dealing with. Today, people laugh at "the kind of people who worry what color belt you wear" but there really was a time that not noticing someone wearing the wrong color belt could cost you your job, land you in jail, or in significant parts of the American South, get you involuntarily put in an asylum or even actually lobotomized.
And a lot of the "initiation rituals" were, indeed about screening out cops, but also about creating a pattern of mutually assured destruction. If you had to participate in activities in public that put you in just as much risk of arrest and life-destruction as everyone else before you were considered "a part of the group" then if you did out other people, you were as guaranteed to have your life destroyed as anyone else. That's also why things like scene names and a social consensus of not using last names or talking about where you lived or worked became standard. And a big part of why public play was inherent in the community.
All those things rapidly became fetishized and enjoyed on their own for the pleasure of doing them, and of course, sex and S&M were their own rewards, but the context always included a continual awareness of individual and collective anonymity and safety.
We can forget, today, when we talk about needing to trust other people before we play with them, and think in terms of not being bruised or personally hurt if we play with them, that it really wasn't all that long ago that some of us had to trust that the other people who were simply allowed in the bar with us weren't going to casually mention to the wrong person that the bar existed and land us all in jail and out of work. Or beaten to death the moment we were alone too far from the front door.
That form of community is one that only has the barest echoes today, but it was central to the consciousness of almost everyone in them at the time. It wasn't so much "we all have each other's back" in the warm fuzzy brotherhood and rainbows sense as it was, "Because we've been vigilant in who gets past the door, we can relax and be just a little less afraid here together, knowing that if one of us goes down, we all go down, so we all have an equal stake in keeping this a safe space."
Another factor in the creation of early leather culture was that, for the most part, prior to WWII, collective gay culture was centered around art, music, dancing, and similar things. Of course, contrary to mocking Hollywood portrayals, it wasn't all frilly and effeminate men flouncing around in formalwear, but it really was at least founded in upperclass pursuits, and there really was no form of organized middle class or working class gay culture.
All the men who left home and went to war and found that they weren't alone in being perverts who preferred the social and sexual company of men came home from the war and refused to give up on having a gay culture, but many of them either had no interest in joining what existing gay culture there was, or wouldn't have been allowed to even if they wished. So what grew into the leather culture filled that gap. Its roots were vibrantly working class and military, and, lacking the sort of establishment protocols that the Opera set had developed, for the most part, simply co-opted the protocols they already shared - that of the hierarchical military culture. And in a depressed economy, men with their own uniform pieces naturally kept some of them, both literally and symbolically, as the beginnings of what became the look we still see in "traditional" leathermen today.
It's not a coincidence that a lot of people see parallels to the way that Leatherfolk consider themselves bound by honor, trust, and "stronger than family" ties to each other and the way that Marines collectively see other Marines. Whether individuals manage to live up to those standards, the standards are seen as good and important and worth holding as a collective standard to live by.
But it's important to understand when looking at the gay leather culture that it didn't so much form specifically as a culture of kink and S&M, but rather as a culture for gay men who wanted a community but couldn't fit into the artsy high culture, often prissy gay culture of upperclass gays in high society. So, even from the beginning, gay leather encompassed a lot more men than those who saw themselves primarily in terms of high protocol and heavy S&M. But at the same time, it followed that, having identified itself as the culture of what became eventually called "The Cult of Masculinity," that things like rough sex, S&M, public sex, and multiple parters and playmates also got inextricably wrapped into it.
In a very real sense, gay leather didn't start out specifically as kink - except in the sense that ALL gay sex and relationships was seen as perversion - but rather, started out as a culture of a certain kind of man, and became the fertile ground in which gay kink grew, eventually eclipsing other aspects of it, especially as it became increasingly possible to be "just a regular guy" out of the closet and free to be openly gay, without the need for a special subcommunity.
I want to be clear that, when I speak of culture or community and appear to leave out bi and pansexual people, that's not bi erasure. Because while there are plenty of bisexual and pansexual people active in kink in all its forms, there really isn't a uniquely bisexual culture that is distinct, in the way that straight kink culture is distinct from gay kink culture. Bisexual people, in this moment in time, at least, tend to either participate in the straight kink culture or the gay kink culture (or in both at different times.) And while pansexual culture includes people into leather, there really isn't a distinctly pansexual Leather culture that's unique from the straight kink cultural norms or the gay kink cultural norms. So, while I firmly believe in inclusivity regarding the people, I still think at this point in history that it's valid to consider "gay kink culture" and "straight kink culture" regarding questions of Leather and leather.------------------------So Old Guard has morphed from an insult about being old, outdated, and obsolete into a term for a particular approach and style, one that's embraced as much by young and novice leatherfolk as by older folks who are comfortable in how they've done it for decades.
in the very early days of post-WWII, a lot of straight men who didn't want to go back to the farm and who wanted the company of other men - and, likely, given our modern understanding of such things, men who were dealing with post-traumatic stress and needed to be around others who could understand them - formed motorcycle clubs that often became quite large and famous. Gay men were among those men. Fairly quickly, the gay men split off from the straight men, and the two cultures diverged.
