Leather refers to a community that favors leather clothing (including chrome and denim gear), sexual experimentation, and dominant-submissive roleplaying. Although primarily Gay male, Leatherfolk include people from any orientation, gender, and sexual physiological configuration.
The core of the Leather community is the celebration and practice of BDSM sex, fetish, and roleplay. BDSM stands for Bondage, Discipline-Dominant, Submissive/Sadism, and Masochism. While expressed in many ways, all of these types of sexual activity have one thing in common: a consensual exchange of power between two or more individuals. This can be as simple as a dominant/submissive scene where the submissive surrenders control to the dominant, but the actual sex stays within the realm of vanilla (non-kinky) sex, or it can be as complicated as commitment to certain roles, such as master and slave in which the slave may willingly submit to flogging, intense bondage, and other acts at the discretion of the master. The performance of dominance/submission may also include owner and dog roleplay.
There are myriad of possible situations (also called scenes) in between these extremes, all guided by the ethical principle that each person has the right to determine what is sexually arousing, even if it involves transgressive behavior, so long as people are not forced to do anything that they do not want to do, that it does not involve those who are not able to give their consent due to age or disability, and that everyone involved has reached the legal age of consent. In terms of non-coercion during roleplay, the principle of necessary consent is expressed in the use of a safe word that, when uttered by a submissive partner, stops whatever activity is going on.
Many Leatherfolk use the term “Leather/Fetish” community. This allows for aspects of sex play that may not fit the definition of BDSM, such as a simple fetish for dress socks and a jock strap, to be accepted and celebrated. This allows a place for people who enjoy sex acts outside of what is considered normal or vanilla, but do not necessarily include all aspects of BDSM sex.
Care for each other is another important Leather ethical principle. Leather bars and clubs engage in numerous activities that have raised millions of dollars for LGBTQ organizations over the years. When the AIDS crisis hit in the late 1980s, Leatherfolk were among the first to donate time and money to raise much needed funds.
Most Leatherfolk historians agree that the Gay Leather BDSM community started in the days immediately following World War II. One of the earliest rules was “Write nothing down.” Additionally, many of the telephone networks in the early twentieth century were party lines in which people shared the same line with their neighbors. At any moment, a neighbor could pick up a phone and hear another’s conversation. Since privacy and secrecy were of utmost importance during these times, most Leather groups existed in isolation, forming their own sets of rules and rituals from city to city, group to group. Open conversation was limited to private, secret gatherings.
The most visible and perhaps most influential groups for Leatherfolk were the Gay motorcycle clubs, such as the Los Angeles-based Satyrs, the New York Motorbike Club and Oedipus in New York City, and the Warlocks and California Motor Club in San Francisco. The masculine look of motorcycle leathers resonated with Gay men who wanted to avoid the effeminate stereotype commonly given to all Gay men at the time.
Most Gay groups followed the tenant of “Do not disturb the villagers,” and the motorcycle clubs were no exception. Since there were many Straight motorcycle clubs, the Gay clubs were able to pass as just another group of outlaws, their true nature hidden from casual observers. Leather runs, a name given to gatherings of Leatherfolk, take their name from motorcycle runs, motorcyclist gatherings.
In 1989, Tony DeBlase designed the Leather Pride flag. It has since been an international symbol at Leather bars, Leather runs, and Pride events. As per the inclusive tendencies found in much of LGBTQ folklife, the flag may represent all Leather and BDSM communities regardless of orientation, gender, or biological sex.
Importance of Role
Perhaps one of the most pervasive rules until the late 1960s when the sexual revolution opened BDSM folklife to the mainstream was that Gay men should never be a switch (the ability to be either dominant or submissive). Leathermen were told to choose one role and stick with it. Once in their chosen role, they had prescribed protocols to live by. For example, a sub (submissive-identified person) never owned his own collar (as in an animal collar). The collar was a symbol of ownership and belonged to the dominant, who would then put it on a sub he felt was worthy. Subs that wore a collar were then off limits to other dominants.
In some circles, there was a strict hierarchy. But there was also some fluidity in status, and rules that allowed for identity shift. A dominant man would find a man willing to be a sub and take him on. The sub would go through many rituals intended to teach him all aspects of BDSM sex so he can learn how to best please his SIR or dad (according to traditions primarily east of the Mississippi river, SIR is written in all capital letters, but among traditions west, only the S is capitalized). If the SIR saw signs of dominance in the sub, he would start to train him to take on the dominant role. Once the SIR/dad felt his sub was ready, he would allow the boy to dominate him in a scene, normally viewed by others.
A SIR’s leather (leather clothing) and, as a consequence, the sub’s leather, are of great importance. These leather garments include pants, chaps, uniform breeches, jock straps, uniform shirts, gloves, boots, hats, and a wide array of harnesses. Metal, especially chrome, is used to accentuate the masculine look. In some circles, a sub had to “earn his leathers” via continuing service to the SIR. Certain items such as the leather motorcycle hat, referred to as a muir cap, were to only be worn by the SIR. The sub may be allowed to remove it, but was never to touch the bill. Some in the community hold that true SIRs will only take off their cover (muir cap) with both hands lifting the hat up from both sides behind the bill.
Boots play an important role. Knee high motorcycle police boots in particular convey a sense of power and control. This can especially be seen in the erotic artwork of Tom of Finland, whose sketches of über-masculine men in various types of leather frequently included men in these boots with riding breeches that flared out at the hips. The look of “Tom’s Men” is seen throughout Leather culture. Tattoos and body piercings are also common.
