Friday, May 30, 2003

Minnesota’s Leather History

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #209, May 30, 2003)

“Daddy, where did the Minnesota leather scene come from?” Pull up a chair and Dad will take you through the history of leather in the Twin Cities and Minnesota year by year—more or less.

Before 1972: When I asked local leather pioneer Grant Tracy what the leather scene was like in the Twin Cities prior to 1972, he told me this: “There were no organized leather groups in the Twin Cities. There were always several people in leather at the old Sutton’s and on the fringes of the other regular bars. You’d go into a bar and there might be two or three guys wearing jeans and a t-shirt and a leather jacket. And then there would be guys from out of town, and you’d just run around and spend the weekend with them. But as far as places to go, there really weren’t any.”

1972: A truck driver from out of town convinces several other guys that they should all start a Twin Cities leather club. Things move quickly until the truck driver skips town with all the money from the club’s bank account. The remaining men decide that a leather club is still a good idea, but this time, according to Tracy, they “do it the right way, legally, with a charter.” Tracy and his lover David Berquam are among the men who sign the charter that establishes the Atons of Minneapolis. Later that year the club presents Aqua One, its first run.

1973: The members of the Atons find they can’t sustain the energy to present another run the next year.

1974: Atons membership dwindles, no one takes a leadership role, and for awhile it’s just guys hanging out in each other’s homes.

1975: In an effort to get more community involvement, the Atons open up their club meetings and hold a St. Patrick’s Day party that is open to the public.

1977: The Black Guard of Minneapolis, the area’s second leather club, is founded with six members. The new club helps the Atons present their Gopher III run.

1980: The Black Guard holds an Anniversary banquet at a restaurant called Richard’s. Fifteen people attend (including a female member named Nancy).

1981: Minneapolis sends two contestants to the International Mr. Leather (IML) Contest in Chicago, now in its third year. The Y’all Come Back Saloon sends Paul Fruehling, and local leather shop Goliath’s Leather Emporium sends Rick Bowler. Goliath’s also presents a leather fashion show at this year’s Black Guard anniversary banquet.

1982: IML contestants from Minnesota: Bob Bartels, “Mr. Leather Saloon,” representing the Y’all Come Back Saloon; Milo Smith, representing The Atons; Timothy Walloth, representing The Black Guard; and James Wells, “Minnesota Leatherman,” representing Goliath’s Leather Emporium. Also, The Black Guard presents its first Black Frost run.

1983: Kirk Soderholm represents The Black Guard in IML. Bob Jansen opens The Main Club in Superior, Wis., which will serve as an outstate outpost for the northern Minnesota leather community.

1985: The Knights of Leather, a women’s leather club, is founded in January with five charter members. Responding to the AIDS crisis, former Atons president George Moore holds the first local safe-sex seminar for the leather community.

1987: Bob Guttman represents the Atons in IML and attains the rank of semifinalist.

1988: Marcus Mack competes in IML as “Mr. Bottoms Up Leather/Levi ’87,” representing Bottoms Up Bar. He also attains the rank of semifinalist.

1989: The first Minnesota Leather Encounter (MLE) weekend is held in October. Saturday’s big event is the first-ever Mr. and Ms Minnesota Leather contests. Mark Cady wins the men’s title and competes in the 1990 IML contest, where he is a semifinalist. There are no women contestants and hence no women’s title is awarded.

1990: At the second MLE weekend, again in October, Dean Preston and PJ Knight are sashed as the new Mr. and Ms Minnesota Leather titleholders. Preston competes in IML 1991 while Knight competes in the 1991 International Ms Leather contest. Also, Pete LaSha is doing leather-community coverage for Gaze Magazine (Lavender’s forerunner).

1991: The last MLE weekend is held in October. Again, there is no women’s contest. Larry Patnoe wins the Mr. Minnesota Leather title and is a semifinalist in IML 1992. (J.D. Laufman is another Minnesota competitor in IML 1992.) Also, the Minnesota Leather Den, a second women’s leather club, is started.

1992: The Atons, Black Guard, Knights of Leather and Minnesota Leather Den cooperatively present the first-ever Leather Pride celebration the Sunday night of Pride weekend.

