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It was spring 1990, and publisher Sasha Alyson called to ask if I'd be interested in compiling a book about the queer leather underground. With the AIDS epidemic at full roar this most transgressive of gay subcultures was being challenged on several fronts. Many of its participants had been among the first flush of casualties in the plague; the community itself was increasingly under attack by censors from both within and outside the gay movement.
At a time of apparently narrowing options and widening panic about gay life -indeed, the very life of gays-issues of sexual extremism and erotic variance were in high suspect. Critics asked: Hadn't gay people somehow brought this terrible plague upon themselves because of their supposedly weird and often incomprehensible acts? The freewheeling, take-it-to-the-limit attitude of the 1970s and early '80s had pushed many boundaries, broken nearly every taboo. What was left? Now that the previous rules of order and decorum lay in disarray, shouldn't there be a price to pay? Old notions of morality, even in the minds of those who'd upset them, were recirculating like tainted ghosts.
It seemed a good time to take on such knee-jerk revisionism, the kind of shame-and- blame finger pointing the modern gay movement had worked so hard to overcome during the previous two decades. From my vantage as a longtime editor at The Advocate, one of the nation's largest gay publications, I took a close, hard look. It occurred to me that what had been marked as excessive or at fault was perhaps no more than a necessary stage of behavior and identity-formation in the liberation process. No one can ever really say how much is "too much" on the path of freedom until the farthest reaches have been touched.
People both in and into leather were among the sexual revolution's avant-garde: compelled voyagers, courageous in a way, no more or less responsible for the current calamity than anyone else. There was no escaping the grim reality, however, that the collective sense of community that self-identified leather men and women had worked so hard to achieve from the 1950s on was at risk, perhaps even more so than individual lives. Preserving historical aspects of the scene, while sorting through and taking stock of the rest, struck me as a worthwhile task.
Today, the leather community has a vital new sense of itself. Like a forest after a catastrophic fire, it has regrouped at a startling pace: hundreds of leather-oriented groups and organizations, publications and web-sites exist around the world. Old questions and doubts about the legitimacy of the leather experience have changed as well. A once secret and highly codified domain is now a widely adopted lifestyle choice as past private preferences of a few become practiced by many. Meanwhile, ongoing classes, conferences, and contests pertaining to leather sexuality further enhance our understanding and acceptance of erotic difference.
It amazes me how much information is readily available. Ten years ago, Leatherfolk was among a very narrow selection of literature available on the subject. Now there are shelves of books addressing every facet of radical sexuality, ranging from the practical to the philosophical. Society's attitude is more tolerant too, growing from reflex revulsion to a cautious curiosity, as mass media and fashion continue to appropriate leather icons and imagery for their own purposes. Thus are the outer limits of yesterday transmogrified into the insider chic of tomorrow.
Such liberalized views of sexual diversity do not rest well with everyone, of course. Cultural conservatives, increasingly inhibited from wholesale queer bashing, narrow their target by distinguishing between "good" and "bad" gays: the former being the nice same-sex couple next door, the latter demonized as the perverts in leather on the streets. Within the gay community itself, old guard leathermen grumble about the loss of authenticity, while commentators elsewhere nit-pick on a scene that seems evermore about style over substance. The adaptation of a New Age tribal identity by many contemporary players is also questioned as a misguided attempt to graft greater meaning onto mundane acts. The use of such terms as "urban aboriginal," "modern primitive," and "leatherfolk" (which this book coined) is seen as a peculiar and unnecessary defense of one's sexual proclivities.
But, as I think the contributors to this book make abundantly clear, radical sexuality contains rich possibilities for personal reinvention and empowerment really only known to those who practice it. Without this honesty, leather remains too much an affectation or vogue, or is too easily left to others to label as a pathology or social aberration. The people in this book are pathfinders, whose trail markers they've left in the form of their writings. As one author here relates: "Those who experience [these] rites of passage...and are transformed by them have come to form a kind of fraternity-a brotherhood or sisterhood of those who have traveled within to confront the Inner Self."
This book is, indeed, a collection by and about living, breathing folk. Their lives have been tempered in a special way that has resulted in a shared language and commonality of intent that is, at its very core, tribal. The yearning for a common place cannot be underestimated in our fractionalized world. Leatherfolk-with their endless gifts of invention-have not only imagined, but also dared to create such private and public spaces.
I'm glad that Leatherfolk has played a significant role in that imagining. The book has been widely used, serving its community of readers as both a past witness and a present touchstone. While the views expressed in these pages are various, one central message emerges: Admitting one's interest in leather represents an initiation of sorts, a "second coming out." And then, with that acceptance won, it's advantageous to venture out and do something about it. Seek and discover. Risk the journey.
This book talks a bit about the ways and means to go about that, but it essentially concerns the profound effects this exploration has had on people, as well as the relationships and communities they have formed. For the writers in this book and many others, leather is a cultural experience as much as it is an intensely personal one. New desires have resulted in new identities and clans, exposed to the world yet cloaked by impervious skins and attitude. Actual bodies are altered too, marked and molded, living territory mapped and redrawn.
Despite the apparent artifice, leatherfolk remain recognizably human. Their practices are but one response to the lack of connectedness we feel to the primal earth-its old myths and animal totems-in modern life. However addressed, it is the longing for intimacy, well being, and transcendence from the ordinary which motivates us all. That some people can so audaciously weave the red thread of passion into their search keeps the memories, thoughts, and life lessons gathered here as relevant today as a decade ago.
Radical sexuality and all its trappings remain an approach to life worth our investigation, if for no other reason than the unique mirror it presents to the hidden parts of self. Places of the mind, body, and soul all too often left denied in a society that would have us risk nothing, not even the pleasure of simply being ourselves.
Los Angeles, 2001