Reflecting the evolution of Leatherfolk to the broader fetish community, modern garb in Leather folklife goes beyond items made of just leather and can include latex, lycra, cotton uniforms and even a wool business suit. Any item of clothing is fair game as long as the wearer has a fetish for it, and it is masculine in nature.
To further signify a Leatherman’s role in sex play, a top (typically the penetrator) will wear items such as his keys, a chain from his wallet or other accessories on his left side. A bottom (penetrated) will wear the same items on the right.
As Leather folklife grew, further rituals surfaced. The art of cruising (looking for sex) in the 1970s included the hanky code, a system by which one could display one’s sexual proclivities by wearing a bandana in a back pocket. Since verbal communication was looked down upon, or certain subject matters hard to bring up at first meeting, Leatherfolk would put different colored bandanas or hankies in their back pockets to signify what they were into and the role they would like to play. Again, hankies on the left signified top, and hankies worn on the right signified bottom. A long list of hanky rules and designations grew from this. The most popular of the group today are black for heavy S&M, navy for anal sex and red for fisting (manual penetration of the anus involving insertion of a hand, a forearm, or two hands at once).
Leathersex in the Lesbian community is popular among Leatherdykes, and the dynamics of daddy/boi (or boy, though the “boi” spelling is most often used to refer to subs who were born female or assigned as female at birth) roleplay between women may take on many of the same trappings and rules of Gay male Leathersex. Transman Patrick Califia, who at one point identified as Lesbian, has been a leading voice for Leatherdykes and expanding Leathersex into every conceivable orientation and gender.
Leather Festive Culture
There are annual Leather events across the USA and Europe that attract hundreds of thousands of participants. The International Mr. Leather Contest (IML) in Chicago on Memorial Day Weekend is perhaps the most popular event with the highest concentration of men in Leather and fetish gear. The contest is not unlike a beauty pageant with a decidedly masculine, kinky edge, and hosts winners of local “Mr. Leather” contests around the world. Hundreds of men compete for the title and broad leather sash. Leather events regularly include women and transpeople in contests, and award titles such as “Ms. Leather.” The Folsom Street Fair (also known as “Folsom”) in San Francisco on the last weekend of September is the largest outdoor Leather event in the world, and may have some 400,000 attendees. While many are there to gawk at those dressed in extreme gear, it is one day a year where anyone can walk twelve city blocks expressing their particular fetish and role.
While some members of the Old Guard miss the old days when there were strict rules to follow and all aspects of Leather folklife were underground, the visibility and sense of community in a non-judgmental environment continue to attract new members of all ages, gender identities, and sexual orientations.
Intersection of Leather and Circuit Communities
Dancing has been a core part of bringing the Gay male community together since the days of molly houses in the early 1700s. As Leather folklife grew, it was only natural for a dancing component to become a part of it. Two examples where these two groups come together are the aforementioned IML and The Folsom Street Fair. These events have taken on their own persona over the years, bringing elements of both Leather and Circuit folkways. Folsom has two major dance events: Magnitude the night before the Fair and REAL BAD immediately following Magnitude. IML has the Victory Dance and the Black and Blue Ball.
Magnitude has evolved over the years from a typical dance party to a convergence of world-class DJs, dancing, live erotic demonstrations, and interactive play. Attendees can move between a packed dance floor with well-known DJs, productions, and shows to a more intimate dungeon equipped with slings, straps, and other paraphernalia designed for sex, with live sex shows and areas for BDSM play.
REAL BAD is the unofficial closing party of the Folsom Street Fair. GR/GR West, a non-profit organization, has been putting on this event since 1988. The costs of producing the event are underwritten entirely by the party’s hosts, a circle of friends who volunteer their time and resources. 100% of the ticket sales go to local LGBTQ charities. With the exception of a handful of tickets sold at retail, all attendees purchase their tickets from one of the events’ hosts, furthering the “circle of friends” concept. At this event, the focus is on dancing and celebrating the community.
International Mr. Leather starts out with hundreds of Leathermen competing for the title. Once the winner is crowned, the party moves into full gear with the Victory Dance. The weekend is closed out with the Black and Blue Ball, a more intimate dance party for those that want to continue the festivities.
The Black Party
In addition to IML and Folsom, New York City is the site for the Saint-At-Large Black Party, a dance event that goes back to the days of the legendary 1980s Saint nightclub in Manhattan. Unlike IML and Folsom, however, the Black Party (which goes from late Saturday night until Sunday afternoon) is not associated within a larger festival event. In fact, the popularity of the Black Party, its notorious advertisements, themes, and erotic stage performances, have made the weekend in which it is situated (taking place as close as possible to the Vernal Equinox) a major draw for members of the Leather and Circuit scenes, with other associated events held on the Friday prior and on the Sunday evening-Monday morning afterwards.
The Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago is focused on preserving the history of Leather folklife by archiving a wide variety of documents and materials. The Archive is open to the public and also offers research assistance via phone.
Califia, Pat. The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual: Basic Health and Safety for Woman-to-Woman S/M. Denver: Lace, 1988.
Daniels, Michael. Woof! Perspectives into the Erotic Care and Training of the Human Dog. Las Vegas: Nazca Plains, 2003.
Thompson, Mark. Leather Folk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice. Novato, CA: Daedalus, 2004.
Townsend, Larry. Leatherman’s Handbook. New York: Freeway, 1974.
Warren, John. The Loving Dominant. New York: Masquerade, 1994.
Wiseman, Jay. SM 101: A Realistic Introduction. San Francisco: Greenery, 1996.