The Leather Restoration:
Sacred Cows make
the best Hamburger
This is the text of a speech given by Guy Baldwin at the Leather
Leadership Conference on 14 April 2002. You can also check out Guy's
collection of essays on the BDSM erotic style, published as
"The Ties That Bind"
and Guy's new book, "Slavecraft"
(April 1, 2002 release), available for purchase at
It's my impression that interest in the Old Guard is running at
an all-time high these days, largely, I suspect, in a sweetly
romantic attempt to re-create a tradition-based foundation for
contemporary leather life.
I know this because I'm traveling frequently to teach classes at
events again, and this topic always, always, always comes up with
endless questions about "how it really was" back then. About
twice a month, I get requests for permission to post my
previously published essays about the Old Guard on web-sites,
What strikes me most about those who question me closely about
the Old Guard is how passionately they seem to be searching for
something which they believe will somehow satisfy a deeply felt
need...a longing for something they sense has been lost to us.
When I question people closely about what this need is...it
almost always can be reduced to a few key words: sexiness,
cohesion, intimacy, trust, reliability, integrity,
accountability, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of family
Common perceptions out in the leather world today, are all too
frequently summarized by remarks like these:
"The leather scene is dying."
"The magic and the mystery is gone."
We've lost sight of what's important, and allowed ourselves to be
"What's happened to the connectedness?"
"I think that what I'm looking for hasn't existed for a long
"We've allowed the very essence of leathersex to evaporate into
"Where is the Passion?"
It does seem very clear to me that many people are simply not
feeling something that they think they should be feeling about
their leathersex experiences and leather life. If so many people
have come to feel that way, then it's probably time for our
leadership to invest some serious energy in coming to terms with
these three questions:
- First: whether or not it's really true that we've lost
something from the past that's important;
- Second: if so, how that's come to pass, and
- Third: what, if anything, can and should be done to
restore those missing things to contemporary leather life.
These are worthy issues for leather leadership to address because
they obviously matter so very much to our constituencies.
My plan for our time together today, is to address what I think
are some relevant issues relating to all three of these
questions, and to raise some issues about the assumptions they
imply which I think have influenced much of our policy making in
the last 20 years...all of which should take me about 30 minutes
or so, if you're lucky, and then, we can visit about them
together, if you like.
First, is it really true that we've lost some things? From a
certain point of view, it doesn't really matter whether it's true
or not if people believe that it's true. As a psychotherapist,
I've come to understand that perception IS reality, and if people
actually FEEL that some important things have been lost to us,
then that's what they believe, and they will act and think
accordingly. For that reason, it seems wise to take people at
their word, and proceed from the assumption that it is true.
The second question: how were these things lost? The correct
answer must be---I can't know for certain, because it is
impossible for anyone to discover with absolute certainty what
each and every element of a culture's evolution has been. I think
it's important to view with suspicion anyone who claims to have
all the answers to that question. I'm certain that I do not. Yet,
I think I do have some pieces of the answer, which I'm about to
share with you.
I hope to offer you some things to chew on today, that may be
useful as we try to craft ways to breathe some new life and vigor
back into our world.
I don't want to recount my complete recollection of Old Guard
realities as I experienced them, but I do want to offer some
history that might serve to explain why this fascination with the
Old Guard has become so widespread, and then go on from there.
I was 18 when I entered leather life in 1965. Most of the guys in
the network I became a part of back then, were aged 40 to
50---they were the first generation of what we have come to call
"the Old Guard" because about half of them had been in the Scene
for about 15 years by then, and half of those had served in World
War II...they were my first mentors, and I remember them very
Back in the mid-1960's, when a guy finally got up enough courage
to begin hanging out with the leather crowd, and began to meet
the leather guys there, it was common for him to come under
scrutiny by them. The leather core-group would begin to notice
him, and what followed was a period of time during which that
core group tried to find out if the guy had "the right stuff" to
be allowed into even the outer edges of that group.
And what was the right stuff?
- His interest had to be genuine and personal----not voyeuristic.
- He had to have a life that worked-that is to say, he had the basic five things going for him---a job, a car, a place to live, a telephone, and enough disposable income to entertain himself.
- He had to have desirable values----honesty, reliability, integrity, generosity and trustworthiness, responsibility, he had financial stability and self-sufficiency, and a desire to pitch in with hands-on helping out, and respect for the other guys.
