This weekend Northern Exposure 9 starts at the Alaska Center for Alternative Lifestyles. Owner Sarha Shaubach calls this the “high holy days of Leather in Alaska!” The event is attended by residents of the state as well as visitors who come up from outside. Each year educators and presenters are flown in to teach on sexuality, BDSM, kink, and relationships over a long weekend. As an employee of ACAL, I have been able to attend the workshops and classes that are put on, and I have found that depending on who you ask, you often get a different response when you ask one question. What is Leather to you?
The Leather subculture has been around since the late 1940's. Motorcycle clubs and movie stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean defined the rebellious and masculine independent nature of the movement. In 1958 the first gay Leather bar opened in Chicago, the Gold Coast. This was about the same time that homoerotic art from Tom of Finland began appearing, showing the same things that were happening within the subculture. Tony DeBlase presented the design for the Leather Pride flag at the annual International Mister Leather, or IML, competition in Chicago, 1989.
Author, filmmaker, and educator Hardy Haberman of Texas has been involved with LGBT activism and Leather subculture since the 1970's. He defines Leather first by rooting it in desire. “It is a desire for something ultra-masculine and the antithesis of what was stereotypically considered gay. I like men, and I like men who look and smell like men. I also associate Leather with rough sex, BDSM and fetishes. Beyond that, Leather is a a community, a subculture that has its own traditions and etiquette. It is structured and yet it is rebellious. It is a group of men and women who find their pleasures on the fringes of what society sees as acceptable.”
Since that time Leather has evolved. In 1978 Pat Califia co-founded Samois, a lesbian feminist BDSM organization in San Francisco. Shortly after in 1979 was the first IML competition, and International Ms. Leather, or IMsL, was founded in 1987. Haberman has seen this evolving nature and said “Leather has moved beyond the subculture I found when I first discovered it, and that’s OK. Things change and grow or they die. Now Leather embraces far more than just masculinity, it has expanded and now includes women, trans-men and trans-women and even gender fluid folk. I am comfortable with that growth.”
For some in the LGBTQI+ community, it is difficult to embrace those on the fringe who place a focus on their alternative sex practices. For many years members of the community were defined by their sexual practices, rather than who they were as people. Sodomy laws, marriage equality, and anti-discrimination laws have been a constant battle, and the fight continues. As response, they focus on anything but their sex lives to avoid being reduced to only that. “Those who would try to expunge Leather from the larger LGBTQ+ community are ignorant of history. Leathermen and leatherwomen have always been part of the community and their work for community organizations is well documented.” says Haberman. In fact, the work for community organizations is the focus of those who compete for and win contests like IML and IMsL.
Part of the structure that Haberman speaks of comes in the form of acronyms that you learn when entering the community. Ask anyone that has been around for a while and they will be able to tell you that SSC stands for safe, sane, and consensual. This is the basis for much of these alternative sex practices. He advises those who are just getting started “ to enjoy it, experiment and don’t feel like you have to try everything. Additionally, the protocol and traditions of every community is different, so don’t believe everything on the internet. If you feel dominant, and being in control floats your boat, then learn from a good mentor either dominant or submissive. Both have a lot of knowledge to impart if you are willing to learn and find the right mentors. And have lots of hot raunchy sex! That’s one of the main reasons I got into leather in the first place.”
While we as a community continue the battle for equality it would be dangerous for us to allow ourselves to be defined only by our sex lives. It reduces us, and would allow those who stand against us to see us as less than the vibrant, amazing humans that we are. Also dangerous would be to ignore that side of our lives completely, or to shame those who choose to love in their own way. To ignore our history, and the leather persons who came before to help pave the way for our rights and equal treatment. Among the leather, kink, and BDSM communities focus is put onto sex, but only in the most consensual of ways. Leather is about sex, and negotiation, history and community. For those that sit under the Leather Pride Flag, it is not only about the freedom to love who they love, but also how they love.