Old gods die hard
I normally don’t republish material written by other people here. I’m making an exception because Guy Baldwin’s direct experience allowed him to describe the so-called Old Guard with a competence that, not having lived in the early ’70 USA, I could never match.
Talking about the elusive, mythical and idealized first contemporary BDSM community is however important: both to settle some cultural misunderstandings, and to learn the origin of some serious issues still plaguing newcomers to the extreme eroticism world.
Let’s read what he has to tell us for now; I promise to return on the topic soon.
The following article originally appeared on Leatherati, and permission was granted to republish it here.
speech by Guy Baldwin, September 20, 2014, Tacoma WA
As some of you may already know, I’ve been invited here to Tacoma to offer some comments on the single most troublesome, misunderstood, divisive, and distracting issue to bedevil our leather world, and for succeeding generations: of course, I refer to The Old Guard.
This is the 23rd anniversary of a piece I published in September of 1991, in issue #150 of Drummermagazine, entitled: “The Old Guard: Its Origins, Traditions, Mystique & Rules.” It also appeared in my first book, Ties That Bind, in 1993. In fact, by now, I’m sure it’s the single most read, shared, and quoted essay I’ve ever published.
Month after month, I granted permissions for the Old Guard essay to appear on anyone’s website who wanted it. But I was startled when follow-ups later sometimes revealed that the essay had been chopped up or even altered — I can only conclude, to suit the tastes or intentions of the site-holder. It began to dawn on me that my effort to educate readers about the Old Guard had created way more problems than it had solved, and for that, I must now say, I am truly sorry.
I now know that the Old Guard is like an iceberg, only ten percent of which is above the water-line. The easiest part to see and talk about is by no means the whole thing.
But fools rush in, as they say, and it was foolish of me in 1991 to imagine I could do the concepts of Old Guardery any real justice in 2,000 words. And so, in an effort to stem the flood of disinformation, in 1998, I published my second essay on the topic, in a gay men’s magazine known as International Leatherman (long since defunct), entitled, “The Old Guard: Classical Leather Culture Revisited.”
Naively, I hoped to put the matter to rest. But again, I failed, and by 2011, the chatter about The Old Guard had once again, reached a crescendo. I authorized the editor at Leatherati.com to reprint the piece, where you can still find it if you care to read it; however, evidence has mounted that this, too, did not help.
Not the least of which evidence is the fact that I’m here today to try, once again, for a more nuanced understanding of the Old Guard.
* * * * * *
I’ll begin with a bit of my own story to help fit myself into the gay Leather timeline.
I was eighteen in 1965, and just days away from graduating high school in small-town Colorado. As luck would have it, my mother confronted me about being gay, and when I confirmed her suspicions, she gave me a week to move out: “Ain’t no homosexyul gonna live under my roof.” So move I did, to the nearest big city: Denver.
I took a room in a boarding house on Capitol Hill, and it wasn’t long before I had my first kinky encounter. I eagerly pursued a friendship with that man, and during the next three years, first through him, and then thru others, I became acquainted with a network of guys in the Denver area who were kinky to one degree or another.
A few years later, the guys I hung out with decided to form the Rocky Mountaineers Motorcycle Club in 1968, the same year I started college, largely because those men pressured me to get educated. They were my first surrogate family. All through my college years, many of my weekends were spent with those men, and a bunch of them rode bikes up to Boulder to attend my graduation, after which they made me an associate member of the Rocky Mountaineers.
They made me a member partly because they knew I was soon moving to San Francisco, and that having motorcycle club credentials would open doors for me in the leather underground of San Francisco, despite my youth: I was only 26 then.
People who write about this stuff tend to agree that contemporary gay male leather culture had reached observability by 1954, with the formation of the Satyrs Motorcycle Club in Los Angeles, the development of a functional kink scene in New York, and the release of the feature film The Wild Ones, starring Marlon Brando in the role of a renegade biker tuff-guy. The film was deeply influential for gay men of that era.
Just to put this on a timeline, when I graduated high school in ’65 and moved to Denver, this underground leather culture was barely 10 years old — but the kink networks in Denver were well-plugged into it. Moving to San Francisco in 1972 was only a small culture shock for me. The men on Folsom Street dressed, walked, talked, behaved in the same ways as men did at Denver’s leather bars and motorcycle events.