You can still see those same early influences in the way motorcycle clubs dress and their look and culture, and trace the directions their different focus took that sort of thing.
Leather chaps, for example, serve very different purposes if you're on a motorcycle protecting your clothing from dirt and bugs, or if you're in a dungeon wearing something with convenient access to particular body parts. And if you know what to look for, motorcycle chaps are often very different from fetish chaps.
I think the new generation has so much more space for people to find beautiful meaningful relationships that are a gift to life and I think consent culture plays such a big role in that.
The problem is that you're comparing today with a time when gay sex, much less kinky gay sex, was a felony in most of the country, and even as the laws changed decriminalizing gay sex, things like police raids and the legal system looking the other way at assault and vandalism. And even where it was decriminalized, that didn't change the laws making it perfectly okay to fire people for being gay. Even today, that's legal in more US states than it's illegal, even with things like marriage equality being the law nationwide.
Laying some idea that back in the day, gay or leather relationships couldn't be "beautiful, meaningful relationships that are a gift to life" at the feet of some imaginary Old Guard fuddy-duddies, while essentially calling them all rapists, really misses the point entirely, and shows a serious misunderstanding of the social and legal context of the time.
We're talking about an emerging underground gay sexual subculture during a time when birth control was illegal for married couples.
I'm not going to argue for some sort of Golden Age when everyone only did things with impeccable consent. Nor will I argue that things aren't wildly better today. I thoroughly approve of the heightened focus on consent, and on the fact that today, the opportunity to have relationships at all is taken as a given, allowing people to put the emphasis on having meaningful and healthy relationships.
But you simply cannot meaningfully discuss the "Old Guard Period" (again, something that never actually existed as a unified culture of anything, much less widespread non-consent) without including the bare fact that for a lot of gay men in those days, "a beautiful meaningful relationship" wasn't even on the radar - not because of flaws in the gay subculture, but because it was a full-time job just trying to get laid without ending up in jail. If you couldn't expect to safely have a blow job after midnight in a private space among other gay men without risking jail, things like picking out china patterns or being on each other's insurance policies were the stuff of science fiction, not realistic hopes.
The closet has always heightened the possibility of abuse and unhealthy behaviors. People who were desperate for connection would easily make unhealthy and unsafe choices - often fully consensually, because they had no other realistic options. And people would prey on those people, knowing that they were likely to not only make poor choices, but would have no recourse to tell anyone if they did. And a huge proportion of LGBT people of those days were deeply scarred and permanently damaged by the closet and the vanilla culture who hated them - turning people who likely would have been perfectly wonderful if they had a chance into jaded and predatory people whose empathy and compassion had effectively been cauterized.
The surprise isn't that the gay culture of the 50's, 60's, and early 70's had damaged and jaded people who made unhealthy choices in their lives. The surprise is that anyone who came of sexual age during that time came through it with the capacity to be healthy and happy and a decent partner for anyone. The fact that so many older gay men seem "normal" today - much less how many are wonderful, inspiring, amazing people - is a testament to the resiliency of spirit and the collective (secret, underground, furtive, and often shame-filled) support that what gay community there was could provide.
When a group of people has all been pushed into freezing water against their will, they deserve to be congratulated for surviving and helping each other to survive, or at least extended compassion for what they had to deal with, not to get criticized because of the water damage to their clothing. And the blame for anyone who does drown needs to be laid far more firmly on the ones who pushed them in and refused to consider rescuing them than it does to the people who were doing the best they could in the water and couldn't save everyone, or even made choices for survival that they never would have under other circumstances..
It's as wrong to paint the Old Guard (again, who never existed) as some sort of Secret Society of Bond Villains as it is to paint them as The Golden Age of Getting Kink Right. People in an intolerable situation made the choices they were able to make to survive and to make things more tolerable for as many people as they could, even if that was out of pragmatic self-interest in many cases rather than greatness of spirit. And given the choices available, and the heavy weights stacked on them, and the fact that they were all, at the core, flawed human beings, some of those choices were unhealthy, or cruel, and some of those things got wired into the cultures they created.
The very understanding of consent has changed. And that's a good thing.People take for granted that they have far more options, and are free to choose the healthier ones, and not settle for less. And that's a good thing. Some of that progress has come from amazing people within the community, and that's a good thing. A lot of the progress has come from amazing people working in the broader society to make things better so that other choices become available within the community. And that's a good thing. Kink itself has become far more mainstream, allowing kinky people to make new choices in new ways. And that's a good thing.