1993: Outpost 69, a short-lived St. Paul leather bar in the basement of Club Metro that is lit primarily by candles on the tables, is closed because people keep blowing out the candles (and then proceed to blow other things in the dark).

1995: It is the era of Sunday-afternoon leather fundraising events—some months there’s an event every Sunday. Future Lavender editor, the late Tim Lee, says some choice words about all these fundraisers in Issue #7 of his Demure Butchness zine: he touches off a round of leather-community discussion by describing them as “cookie-cutter.” He also questions the leather community’s acceptance and openness to younger people interested in leather. On a less controversial note, this year seems to be a time of new beginnings: TIES, the area’s first pansexual SM organization, publishes their first newsletter in May 1995 and holds their first monthly munch soon after. (TIES stands for “Tremendously Intense Erotic Situations.”) The Twin Cities Bondage Association is formed; it lasts about two years before being put on hiatus for lack of a hosting facility. Back in Black Leather (now Cellar Leather) starts selling by appointment only. And your humble columnist begins writing this column for the Twin Cities’ new GLBT publication Lavender Lifestyles.

1996: Back in Black Leather moves into the basement of Club Metro. The Twin Cities Bondage Association makes history at its “Camera Night” play party—the first time, as far as anyone had been able to determine, that images of a play party are simulcast over that new-fangled innovation, the World Wide Web. Sadly, the year ends tragically as The Main Club in Superior burns to the ground, killing two men.

1997: The Saloon opens The Tank, its Sunday-night leatherspace, in March. Club Metro institutes “Bootblack Leather Nite” on Thursdays. In May, Kevin Cwayna is the first man to bring the International Mr. Leather sash home to Minnesota. A new Main Club opens in Superior in July. SLAM (Sober Leather Association of Minnesota) forms. The Atons of Minneapolis holds its 25th Anniversary Run in September.

1998: The world’s largest leather-pride flag (as well as an equally big rainbow flag) make their initial appearance leading the Twin Cities Pride Parade. The Minneapolis Eagle opens its doors. The Twin Cities is home to another international titleholder as Thomas Smith wins the International Mr. Rubber 1999 title in Chicago.

1999: MSDB (“Minnesota Stocks, Debentures and Bonds”—read the initials backwards) is organized as a pansexual BDSM organization focusing on the presentation of training seminars and other educational events. Cori Ander brings yet another major title to the Twin Cities when she is named Ms. Olympus Leather 1999 in New Orleans.

2000: As part of the Midwestern LGBT College Conference, a “Coming to Terms with Radical Sex” seminar is held on the campus of St. Cloud State University; the topics are leather/SM and polyamory and the room is literally wall-to-wall people. It is the most popular breakout seminar of its time period and perhaps of the whole conference. Jazz Thomas, a/k/a Minneapolis resident David Coral, brings home the Mr. Olympus Leather 2000 sash to Minnesota. Queer Youth Exist is formed to act as “an education and safety group for youth under the age of 21 with an interest in BDSM, fetishism, or any queer or alternative culture.” (It is the Girl Scout Gold Award project of the group’s two creators.) In November, the Knights of Leather reorganizes as a pansexual leather club with seven charter members.

2001: MSDB presents its Dungeon 101 class, “Mistress Manners meets the Marquis de Sade.” Seminars are presented on dungeon etiquette and dungeon-master techniques. Also, The Cockpit Project opens, selling “luxury leather and latex.”

2002: The Black Guard celebrates its 25th anniversary, the Atons of Minneapolis celebrates its 30th. Rebecca Holmberg reprises her “Confessions of a Lesbian Dominatrix” stage presentation. The Twin City Riders, a gay motorcycle club, forms.

2003 so far: Pride Alive and the Minnesota AIDS Project sponsor a three-part leather discussion forum. Minneapolis Eagle owner Ed Hopkins opens a companion bar, The Bolt, next door. The first Spring Sting/Midwest Fetish Expo is held in April.

