I became a leatherman on May 18, 1993. That’s the day when Torie Osbourne, the Executive Director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) in Washington, D.C., announced the so-called “mainstreaming” of gay politics – a policy largely defined by its aim of presenting an “acceptable” gay image to Middle-America.

I was living in California, and while I spent much of my free time at leather bars and dives – a world vastly removed from the corporate existence I was living at the time — I never considered myself part of the leather community per se, despite having developed friendships that crossed both halves of my life.

But the 1993 announcement, effected in part by the invulnerability many gay politicians felt during the Clinton Administration, signalled as sudden schism in the LGBT community: The official side-lining of any fringe group, however important they were to the cause, in favour of focus-group likeability.

“Thanks for where you got us,” the politicians seemed to say. “Let us take it from here. We know how to play the game.”

Certainly, one can argue how successful those politicians were (particularly when you consider their one major contribution was the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” resolution), but one thing was certain. When times were tough, as they were during the Reagan years, we walked arm-in-arm, brother and sister. But when the atmosphere softened, so did our grip.

For me, sides had been drawn by the NGLTF and it was time to choose a side.

Living on the fringe…

“The one good thing about operating on the fringe,” Alan Selby, a well-known leather activist, used to say, “is that the traffic is lighter. It’s easier to manoeuvre.” The fringe’s ability to manoeuvre outside of the political centre, a tangle of compromise and debated truths, has often allowed them to take the boldest steps toward social transformation.

From New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969 to Johannesburg’s Forest Town Party raid a year earlier, it was the fringe – the drag queens, the leathermen, the social outcasts – who simply had nothing to lose in the face of institutional injustice. With no one to defend them, they defended themselves, and in doing so, sparked the empathy and outrage of other gay men and women throughout the world. And from it, a cause was born.

From its earliest days, the leather community has had a history of activism, often in stark contrast to the social detachment and misogyny generally associated with the group (and occasionally propagated by its own members.) Leathermen, at least many I’ve known, accept that their choices are different, wavering on the outer boundaries of acceptability, but have ultimately made a conscious decision not to compromise; not to meld into the grey middle-ground, or mitigate who they or what they believe in, however unpalatable or politically incorrect.

And that doesn’t extend to just attire or sexual expression. In 1969, Reverend Troy Perry, a self-described Baptist leathermen, un-accepting of his church’s anti-gay stance, founded the multi-denominational Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) with specific outreach to the LGBT community. Today, there are over 250 MCC congregations in 23 countries, with an Official Observer status on the World Council of Churches.

In the 1970s and early-80s, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose sadomasochistic leather portraits and self images drew the ire of the conservative groups, forced several constitutional battles over the issue of government censorship and the right of artistic expression (including one posthumous trial that invoked, ironically, the same Act that failed to stop the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.)

Today, Mapplethorpe’s works are among the most prized in museum collections, and in 2006, a Mapplethorpe portrait of Andy Warhol became the sixth most expensive photo ever sold.

During the AIDS crisis in the early-80s, leathermen regularly took the lead in community action, despite the vilification of mainstream gay and lesbian groups, who often blamed the leather community’s “excessiveness” for the spread of the virus. In 1982, the AIDS Emergency Fund was founded by a group of San Francisco leathermen, and is today among the most successful community-based HIV organisations in the world, having raised in excess of $25 million (R175 million) for direct-client services.

And the same strides are still being made today, even as many proclaim the culture dead. In 1997, the documentary, Sick: The Life and Death of Supermasochist Bob Flanagan won a Special Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. In 2004, Fred Halsted’s gay leather porn classic, L.A. Does Itself, was archived in the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And in 2007, over 300,000 leather men and women descended upon San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, the most ever for the Leather Pride event, now in its 33rd year.

Where we stand…

So much of who we are is connected to how we see ourselves and the ways in which we choose to express that image. And perhaps there is a contradiction to the idea of self-expression through uniforms and codified behaviour. Certainly, to many, the leatherman attire is, in itself, an unsettling evocation of a hyper-masculine brutality. To others it’s archaic; to some, a cartoon. All of these things we concede.

But at its heart, beyond the sexual iconography and sadomasochistic overtones, leather is about geography. It says that we not only stand outside, but exactly where we stand. That we, as individuals, don’t necessarily concede to the moral boundaries that others consider fixed and inflexible. That there is a shared ideology outside of the larger LGBT collective to which we, as leathermen, still remain a part.

That doesn’t mean that we’re all into whips-and-chains (few that I know are) or that we’re promiscuous, self-loathing, drug-addled maniacs. (How Boys in the Band is that?) Nor does it mean that we’re not contributing members of society, or without empathy or humour or committed, loving relationships.

From my perspective, I don’t even wear leather all that often and that’s ultimately the point. Uniforms do not make you who you are. They simply signals to others where you choose to stand when you choose to stand.

This is why, in 1993, I chose the side that I did. To stand outside, to question fixed values. And to honour those who have effected often-vast social change by not being acceptable.

That is why I’m a leatherman. That is why we are all leathermen.

James Myhre

James Myhre is a Johannesburg-based writer and founding member of SAleathermen. SAleathermen has announced plans for its upcoming REDEMPTION Ball on Easter Saturday, March 22nd at CCHQ in Germiston. For more information or ticketing details, visit www.saleathermen.org.za.

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