- He had certain native traits---common sense, a sense of humor, grooming standards in line with the group's, his manner wasn't feminine, he had an interest in sex, a sense of appropriateness and good manners, and also the ability to give and receive good camaraderie.
- And lastly, he had to have and a balanced psychology, not be a substance abuser, and he couldn't have a criminal record of any consequence.
When enough of the guys in the core-group determined that a
candidate person had the "right stuff", he began to receive
invitations to social events outside the bar atmosphere---back
yard bar-b-ques, weekend football on TV, outings to movies,
amusement parks, dinner parties, holiday gatherings, and such.
Homes thus became open to newcomers who craved access to the rich
knowledge and experience base, which only the core-group
And the two main reasons for all this scrutiny were first: we
wanted to make sure that we were putting the potentially
dangerous knowledge of how to do high-end BDSM into well-balanced
minds and hands, and second, we didn't particularly want to hang
out with losers or have to clean up their messes.
Put simply, there was a process by which a person wanting to
enter the leather world was first, pre-qualified to join in. This
process was designed to keep out those guys who were dangerous,
flaky, bitchy, mean-spirited, gossipy, users, drunks, thieves,
liars, self-centered egoists, dependant personalities, criminals,
exploiters, poseurs, predators, and those with other hidden
agendas...in short, "losers". With rare exception, this
system worked well.
All this happened at a time when the gay male motorcycle clubs
were the axis around which the leathersex world revolved. It's
important to point out that maybe only about 35% of the guys in
those clubs actually did what we would call BDSM by the way...
the rest were into various versions of what we called
"rough sex" back then.
On weekend nights, members of the bike clubs made it their habit
to hang out at a favored watering hole which eventually created
what we now know as "the leather bar"...yes, in almost all
cases, it was the bike clubs that created the first wave of
leather bars, and not the reverse. It was in such places that one
could begin to learn by observing the dance of leather ritual
Officially, the bike clubs were democracies, but operationally,
they were oligarchies run by the elders who exerted strong
influence over who did, and did not become members. I wasn't
invited to become an associate member myself until after I'd
turned 21-This meant that I could attend meetings and participate
in discussion, but NOT vote.
Once the leather bars became established in most major cities
(say by about 1970) the focus of leather life began to shift from
the clubs into the bars themselves. Bike clubs still began and
ended their events at leather bars even up into the 1980's, but
membership in bike clubs was already falling off seriously by
then, as more and more guys realized they could enter leather
life via the bar route rather than the bike club route; the
process of de-centralization of leather life had already begun.
Certainly by about 1975 or so, in the major cities, it was
possible to be around leather guys at the bars without needing to
have anything whatsoever to do with the motorcycle clubs. The
effect of this was to open up a new set of windows into the
leather world, to some extent.
But---and this is important----despite this fact, the process of
actually ENTERING into the network of the serious players
remained essentially the same for the newcomer---the old bike
club model for bringing new guys into the inner circle continued
to dominate the process. Newcomers still had to "pass inspection"
with the core-group in that particular city over a period of time
before one got the chance to work with the best and most
experienced players there.
For many who wanted "in" this remained an annoying and
frustrating fact of leather life.
This frustration set the stage for the formation of the BDSM
organization. Only two existed in 1974, but they quickly became
widespread. People who had been held at arm's length by the old
bike club model, flooded into the democratic organizations, and
made sure that they were open to absolutely anyone over the age
of 21---all the other standards for admission were dropped by
"INCLUSION" became the politically correct watchword for these
new organizations...and suddenly, the tent flaps into the leather
world went up everywhere. The old system by which newcomers were
carefully screened and then socialized into the mores and
folkways of leather life was swept away.
A virus accelerated this destruction more than we could possibly
have imagined. By 1985 HIV was full upon us, and with that
disaster, the old leather tribe elders---both in the surviving
bike clubs and in the bars---became distracted by the need to
help care for their own brothers who were suddenly fighting for
their lives, and all too often, losing the battles.
In a few short years, the old process by which people had to be
pre-qualified to enter the core-group was shattered, as the
tribal elders simply no longer had the time or the emotional
energy necessary to focus on bringing new "children" into the
fold. And just as in any culture, whenever elders can't make time
for their children, those elders become irrelevant as children
strike out on their own to explore their interests...whatever
they happen to be.
