The Old Guard
The History of Leather Traditions
By Guy Baldwin, M.S., author of The Ties That Bind
While reading a recent interview with Brian Dawson, I came across some of his comments about that ‘Old Guard’ In the leather lifestyle. Although I used that label in a piece I wrote almost three years ago, I only recently realized that there was a strong likelihood that large numbers of leather guys don’t quite know for sure what the phrase, ‘Old Guard’ really means. I’m sure that I have never seen a description of the style (and it is a style, so I want to offer one now. I have carried my own ‘Old Guard’ card in my wallet right next to my Selective Service Registration card (draft card) for long enough that I probably qualify to offer what follows so, here goes…
First, a bit of historical perspective will be more helpful than you might guess. ‘Old Guard’ is really a misnomer – a misapplied name – for the earliest set of habits that jelled by the mid- to late 1950s in the men’s leather community here in the U.S. It is very important to remember that the modern leather scene as we now know it first formalized itself out of the group of men who were soldiers returning home after World War ll. (l939-1945).
For many gay men of that era, their World War ll. military service was their first homosocial experience (first time being thrown together mostly in the company of other men for significant lengths of time), their first time away from their growing up places, and their first experience of male bonding during periods of high stress. War was (and is) serious business; people died, buddies depended on each other for their lives, and the chips were down. Discipline was the order of the day, and the nation believed that only discipline and dedication would win the war and champion freedom: (Ever notice the especially strong patriotic feelings that happen at leather events?)
Anyway, these gay war veterans learned about the value and pleasure of discipline and hard work in the achievement of a noble purpose. They also learned how to play hard when they got the chance for leave time. Indeed, military life during wartime was (and is) a mix of emotional extremes born out of sure knowledge that one could literally be ‘here today, and gone tomorrow. ‘ Lastly (for these purposes), the gay vets had the secret knowledge that they fought and served every bit as well as straight soldiers, and this information strengthened their self-esteem. All of these things came to be associated with the disciplined, military way of life as it existed during the wartime years.
Although not all gay men of that time served in the military, those who didn’t were exposed to the military attitudes through their contact with the vast numbers of military men who were everywhere to be seen and cruised both during and immediately after the war years. In any case, all these things greatly influenced the shape of masculine gay sexualities.
Upon their return to the States about 1946, many of the gay vets wanted to retain the most satisfying elements of their military experience and, at the same time, hang out socially and sexually with other masculine gay men. They found that only in the swashbuckling motorcycle culture did such opportunities exist and so the gay bike clubs were born. It was here that they found the combination of easy camaraderie, the stress and thrill of real risk taking (the riding), and the masculine sexuality that they had known during their military days.
Since one can tell who is and is not in the military only when uniforms are worn, these gay men unconsciously (in most cases) transferred their loyalties to their own uniform-the leather gear of bike riders with a few paramilitary touches thrown in. Club insignia often recalled hose insignia of special military units: Thunderbolts, Warriors, Blue Max, and Iron Cross to name only a few. Club members would exchange their insignia with members of other clubs in friendship; christening rituals were transferred from tanks, ships and airplanes to motorcycles and piss was substituted for champagne; the military dress uniform hats became the leather bike caps-all these elements were just as had been during military service.
Incidentally, during the war, the soldiers would often put on skits for their own amusement. Since women were not allowed at the front, some of the men would play the parts of women by doing a kind of mock dress-up (as in one scene from ‘South Pacific’). Later, this tradition would be expressed in ‘drag’ shows during bike runs. So, masculine men pretended to be pretending to be women-not truly ‘drag’ at all. (lt. still happens in a few places.)
In any case, being in the military also meant following lots of rules. And just as in the military, there were (unspoken) rules about what you did and did not wear, how you handled your personal affairs, who you could and could not socialize with and more. All this was overlaid with a kind of ritual formalism just as in the military. Those men who were really into dominance and submission, SM, or leather sex tended to take these rules rather more seriously than those guys who simply thought of themselves as butch. The butch ones wore just enough leather to be practical when riding, and those into the exotic sexualities tended to wear more gear than necessary to signal this fact about themselves, but they all hung out together in the same settings. As you might guess, in some cases, any particular person might be into both riding and the exotic sexualities.
