Dec 072013
 

After the war, a generation of men returned home to peacetime. Whether due to awakened homosexuality in the all-male society of the military, or just a distaste for the new American dream of job and family, many of these men created an alternative culture that continued the outdoor homosociality and initiatory experience of military life.

Samuel M Steward describes his early life in S/M before there was a Scene:

…in the 1930s, I had become interested in S/M [….] In those days there were no leather shops, no specialty stores; and leather jackets were unheard of and unavailable except in police equipment outlets that would generally not sell to civilians. I finally found my first one in Sears-Roebuck’s basement in Chicago. And I had unearthed– literally, for his saddlery shop was in a cellar on North Avenue– a little man who braided a few whips for me, and even found a “weveling” Danish cat-o’-nine-tails crocheted from heavy white twine, and located also a handsome crop of twisted willow wood.

My introduction to S/M had begun with my answering a personal ad in the columns of the Saturday Review of Literature, a weekly publication out of New York City. In those days some of the wordings and contents of the ads were mildly outrageous for the times, growing wilder until the publishing of them was entirely stopped by the guardians of our American purity. The one that caught my attention [in August 1947] ran something like:

Should flogging be allowed? Ex-sailor welcomes opinions and replies. Box…i

Answering that ad put Steward in touch with Hal Baron, a former sailor dedicated to connecting every S (sadist) with an M (masochist) he could, who connected Steward with other men who had answered the ad.ii

Steward, then a college teacher, was interviewed by the controversial Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and became an unofficial collaborator on Kinsey’s sexual research. The two men share an interest in sexuality and record keeping; Steward kept a comprehensive list of his many sexual encounters in his “Stud File”, often noted as “sadie-maisie” or “sad-mashy”.iiiKinsey invented the term “S/M” (pronounced “ess-em”) as part of his group’s elaborate alphanumeric code for discussing sexual topics discretely. In 1952, Kinsey arranged a meeting between Steward and Mike Miksche, a freelance illustrator and erotic artist under the alias “Steve Masters”, as M (masochist) and S (sadist) respectively. Kinsey filmed this two-day encounter, the first homosexual encounter so recorded for the archives, as if documenting the mating habits of a rare species of lemur.iv (The film was financed by funds earmarked for “mammalian studies.”v)

Later in his life, Steward pursued many other men whom he hoped would be the “S” of his fantasies, often to great disappointment. Having to instruct the young hustlers sent by Chuck Renslow, Chicago-based publisher of beefcake magazines and owner of the Gold Coast leather bar, in how he was to be (mis)treated, Steward typed up a numbered “handout” which he had each new arrival read before the session. Titled “WHAT THIS PARTICULAR M LIKES”, it included instructions like “Please remember: his is your absolute slave” and “Piss in his mouth (a little, not too much…)” and “Give him a few whacks on the ass with your belt. Or use whip if one present.”vi Like Sacher-Masoch, Steward’s desires were so insistent he wanted nothing left to chance.

When leatherman culture began formalizing in the late 1950s, the aging Steward couldn’t adapt. His ambivalence about other homosexuals made him solitary and antisocial, and he believed that his desire, for rough, working-class or criminal-class, heterosexual men and sex that was always on the brink of real violence, could not be domesticated. He wrote an essay called “Pussies in Boots”:

An artificial hierarchy, a ritual, and a practice have been superimposed over a very real need of the human spirit [to locate that which is authentically masculine]… [but] the entire affair has become a ritual, a Fun and Games sort of thing, and in essence there is no difference today between a female impersonator or drag-queen and a leather-boy in full leather-drag. Both are dressing up to represent something they are not…

It is difficult to say at what point in such a “movement” the degeneration sets in, and the elements of parody and caricature make their first appearance. Perhaps the decay began when the first M decided that he, too, could wear leather as well as the big butch S he so much admired. And so he bought himself a leather jacket…vii

In Steward’s day, the closest thing to gay literature were hand-written or typewritten stories circulated in the homosexual underground. In America, no publisher or printer would touch the stuff. When Steward managed to get access to a hectograph, a device that could make maybe fifteen or twenty copies from a single master sheet, to reproduce his own stories, it was a huge leap forward.

Steward’s life also shows that what later generations of kinksters lionize as the “Old Guard” were once the new radicals.

iSteward, Samuel M. “Dr. Kinsey takes a peek at S/M: A reminiscence” in Thompson, Mark, ed. Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice. Alyson Publications, Inc., 1991 Pg. 83

iiSpring, 2010, Pg.102-103

iiiSpring, 2010, Pg.189

ivSteward, Leatherfolk, Pg.85-89

vSpring, Justin. Secret Historian: The life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010 Pg.139

viSpring, 2010, Pg.288-289

viiSpring, 2010, Pg. 302

Oct 052010
 

Lenius, Steve. Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness Nelson Borhek Press, 2010 Google books

Lenius’ book is a collection of columns published in Lavender magazine since 1995. It covers a considerable swath of recent history, including the rise of the Internet as a mass medium and some of the most politically and sexually tumultuous events.

His 1999 visit to Erotica ’99 trade show, right next to the Gay & Lesbian Business Expo, in NYC: “Erotica was kinky but very hetero, while the Gay & Lesbian Business Expo was very gay but not terribly kinky. I found myself wishing for a combination of the two.” Having attended several Taboo trade shows in Vancouver, I can attest that sex trade shows tend to be very un-queer.

