By Gayle Rubin
I have problems with the way in which the distinction between “Old Guard” and “New Guard” is sometimes deployed. While there are many differences between leather/SM as it was practiced in the 1950s and as it is practiced today, the shorthand terms can exaggerate and oversimplify our past and our present.
Most of the alleged differences popularly thought to differentiate “Old Guard” and “New Guard” — formality versus informality, strict etiquette versus a more casual style of social interaction, deliberate training versus less organized acquisition of skills and knowledge — are more a matter of degree than absolute distinctions.
In fact, if one looks at “Old Guard” leather and SM communities from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, one can see that both tendencies were already present. Louis Weingarden, who opened one of the first leather art galleries at his Stompers boot store in New York City 20 years ago, identified two stylistic poles of traditional gay male leather. One was the military, with its strict formality, hierarchy, order, and discipline. The other was the world of bikers, associated with the celebration of disorder, rebelliousness, and individualism. Both tendencies were important to leather imagery and SM practice.
In the 1950s there were those who eroticized and engaged in very formal interactions based on strict codes of courtesy in the military model, and others who preferred the look of dirty bikers and a more orgiastic kind of buddy sexuality. Of course, there were spit and polish bikers too, and others who looked like greasy bikers but preferred formal SM sex. Similarly, while many people in those days underwent formal training and apprenticeships, others entered leather communities via the bars, social clubs or parties, and absorbed their socialization in a more haphazard fashion.
Today, while the leather/SM community’s dominant styles of public interaction have changed, all of the “Old Guard” practices and preferences are still with us. Even now, there are those for whom leather and SM are formal affairs with strict codes and etiquette, and those who seek and find training through apprenticeship types of relationships. At the same time, there are others for whom leather means freedom from certain conventions and a way to chart an individual path. Across the different eras, many have found freedom in formality, individualism through observance of custom, and a sublime order in things non-leatherfolk might consider completely chaotic.
There have certainly been many changes in leather and SM social life since the late 1940s, but these are more complicated than the simple distinction between “Old Guard” and “New Guard” can express. Many people today regard just about everything before the 1980s as “Old Guard,” but by then, leather/SM had already undergone several social revolutions and “Old Guard” had already had several “New Guards.”
In the mid-1960s, classic leather styles began to give way to a kind of “hippie leather.” People grew their hair, took psychedelic drugs, became less invested in 1950s formality and created new subgroups organized around different sexual styles, for example fistfucking. At one point, dope smoking leather guys and fistfuckers were in effect a kind of “New Guard,” although that terminology was not yet commonly used.
By the mid-1970s, there were several distinct leather styles and cultures, although individuals could move among them. After Stonewall, urban gay male populations grew, and by the late 1970s leather had become a kind of uniform for urban gay men — most of whom would never experience the business end of a whip. This “clone” look included short haircuts, mustaches, tight 501 jeans, boots, leather jackets, and keys dangling from belts. The late 1970s are often seen as a kind of “golden age” of SM in San Francisco, but the large scale adoption of leather styles by non-leathermen diluted the signals and frustrated the hard core leather population. This situation led to the founding of the 15 Association in 1980; the 15 intended to create a more reliable SM environment, in which people did not wear hankies or keys as fashion accessories.
From a larger perspective, it is clear that many of the differences between “Old Guard” and “New Guard” are the differences between life in the US in the 1950s and life in the 1990s. These differences are common to many groups, not just leather/SM. For example, among surfers one hears laments about the loss of “serious” surfing as the activity has become popularized, styles have become commercialized, and communities have becomes more open.
Much of what is described when people talk about changes in the the leather community comes down to more people, more money, and more commercialization. Leather public social spaces are less cozy. Communities are now bigger and it’s hard to know everyone. People often make judgments about others — and about what is important — based on what they see at a distance on a stage, not what they experience on a daily basis or within the intimacy of a dungeon.
In earlier days, people still had to take risks to be involved in leather/SM, and there wasn’t much to be gained apart from the experience itself. Today, some people seem to care more about money and glory and their high profile than they do about the quality of their interactions.
I began to notice some of these shifts in the mid-1980s, when the energy at public play parties seemed to change for the worse. Before then, many of the parties had been informal rituals of solidarity, pleasure, celebration, and connection. People cared most about having a good time. Even in casual or recreational play, the focus seemed to be on the quality of the connection between the players themselves and on building and sharing an energy that whole rooms could get high on together. At some time in the mid-1980s, it seems that many people began to care more about what the audience saw than what their partners experienced. Leather had become trendy and popular rather than despised and stigmatized. Others seemed to merely go through the motions — SM too often became a mechanical exercise rather than an art form or a form of intimate communication. I’m not saying that there is no great public play today, but I often see a community that lacks some of its former style, grace, and values.
Apart from increases in numbers, popularization, and commercialization, the gay leather community has had to deal with one unique factor that cannot be underestimated: the escalated rate of early mortality due to AIDS. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has damaged leather communities and social life in incalculable ways. Communities have experienced the loss, in a short period of time, of many of the men (and a few women) who made major contributions to creating and sustaining public leather life.
Among these were Cynthia Slater, who did so much to build bridges between the genders and orientations; Mark Joplin whose spirit and soundtrack helped shape the great parties of yesteryear; Steve and Fred who made the Catacombs such a fabulous club; Kurt Woodhil whose brilliant dungeon design made the Hothouse and later the 15 Cedar Alley space so memorable; artists like Chuck Arnett, A. Jay, Cirby, Dirk Dykstra, and Robert Pruzan who decorated so many walls and lives; playwrights like Robert Chesley; producers and gallery owners like Peter Hartmann, Robert Opel, and Claude DuVall; doctors like Dick Hamilton who treated perverts and fistfuckers who couldn’t take their injuries elsewhere; therapists like David Lourea who tended the same population for a different set of ills; club presidents and owners such as Louis Gaspar, Hal Slate, Jack Green, and Steve Maidhof; writers like Geoff Mains and John Preston; and hundreds of others.
The collective absence of so many leather forebears is, I think, one of the main reasons why the social changes of the last decade seem to have produced so much more of a chasm than did previous ones. These people not only built and refined our institutions, but they also met and talked and played with innumerable others, all the while transmitting community values to newcomers. Their loss has damaged the social fabric of the leather community and has created huge gaps in the transmission of leather culture. Some of this culture has been irretrievably lost, and leather society has had to reinvent important pieces of itself as a result.
Although much has been lost as leather/SM has evolved, new developments have brought positive changes as well as problems. I’m not proposing that we could or should go back to the 1950s. We should neither romanticize the past nor fail to value it. Today, there are many ways to acquire leather attitudes and leather knowledge, including open classes, books, structured programs such as the Journeyman II Academy, as well as more traditional apprentice relationships.
We have only begun to systematically think about leather history. As more archival and historical material becomes available for study, the schema outlined here will undoubtedly be modified. But I suspect that as we learn more, the simple opposition of “Old Guard” and “New Guard” will be even more radically dislodged by increasingly nuanced and detailed accounts of different leather practices and populations. The early 1990s eruption of concern over “Old Guard” and “New Guard” will itself become a part of that history.
This article is excerpted from a speech given by Gayle Rubin at the graduation ceremony for the Journeyman II Academy on October 4, 1997.