A version of this post was originally published in the Bay Area Reporter.
As I walked through the most recent Folsom Street Fair and participated in a few of the Leather Pride Week events, it struck me how much the scene has changed in recent years. I rather like how diverse and multifaceted our scene has become. But, of course, like clockwork, I inevitably overheard some comments from a few leather traditionalists bemoaning how the modern leather and kink scene is dishonoring the Old Guard.
Sacred cows can be dangerous things. Those things in life you are not encouraged to question are likely the very things you should question. So it is with the topic of this column, the leather Old Guard mythology.
For those people reading this that are not aware of what I’m referring to, many believe there were small cadres of gay leathermen who followed a universal, codified and rigid protocol of indoctrination, schooling, dress and interaction that bestowed on them a blessed membership in the leather community of the time. Was there some semblance of this in the past? Yes. Was its nature and functioning like the Old Guard mythology often promulgated upon today’s unknowing kink newcomer? No. And that is why I, and others, take issue with the constant referencing of the Old Guard as some sort of ideal behavioral and identity yardstick.
It’s time we stop, once and for all, the ridiculous notion that we should be patterning our identities, relationships and social interactions based on the Old Guard myth. It does no one any good. It stunts meaningful explorations of our sexuality. It promotes conformity versus individuality, and erotic rebels and mavericks are supposed to shun conformity, not embrace it.
In a recent speech titled Old Gods Die Hard (which you can find here), one of the leather scene’s greatest thinkers, Guy Baldwin, a man who many consider to have been smack dab in the middle of the Old Guard era and membership, skewered the Old Guard notions that run rampant in the leather scene today. Baldwin does indeed believe that some gay men of the leather past adhered to their own crafted rituals, protocols and other subcultural rites. He’s even referred to them as Old Guard. I agree with him on that.
But I believe Baldwin and I also agree that what applied to a small group of gay men in the past were by no means the universal and monolithic things that have been romanticized far beyond their actual reality. In short, the Old Guard referenced so often today is, mostly, mythology and to claim it was otherwise is to do a great disservice to not only those men who comprised the Old Guard of the past, but especially to the contemporary leather and kinkfolk of today who often embrace such notions as the template to be used for their own erotic lives.
Reading Baldwin’s speech is well worth your time and I think it should be required reading for any person who claims leather or kink community membership.
So why is embracing the Old Guard misinformed mythology bad? Why is it damaging? Baldwin points out in his speech that as the younger generations of kinksters came along they began to run afoul of some old timers who were determined to coerce and badger these youngsters and other scene newcomers by insisting that the Old Guard ways were the “correct” and traditional way things were done and how people were supposed to be and act. A few old timers, as well as some of those folks today who believe them, have often exerted strong pressure on newcomers and the scene generally to conform to the misguided notions that the leather scene’s history brought about a rigid and systematic way in which you enter, identify, behave and play if you’re to be considered a “true” leatherperson. What bullshit.
Another great thinker, Laura Antoniou, author of some of the leather and kink scene’s most beloved novels, and someone who often makes her points humorously, also takes issue with how the Old Guard has been romanticized beyond recognition. She also refers to the mythology of “houses,” a kissing cousin of the Old Guard mythology where people were supposedly mysteriously trained into the leather and kink ways. She puts it this way.
“There are no ‘old leather traditions.’ There are behaviors that individuals and small, isolated groups developed as customs (Bob has a new bike! Let’s all pee on it!) and there are behaviors individuals established as relationship habits (Call me Lady!) but there are no unified, recognized leather ‘traditions.’ A ‘house’ is not part of anything that anyone would recognize as an ‘old leather tradition,’ whether it’s a custom or a habit. If your new friend wants to join in a group with individual rules that mostly come out of ‘what makes them feel good,’ that’s awesome. She should ask them what all these rules are and see if they make HER feel good, and then do whatever she feels is comfortable and sexy and positive and right for her in order to join their little club, knowing full well that should it get creepy, stupid, onerous or no longer sexy, she can wave bye-bye and wander off to find more people with their own rules. Which will be entirely different from the ones she just learned and experienced. My advice would be to be very wary of anything that sounds like ‘this is the right way!’ (as opposed to ‘this is MY way, because I love it when things happen this way! Whee!’) and understand that everything is subject to negotiation. Also, if she needs to pass tests, perform feats of strength and daring, gets special clothing to wear and toys to play with and secret handshakes, those are super fun things for grownups to do, and having the mindset to throw yourself fully into the moment can be quite a rush.”
“And ultimately, anyone who says you MUST do anything to be ‘real’ or ‘true’ is basically saying, ‘…in MY Super Secret No Cooties Clubhouse!’ So, anytime you hear words like that, just think ‘super secret clubhouse’ and you will know instantly whether you want to continue chatting, let alone consider play, sex or a relationship.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it likely many times again, the guidelines for being a good leather or kinky person are essentially the same as being a good person. Be nice. Respect others. Watch out for each other. Be curious. Learn what you need to know to best enjoy yourself. Share what you know generously. That’s about it. The rest is all just a lot of noise that is more about how individuals choose to express their erotic selves than it is about how things should be done by others.
Let me close with a quotation from an unlikely book, considering the topic, but one that applies so well here. William Deresiewicz, in his book, Excellent Sheep, says this.
“The past gave rise to the present, but it is also different from the present. It shows us that things do not have to be the way that they are now. It provides us with a vantage point from which to see that our conventional wisdom is just conventional, not wisdom – that what we think is natural is merely cultural; temporal, not eternal; particular, not universal. It offers us an exit from the present. It tells us that things change: not only don’t they have to be the way they are, they will not be the way they are. The past, in other words, allows us to create the future. If you want to be a leader, if you want to find a new direction, then that is where you need to start.”
Go forth and be kinky, your way. Don’t let anyone tell you how you are supposed to be you.