The image of the gay leatherman is one that has long been shrouded in contradiction. On the one hand, it’s become part of our sexual vernacular, the evocation of a hyper-masculine ideal popularised in such films as The Wild One (1953) and Cruising (1980)¸in the graphical artwork of Tom of Finland, and in both underground and mainstream gay porn.

On the other hand, it has regularly provoked the ire of many in the GLBT community for what is seen as its sexual excessiveness, its often misogynistic and deeply codified fraternal order, and the assimilation of brutal, neo-fascist imagery into its both rituals and attire.

But times have changed, and with the passing of the so-called “Old Guard,” there has been an emergence of what many are calling the “New Leather,” a movement that integrates many of the symbols and practices of traditional leather culture, while embracing diversity, inclusiveness, and community visibility.

It’s this sense of community, open and cooperative, that defines the newly founded SAleathermen, a national organisation of gay/bisexual men interested in exploring or participating in a leather/fetish/BDSM lifestyle. Conceived in early-July by a group of friends in a Greenside living room, SAleathermen already boasts over 150 members in Gauteng, with plans to extend its reach to long-standing members in the leather community throughout South Africa.

The group’s Executive Committee itself reflects the diversity of its membership: a leather entrepreneur, a screenwriter, a doctor, a businessman. By emphasising that there’s not “one rule” that binds the gay leather culture, SAleathermen hopes to attract a new generation of members through social interaction, open dialogue, one-on-one and group mentoring, and private, member-only meetings and events.

Changing attitudes

Not that changing attitudes will be easy. The organisers readily acknowledge that the one thing that unites its membership is the shared interest in so-called “leather sex,” a broad spectrum of sexual activities that range from fetishism (attributing sexual qualities to inanimate or non-sexual objects) to what many considered to be “extreme sex” (bondage/domination, sado-masochism). To many in the population, sex on any level remains a highly discomforting subject, even more so when a sexual act falls outside of the commonly accepted cultural norm. As a result, many still equate “leather sex” with “forbidden sex” – a pursuit best kept in the closet and away from public scrutiny.

“It’s an attitude we see a lot,” say Pieter van der Merwe, a Pretoria-based psychologist who has been involved in the leather culture since the mid-90s. “Recently, some friends came back from Europe, saying how great it was to stay at the Black Tulip (leather hotel) in Amsterdam or to have sex at Keller’s (leather bar) in Paris. When I asked them why they never bothered to drag out their leathers here, they replied, ‘We never shit in our own garden.’ It says a lot about how people view not only leather sex, but sex in general.”

To many, the idea of openly exploring and discussing extreme sexuality remains a daunting psychological hurdle, even for those who frequent local sex clubs where “don’t ask, don’t tell” is often the unspoken rule. As a result, insecurity and discomfort is often turned outward in the form of derision, ridicule, or suspicion.

The leather community has long been a target of this, with some of the harshest response coming from the GLBT mainstream. When William Friedkin’s admittedly overheated Cruising premiered in 1980, gay and lesbian activists called for a boycott of the film, vehemently disavowing a “fringe group” they believed to be politically distasteful; one that bolstered negative stereotypes of gay men and women in general. (Today, many of the same critics credit Cruising with introducing the first masculine portrayal of gay men at time when the effeminate, self-loathing stereotypes of Boys in the Band were in vogue.)

Later, during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-80s, the leather community was again vilified by gays and lesbians who decried the “promiscuity” of its members (despite the fact that BDSM and other types of leather sex have an extremely low risk of HIV transmission.) Even in the early-90s, when gay politics hit its stride, the leather community was once again sidelined in the effort to “mainstream” the gay movement; to present an “acceptable” face to the heterosexual population-at-large. In the strategic shuffle, many leather activists were supplanted from the very organisations they founded. (The most glaring example of this was at San Francisco’s AIDS Emergency Fund, an organisation founded exclusively by leathermen, which had raised over R170 million for community-based HIV care, yet was gutted of its leather leadership in the mid-90s.)

“Leather is a culture”

It’s these negative perceptions that members of SAleathermen hope to overcome by following in the footsteps of groups like the Satyrs Motorcycle Club (Los Angeles), MSC London, Golden Gate Guards (San Francisco), the Vancouver Leather Alliance, Centaur MC (Washington, D.C.), and the Spearhead Social Club (Toronto) – organisations that work, hand-in-hand, with the larger GLBT community, while remaining true to their cultural/sexual roots.

“And leather is a culture,” insists James Myhre, a spokesman for the organisation. “If you look at a group like the Satyrs, who have been around since 1954 and continue to expand their membership, you understand that there’s more than just a sexual draw that hold these clubs together. There’s a shared bond, a culture. And as with any culture, leather continues to evolve and change as new, younger voices are brought into the fold, adding their own points-of-view and experiences.”

SAleathermen hopes to dispel many of the social and ageist stereotypes by organising monthly socials, providing a friendly, private venue for the uninitiated to meet with leather “veterans” of all ages and backgrounds. The first event, an inaugural beer bust/braai, will take place on Saturday, 4 August from 15h00 to 20h00 in Westdene.

For more information about SAleathermen (including details about the August social, as well as upcoming events, outings, and members-only “play parties”) email saleathermen@hotmail.com or contact James at (082) 413-5365.

Ludley Burke

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