Tag Archives: old guard

The Black Leather Community

From Dark Connections

The leather community, created for the most part by gay men and soldiers returning home after World War ll, was a society steeped in secrecy. It’s members shared a love of motorcycles and leather accoutrements and longed for the familiar military principles and discipline they endured during the war. The term “Old Guard” pretty much referred to the first generation of gay leather men who formed these leather communities in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the styles they pioneered. Unfortunately, there is not much information to be found on the history of people of color within the Old Guard.

In the 80’s leather competitions became a major part of the community. Competing in and attending leather contests became a way to comfortably meet others in the lifestyle and titleholders are held in very high esteem within the community. In 1993 Graylin Thornton and Gregory Adams started the Ebony in Leather contest in San Francisco. The highly popular contest has since been renamed Mr. Ebony Leather and today is run by Cain Berlinger.

There are quite a few books, newsletters and articles written by and for those in the Black leather community. To Love, to Obey, to Serve: Diary of an Old Guard Slave by African-American author Vi Johnson has become a cult classic within the community. Cain Berlinger is the author of Black Men in Leather, a study on what it means to be Black and a part of the Leather, Fetish, BDSM Community. Black Leather in Color magazine published their first edition in winter of 1994. The NYC based quarterly magazine’s goal was to present the people of color images missing in mainstream leather publications and help leathermen and women of color gain acceptance within the leather community.

Jack Jackson (1921-1983) was the president of The Eulenspiegel Society for almost an entire decade since almost its inception in the early 70’s. Jackson was a charismatic leader and a self proclaimed “loving sadist”. He also took many of the photographs and ads featured in TES’s Prometheus magazine.

The first leather organizations for men of color such as “L.A. Brotherhood” and “Brothers in Leather” were formed as early as the 1980s but most have since faded away. In the fall of 1995, one of the most prominent leather clubs for people of color, ONYX (Men of ONYX, Inc) joined the SM, leather, fetish community in Chicago. Founded by Mufasa Ali, the goal of ONYX is to provide an informational and social organization to address issues specific to men of color who choose to discuss and/or participate in the lifestyle.

In September 1999 another prominent club, The New York Panthers Leather Club, founded by John K, was formed for men of color in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area who are interested and involved in leather and BDSM activities. The group is still active.

There haven’t been many leather organizations created specifically for women of color, however there are several notable women of color in the leather community, and quite a few leather contest titleholders.

Vi Johnson is one of the most well known African-American women in the Leather Community. A lifestyle slave, author and vampire, Johnson has been active for over two decades as an activist, writer, and educator and has been dubbed “mother” by a whole generation of leather men and women. She is slave and wife of Jill Carter and husband to Queen Cougar (former Ms. San Francisco Leather, 1993 and winner of the Pantheon of Leather “Reader’s Choice Woman of the Year 2000”.) From her journals kept while living as a slave and vampire, Johnson authored two autobiographical books Dhampir, Child of The Blood and To Love, To Obey, To Serve, Diary of an Old Guard Slave. Her work has been published in Some Women (the Anthology) and various leather magazines such as Dominant Mystique, Black Leather in Color, Passion, The Link, Black Mistress Review, Black Amazon Digest, Ouch, Obeya, and Bitches with Whips.

Jill Carter, International Ms Leather 1996 has been active in the leather lifestyle for over 25 years. She has been an officer or founding member of various organizations across the United States, President of Ms. World Leather, a speaker or workshop presenter for leather organizations and colleges. Carter was the recipient of the Pantheon of Leather Woman of the Year Award 1998 and 2001, Readers Choice Woman of the Year 1998, one-third of the Couple of the Year Award, The National Leather Association International Order of Merit and Lifetime Achievement Awards and the Emerald Award from the state of Washington.

The Ms. World Leather 2003 contest was the first time in any international leather contest that two African-American Women stood on the same stage as winner, Goddess Lakshimi, and first runner up, Daddie Millarca.

Although the leather scene was available to all sexual orientations and genders, most heterosexuals felt the need to form their own groups….

The Myth of the Old Guard

by Jack Rinella, author of The Master’s Manual

A recent question on one of the newslists had to do with smoking cigarettes at dungeon parties. The writer began her question with a reference to the Old Guard/New Guard dilemma.

