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April 30, 2014

John Embry Leather Hall of Fame Induction Speech

I delivered this speech on April 27, 2014 to accompany the induction of John Embry, founder of Drummer magazine, into the Leather Hall of Fame at Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend (CLAW) held in Cleveland, Ohio.

Good afternoon. Today we are inducting John Embry into the Leather Hall of Fame. And while Mr. Embry did many good things in his lifetime, if we get honest, the reason he is being inducted today is for his founding of the iconic magazine Drummer. Considering the impact that magazine had on me and countless others, and I contend our entire leather and kink culture, that’s reason enough.

How many people in this room have read a Drummer magazine? Raise your hands. How many people feel that Drummer magazine has directly influenced your leather and kink life? How many people feel that our scene would be significantly different today had Drummer not existed?

Drummer was pivotal in creating a bonded network of men who did not always have a sense of belonging elsewhere in the gay men’s community. The magazine served as a communal forum for often isolated individuals and allowed for existing leather and kink institutions to be more easily identified and accessed. But perhaps most importantly, it generated of common culture and shared language that helped integrate local networks into a more national and international conversation. It gave these men images, stories, information, commentary, products and ideas to jerk off to, to relate to, to identify with, and that served to empower and grow a fledgling network of leathermen.

You can read a much more detailed accounting of John Embry’s life and the lifecycle of Drummer magazine in the program for today’s induction, and I encourage you to do so. But in the interest of brevity, I will focus on a few important insights into John Embry and Drummer magazine.

John Embry was born in Winslow, Arizona in 1926. I and others we unable to uncover much about his childhood. One thing we do know is that he was the art director of his high school newspaper. After high school, at the age of 18, he moved to Los Angeles to attend art school. He joined the armed services in 1949 and following his military service began a career in marketing and advertising. Drummer magazine was in many ways a natural extension of that marketing and advertising career.

You can read in his bio in the program some of the presumed initial origins of Drummer magazine, but it’s best to get it directly from Embry’s mouth. In issue 188 of Drummer magazine John Embry penned an article about Drummer’s origins. In that article he said:

“Unlike popular conceptions, Drummer was not born like something in an Andy Hardy movie, with lots of enthusiasm and offers of Judy Garland’s garage for a theater. It wasn’t even like Shel Silverstein’s wonderful concept of Playboy’s beginning with all the fellas standing around the steps of a Chicago brownstone deciding who was going to be the editor, the art director and who would recruit the centerfolds.”

“Drummer was conceived in Los Angeles on a Saturday morning in 1975 when my lover Don was out on one of his interminable disappearances. It was a solitary, if not immaculate, conception in the form of an ad in the Leather Fraternity newsletter I was putting together. The publication was already running eight to twelve pages. Why not embellish it and make it some sort of small magazine? What the hell, I had always been a frustrated publisher. So I pasted together a half-page pitch for something christened Drummer with little, if any, idea what it would or should look like.”

Perhaps the original intent of Drummer was not well thought out, but the happy accident was its critical role in the creation of an international leather, BDSM and kink community.

As the result of that perhaps less than immaculate conception, the first Drummer came off the press on June 23, 1975.

The name of the magazine, Drummer, is a reference to a quote from the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which happens to be my favorite book of all time. The quote is “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”

Embry did indeed hear a different drummer, and he also did indeed step to the music that he heard. He was a unique and, perhaps unconsciously at times, a visionary man.

When Embry was asked what made him want to be a publisher, he said “Inborn, I guess. I can remember as a schoolboy putting out a four-pager in grammar school by the simple method of drawing (in pencil, they didn’t trust us with pen and ink yet) and typing each copy by hand. It was simple and direct and my friend Conrad and I would spend hours in the evening on the finished product, such as it was. That’s all he and I did those evenings, unfortunately. But you’re pretty young when you’re in elementary school. Then Conrad got his little hands on a discarded hectograph, known as a Ditto gelatin roll that did an amazing thing: it made copies. I knew how Gutenberg must have felt!”

So even in grammar school, and we know in high school, Embry’s path toward becoming a publisher was already underway.

Embry saw Drummer magazine in many ways as a publication of liberation. He had a history of wanting to liberate the gay men’s community and did a great deal in that regard, which again you can read about in detail in the bio in the program, and he saw Drummer magazine as no different. It was a vehicle of liberation for gay men who had sexualities and identities that did not sync with the mainstream of gay male life.

Of course, not everyone held the magazine in high regard, at least initially. When a prominent San Francisco BDSM and kink organization reviewed Drummer in its newsletter, they said “Drummer is a Bummer, too slick, too commercial.” Luckily, thousands upon thousands of leathermen felt differently and they embraced Drummer as their publication of record. Their source of erotic inspiration. The template from which they built entire erotic and social lives.

This theme of liberation was well illustrated when Embry was asked what sort of satisfaction the publishing of Drummer brought him. He said “A tremendous amount, sometimes in very personal ways. We constantly get mail from guys who say how Drummer has helped them come to terms with their sexuality and their lives. I particularly like to hear from someone who found that he shares a specific sexual identity or fetish that other men enjoy – and that through Drummer they have learned to explore the possibilities of their sexual, physical and emotional selves. In a way that is what they are saying when they write to us that Drummer is ‘a turn on.’”

Embry also echoed the theme of liberation when asked why publishing Drummer was so deeply satisfying and important to him. He said “The most gratifying correspondence came from readers across the U.S. who had long considered themselves the only queer in town with their particular fetish. When they discovered themselves in Drummer they knew they were far from alone, wherever they lived.”

That encapsulates the power and importance of Drummer magazine in our lives, and why John Embry so richly deserves his place in the Leather Hall of Fame.

We might not all be here today were it not for John Embry and his Drummer magazine. We most certainly would not have so readily adopted its imagery and messaging as the foundation upon which many of us constructed our erotic dress, identities, sexualities and social norms.

We all owe a huge thanks to John Embry and every single person involved in the creation and publication of Drummer magazine. So it is a true honor to be able to say today that John Embry has now been inducted into the Leather Hall of Fame.

Mr. Embry, the universe decided to take you from us in September of 2010, but you, and your important work, have not been forgotten. All of us owe you a huge collective thanks.

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