Notice, please, that I said “ways,” plural. By 1972 there were primarily four subgroups sharing what others have since called “leather spaces,” including bars, sex clubs, and motorcycle runs. And those four groups were, in no particular order:
- group 1: motorcycle club members, and other non-club ‘cycle riders;
- group 2: leather counter-culture outlaw types (especially after 1967);
- group 3: leather, uniform, rubber and/or boot fetishists; and
- group 4: cowboy/Levis/western wear guys.
Furthermore, a man in any of these four groups, could also be distinguished by at least these sixother variables, in almost any combination:
- some guys migrated between the four groups listed above, while others did not;
- alcohol consumption — some drank, others did not;
- recreational drug use — for some often, others rarely;
- S&M and/or B&D and/or fisting interests;
- “rough sex”;
- a fetish for formalism and/or ritual.
So within fifteen years of its inception, despite being called the “leather” world of gay men — or as we spoke of it then, “the leather scene” — it already catered to an amazingly diverse array of kinky configurations. For example, there were
- bike club members who wanted nothing to do with sadomasochism;
- leather counter-culture outlaws who laughed at formalism;
- leather and uniform guys who wouldn’t dream of fisting because it got their CHP shirts greasy (and dry cleaning was actually kind of expensive in those days);
- fisters who wanted no part of S/M, motorcycles, or bondage;
- cowboy, leather, or boot fetishists who were into formalism;
- S/M guys who wanted no part of bondage or formalism.
There were also:
- leather fetishists who liked only rough sex with other guys also in leather gear, with or without ritual;
- rubber guys who liked to fist, but not when in rubber;
- Master/slave teams who were only in that configuration when together.
* * * * * *
Where did “The Old Guard” language come from?
As long as the men who were fetishizing leather formalism were tolerant of other approaches to kink, there had been no friction in our world. But when some of the formalists began to see themselves as a leather elite, trouble was sure to follow — and it has been with us ever since.
Some in this self-anointed elite began to see themselves as keepers of secret, semi-sacred knowledge about transcendental sadomasochistic practices. They had become what my friend Vince calls, “Masonic.” As they surrounded themselves with this mystique, they became more condescending to outsiders, whom I think they might well have seen as the Great Leather Unwashed.
This elitism, of course, alienated them from the leather mainstream, and it eventually elicited the ire that was to follow. Thus, the phrase, “The Old Guard” was first coined by third-generation guys in the late 1980s. They intended the phrase to be critical of that condescending elite. More on that in a moment.
My friend Kevin Craft has offered what may be a far more useful, nuanced way to think about “The Old Guard.” He suggests it makes more sense to think in terms of the ways or styles with which different leathermen passed along kink information to those they deemed qualified to have it.
I hope it is instantly clear that the men in the four groups who mixed and matched the six variables I mentioned would do that passing-along thing very differently. Consider:
- Most counter-culture outlaw biker guys did and do their teaching with little or almost no hint of formality or ritual. (Think Instigator magazine.)
- The men who teach rope technique or whip handling will likely do that in a casual and easy-going manner. Indeed, I have reason to believe that most hands-on classes are taught exactly that way.
- It’s common for guys in the fisting world to trade positions as an effective way to teach, but they don’t pay a lot of attention to who wears what, as long as it’s sexy.
- A club member at a motorcycle club banquet might sit at a table in order of the seniority of his office, or his age, or the date of his initiation, but all the members will deal with each other as equals —no protocol stuff, just good manners.
- Tops and bottoms are not always the same thing as Doms and subs. To wit: some bottoms are very dominant, and some Tops are submissive.
- Master/slave teams can be formal some of the time, all of the time, or never at any time.
I hope from just these few examples it will be clear that even as early as 1972, any extrapolation of a single monolithic “Old Guard” standard for behavior, applicable to all first- and second-generation leathermen, was impossible on the face of it. As in “Rashōmon,” many who sincerely claim to be witness to or an inheritor of “the Old Guard tradition” may have a piece of the story; but no one man’s (or even one community’s) experience could encompass it all, owing to the wide range of variation that did and still does characterize gay male leather culture.
* * * * * *
What accounts for the decades long “Old Guard” confusions?
Several of us who spend time thinking seriously about this stuff have come to believe that various intersecting and dynamic forces are responsible for keeping the waters of this Old Guard conversation so muddy.
To begin with, gay male leather history is much like the rest of human history — why wouldn’t it be? — in that as time passes, any culture group is subject to experiencing what I guess I have to call “social earthquakes”: shocks to whatever had been the status quo. And after these shocks, much about life is changed.
