Recently, on Fetlife, I saw a question about how the “BDSM/kink” communities and “leather” communities seem closely aligned in some places, but separate in others. This question led to “how does one explain leather.” My answer to that is below.
So why do we find BDSM and Leather communities separate? How does one explain leather?
I think the answer to the first depends on the definition a person has about leather as much as the region. There are places where you may not see as much difference, and places where it’s very obvious what the differences are. You will find places where one “circle of the Venn” dominates/overshadows the other, or places where they are more tightly linked.
(The original poster on Fetlife) asked “They see the leather life style as being just a Gay thing!!. It confusing to many as how someone who is heterosexual could be in the leather life style and not gay. Many have no understanding of the life style at all. In many ways I myself am at a loss when it comes to the leather lifestyle/community. ”
Being Leather is not just a gay thing, but it did start in the gay community and it does owe its traditions and lessons to what was found in the gay community. The lesbian, queer and hets who followed the Leather path do so in the footsteps (figuratively speaking) of the gay men who lived (and died) in an environment that they claimed as their own.
(There were lesbians, trans and straights who found their way to the leather bars or inspired by the leather M/c’s, but by and large, it seems from my research they were very few and far between until the late 60s and 70s. I’m always eager to learn more about those times.)
That last bit, to me, helps to explain why there is a great deal of grumbling about the “pan leather community.” Since the 1950s, gay men, lesbian women and a few from the queer and het population lived in the dark bars and close-knit world of runs and private parties. In the close-knit Leather community, you did “earn your way” by service to your brothers/sisters, by proving yourself and being a part of your region’s leather tribe. Now, it seems like every Tom, Dick and Harry is claiming to be “old guard trained” and a member of some “leather house.”
I’d also caution against underestimating how much AIDS and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s not only devestated a vibrant gay leather community, but forever shaped it. Many gay leathermen/women from that era do feel a kinship that I believe we cannot be a part of – only honor and respect it. There were straight and trans folks who stood alongside the gay community in those dark times, but the reaction of the overall world to what was first caustically known as “GRID” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) cannot be ignored in context.
I believe the identity formed by that life is why there’s resentment from some who identify as leather at the greater kink/BDSM world “discovering” leather and absorbing it – with all the ramifications that brings. Some geographical areas deal with that differently. Some leatherfolk have kept to their own, others have seen that the genie is out of the bottle and they are dealing with a new world. That discussion going on in the Dallas newspaper and panels like Race Bannon’s “Is Leather Dead” are ongoing – there’s a sense of “who are we REALLY and where do we want to go” in many leatherman/women, no matter what your identification is.
Originally, I wrote the following in my Fetlife response:
Learning what “hetleather” is will be up to us who identify as het to make our space, in respect to those who came before, those who want their own space, but in search of the bridges we can build between each other. That last bit is what I hope to see… so that “yes, there are separate communities, but they are in harmony and respect of each other” could be your answer to that question the person asked you.
However, Lady Justice’s comments about “straight leather” in her Leatherati interview hit me like a clue-by-four to the head:
There’s been much talk lately from some those people of forming a ‘straight leather community’ and every time I hear or read it I cringe. There IS a leather community. It IS alive and well. Why reinvent the wheel? To those people I say, if you want to join the leather community, DO IT. If you are not bio-gay male gender normative, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to receive half the respect. But, it will be worth it.
So maybe I shouldn’t take those dismissive words I’ve heard to heart… maybe that’s just part of my own learning process.
So this discussion continues, among all of us as well as inside my own head and heart.