As more and more members of the "bridge" generations died or fled
from the organizations who no longer discriminated in membership
selection, there were simply fewer and fewer resources available
to newcomers for learning the complex and elegant dance by which
leathersex mating rituals really do unfold. The leather
organizations taught basic BDSM technique and safety, but were
close to useless for guiding the socialization process by which
newcomers might learn the subtle refinements of leathersex beyond
And one other reason for that, is that many of the new leather
organizations and their events were pan-sexual, and few gay
leathermen in that era felt comfortable enough in the presence of
women and homophobic straight men to actually launch the rituals
of leathersex in mixed spaces...most of us still do not.
Although I, myself, have supported the existence of pansexual
dungeon spaces, it's very rare that I will launch scenes in them,
simply because I'm not comfortable doing that in mixed spaces
Sadly, those who were most accomplished at the subtleties of
leathersex were often the first to die, because they had the most
practice at doing it, and thus were most likely to have become
infected with HIV. Conversely, to make matters even worse, most
of those who survived were often the ones who never, or only
rarely ever did BDSM. Too often, they knew only the rudiments of
the Scene, and could often only describe the parts of it they'd
maybe witnessed in public.
Many of these inexperienced survivors suddenly found themselves
in demand for the first times in their lives, and struggled to
supply information from experience they rarely had. Basking in a
popularity that some of them had long desired, they claimed
knowledge they did not possess, and allowed themselves to invent
freely rather than disappoint. And by the way...It is my
suspicion that the recent obsessive preoccupations with what we
now call "protocol" is a direct outgrowth of just such
inventions...Old Guard customs were no where nearly as numerous
or elaborated as today's protocols have become in some parts of
the nation...especially so in the South.
Almost instantly, BDSM technique took on an importance that it
never had during the 50's, 60's and 70's. After all, technique is
the most easily taught part of BDSM, just as it is also the most
easily learned. But magnificent BDSM demands much more than good
technique as any fine player knows. Playing all the notes of a
musical composition correctly, does not music make.
All during the 1980's leathersex education became dominated by
the focus on technique...and for that reason, the leathersex
Scene became bottom-centered while Tops struggled to learn how
not to get a bad reputation by making technical errors in Scenes.
Many extraordinary Tops complained privately that they felt
castrated by what was going on, and quietly slipped underground
to do it their own way.
With their departure, leather organizations slowly lost even more
resources about how leathersex really worked. "Power Exchange"
propaganda leveled the playing field in ways that denied or
downplayed the importance of authority differences in crafting
magical and ecstatic BDSM experiences. Feeling less and less
welcome, people who were most at home in the Master/slave world,
also slipped quietly underground. Many of the few surviving old
guard guys just scratched their heads in amazement at what the
leather world was becoming...and simply withdrew.
Meanwhile, the leather organizations allowed themselves to bask
happily in the illusion that they were doing a great job as their
curricula swelled with technique offerings. The Era of The
Tyranny of Technique had become firmly established...and
unfortunately, it is very much in place today.
One of the sadder results of this development has been the steady
emergence and proliferation of what Gayle Rubin has called
"Paint-by-Number" BDSM----"Attach shackle A to wrist B...then do
this and say that," and "presto" you have a formula BDSM scene
that is about as inspiring and satisfying as the Mona Lisa in 6
One sees it routinely in public dungeon spaces.
And while all that was going on, something else was happening to
us in a completely different direction.
The politics of INCLUSION that became popular in the '80's in
leather organizations seemed to demand that we be consistent
about that, and so leatherfolks began to fight for a place at the
larger gay & lesbian table, chiefly at local pride events, and
national marches, too. Since mainstream gay & lesbian politicians
were already spouting off about INCLUSION, they felt logically
trapped into accommodating us despite their personal disgust with
our brand of sexuality.
The first big national success at doing that was at the March on
Washington in 1987. I, myself, carried a sign in that march that
proclaimed, "DIVERSITY IS AMERICAN". NewsPapers picked up a photo
of that sign and ran with it. I too, had become an apologist for
BDSM sexuality. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, but
today, I'm not so sure it was.
Much the same thing happened at the March in 1993----leather
folks demanded and were reluctantly given a place in the
The nightmare of trying to be included finally grew to
intolerable proportions in the most recent march: The March on
Washington 2-Thousand organizers were bludgeoned with the club of
Holy Inclusivity until they agreed to allow a "leather" speaker,
but by the time the March on Washington organizers finally became
willing to deal with us and our issues around that at the last
minute, no credible and experienced, nationally recognized
leather spokes person was willing to become their token
"inclusivity person" any longer.
