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Leather Culture  
 
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"Leather" is a blanket term for a large array of sexual preferences, identities, relationship structures, and social organizations loosely tied together by the thread of what is conventionally understood as sadomasochistic sex.

While many of these sexual styles have a considerable history and are arguably found in many societies, the explicit social organization of those who share these tastes is a relatively recent and culturally specific phenomenon, originating in the mid-twentieth-century United States and Europe. This organization began with gay men but has since expanded to encompass enthusiasts of all genders and orientations.

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Who Are Leatherfolk?

Broadly stated, "leatherfolk" are affiliated by virtue of their shared interest in certain unorthodox sexual expressions. These expressions may involve elements of dominance and submission among partners; fetishism, a sexual orientation towards particular parts of the body, objects, or materials, leather not the least among these; and the giving and taking of physically painful or humiliating stimuli. Only the last of these may be properly understood as sadomasochism; and "leathersex" may be distinguished from s/m by its inclusion of other sexual and symbolic elements.

Not all of the subculture's participants practice dominance and submission, fetishism, and s/m in common, and the number of variations on and additions to these three erotic themes among leatherfolk is seemingly limitless. The credo among leather practitioners is that all such expressions are mindful of physical, mental, and emotional health, are understood as mutually consensual, and are experienced as pleasurable by all parties involved.

Sociological studies as well as anecdotal evidence indicate that persons interested in leather experience a coming-out process akin to coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or . For many queer people, coming out into leather postdates coming out as queer (though this may be changing as leather achieves some degree of prevalence and social acceptance). It involves gaining sexual experience and deepening one's knowledge of queer community life (including its leather institutions), as well as overcoming the widespread social stigma, both inside and outside of queer communities, attached to certain forms of leathersex.

Sadism, masochism, and fetishism continue to be classified as mental illnesses by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association, as was homosexuality until 1973. Their exercise continues to be publicly restricted or ruled flatly illegal in many parts of the United States. Like other sexual minority populations, leatherfolk characteristically view their sexual expression as an issue of freedom from intervention into what many consider a fundamentally private aspect of their lives. They believe their behavior threatens no one, including themselves, and does not impinge on the lifestyle choices of their detractors.

For many, participation in leather life is restricted to a socio-sexual sphere, finding expression only in the bar, the Internet chat room, or the bedroom. Significantly, though, there are a large number of persons who make these interests a part of their public (and not specifically sexual) personae. These people help build leather community through forming organizations, developing media for communicating their interests, educating others, staging public events, and integrating the aesthetic and ethic of leather more fully into their everyday lives.

Where Did Leather Come From?

The emphasis on aesthetics and ethics alluded to above derives from the earliest period in leather's brief history, customarily termed "Old Leather" or "the Old Guard." Leather culture had its origins in the increasingly public and specifically gay culture that flourished in major U. S. port cities during and after World War II.

Among gay men in these cities there were a certain number who eschewed stereotypical gay behaviors and preoccupations. Some shared an interest in military life, its hierarchy and its honor codes, as well as its trappings, especially uniforms, close-cropped hair, the motorcycle, and its requisite leather attire. Other divergent yet equally significant influences included so-called "physique" periodicals and the art of Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen), as well as films glamorizing bands of social outlaws, such as Marlon Brando's The Wild One (1953).

Taken either together or separately, these elements inspired the cultivation of a hypermasculine mode of comportment and interaction among certain gay men. These "leathermen" formed social institutions distinct from others in the gay world that allowed them to pursue a social life with those who shared their interests.

The first of these institutions were motorcycle clubs, already being formed by the early 1950s. Clubs staged runs, public events where men could meet and members of different clubs come together. Club members patronized certain bars, typically hanging a banner that bore their club's emblem in one bar to mark it as an informal meeting place.

Today's leather bars are the heirs of this tradition. Many still fly the colors of a cycle club or other leather organization. Yet bar patronage has never been restricted to club members, and bars developed a social world of their own that operated alongside and independent of the clubs.

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A bondage demonstration at San Francisco's Folsom Street Fair in 2003.
  
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