Things have changed in fifty years, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure that things have changed as much as most “young” Leatherfolk think.

I’ll start off by saying that there’s a good chance that most of you think that I am “Old Guard.” My age and my salt and pepper hair make me look that way and the proliferation of my writing (thank the gods) makes it seem that way.

The truth is that I am a relative late-comer to Leather, having had my first “rough” sex about twenty years ago. Even at that, I’m not sure that I met that many Old Guarders in the early eighties. After all, no one ever walked up to me and said “Hi, I’m a member of the Old Guard.”

I know several people now who may be thought of as in the Old Guard, but I bet they don’t think of themselves that way. The oral history work I did with the Leather Archives gave me a great opportunity to talk with many men and woman who remember the old days. It is from my experiences and those conversations that I am drawing these reflections.

All that is to say that I don’t think of myself as a member of the Old Guard. I do, however, admit to thinking like a member of the Old Guard (whatever that is) when it comes to Leather.

If I’m going to make any point in today’s rambling, it’s going to be that there never was, and never will be, an Old Guard.

For starters, try and date the time of the Old Guard. Was there an Old Guard in 1949? I doubt it. The rough sex sub-culture was hardly a culture at the time and even though SM had been practiced for millennia, it was hardly noticed by the rest of society and was probably more closely aligned with profession dominatrices than with Gay men.

So shall we date it from 1952? Probably not, as no one is going to say that one movie, “The Wild Ones,” created a group called the Old Guard.

So was it the sixties? Maybe. But if there were an Old Guard in the sixties, they were young and new at it and feeling their way through a hell of a lot of issues. Even if they were the men and women who were to become the Old Guard, they certainly weren’t the Old Guard then.

By the late seventies Leather was alive and well and filled with newly created traditions and a relatively short history. After all, twenty years in the life of the human race isn’t much more than a blink.

Was there an Old Guard then? I doubt it.

And for my doubt I have some very reliable sources. The most reliable is an original copy of Larry Townsend’s “The Leatherman’s Handbook.” First published in 1972, those pages have a memory much better than anyone around to talk about “the good old days.”

In this book, there’s no mention at all of an Old Guard nor of requirements placed on fellow Leatherfolk by the Old Guard.

A case in point: A recent slave applicant and I had a conversation about “slavese.” For those unfamiliar with the term, it is the requirement that a slave always refer to him or herself in the third person, thereby never using the word “I,” or any other first person pronoun, for that matter. The result is that you get horribly convoluted sentences such as “Sir, this slave, Sir, requests permission for this slave to use the bathroom, Sir.”

Well, there is no way in Hell that such a requirement has anything to do with Old Guard. You can read the Handbook, for instance, all you want and you’ll find only few references to slaves and certainly no reference at all to “slavese.” You see, a person into Leather in the those days was called an “S” or an “M,” which stood for sadist and masochist and had little or nothing to do with dominance or submission.

Even the words top and bottom are rare in the Handbook, as they were rare in the seventies.

Thirty years ago, or even fifty for that matter, the Old Guard wouldn’t have had a discussion about cigarette smoke either. Groups may have but the Old Guard wouldn’t. The whole notion of smoking being permitted or not, you see, has nothing to do with Leather. That, of course, is the crux of the whole dialogue.

Most of what people want to foist on the topic of Leather has to do with being human, not with being sexual, sadistic, or kinky.

When I was a kid, and here I admit to sounding like my Dad, smokers were considerate of the places where they smoked. They asked their hosts if smoking were permitted. It wasn’t a matter of Leather protocol, it was a matter of manners.

It wouldn’t have been a matter of using slavese. It would have been a matter of using good grammar. The examples can go on and on.

Do you think, after all, that the “founders” of Leather sat around inventing a hanky code?

Sure someone sat down one day and compiled this long list of colors and meanings, but I bet that by the time that happened, the list was more tongue in cheek than color in the pocket!

Life is never as pre-calculated as “historians” want us to believe. Human culture grows by ebbs and flows, by trial and error, by ideas rejected as well as accepted.