I refused to speak at that march, Joseph Bean refused, Viola
Johnson refused, and even that year's IML, Bruce Chopnick
refused. And we all refused because we'd had it up to here with
the fight against being marginalized or turned into political
pawns by the vanilla, kink-o-phobic power fags and dykes inside
the Washington Beltway.
So this time, none of us lifted a finger to mobilize a big
leather presence at the March, as we had in the past. Sometimes,
one gains more from leaving the table, than by fighting to sit
there...something professional negotiators have always known.
Inclusion has been way over-rated.
(But to return to my thread): The energy of nearly all of our
organizations thus became harnessed to two main goals: 1) to
teach our own people how to do BDSM sexuality "properly" which
meant technically correct, and 2) to defend and seek tolerance
for our sexual practices to the non-kinky world...we did this
by adopting the mantra of "Safe, Sane, and Consensual"...and
we did our best to sell it to them...and to ourselves. And we
have done that for the last 15 years.
And we've done it despite the fact that, privately, some of us
know that lots of hot BDSM is anything but completely safe &
entirely sane. So, in order to have our sexual practices match up
nicely with our public propaganda, we essentially steered our
BDSM education along the most conservative and ultra safe
guidelines...and in doing so, we pulled much of the bite and
sizzle out of doing BDSM and sanitized it beyond belief!!!
It's no wonder that so many people are complaining that
leathersex feels "flat" to them these days, and are wondering,
"is that all there is?" Clearly, bunches of people are ready for
much more than Dungeon Masters permit in the over-supervised,
intermediate-level dungeons we see at events nowadays.
In a few short years, the basis for the growth of the leather
world had shifted from the un-spoken policy of quiet attraction
and careful screening that was at the very center of the Old
Guard world, to the policy of Proclamation... Promotion and
oh-so tolerant Inclusion that characterizes the New Guard. Listen
to the speeches given at any leather contest and this is the
party line that you will hear today.
It is undeniably true that one outcome of all of this has been
that, in the general public, awareness of kink has exploded since
that policy shift. One needs only to spend a week watching cable
channels on TV to notice that kinky themes are ever present in
situation comedies, "reality" TV, talk shows, and even in feature
films and TV movies.
Just last week on a network TV commercial, I saw a young boy
wrapping his little brother up in a toilet paper
mummification...I'm sure we can expect great things from that
kid someday...And I suppose that I can make a good argument
for the benefits of all that, but my god...at what cost to the
way we try to summon the pleasures and the gods of our special
The fact is that the Old Guard never gave a damn what outsiders
thought about what we did. They didn't care what other gays &
lesbians thought of us, and they certainly didn't care what
mainstream society thought either. It was never necessary to
defend ourselves against outsiders because we never did anything
that would bring us to their attention...and that policy left
us free to focus on what was really important to us---the
wonderful mysteries of Leathersex.
We knew damned well that vanilla gays & lesbians were never gonna
bless us for doing breath control scenes, and that the mainstream
het world would condemn us for stuff vastly less risky than
that!! Years later, I've now come back to not caring what
outsiders think of me or us, and I now know better than to
provide them with excuses to launch attacks at us.
Leaders of other minority groups learned long ago about the
dangers of pleading for acceptance from the majority, and we
should too. Like 12-step programs, I prefer a policy of
attraction rather than promotion-that's the best way to take care
of our own in my view.
It will be a cold day in hell when I beg anyone for a place at
the table again.
We are part of the miraculous pageant of humanity, and we need to
be very, very careful about explaining or defending ourselves to
anyone for any reason...ever again.
Last August, I was invited to deliver a keynote, and teach
classes at an event called DOMINION over in Florida...this is a
very cool gathering of het players who are primarily male
dominant and female submissive oriented. When it was over, I was
invited to sit in on the post-event discussions, which surprised
me, but I accepted anyway.
After about an hour of listening to how the organizers (all
dominant het men) felt the weekend went, they asked me how I
thought they could do outreach to gay and lesbian people---there
were only maybe five of us at the event. I heard myself saying
that I felt it was a mistake for them to do any outreach
whatsoever to gay men or lesbians---that they should keep it an
entirely het event---and I made my case for that. They were
stunned and very surprised, but saw clearly that I had a point.
