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Where Did All the 'Leather Men" Go?

These days, even the young’uns are showing up to gay, kink-themed events, styling themselves in decorative neoprene harnesses as if performing some kind of butch drag. It’s worlds away from the hardcore BDSM scene of the 1970s and ’80s captured by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, who immortalized the leather man in his photographs. Be it the master and slave, the boot fetishist, or the fist-ee: They were rough personas, serious and perverse. In the New York Times, the gay nightlife chronicler Michael Musto wrote a few years ago that the scene has now lost much of that overt sadomasochistic edge; it’s becoming more about dressing-up, shifting from a serious lifestyle to a sexy costume:

The leather scene used to occupy a very visible part of gay culture. In the 1960s through the early ’80s, men in leather caps and chaps could be seen strutting about Christopher Street, looking as if they had emerged from a Tom of Finland illustration by way of a Marlon Brando movie still.

Musto cited the closures of New York leather and fetish bars: places like the Ramrod, Spike, Rawhide, and Badlands. This shift also happened outside of New York in cities like San Francisco, where more public venues are shutting down or morphing into mainstream-like bars. On the bar scene and in the street, it can seem like leather has gone the way of the disco, the piano bar, or the Times Square sex cinema. So what does it mean to be a real leather man in today’s apparently dying scene?

Well, the truth is, it’s not dying at all—it’s just gotten more concentrated. Anybody who was at this year’s International Mr. Leather could see that leather enthusiasts still exist. Between 15,000 to 16,000 fetishists were proudly decked out in gear in and around the Congress Plaza Hotel in downtown Chicago over Memorial Day weekend. Then there’s the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, which takes over the city in broad daylight with 400,000 kinksters swelling to over 13 city blocks. Over three decades old, it still draws plenty of pups, pigs, and slaves. But you wouldn't know unless you happened to pass by.

I spoke to Race Bannon, renowned kinkster and leather/kink columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, for some insight into what the leather life is like now: 

“I think what is happening is that the scene is fractioning into separate camps and where as once you had leather bars as the focal point for the entire gay men’s scene—you know, if we’re talking about gay men specifically—that was the focal point. There was nothing else we did but leather bars and play and sex clubs.”

Bannon explained how now people have the ability to splinter themselves into their specific kink subset, where in the past it was a single unit: The leather scene.

“Everyone is equating the demise of leather bars with, ‘the scene is going away,’ as though leather bars were the be-all and end-all, and the only thing around which leather culture can exist,” he continued. “The leather bars were mostly offering a cruising venue, which is not necessary anymore.”

Bannon equates this shift with the advent of the internet, which has made it much easier for fetishists to filter and find exactly what they’re looking for. It makes sense: This is far more efficient than cruising a leather bar after midnight, trying to sort the real players from those who are just playing around. Also, as Bannon eloquently stated, one used to have the ability to suck dick in a leather bar and be overtly sexual, which is more difficult these days.

It’s true that leather has become much less visible now, particularly for those who aren’t in the know. What they can’t see is that the scene is still going strong but has, in part, gone underground with semi-private play parties.

“I could tell you without blinking an eye that any given point in San Francisco after 6 p.m. there is some kind of BDSM-orientated sex party happening,” Edwin Morales, president of the board of directors for Folsom Street Events, told me. “While it might not be at a venue; it might be at a private home. That scene is very much alive, very much well, and with the advent of all of the social media dating apps, it is stronger and stronger.”

Calling the greater fetish community, the leather community, only adds to misconception about its decline. The label is used by some as a catch-all for kink, which doesn’t make sense since today the scene has expanded to all sorts of other fetishes like rubber, skin, and puppy play, which don’t depend on leather garb per se.

Even when I think leather man, old-school images flash through my mind, reminiscent of those Tom of Finland illustrations Musto brought up: beefy men with bubble butts, sporting peaked officer’s caps, leather breeches, and black boots.

“There’s all kinds of other ways of looking besides ‘the leather look’ that people in the kink scene relate to,” Bannon explained, “and so I think we have this iconographic image of leather men, proliferated by Drummer [magazine] culture and a certain slice and time of gay male culture but that’s not here anymore. There are guys that certainly look that way and dress that way—sometimes I’m one of them—but they are not the norm.”

In the same way that the leather scene doesn’t represent the entire kink community, leather men don’t represent all kinky players. So the real question is, what does it mean to be a real player—a serious participant—in this current kink climate?

“A player is someone for whom their kink, BDSM fetish desires are at least, to some extent, at the core of their sexuality,” Bannon said. “A player is someone who really fuckin’ does it. They don’t just dress-up, they really actually dive in and do it.”

As Morales points out, people always tend to look nostalgically at the past, particularly with the kink scene. New York’s Meatpacking District that housed such infamous sex clubs as the Mineshaft is no more, left only to legend; San Francisco’s leather bar The Tool Box, which was infamously featured in a 1964 issue of Life magazine, is now a Whole Foods. As a result, the scene is not nearly as visible as it was and there’s far more posing going on in the bars and clubs. But that’s no reason to lament. Leather and the larger kink scene is far from dead. It just takes a more discerning eye to see it.

(This article previously appeared on slate.com and was written by Mike Miksche)