Groups have more or less formality, greater or lesser structure, few or many guidelines. In the long run, life, and hence living groups, are evolutionary, developing style and tradition, manners and mores, by what is seen as necessary, expedient, profitable, or convenient.

That’s not to say that one “Master” won’t do it one way and another quite differently. One may line up “slave protocols” ad nauseam and the other may quite firmly demand that everything be loose and laid back.

Last week at the Eagle, while the writing of this column was still in its germinal state, I asked Chuck Renslow about the Old Guard.

As our conversation meandered, he reminded me of the terms “S” and “M” and how there were all those difficulties and arguments and human foibles then as there are now. Eventually he reminded me that Leather isn’t a lifestyle. “We can only ‘do Leather’ so many hours a week,” he noted, “and then we have the rest of our lives the way everyone else does.”

Going to work and doing chores and paying bills, eating and sleeping and studying are all parts of lifestyle.

Most of what Leatherfolk call “Our Lifestyle,” after all, has to do with being polite, careful, supportive, with having manners and common sense. There are, certainly, aspects of Leather that differ from other subcultures and those differences are to be cherished, honored, and, most importantly, enjoyed, but when it really comes down to Old and New, Father Alliot’s dictum, which I first heard from him in 1966 holds true: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

So if anyone tells you about the “Old Guard,” refer them to Larry’s paragraph on page 15 of the original Leatherman’s Handbook: “All through this Handbook I will be at great pains to point out that much of what I have to say is opinion… Your reaction may be entirely different, and your desires may exceed or fall far short of the action I describe. This is exactly how it should be. No one — Larry Townsend or anyone else — can even begin to set the standards for your sexual needs and/or behavior.”

That I think is precisely the Old Guard’s view of the Old Guard.

Copyright 1999 by Jack Rinella. This material may not be copied in any manner. For permission to reproduce this essay, contact

History of Leather Traditions

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:

About Attire

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

An Essay about “The Old Days”

By Jay Wiseman

For some time now, and in particular within the last year or so, a number of assertions about so-called “Old Guard” traditions, customs, and teachings have come to my attention.  Many of these assertions have caused me to roll my eyes and utter a world-weary sigh.  I’ll also confess that I’ve been having a bit of satirical fun in this regard (as if I could deny that).  Hopefully, nobody has taken serious, lasting offense.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll briefly mention it again now, I see the “Old Guard” being romanticized and idealized in a manner similar to how the cowboys of the Old West were romanticized and idealized.  Sadly, the reason for this is largely identical — all too many of the people who could set the record straight are dead.

One of my slaves recently remarked to me that people, particularly disenfranchised people (such as we sadomasochists) want to have a history, and if such people don’t have such a history then they will create one and proceed to set about convincing themselves that it’s true.  I believe I see more than traces of that going on regarding “the Old Guard.”

Therefore, before these rapidly fading brain cells of mine deteriorate too much further, let me see if I can contribute something that might actually be at least slightly useful.

To paraphrase a line from a current movie: “What do I know for sure?”  In other words, what do I know because I actually witnessed it, rather than because somebody told it to me?  (By the way, I would suggest avoiding making any strong assertions about the teachings, traditions, and customs of the “Old Guard” until you can cite at least two, and preferably at least three, independent sources for your information — all of which are willing to be named.  Some of the people that I personally know well enough to consider credible on this topic include Race Bannon, Guy Baldwin, Joseph Bean, Tony DeBlase, Peter Fisk, Dossie Easton, Pat Califia, Alan Selby, and Gayle Rubin.)

By the way, there is a good general recommendation that if you want information about anything in SM, you should get your information from a variety of sources. Nowadays, I consider this recommendation to be especially true regarding the supposed “Old Guard” traditions.  The truth will survive being cross-checked.

Well, anyway, here are a few of my thoughts about what it was like “back then”:

I first came into the SM community in 1975, when I — very nervously — started attending functions at Backdrop.  I attended my first Janus function in either 1977 or 1978.  (I forget which.)  I have been told by sources I definitely consider credible that Backdrop was actually started (possibly under the name of The Menlo Park School of Bondage) by Robin Roberts in 1968.  The store currently known as “A Taste of Leather” was, I believe, started in 1967.  San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI) was started in, if memory serves, 1972.

