Feb 072012

It’s hard to kill a myth. In meme theory, myths are often analogous to parasites: hard to get rid of, but not too harmful. Or rather, they mask their harmful effects.

In the BDSM world, there are a lot of pernicious myths that many people want to believe. (Are kinky people more prone to this kind of fantasy?) The most enduring is the myth of the Old Guard.

Part of the reason for this is that so many of the me who were involved in the early S-M/Leather culture are dead now, either from age or from HIV, and aren’t around to refute these claims. Another part is these were highly secretive, insular groups.

Some people try to fill this information vacuum about this period of Leather/BDSM history with oral history, research and so on. Others fill it with unsourced statements and pure imagination. An example of the latter is The Leatherman’s Protocol Handbook: A Handbook on “Old Guard” Rituals, Traditions and Protocols by John D. Weal. Thankfully, Guy Baldwin has reviewed it so the rest of us don’t have to read it.


After we get past the misspelling of “hierarchy,” we read:


The council, which was a group of Elders of the community, really governed the local leather community. They were a board of directors, so to speak, for the community. The Council pretty much set the regulations and such in which the clubs/organizations would function within the community and with each of the other clubs. The Council was made up of senior members from each of the local clubs each having equal representation on the Council.

The council group established all the rules, what clubs were governed by the council, and defined the punishment when someone made a violation. It was with their approval that everything would happen within our club and probably most of our dwellings, dungeons, and lives. In “Old Guard” days we had our council which for us had members from several groups to govern the San Francisco Bay area…All coverings for Masters had to be approved by this council so the clubs around recognized the Masters.

And then on to perhaps one of my least favorite sentences in the book:

All other ceremonies would be club controlled and that information would then be passed around at the council meetings giving the council knowledge of who had been received what titles within the said community.

As for this “council of elders” idea, and many others found in this book, well, uh … no. Not really.

Why not? Several reasons:

Most of the myths I’ve heard about the Old Guard fall into the “one true way”, that the early BDSM subculture was monolithic in organization and practices. Baldwin’s account seems much more plausible: a loose network of formal organizations and informal communities with similar but not homogeneous practices, and without any kind of central organization.

Why is it there’s such a yearning for an imagined past, a lost utopia? This is certainly not exclusive to gay leathermen, as Baldwin says:

For about the last 25 years, the het communities have been plagued periodically with “reports” of European lineages of kink nobility – generations of high-end BDSM players, brought up on grand estates, often in castles, and schooled in the BDSM arts in fabulous dungeons, by the cruel but classy head(s) of this or that clan.

The “reporters” typically maintain that traditional, formal rules of secrecy prevented any record-keeping, any photographs, any diaries, any mention to “outsiders” of the goings-on inside. But they supposedly saw it with their own eyes, always alone, or they had heard the stories from the “last survivor.”

Gay men and lesbians have typically raised a dubious eyebrow as our internal bullshit detectors went into red-line. And all too often, we have smugly thought to ourselves things like, “Oh those het folks and their silly urban legends! Thank the leather gods we aren’t burdened by such self-aggrandizing tellers of tales who take us for idiots!”

But with the publication of this “handbook,” our turn to wrestle with fiction presented as fact has finally come. Bottom line for me: credibility = zero.

So, always sniff the milk. This book sounds so terrible I won’t even include a link for it.

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