Saturday, June 20, 2009

Leather Life -- Gay and Not Gay

I'm not into the leather scene as such -- although I enjoy the macho atmosphere of most leather bars -- but in honor of this weekend's Folsom East Leather Pride fair in New York, I'm posting an article I did last summer for The New York Blade [it's no longer available in the paper's archives, unfortunately]:


by Bill Schoell

Last June 22nd 2008 a Leather Pride Fair took over the far west end of 11th avenue and was well-attended despite the afternoon downpour. This coming August 15th t0 17th the New Jersey Convention Center in Edison, New Jersey will play host to Floating World, a leather/S&M/ kink/ alternative-sexuality gathering hosted by over 32 groups who expect nearly 1000 attendees. There will be a host of classes, workshops, and parties dedicated to everything from “pony play” to “whips” to the old reliable bondage and discipline. [Registration for the event is now closed.]

How many of the Floating World attendees will be gay or lesbian? “Hard to say,” Dan, one of the organizers of the event, told The Blade, “as we don't ask and many people come for many reasons. Someone may be here for Pony Play and we would never know if they're gay or straight, just Pony - Or M/s [Master/slave] or bondage. And we really don't care. Still, I would guess about 20% or so. But then, how do you measure transpersons? Or bi people, or poly? We just take everyone as they come and try to make them as comfortable as possible.” [For the record, “Pony Play” does not refer to bestiality, but to role-playing where one participant pretends to be a horse or pony and another pretends to be a trainer or rider etc.]

Still, events like Floating World make it clear that the leather/s&m/fetish scene – which many people have always seen as being somehow exclusively or predominantly gay – is something separate and distinct, pansexual in nature. Likewise, gay people, traditionally looked upon as strange sexual outlaws, have been seen by straights (and many gays) as somehow “kinkier” than heterosexuals. Or at least more open-minded about outre sexual practices. But some erotic activities practiced by alternative sex groups may make standard gay sex seem blase in comparison, as well as raise the eyebrows even of the most sophisticated members of the LGBT community.

Why has the leather scene long been considered a sub-culture of the gay community? In every large city gay men in their leather regalia can be seen heading towards the local Eagle or Ramrod. Because there are no equivalent heterosexual leather bars (although there have been underground s&m clubs), people have come to the erroneous conclusion that the leather/s&m/kink scene is strictly a gay phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, The Eulenspiegal Society is a New York-based S&M group that caters largely to straights.

“Since there are other groups in NYC dedicated to gay-males and lesbians, TES tends to get bisexuals and heterosexuals as members,” Susan Wright of TES told The Blade. (Wright is also a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.) According to Wright, “It's true that there are more gay leather bars - there aren't any het BDSM bars because you can't play in the same space as liquor is sold. BDSM clubs that allow playing are non-alcoholic, and these clubs cater to gays as well as hets and bi's on different nights under different promoters. Gay men don't play in the leather bars - they go there to meet other gay men. Very similar are the many swing clubs around the U.S. that meet at bars where the members socialize, and then if they want to play they leave to go to another location.”

She adds that “The large majority of the 500 BDSM social and educational groups in America are pansexual and tend to have bisexuals and heterosexuals as members.” Gays and Lesbians account for only 20% of the scene.

It’s also true that many homosexual leather people identify more with the leather scene – or the particular fetish scene they belong to – than they do with the gay community. Asked if leather people resented the fact that leather/s&m was not included in “LGBT,” Tip, the President of New York’s Iron Guard BC [Brotherhood Club] felt the need to deny the very premise. He told The Blade: “As one of the many fetish groups, the Leather community feels more comfortable with Leather Men and Women – we all share a similar code of behavior, tradition, kink, and protocols [that is] not shared by the entire LGBT community.” As for the misapprehension that all leather men are gay he said “Don’t let the Hell’s Angels hear you speculating they are mostly gay ” (But one could certainly speculate if there are gay Hell’s Angels )

Being part of the leather scene can simply mean one has a fetish for leather outfits or “it can signal a vast ocean of sensual opportunities,” according to Tip. These not only include BDSM but puppy-play, water sports and fist-fucking, which “was practiced in India long before there was any s/m associations.” Tip feels that “‘real’ leather bars no longer exist in NYC. ..While I can never get my fill of leathered eye candy,” he says, “leather men aren’t known for their trimmed, svelte and/or buffed bodies. Today it seems there’s more of a leather-for-fashion fetish than leather men.” (It should be noted that while some leather men are non-svelte bears, most bears are not into the leather scene.)

When it comes to women in the leather scene, what comes to most people’s minds are stereotypical whip-wielding dominatrixes who are straight and have a male heterosexual clientele. In fact, there are many lesbians who are into leather, s&m and fetish play. New York’s Lesbian Sex Mafia is only one of several groups for gay and other women who are into the scene. Others are Tribe/New Jersey Leatherdykes and Dyke Uniform Corps.

Fearful of discrimination for practices that others outside the scene might find childish at best or repellant at worst, Leather people – regardless of orientation – seem to be more closeted and secretive than gays. [Neither the board of Lesbian Sex Mafia nor Gay Male S/M Activists, also based in New York, responded to The Blade’s request for an interview.] Perhaps the secrecy is part of the appeal of the scene.

Tip of the Iron Guard says “I believe Lucille Ball is credited with saying ‘There are some doors better left unopened.’ Leather men have opened them. [They] see the world, even the ‘regular’ gay community, through a different pair of glasses.

“We know things, play with sensations, excite eroticism that vanilla sex doesn’t even dream of.”

Originally published in The New York Blade 2008.

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