By the way, I believe that one could make a very strong case that Robin Roberts is the father of the “relatively het” portion of the Bay Area BDSM community.  Many of the current senior prodommes, and a number of the people who went on to become founders of SM organizations got our “basic training” from Robin.  To this day, he doesn’t get the respect and recognition he deserves for doing that.

My good friend Bill Burns started the female-dominant organization called the Service of Mankind Church in 1977.  I started the male-dominant organization called the Gemini Society in 1978.  (Back in those days, a lot of submissive men did not want to be “in role” if any dominant men were present, so at the mixed-energy parties that Backdrop gave the male-top folks would often be in one area and the female-top folks would often be way off in another area.)

So what do I remember about those days?

Well, IMO, probably the most important thing to remember about those days is that SM was a LOT more taboo and vilified than it is now.  Please remember that back in those days “simply” being gay was considered evidence of being mentally ill.  Being into SM was widely considered to be evidence of being even more mentally ill.  For example, in one police training manual published in, if memory serves, 1972 advises the officers in training that a person who was found in possession of sadomasochistic pictures “should be arrested under any pretext whatsoever.” A popular sex book called “The Sensuous Woman” advised its readers that if a potential lover wanted to play with whips and chains the best thing to do was (a) refuse and (b) to urge this person to seek professional help. A book on sadomasochism that I looked over in a college library contained numerous pictures of things like murdered women’s corpses with over a hundred stab wounds in them.

Thus, while there was some discussion about matters such as what a collar meant, who should stand where in relationship to who, what was a good way to whip or bind, and so forth, we spent _much_ more time trying to reassure newbies that they weren’t necessarily sick or crazy.  It was _the_ major issue.  (The good news  was that the “free love” sexual revolution was in progress; the bad news was that it wasn’t including sadomasochism.)

If you want to get a hint about how we sadomasochists were regarded back then, imagine what popular reaction would be today towards people who were members of a group which advocated that sex between blood relatives — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, etc. was OK as long as everyone consented.

You can get another good hint of how negatively we were regarded back then by reading the first edition of “Coming to Power.”  The section on the negotiations between the women’s SM group called The Outcasts and the people who managed the Women’s Building so that The Outcasts could meet there is particularly illuminating.  References to how the SM contingent was regarded in the Gay Freedom Day Parade are also illuminating.  Sadomasochists were frequently only slightly less unwelcome than NAMBLA (basically, the pedophile crowd).

So, point number one, IMO the most important thing to understand about “back then” is that SM was a lot more taboo and vilified than it is now.  A _whole_ lot more.

A subpoint of the above is that, because SM was so much more negatively viewed back then, it took IMO a lot more courage to contact the community than it does today, and even more courage to do something like start a club or be an SM club officer.  Please remember, in those days the entire “establishment” was asserting that wanting to engage in SM, specifically including consensual SM, was evidence of a fairly serious mental illness.  It took a lot of just plain raw guts to be able to stand up to them and say, “No!  You are wrong!”  If for no other reason, those early pioneers deserve a lot of respect for having had the bravery to show up at all.

Another subpoint: 1973 was “International Women’s Year” and the feminist vibes was very strong back then.  Among other things, that was roughly when N.O.W. took its anti-SM position — a position that only now is coming under challenge.   Thus, women who wanted to take the submissive role had to face even more negativity than sadomasochists in general had to face.

A final subpoint to the above is that any “Old Guard” which existed at the time did not widely see itself as such.  Instead, they were more like, as the song lyric goes “just a bunch of people, doin’ the best they could.”

Point Number Two would be that the community, such as it was, was much, much smaller than it is now.  It was considerably harder to find kindred spirits. Subpoint:  the main reason why what we are currently calling the mentoring system existed back then was largely because there was no alternative.  You couldn’t send someone seeking knowledge to places such as Janus, QSM, or Differences for the very good reason that they didn’t exist.