But painting the Old Guard as some sort of intentional culture of non-consent is a horrible misreading of the culture of its day.
The Old Guard concept is also one that's commonly seen, and is usually either taken at face value or completely debunked at face value, but like most things, it's more nuanced than that.
There never was, in the day, anyone who thought of themselves as Old Guard during the time periods or in the subcultures that are currently labeled Old Guard. There was not a single unified gay leather subculture. It varied from group to group and area to area, and without an internet, and with any mention of homosexuality or kink ("perversion") in the US Mail a felony, almost all of it was spread by word of mouth and by people who traveled. So if you ever see anyone saying that just about any specific thing is historically a universal Old Guard tradition, especially things like initiation rites or "what being a Master meant" or such, it's possible that it was completely true in one area or among one group, but completely inapplicable to another area or group.
I remember in the 90's when there was a sweeping movement in gay leather to create a New Guard - the term Old Guard was initially created to mean outdated, obsolete ideas, often in the context of mocking and dismissing "old men" who were trying to hold onto control or to hold onto the tattered shreds or their heyday, who needed to be brushed aside by the new (and of course, hot and sexual) men who wanted to eliminate "old fashioned" protocols and insert their own. Even the name was an insult, evoking old, ailing soldiers standing guard with rusty weapons, defending borders that no longer mattered, who needed to retire, go home, and stay out of the important people's way while they ushered in a new era.
That idea failed for a lot of reasons. First, not all older leatherfolk had stopped changing with the times, and second, they myth of some unified set of Old Guard protocols had never been real to begin with. And third, a lot of younger and newer leatherfolk were happily embracing the traditions they found themselves invited into. The age divide that the vocal New Guard was trying to highlight was often more of a way to try to sway younger people to their own ideas than it ever reflected a reality in the community.
And since it was a tempest in a teapot, it rapidly faded. If you can't find all that many, if any, older gay men who claim to have been Old Guard in the 50's, you sure can't find any at all who claim to be New Guard, and few who will claim to every have been New Guard. The community simply evolved, as communities do. And ironically, the attempt of a smaller group of people to take over "the only game in town" ran headfirst into the Internet and the huge changes it made in the gay community. Now that you didn't have to go to a bar to hook up, it didn't matter much at all who was "in control" of the culture in the bars. The attempted coup didn't so much fail as become irrelevant as the internet took over from bars and back rooms as where gay sex was centered.
But the whole drama had one benefit - it created a meaningful term that loosely encompasses the idea of the kinds of protocols that the New Guard were trying to condemn. It gave people of any age a chance to say "Wait a minute, what the hell is wrong with tradition and protocol? That's part of what I love about leather. It's not outdated, it's what I do today!"
So there are a lot of people like me - who don't claim to be Old Guard, and certainly not in the sense of having been around in some Golden Age of Leather where Everyone Used To Do It Right, but who nonetheless unashamedly say that yes, we like protocol, and that we embrace some "Old Guard" ideas, such as the idea that leather "should be" black, not neon pink, that you don't mix leathers unless something is specifically designed to use color as an accent, that civility and politeness can be hand-in-hand with hotness and free (consensual) sexuality, and other such ideas. But we rarely go beyond "This is what works for me" into "This is how everyone else should do it."
So Old Guard has morphed from an insult about being old, outdated, and obsolete into a term for a particular approach and style, one that's embraced as much by young and novice leatherfolk as by older folks who are comfortable in how they've done it for decades.
These days, you'll see people knee-jerk mocking someone who identifies as Old Guard, treating the claim the way that they treat claims of "having been brought up in the Ancient Kink Houses of Europe." And when the claim is made the same way - "I'm doing it right and you're doing it wrong" it deserves that scorn. But a lot of the time, the speaker is simply stating that their personal style preference is a current and modern take on the sort of things that are often associated with Old Guard traditions (even if they never actually existed), and as such, it's not only a valid thing to say, but often a convenient and useful way of indicating a pretty complex idea.------------------The need to try to be safe from arrest has been a significant feature of gay life for generations, and that includes vanilla gay people just as much as it ever did leather or kinky gay people.
The leather community did not form around the idea of safety from arrest so much as that the reality of police harassment, social ostracism, and threats to life and safety were simply a fundamental fact of gay life. Throughout history, different groups of gay people addressed that shared reality in different ways - whether it was extremely close networks of private and secret individuals, or literally using a separate language in public.
The protocols and traditions and secret "in the know" aspects of gay leather culture had the practical value of adding to the safety of the group. But they're not why such groups, or the entire subculture formed in the first place.