In his column on people who build fucking machines, he observes that the people who build these devices are all men and apparently heterosexual. One could argue that women (whether by nature or nurture) are less inclined to find technological solutions to problems, while heterosexual men tend to think of sexual performance with women as a duty to be fulfilled and a problem to solve.

My particular interest was in the historical sections. Lenius views WWII as a turning point for gay identity. “… the rough-and-tumble, almost-hypermasculine comradeship of their military days held a romantic and even a sexual attraction.” (Pg.55) There was a strong blue-collar theme to this culture. You didn’t “play with” someone, you “worked on” or “got worked on by” someone. Implements were “tools,” not “toys.” The recognition phrase was “Are you a working man?” This ties into the view of the working-class as a source of masculine authenticity, much like the military. This was an exclusively male culture, no lesbians or straights allowed. In the 1980s, leatherwomen formed a similar culture, and AIDS brought leather men and women together. Leatherwomen started taking care of ailing men and raising money for research.

Heterosexuals don’t enter Lenius’ narrative until the early 90s, after leathermen have become visible to the mainstream. Then they start coming out of the closet and talking with leathermen, creating the possibility of a pansexual leather community. That was published in 2001, and I’m not sure that has really come to pass. This account also glosses over the organized hetero kink community that goes back to the early 1970s.

Lenius also talks about Robert Bienvenu’s work on BDSM history, comparing the “soft” images of 19th century kink (silk, lace, fur, etc.) with the “hard” images of 20th century kink (leather, latex and metal, etc.) Beivenu’s American fetish style began in the 1930s as an offshoot from the European fetish style, while Gay Leather developed in isolation from either style in the 1950s.

Other columns document the “cleaning up” of New York and San Francisco in post-2000 years; the decline of leather magazines like Drummer, surpassed by the Internet; brief histories of the Leather Archive and Museum; issues of race and age among leathermen; the hankie code (said to have started in the Gold Rush of 1849, creating a nearly all-male society in which men who would lead during dancing would wear bandanas in the left pocket, while the “girls” wore them in the right pocket); the controversy over leather dress codes (again returning to the theme of military/working class masculinity by barring polo shorts and loafers); and how the AIDS crisis transformed pageant winners from pretty title-holders to ambassadors and fund-raisers.

There’s also some particular insights into the differences and similarities between gay, lesbian and straight BDSM culture. Scene names, for example, are rarities in gay male and lesbian circles, while straights who use their real names in the Scene are the minority. I suspect that this has something to do with Internet culture’s influence on the straight BDSM culture, in which handles were commonplace, both for anonymity and for a heightened sense of initiation. Another aspect is the greater acceptance of alcohol and other substances in gay BDSM play, likely due to the centrality of bars in leather culture. “The unspoken but implicit message often seems to be that drinking and drugs are integral parts of the scene, necessary elements of machismo; if you don’t partake, maybe you’re not a real leatherman or leatherwoman.” (Pg.226)
Thankfully, since Lenius wrote that in 1997, there are many more non-bar social events for leatherfolk, and pansexual events tend to be dry.

Lenius writes mainly from the gay leatherman perspective. He’s particularly engaging when he writes about his personal experiences: coming out twice, living with his family, his life in leather bar culture, his experiences as a leather pageant judge. He’s also aimed at a gay but not necessarily kinky readership via the magazine, so some of it is more written as outreach for the curious vanilla gay man and woman. This is a bit frustrating, as I get the impression that Lenius could go much deeper into various topics, but his regular column format and his vanilla readership forces him to stay on the surface. His column predates blogging as a mainstream medium, which might have better served him to explore ideas in more depth.

Jan 282010
 

From the UK Guardian:

Back in the mid-60s New York had just one leather bar, and it was inconspicuous and customers would wear their normal clothes and carry a change of costume in a bag, then switch to their chaps and black leather vest in the taxi. They were terrified a friend, even a gay friend, might see them going out in this freaky rig. Sadomasochism still sounded perverted and ever so slightly tacky – sort of New Jersey. And elderly. As if working-class, old gay men who couldn’t compete in the real bars could look appealing in leather, or at least threatening.

….

In 1975 a hardcore S&M monthly magazine, Drummer, started publishing. It had fairly technical information about how to torture and submit to it – we read it with avidity. The whole look and smell of gay New York culture was changing toward beefier bodies, beards, and the odour of brew, harness, sweat, and Crisco. A boyfriend of mine said that New Yorkers were so pale and unhealthy looking that black leather was the only look that suited them.

The leather bars kept pushing farther and farther uptown until they reached 21st Street and 11th Avenue with the Eagle’s Nest. There all the men seemed older and bearded and muscular and over six feet tall. At 5ft 10in I’d never felt short before except in Amsterdam. Now I was a shorty in my own city. To get from the West Village up to the Eagle, gay men had to go past three blocks of projects on Ninth Avenue starting at 16th Street. Gangs who lived in the projects would attack single gay men. We started wearing whistles around our necks to summon other gay men to our defence – a fairly effective system. I thought back to the 50s when everyone was a sissy boy with straightened hair, cologne, and a baby-blue cashmere sweater and penny loafers. Back then we would have been terrified of gangs. Not any more. Now many of us were taking judo classes.

And now the dress code was strict. The Eagle would allow “No hat other than leather cycle caps, western hats, construction hats or uniform hats. No jackets or coats other than leather or western style”.