Point Number Three would be that we didn’t know as much as we do now.  Many of the things being taught today were being painfully learned, mostly by trial and error, back then.  Also, because SM people (calling what existed back then a community is something of a stretch) were a lot more isolated from one another and more underground, it was much harder to find good teachers, credible books, and other useful information. (This high degree of isolation and fragmentation are the main reasons why I view with a very dubious eye any assertion that the “Old Guard” teachings were a unified, widely agreed upon, body.  If there was a, so to speak, “Ten Commandments of SM” I never heard of it.)

Regarding “Old Guard” teachings and customs:  When I started going to Janus events (which at the time consisted of one event a month), it was about 85% gay men, about 13% lesbians, with literally a sprinkling of hetfolk like me.  Among other things, it meant that “we” had to be careful about what we did and said.  While “on paper” Janus was a pansexual organization (I don’t think that the word pansexual was in widespread use at the time), in reality it had a very strong gay male leatherman atmosphere.  Thus, being low-profile, relatively quiet, and courteous was a distinctly good idea if you were het.

Even in that atmosphere, there was something of a divide among the gay leathermen between the “highly ritualized” leathermen and the “California casual” leathermen.  Interestingly enough, one of the items that was the subject of ongoing and vigorous debate at the time was whether or not it was proper for a bottom to initiate a conversation with a top.  If memory serves, no consensus was ever reached.

(My personal “lowest common denominator” definition of BDSM is “ritualized sexual aggression and submission.” I notice that, then as now, some of us want significantly more ritual associated with our BDSM than others want.  I personally, as many of you know, definitely lean more towards the “California casual” end of the spectrum.  I also notice that the “ritual” folks sometimes regard the “casual” folks as not treating SM with the respect it deserves, and that the “casual” folks sometimes regard the “ritual” folks as taking both themselves and SM with much more seriousness than necessary.)

Regarding the assertion that “people who didn’t follow the Old Guard teaching were excluded from the community” — that ain’t exactly how I remember it. What I remember is that, then as now, if someone was considered to be dangerous, people would warn others about them.  Also, then as now, this warning process, while usually well-intentioned, lacked any shred of objectivity or due process.  Then as now, abuses of this process, such as malicious warnings, sometimes occurred.  I also remember that, then as now, people who were considered desirable and popular could repeatedly get away with things that would have gotten a less desirable, more unpopular person quickly shunned.

There was a sort of general saying that it was better to start out in the submissive or bottom role, but that was not universally agreed upon.  I remember one person making this assertion at a Janus program sometime around 1980, and a large, butch-looking leatherman replied with a loudly uttered “Bullshit!” Nobody raced to disagree with him.

My final point is often-not-subtle implication that these supposed “Old Guard” teachings are somehow better than the “regular” teachings.  This always makes me scratch my head a bit.  Was there some kind of “post Old Guard” decline in SM teachings, traditions, customs, and so forth that I failed to notice?  When did “the ‘hood” go into decline? (Some old-timers would say, privately, that “the ‘hood” went into decline when all those damned hets started coming around.  I’ve heard this lament from more than one old-timer who felt that I wasn’t like “the rest of them.”)

So that’s about it. To recap my main points:

1. SM was a lot more taboo and widely condemned than it is now. (Het women who wanted to take the submissive role faced particularly strong condemnation.)

2. The SM “community” — such as it was — was much smaller and more underground than it is now, and the different groups tended to be smaller and more isolated than they are now.

3. We didn’t know as much as we do now, and what knowledge did exist was harder to find — other than by personal trial and error.  Almost all of the books, clubs, and so forth that exist today didn’t exist back then.

4. The main “teaching” of the time was that being interested in SM wasn’t in and of itself proof that someone was seriously mentally ill.

5.  Then, as now, other than, “yeah, SM needs to be consensual or, at the very least, not distinctly nonconsensual” there was a wide spectrum of opinion and a lot of debate about almost all SM-related technical and interpersonal matters.

As the song lyrics go:

He said “They was just a bunch of people,
doin’ the best they could.
Yeah, they was just a bunch of people,
doin’ the best they could,”
and then he said that they did it
“pretty up and walkin’ good.”
—  Jim Croce (I think)

copyright Jay Wiseman, All rights reserved.

Old Guard, New Guard

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.