Just as an aside here, before and during the war, kinky folks seeking to identify each other would sometimes defensively ask, ‘Do you play the mandolin or the saxophone?’ to discover which of them was the masochist or the sadist by the first letter of these instruments. All this while wearing street clothes! The creation of a butch subculture by the gay vets began to allow people to specialize their sexual interests in a way that had been impossible earlier. Prior to this development. it was not apparent that there were very many ways to be gay.
The bike clubs and the bars where they hung out became the magnets of their day which attracted those gay men who were interested in the masculine end of the gay spectrum, but it was the leather men who defined the masculine extreme at that time. (Nowadays, we know there are many ways to be masculine.) This meant that those who had an inclination to kinky action pretty much felt compelled to explore kink in the context of the leather SM scene since it was the only game in town. If motorcycle riding or black leather itself was not ‘your thing’, that meant one felt obligated to visit the hang outs and look and act the part as much as possible to find one’s way into the inner circle of those who looked like they knew something about the exotic sexualities. This meant finding out what the rules of inclusion were (how can I be included?) in order to gain access. To some extent, all this is still true because the attitude still prevails that the ‘uniform” indicates experience and social access to the Knowledgeable People.
And so, the Scene became EX-clusive rather than IN-clusive, meaning that the people in the Scene understood the rules and tried to keep outsiders out-to exclude them. An outsider became defined as anyone (butch or not) who did not have a primary interest in and experience with the exotic sexualities or at least an interest in motorcycles. (This excluding attitude was probably also reinforced by guilt about being kinky.)
I know that this combination of kinky men mixed in with motorcycle riders may sound a bit odd now, but that’s how the Scene worked and, to some slight extent, still does. All through the 80’s, with the emergence of kinky organizations and specifically leather/SM events, the motorcycle riding community and the kinky leather community have grown apart such that now those in one group are pretty much ignorant of or indifferent to the events happening in the other.
This growing separation is more true in larger cities which have the numbers of people that are necessary to support each of these two communities, each with separate needs and agendas. Consequently, many old and venerable bike clubs have experienced a drop in membership and some have disbanded altogether.
But for the most part, kinky people have segregated themselves out from the riders as the process of erotic specialization has continued. Generally, the riding community seems not to have minded this development perhaps because many of the members of riding clubs are either turned off or embarrassed by the erotic visibility of the kinky crowd “Birds of a feather”. But for this discussion, it is noteworthy that many of those kinky people retained the paramilitary trappings, manners and attitudes of that early, core group of returning World War ll. gay vets.
Most importantly, these features of the military mind-set joined with inky interests and became erotic in and of themselves became fetishes. These men then were the original ‘0ld Guard’, and so it will come as no surprise that their quasi-military rules of inclusion and exclusion still influence kinky society today.
So what exactly were the (unspoken) “Old Guard’ rules? Here are a few of the more important ones that had prevailed by 1970:
Always were boots, butch ones, and preferably black.
Always wear a wide black leather belt plain, not fancy.
Never mix brown leather with black leather.
Never mix chrome or silver trim with gold or brass trim.
Long pants only, Levi’s or leather, and no shorts.
Chaps indicate more commitment than Levi’s, and leather pants more commitment than chaps, especially when worn consistently.
Leather Jackets must have epaulets (bike riders excepted).
Head gear is reserved for Tops or experienced or heavy bottoms only.
Bottoms may not own collars unless a particular Top has allowed that bottom to be the custodian of the Top’s collar. A bottom wearing a collar is a slave, and belongs to the owner of the collar who, presumably, has the keys. Other Tops are not to engage a collared bottom in conversation, but other bottoms may do so. Should such a relationship end, the collar must be returned to the Top.
Never touch the bill of a bike cap, including your own.
Never touch another man’s cap (or head gear) unless you are very intimate friends or lovers.
Keep studs and other decorations to a tasteful minimum unless they happen to be club insignia.
Never wear another man’s leather unless he puts it on you.
Leather, other than boots and belt, must be ‘earned’ through the achievement of successively challenging ‘scenes.’
Wearing gloves is reserved for heavy players, glove fetishists or bike riders.
Always indicate SM preference, only with keys left or right.
If you are cruising seriously, wear the keys out; if not seriously, tuck them in a back pocket.
Always indicate strictly leather sex or ‘rough sex’ interest by wearing no keys at all.
Those who ‘switch’ are second class players and not to be taken as seriously because they haven’t made their minds up. If you must switch, do so in another town.
‘Full’ leather is reserved for after 10:00 P.M. only and only with ‘our own kind’.
Respect the public by wearing less of it during the day–don’t frighten old ladies (l did once by accident), or anyone else for that matter.