American history is replete with examples: the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War (every war, in fact), the Depressions of 1873 and 1929, the development of the atomic bomb, 9/11, and so on. Leather history also experienced shocks. And remember that the smaller the group, the greater the impact is when these shocks happen.
For my money, the first “shock” happened as the price of air travel began to fall, 1962 onward, after the introduction of the Boeing 707 in 1958. Yes, of course, I had to mention Boeing. [Boeing is one of the largest employers in the Seattle-Tacoma area, where it was founded. – Ed.]
As travel became cheaper, it became possible for middle-class leathermen to sample fresh meat in the leather bars that had begun to pop up around the country. This began a long process of homogenization in the world of gay male leather that continues to this day.
I agree with Gayle Rubin: the next shock to hit the gay male leather scene was the proliferation of mind-altering drugs, beginning in about 1968, a year that social historians have come to call “the Summer of Love,” or sometimes “the Hippie Summer.” Think: Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Donovan, Country Joe & the Fish, Woodstock, LSD, mushrooms, peyote, hashish, and yes, poppers, or amyl nitrite.
Leathermen began experimenting with drugs just as guys who knew about drugs were finding their way into the leather scene. Prior to the arrival of recreational drugs, the Leather scene was an amalgamation of several influences:
- organized bike club members, and unaffiliated bikers;
- World War II vets;
- guys who fetishized cowboys, cops, bikers, leather, soldiers, blue-collar workers, rough-trade for pay, and other hyper-masculine icons.
After drugs appeared and began to proliferate, what I have called “classical” leather culture was never the same:
- We became slightly less fem-o-phobic.
- Switching became more acceptable.
- Fistfucking proliferated and became a crossover subculture in its own right. The red hanky was born, the first of many.
- My personal experience was that music became more common in play spaces.
- The vibe softened some; we became less “serious.”
- The leather scene began (began!) to be less underground — that is, slightly more visible. In the ’50s and ’60s in New York, men had arrived at bars with their leathers in a shopping bag, and only changed into them then.
As war veterans began returning from Viet Nam, in 1969, they displayed far less reverence for the military spit-and-polish formalism that some of the older leather guys had idealized.
Viet Nam battered men just as all wars do, but they all knew that ‘Nam was not a “necessary” war, like the ones their fathers and grandfathers fought in. And many of them had turned to pot which helped make their war experiences survivable for them. They weren’t about to leave pot behind as they came into the leather scene.
I can recall a very influential mentor, Jim Kane — an Old Guard leather icon and a leather elitist if ever there was one — taking me aside, in about 1974, and earnestly warning me, with words that went something like: “Now be sure you don’t let yourself get involved with those fisting guys. The leather scene has already lost too many good men who disappeared into that more-ass, never to be seen or heard from again. Don’t try it even once.” And so I didn’t, for years.
And part of that was his implied warning about drugs, which had made butt-hole explorations, well, easier. In fact, for many into fisting back then, drugs became part of the standard equipment for those explorations. Some used a small amount; others, more.
Jim Kane almost certainly didn’t know it, but there was already plenty of crossover happening. The crossover population even had its own bars, in the Folsom area: the Red Star and the Ambush. The men into more formalism tended to hang out in the Ramrod and the No Name.
As a consequence of each shockwave or “social earthquake” that happened, the style and manner of education for newcomers shifted. And it is my opinion that those shifts were simply a reflection of the fact that there were ever more and more ways to “do” kink.
The spirit of leathermen softened. It moved away from the occasionally more stern gravity of leather’s first generation, say from 1950 thru 1965 when I arrived. They had been a generation that witnessed the austerities of World War II and survived. In contrast, the Viet Nam vets tended to take almost everything far less seriously — perhaps partly because they did not see themselves as heroes returning home from a great moral struggle.
And most significantly, when this second generation of Leather guys were passing erotic information down to newcomers, their style of doing so was way less rigid, far more casual. Andy Mangels (the second person to publicly discuss Old Leather vs. New Leather back in 1989) probably put it best, and I’m paraphrasing here:
The men of Old Leather — that is, first-generation Old Guard leathermen — were more likely to say:“You must… You always… You should… You never…” Whereas the men who came along after 1970 or so are more likely to say: “You may… You can… You might… You could…”
And surely, the third shock to hit our world was the appearance of the “open” BDSM organization — meaning open to anyone who showed up, expressed an interest, and paid a token membership or admission fee. Specifically, I refer to The Eulenspiegal Society in New York, founded in 1971; the Society of Janus in San Francisco, 1974; and of course, the National Leather Association, formed in Seattle in 1986.
