Friday, August 18, 1995

The Leather Community—Myth and Reality

(Published in Lavender Lifestyles Magazine, Issue #6, August 18, 1995)

Recently I was comparing leather philosophies with an experienced leatherman who was visiting from New York City. When the conversation turned to solidarity, relationships and politics in the leather community he seemed to feel that these concepts are paid a lot more lip service than they’re worth. At one point he made a comment to the effect that “If I hear one more person talk about their leather family I’m gonna puke.”

I’m going to try to write this column so he won’t need a barf bag if he reads it.

It’s been a little more than two years since the first time I went to a leather bar and felt I belonged there. In those early months, I was amazed and delighted to find how welcoming people were. I owe a lot to those people who (literally and figuratively) “showed me the ropes,” explained how the community works, and introduced me to their friends, who introduced me to their friends.

Now I find myself doing the same kinds of introductions for others who are going through their second “coming out” and joining the leather community. I’m now answering the same questions I remember asking not too long ago. For example, in the past week I’ve had the same conversation with two different people when they asked: “Where’s the best place to buy leather around here?”

My involvement in the leather community has led to my developing a “leather family” that seems to keep growing. It includes people from the Twin Cities and from everywhere else. I feel blessed to have such a family. As with all families it’s not unvarnished wonderfulness, but it’s still very satisfying.

Often I hear members of the radical right talking about their idea of “family values” and I feel like I’m gonna puke. But maybe the romanticized idea of a “leather family” (from which my New York friend was recoiling), or the romanticizing of the leather community in general, is our version of this myth, in which we’re all noble, stalwart, good-hearted souls and everyone always gets along with everyone else. On some level this is what everyone is looking for, whether they’re in leather or not. But it doesn’t exist.

The unromantic truth about the leather community is this: Leather can make us better, more honest, more compassionate human beings. But so far it hasn’t made me, or anyone else I know, perfect. People in leather are still human, and are still subject to the same human glories and shortcomings as anyone else. We may be different in that we wear leather (or other fetish wear) and are into varying degrees of alternative sexuality. But among leatherfolk I am going to see the same gamut of personalities, and of personal strengths and dysfunctions, that I see in other segments of society.

The philosophy of the leather community encourages honesty, integrity, personal strength, and respect for oneself and others. Many in the leather community try to live by those principles; some don’t. Just because someone is wearing leather does not guarantee they will be a wonderful person. A jerk who puts on leather is still a jerk.

Looking with unclouded and unsentimental vision at my “leather family” and the friends I’ve made in the leather community, I see quite a few who have alcohol or drug problems. I see people in abusive and violent relationships. I see people who desperately want a committed relationship but can never find one that works. I see politics, rivalry and power struggles. I see people with AIDS who are miserable, and I see people with AIDS who are living life to the fullest. I see people who are stable, who have forged lives that work. I see leaders who have an innate nobility about them. That’s my leather family. And I love them and care about them all.

If a person newly into leather expects to find a totally harmonious community, and a leather family who will make up for all the shortcomings of their family of origin, they will probably be disappointed. But if we don’t imbue leather with this magical power to make people something they’re not, we can look at people honestly and accept them as they are. We will naturally gravitate toward people with whom we feel a kinship. We will find ourselves part of a mutually satisfying leather family. And we’ll understand what’s truly valuable about the leather community.

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