So...maybe one way to re-infuse some of the mystique into
the Leather world is to stop yammering about it everywhere, and
stop trying to explain ourselves to people who've already made
their minds up about us anyway. It seems likely to me that we've
probably already created as much favor as we're going to out
there in the world. The Old Guard that I knew would support that
One way to put scenes back out onto the edge of people's comfort
zones where BDSM really crackles and sizzles is to have a far
more sophisticated conversation about what safety and sanity
REALLY means, and to restrict those conversations to people who
are competent enough to have them with...the Old Guard I knew
would support that.
One way to strengthen our communities might be to stop begging
mainstream gays & lesbians to accept our sexuality as being
within the normal range of human sexual expression, and simply be
out and proud of who we are and what we do, and tell our critics
to just flake off...the Old Guard I knew would go for that
The Old Guard I knew would choke if they knew what goes on on the
damned INTERNET. After they stopped laughing, that is. The fact
is that the Internet simply can not supply the face-to-face
settings wherein newcomers can watch, learn, and practice our
courtship and mating rituals...and NO amount of text or photos
can substitute for that.
ONLY in Leatherspaces is that possible...period. If we're
serious about community building, then we have to support people
connecting with other people in real time situations that do NOT
include the phones or chat rooms where people's hidden agendas,
personality disorders, and bullshit run riot.
Let us be clear about one thing: the Old Guard was very
EXclusive. This meant that leather culture back then was NOT
broad-based and was NOT inclusive.
Because if we are going to support Inclusivity, then we have to
be prepared to deal with thieves like the treasurer who embezzled
many thousands of dollars from the NLA treasury a decade ago---a
theft that left that organization's leadership very dispirited,
and from which that organization never fully recovered in my
If we are going to support Inclusivity, then we have to be
willing (as we have been) to overlook abusers who support leather
fundraisers, and yet have sent boy after boy to the hospital in
San Francisco- -the capitol of political correctitude. The Old
Guard would have run that person out of town years ago, just as
New Yorkers did with a psychopath there, not long ago.
If we are going to support Inclusivity, then we have to be
prepared to deal with the crap that tax evaders, predators,
thieves, users, substance abusers, gossips and liars (especially
those who do so in print) and the other energy vampires who bring
such crap into our organizations and institutions. And be willing
to watch as they slowly drain the energy out of the dedicated and
motivated people that we are so often blessed with.
Or, we can toss them out on their asses, and begin to demand that
people in our world behave like healthy grown-ups as the cost of
admission. But understand this: doing so means being willing to
take the heat for being EXclusionary, judgmental and elitist.
Diversity yes---Inclusivity at any price----Absolutely NOT.
I propose that this decade become our decade of Restoration. That
we dedicate ourselves to the tasks of taking care of our own in
some new and better ways...that we devote ourselves to achieving
a deeper and much more nuanced understanding of this sexuality
that we cherish so profoundly...that we support the
development of more functional networks of kinky grown-ups who
possess the maturity and level-headedness necessary to bring
renewed vigor into what we do and who we are...that we endorse
family values and vigorously oppose the actions of the those in
our midst who subtract from who we are, rather than add...and
that we recognize that love, intimacy, honesty, intensity,
accountability, family, and self-challenge are much more
important than achieving pin-point accuracy with every single
It may well be that to recover those valuable things that so many
feel have been lost, our world might have to undergo a period of
contraction as the pendulum swings the other direction. But, we
can think of that as a time of self-review...of renewal...of
Restoration of our values...of our honesty about who and what
we are...Restoration of appropriate boundaries to protect
what is sacred to us...and the Restoration of the leather
world as a functional family of grown-ups who really are
different and feel damned good about that.
Those of us who are privileged to influence the currents of this
river that we swim in, whether elected, chosen by judges, or
self-appointed, bear a special responsibility to really think
very carefully about the long term consequences of all that we do
in that role. To do that, we need to know, out loud and
concretely, exactly what assumptions our politics flow from. And
we need to subject those assumptions to very careful scrutiny
that's free from our own, personal agendas.
It's crucial that we keep our eye on the prize, and choose what
prizes we go after with great care.
I'm confident that we can do better for our people...and we
must...because they so richly deserve the very best that's in
And I can promise you that generations of unborn leatherfolks
will bless you for your efforts...
...and thank you for your trouble.
Guy Baldwin, M.S.