With the advent and proliferation of such groups, the previous methods of patient, long-term vetting of newcomers was swept away, as the tent-flaps into the leather world went up and anyone was made welcome. No longer was any effort made to investigate the character of a prospective newcomer, as had happened more routinely in the past. No longer was any effort made to consider whether a person’s morality qualified him to receive the esoteric knowledge of the mating rituals or the high-end technical activities of quality BDSM.
As educational opportunities began to proliferate, with the spread of special weekend events around the country, the emphasis shifted from the spirit in which these sexualities are undertaken to an emphasis on the technical aspects — the mechanics, the “how-to” — of this or that activity.
Why? Simply because it’s not hard to teach technique. It’s much more difficult to impart the subtleties of connectedness; the value and delicacy of a successful launch to a scene; the means by which a scene can be developed and supported, by each of the players, to achieve and maintain the most sophisticated and refined satisfactions waiting in the wings for the summons of truly skilled and adept players.
The irony here is that it was — in my opinion! — the second generation of gay male players who achieved this refinement. Not the first-generation Oldest Guard, but the Second Guard, if we want to call it that.
Want proof? Just watch some of the BDSM scenes filmed in 8 mm that survive from before, say 1970, when the Oldest Guard was presumably at its zenith. Or watch what is probably the earliest S/M porno, “Born to Raise Hell,” staring Val Martin, a Brazilian who’d only recently arrived in the U.S. and knew nothing at all about BDSM, as is clear in the film. You’ll see some really crude and coarse behavior passing for BDSM, scenes that were clearly abusive. Again, in my opinion, they too often lacked any of the refinement that came later as second-gen guys combined BDSM technique with the sensitivities and sensualities of the more humanistic ’70s.
So the third shock, the birth of educational organizations, also had a huge impact on the way information was passed along: the quiet, personal mentoring gave way to the classroom.
Finally, for the purposes of our topic tonight, the fourth and, I believe, the most important shock to hit our world, was HIV/AIDS.
Why the most important? Well, apart from all the deaths themselves, in the gay men’s Leather world, exactly who died matters a lot. And the first to die were the men who had been the most sexually adventurous, the most exploratory, the most innovative, and in general the most liberated of us all.
And by far, that included way more of the younger, second-generation guys than it did of the old-timers, who by 1984 when AIDS hit were somewhere between the ages of 48 and 85, and were likely to be having far less sexual contact at the time than the younger guys were having.
Certainly as the epidemic got worse, gay leathermen who weren’t ill, or weren’t yet, became preoccupied with caring for the sick and dying. The fundraiser was born and invaded our leather spaces — and those, of course, tend to suck the sex energy right out of almost any room.
It’s an understatement to say that it wasn’t a very sexy time. The heady days of our sexual revolution were over. We began to think they might be gone forever.
Let’s think about this together for a moment. With HIV ripping out the heart and soul of the second-generation guys, and with others of all ages trying to care for the ill and mourn the dead, whom did that leave to teach and mentor the third generation — the guys who were starting their explorations in the world of radical sexuality after 1980?
Well, it left the un-sick. And who were they most likely to be? It’s my belief that, with a few exceptions, they were:
- guys who had been outsiders before HIV hit us, and thus less well networked;
- guys who had way less sexual experience;
- guys who had been exclusive tops (a small population to be sure);
- guys who had been in monogamous relationships when HIV hit.
Crucially, AIDS left the older guys who had been deemed unfit to join the underground leather networks. It left, as teachers, the guys who had wanted into the inner circle of kink knowledge and experience, but who had been excluded for reasons of questionable character, poor social skills, unfriendly personalities, poor impulse control, excessive drug and alcohol use, shaky morality, and so on.
And, I’m very sorry to say, some of those people made a lot of stuff up, most probably based on anecdotes they had either heard or read about in porno stories. And they combined the stuff they’d made up with some bits of lore they’d heard, probably too some fantasy thrown in for good measure, and called it “Traditional Leather” — or, you guessed it, “Old Guard.”
