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Leather Culture  
 
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Still other circles of leathermen did not form organizations and did not frequent bars. Rather, they were members of more private networks that hosted exclusive parties.

Conduct within some clubs was strictly regimented, following quasi-military conceptions of hierarchy and protocol. Membership was restricted to a select few; prospective members were sponsored by a current member and initiated by way of conferring status as a pledge. Pledges started at the bottom of the hierarchy and were taught elements of dress and comportment, along with sexual techniques, by more senior members.

Sponsor Message.

A scant few leather clubs still uphold such "Old Guard" traditions, and many current leathermen--and women--idolize them. Yet the clubs of 1950s and 1960s were by no means unanimous in their embrace of such rigorous codes for conduct. Many were considerably less formal, their members emulating to some degree the ungovernable and sexually aggressive on-screen personae of Brando or James Dean.

The origins of leather were thus multiple, and the "Old Guard" had many faces. But with the coming of the sexual revolution, and the women's liberation and the gay liberation movements, the conception of leather culture outlined above was further broadened and transformed.

How Has Leather Changed?

The 1970s and early 1980s saw a greater integration of elements of leather culture into both the larger gay subculture as well as into popular culture. Members of rock bands like The Village People and Judas Priest appropriated some of the trappings of leather culture to enhance their stage personas. Films such as Cruising (1980) as well as the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe introduced audiences to portrayals of sadomasochistic persons and relationships, albeit often imagined in decidedly negative ways.

The vogue for leather among gay men led to a proliferation of leather bars and bathhouses in cities large and small, part of the larger institutional elaboration of gay community life characteristic of the time. Leather-specific writing first transcended the purely pornographic with the publication of Larry Townsend's Leatherman's Handbook (1972), a how-to manual of sorts that initiated many more men into leather than the private clubs and informal networks of the previous two decades ever could have. Many works of gay-themed fiction from these years include a reference to or commentary on leather life.

Yet despite this effusion, leather culture as it had been known up to that point was already on the wane. Gayle Rubin has persuasively demonstrated in her work on the history of San Francisco leather culture that the motorcycle clubs and bars that had made that city's South of Market neighborhood such a haven for leathermen in the 1960s were already being threatened with destruction by real estate speculation and urban redevelopment by the mid-1970s.

The coming of AIDS is often credited with the destruction of leather culture in San Francisco and other cities. While the loss of leathermen and their contributions to community life to the epidemic cannot be overestimated, it should also be noted that AIDS emerged at a time when the leather community was already undergoing a significant transformation at the hands of other social forces.

Many persons, both inside and outside of the gay community, were quick to decry the sexual excesses of leathermen as responsible for engendering and spreading AIDS, at a time when the etiology of the disease was still largely not understood. In retrospect, this appears ironic, since the primary mode of transmission of the virus was not via whips and chains but rather through the gay male sexual commonplace of anal intercourse. Leathermen were thus unwitting practitioners of safer sex before the term was even coined.

With the demise of earlier institutions, new ones arose, which broadly shared an ethic and organizational characteristics that differentiated them from "the Old Guard." The new leather groups were typically more open; they made explicit their purpose and mission of promoting leathersex. They were more democratic, inviting interested persons to become paying members and even club officers, instead of subjecting chosen initiates to a probationary period before conferring membership upon them. This openness was no doubt due to the legacy of 1960s consciousness-raising around such issues as feminism and gay liberation, and many groups adopted a philosophy that was more political as well as more public in its orientation.

As with gay and lesbian liberation, however, the ideal of a pansexual leather movement was difficult to realize; emergent straight and lesbian leather communities formed organizations separate from those of gay men as well as separate from one another. Fortunately, this breakdown along lines of gender and sexual identity has not prevented cordial relations and collaboration among organizations serving different populations.

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