About Socializing and Cruising:
Experience in the Scene determines social seniority (Top or bottom) , not age, not size, not amount of leather worn, and not offices held in organizations, awards received or titles won.
Tops and experienced bottoms should be accorded higher respect and deference unless and until they behave rudely–all are expected to observe rules of social courtesy-bad manners are inexcusable and can lower one’s status in the Scene (thereby reducing access to the Knowledgeable People for information or play),
Real Leathermen keep their word: they do not borrow or lend money; they conduct their affairs with honor and integrity-they don’t lie.
Preliminary social contact should be on the formal side.
‘Senior Persons’ (Top or bottom) are not to be interrupted when in conversation.
Experience being equal, Tops lead the conversation.
Junior Tops defer to Senior Tops and Senior bottoms in social situations.
Junior bottoms defer to all others in the Scene but not to outsiders.
When walking together, bottoms walk half-a-step behind and to the left of Tops with whom they are involved or playing.
It is up to the Top or the experienced bottom to extend a hand to invite a handshake. (All touching is highly restricted during initial contact between strangers.) NEVER over-indulge in drugs or alcohol in public, or otherwise attract scornful attention to one’s self–to do so brings dishonor on the men in the Scene,
Tops should always have the first two opportunities to make verbal or physical contact,
The more submissive one is, the less direct eye contact one makes-glance frequently at or stare at His boots only when cruising; less so in non-sexual conversation. The more dominant one is, the more direct the eye contact is unless there is no erotic interest (cruising only).
Men in the Scene do not discuss (or write about the Scene with outsiders. All men in the Scene must be able to spot outsiders with the ‘right stuff’ and be ready to facilitate them into the Scene after they indicate sincere interest.
None of these rules are taught or explained to anyone except by innuendo, inference, or example.
Erotic technical information is only shared among peers.
Maintain formal and non-committal relationships with those outside the scene; avoid contact with feminine men. Women are not allowed although Senior People may occasionally have intellectual or brief social relationships with the occasional qualified kinky woman, but only in private.
Very few men maintained full compliance with all these rules all the time, and some, flatly refused to follow rules they personally objected to. But, to be included one was expected to follow at least most of these rules most of the time. Also, confusingly, there was some variation in some of the rules depending on what city you happened to be in at the time. The list above is not complete although it conveys the sense of the style.
Understandably, a certain stiffness surrounded the men who followed these rules, just as a certain stiffness surrounded the military men of the era. Those who sought inclusion had the challenge of finding a relaxed and easygoing way to follow rules. However, this required considerable social skill and many kinky people lacking those skills (or patience ) simply gave up and accepted a frustrated role on the fringe.
As time passed, there were more and more guys in their twenties whose early sexual development had not been influenced strongly by contact with the military. Therefore, they lacked the early raw material with which to fetish-ize the military features of the ‘0ld Guard’ leather/SM scene. Still, they needed information and experiences to help shape the urges of insistent kinky longings.
These people were essentially without resources until the establishment of kinky organizations brought about new educational opportunities that were not bound by ‘0ld Guard’ rules.
Consequently, there is a lot more support now for new people coming into the leather/ SM scene who have other ideas (non- military) about what is hot. Long hair, rockers with wild designs on their jackets, road racing bikers with brightly colored leathers, leather faeries, skinheads, women and others now are found on turf once dominated by the ‘0ld Guard’ system’.
So, ‘0ld Early Guard’ or perhaps thought of as ‘Early Guard” or perhaps ‘First Guard’ because that style makes sense given the erotic influences that shaped the inner lives of the men who were coming of age sexually at that time. The Old Guard made some real contributions and made some real mistakes, and still does both.
It is more useful to understand than to criticize. And, perhaps most importantly, what the Old Guard did for the development and expansion of kinky life and butch gay male sexuality can best be appreciated against the backdrop of what had existed earlier–not much of anything!
But remember this, as long as we have a military, and a paramilitary police system, and as long as that military has traditions of initiation, ritual, inclusion/exclusion, honor and service, there will always be an ‘0ld Guard’. Its size and influence in the leather/SM scene will probably always be proportional to the role played by the military and other paramilitary organizations in society-larger following wartime and smaller during peace. I thought maybe you’d like to know.
Guy Baldwin, M.S. a Los Angeles psychotherapist, served as International Mr. Leather and Mr. National Leather Association during 1989-90