In general, much of the stuff they made up was about high-Leather formalism, formalism to the point of being “Masonic,” when as far as I could tell, from playing with men in Denver and San Francisco through the 1960s and into the 1970s, very few first and second generation guys had a style dominated by formalism.
But the propaganda presented those elitist few as if they had been The Many — the majority, in fact — which was never the case.
Even worse was some of the stuff that got made up about the few who did do leathersex in a formalistic way. For example:
- It was not true that, to be a good top, one must always have first spent considerable time bottoming. Some noteworthy tops spent just enough time on the bottom to conclude it wasn’t for them. Period.
- While a few of the formalists insisted that leather be “earned,” most first- and second-generation guys either bought our leather or it was given to us. I never “earned” any of my leather, nor do I know anyone who has.
- Leather or gear from friends or mentors was sometimes given in a formal or ritualized way, but that was rare, and by no means the standard way that leather was passed along.
- Leather bike caps were worn as often by bottoms and slaves as they were worn by Tops and Masters. I mail-ordered my bike cap directly from the manufacturer, in 1971, and I was an exclusive bottom at that time. Not until the late 1980s did they begin to be called “Master Caps” or “covers.”
- The first “covering ceremony” I ever heard of didn’t happen until the early 1990s, and that was in Atlanta.
- Despite the assertion (among many others) in a fairly recent book about leather protocol by John Weal, there was NEVER a “Council of Elders” in San Francisco that governed the activities of the clubs and organizations. There is not one single shred of evidence that such a thing ever existed, there or anywhere else.
- What have come to be called “protocols” — a relatively recent term itself — were never standard across the nation, but were occasionally imposed by formalist mentors according to their own individual tastes. (This variation in leather manners from one mentor to another is undoubtedly one factor that’s given rise to continual arguments about the “right” way to do this or that.)
- There is no evidence of things known as European Houses with long lineages of Dominants ruling over generations of slaves and junior Masters.
* * * * * *
As the fourth and fifth generations came along, of course they began to run afoul of old-timers bent on insisting that the so-called Old Guard ways were the way “traditional” leather guys did things. Obviously, there was a lot of generational friction.
This friction broke out into public view on the pages of Drummer magazine in the late 1980s, beginning with the publication of essays by Steve Maidhof and Andy Mangels in ’88 and ’89 —twenty-five years ago. Young guys were chafing under pressure from a few so-called Old Guard types who seemed bent on getting them to conform to some supposed, yes, “traditional” ways of doing leather and leathersex.
And the young guys just weren’t having it. The so-called Old Guard men who tried, and still do try, to badger guys into doing things their way have only succeeded in activating the defenses of the fourth- and fifth-gen guys.
At a panel discussion I sat on in July at a men’s dungeon weekend for 150 guys, my friend Steven, a fifth-gen guy, said all the rigidity of the Old Guard seemed to him, and I quote, like “one powdered wig short of the court at Versailles.” The audience broke up, of course.
And while Versailles was a real thing, the Old Guard court as mythologized never existed, except in the minds of a few guys who wished they’d been part of it and reported it into existence.
It had its lowly real-life beginnings in one or two styles of teaching newcomers, practiced by a small number of first- and second-generation leathermen, and a progressively smaller number in each succeeding generation. And they, together with a few disgruntled outsiders, cobbled together what morphed into a romanticized and idealized and monolithic recollection of a leather past, which they called “traditional” and “Old Guard,” and tried unsuccessfully to impose on fourth- and fifth- generation leathermen — who almost universally want no part of it.
Regrettably, as gay leathermen began to share our knowledge with the non-gay world, distortions were inevitable, and (as far as I can tell, from questions I’m asked everywhere) a wide range of distortions persist and continue to disseminate for reasons it might best be left to sociologists to figure out.
At this point you may ask, “What’s the harm, really, in promulgating one or another greatly oversimplified Old Guard story?” Myth, after all, is so much more attractive, more coherent, more comforting than truth, which always bristles with contradictions and loose ends.
But off-the-rack identities and hand-me-down answers are crappy substitutes for the self-exploration required to build one’s own, personalized identity, from scratch. And the blind embrace of a counterfeit “structure” to escape having to make our own choices is — in my opinion! — antithetical to our paths as erotic seekers.
Consequently it is my fondest wish that everybody would shut up about the “Old Guard” and do what feels right, as long as it does no harm.
Bottom line: There is no one right way to do anything in our world. As is true of all other kinds of fundamentalism, erotic fundamentalism is the real enemy here.