Leather’s deep LGBT history is the secret behind its endurance

By : Steve Blanchard and Samantha Lena Rosenthal
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At the New York Stonewall Riots in 1969, it was members of the leather community who stood next to the drag queens to fight for equality, an act that kicked off the modern-day LGBT rights movement. That brought the leather culture out of the shadows and into the light. Ever since then, the Leather Community has seen an ebb and flow of support both within its own ranks and from within the overall LGBT community.

Today, the leather-clad within our community are still active, raising thousands of dollars for charities locally and nationwide. Yet it remains one of the most misunderstood segments of our population and is often seen by those not familiar as a world made solely of sex, role play and BDSM.

“That’s the perception, that leather and sex goes together,” says Dan Radwanski. “But when you look at the clubs, you’ll see we always raise money for charities while using demonstration areas as an educational area. It’s a chance to learn the skills of the lifestyle or to identify with a fraternal organization.”

Radwanski admits that many people—male and female—venture into the leather culture because of its link to sexuality. It’s a fact of which he is not ashamed.

“It’s enjoyable and the events we put on lets those outside the community to come in and learn,” he says. “The reward for that hard work, sometimes, is the sexual friskiness. We’re gay men!”

Knowing the history

Tracing the history of the Leather Community can go back centuries, actually. But the modern version of leather we see today is most closely linked to the period following World War II. While most of America considered that the “baby boom” of our history, the LGBT community saw gay veterans creating motorcycle clubs that mixed with the sexual revolution of the time. That was the beginning of the Old Guard.

“Old Guard started after the war, so many men were sent off for the first time,” says Master Stephen, who is the owner of the Orlando leather House Integrity House and a staff member at The Woodshed. “They experienced a European mentality and sexuality. They experienced a camaraderie among other men. They experienced male sexuality and when they came back they wanted to be able to continue that sense, so clubs were formed usually around motorcycles as a way to have that sense of camaraderie.”

Master Stephen was mentored by a WWII vet and is a first generation Old Guard member himself. The military command structure was familiar, and leather took on a military-style in the process. That, he adds, led to a ranking system.

That system led to protocols, says Barclay Barrios, a South Florida leatherman who has been involved for 23 years.

“The traditional Old Guard, certainly in the way we mythologize it, is certainly very protocol heavy. So, for example, you would certainly not touch a man’s leathers without permission and you would certainly touch his cover,” says Barrios, who goes by “Edge” on the leather scene, frequently teaches about the history of the Leather Community .

That history Stephen adds, includes the order in which leather people earn their pieces of leather.

“The first thing you earn are your boots, then you earn pants and a belt,” Stephen explains. “The boots say that you’re ready to walk the path of a leatherperson, so your mentor awards you, ceremonially, boots. Then you are ready to wrap yourself in the leather lifestyle, so you get pants and a belt. That means you progressed in your skill level; it means you’ve become known a little bit for some local work.

“The next thing you get is a vest, and that vest says you have teaching in the community and you’re well-known outside your circle. Ninety-nine percent of the people, that’s as far as they go. If your mentor or the community itself deems you a teacher on a national level, you earn what’s called a cover—and that’s the master’s cover. You never touch the brim. It’s like old military, you never touch the brim and it always goes on straight.”

A lot of that protocol is lost today with the New Guard, which is more flexible when it comes to rules. The disappearance of leather bars has also played a role in that.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, you have the emergence of a digital era and that also then changes the nature of the community by the late ’90’s into the new millennium,” Barrios says.”You’re having a very digital element through specific websites. You also see the disappearance of a lot of leather bars in part to a number of factors.”

Barrios described the 1950s and 1960s are considered the “golden era” of leather, where in places like New York City and San Francisco leather bars were thriving. As those decades passed, he considers the 1970s and 1980s to play a crucial part in paving the way for the leather community to become more accessible to others.

An evolving community

The Leather Community may have started out as a male-dominated world post World War II, but things tend to evolve.

Today, the world of Leather isn’t solely for the males in the species. Women’s groups and pansexual movements have made the leather community just as diverse as the rest of the LGBT population.

“Our area is way behind some others when it comes to pansexuality,” Radwanski explains. “New York, DC and California are a little bit ahead of us—and so is Canada. But we’re slowly getting there and bridging that gap.”

Leather, Radwanski and others content, is not based on gender or sexual orientation. It is a central component to a growing group of people who associate leather with different emotions and states of being.

Pansexuality does not mean bi-sexuality. According to Barbara Cothern, who is married to a man, pansexuality is an attraction to personalities, not a specific gender.

“I can work with any equipment,” the Tampa author explains. “It’s about that personal connection.”

Puppy play is another example of the evolution of the Leather Community.

“Puppy play has been around for many years and it’s just becoming big again,” explains Matt Wolf, an organizers of Florida Fetish and Leather Pride. “There were large, international puppy competitions that were around in the 1980s, but they kind of died down. Then we had Pup Flip emerge and take it upon himself to start a local contest again.”

The Puppy movement, as many call it, involves both men and women wearing canine-shaped hoods and walking on all fours, just like a real puppy—or bio-puppy, as they are referred.

“Puppy headspace for me is just letting go of all human inhibitions and living in the moment, just like when you see a puppy,” Jaeger Pup of Spring Hill explains. “You run out of control, play, sniff—there is no real set of rules to follow in that respect.”

The act of forcing someone to behave as a puppy used to be a form of punishment an dominant person would place on a submissive. But that punishment evolved into its own culture within the Sir or Master/Boy dynamic, Pup Jaeger adds.

“But today they’re very different,” Pup Jaeger says. “A leather boy is trained and it is a militant situation where the boy is there to serve a master. But a boy has a voice in the family. The puppy aspect is totally different. When you are in pup space, you are just going with whatever happens.”

Check out all the other stories about the leather community featured in this issue:

Leather Pride Flag
Meet Mr. Friendly
Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather
Central Florida Leatherman 2014: Phoenix Colt Pendragon
The Poly-Triad
Puppy Space
Rick Talons and Pito Savage
Tampa Leather Club
Tampa Bay Bondage Club
The Pansexual
National Leather Association Orlando
Master Among Men: Master Stephen
Legally Wed
Full-time Leather Boy
Leather and Fetish Pride
A Daddy and his Boy
Daddy and his Little Girl

Watermark Issue 21.25: The Leather Community

Photo Gallery

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