What’s next? Plans for this year’s Leather Pride festivities call for a kick-off event on Friday, June 20, followed by more than a week’s worth of activities leading up to the annual appearance (weather permitting) of the giant Leather Pride flag in the Twin Cities Pride Parade on June 29. Watch for further details, then come out and make some history of your own.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Lost Leatherspaces

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #208, May 16, 2003)

When I think of all the famous and fabled places of leather’s days gone by, and I realize that I will never (or never again) be able to experience them, it makes me a little sad. This was brought home to me quite vividly on a recent trip to New York City. My host (and former partner) Ken Binder, who moved to New York several years ago, pointed out to me that the leather scene in New York City, at least for gay males, is in a period of either decline (pessimistic view) or transition (optimistic view).

Much of New York’s leather scene has historically been in and around the notorious (and appropriately named) “meat-packing district,” which was the area south of 14th St. between 9th Ave. and the West Side Highway (now renamed the Joe DiMaggio Highway). The docks and piers that used to be cruising grounds have long been cleaned up, and the truck trailers that served as sex shelters haven’t been there for years. Fabled leatherspaces including The Anvil, The Mineshaft, The Ramrod and The Toilet (yes, it really existed) closed their doors long ago.

Until recently the meat-packing district still was home to several leather venues—but now all but one of these are gone, too. The Eagle and The Spike closed in 2000 (after 30 and 20 years, respectively). That left only Johnny-come-lately LURE (an acronym which stood for Leather/Uniform/Rubber/Etc.). But in April LURE also closed its doors after nine years of operation.

Recently, The Eagle reopened under new management a few blocks from its former location, making it currently the only leather bar in the area.

J’s Hangout, which recently closed, used to host a variety of sex parties; some of the parties have moved and some have disappeared with J’s. Neighboring establishments Hellfire Club and Manhole were forced out by their landlord, according to “Peter Boots’ Gay SM Leather Fetish Guide to New York City” ( Wallyworld, another sex-party venue, disappeared with the death in 1999 of local party impresario Wally Wallace, who was also associated with both The Mineshaft and later LURE. The meat-packing district has gotten so squeaky clean that, in Binder’s words, “Even the tranny hookers are gone!”

What happened? Until recently the answer was often politics, most recently in the guise of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to “clean up” (his words) or “sanitize” and “Disney-ize” (some other peoples’ words) New York City by tightening and enforcing regulations on sex-related businesses.

Fighting political battles is tough enough, but it’s almost impossible for leather to win economic battles, and money is what was at the root of the most recent round of closings. As one of the last remaining “ungentrified” areas on Manhattan, the real estate in the meat-packing district became too valuable. Buildings that used to house bars, dungeons and playspaces are now home to upscale restaurants, clothing shops and art galleries. Millions of dollars are being spent to turn the meat-packing district into the next Tribeca, which itself was the next Soho.

New York, like any major city, is constantly changing, but Binder is one of many who aren’t sure they like these most recent changes: “Even if I didn’t spend a lot of time at LURE or J’s Hangout, those kinds of places were one of the reasons I moved to New York. I was just glad to know those places were there—and now that they won’t be there, I’ll miss them.”

It’s not just New York’s leather scene that has been changing lately. Christopher Street, the epicenter of the Stonewall uprising that gave birth to modern gay culture, is no longer the gay mecca it once was. The Leatherman store is still there, but many of the other gay shops have closed. After dark, Christopher Street isn’t even a terribly safe area anymore, according to Binder: “On weekend evenings, young street thugs come in on the PATH trains from Jersey and take over.”

The gay life that used to be on Christopher Street moved north to Chelsea (between 14th and 34th Streets around 7th and 8th Avenues), a neighborhood that then went from rough and raw to buffed and beautiful with the influx of the city’s most gorgeous gay men. But now even that neighborhood is changing. Binder, who lives in Chelsea, says his condo building was until recently entirely gay-owned, “but all the recent sales of apartments in my building, apartments that were bought and fixed up by gay men, have been to straight couples who are pregnant.” I asked him where he thought the next gay neighborhood in New York would be, and he told me that the general feeling among gay New Yorkers is that there might not be one: “Maybe the concept has outlived its usefulness. As we become more accepted and integrated into the fabric of society, that’s what happens—there’s less need for a gay ghetto or enclave.”

These kinds of things are not unique to New York, of course. On San Francisco’s Castro Street, which has long been one of the most visible gay neighborhoods in the world, area residents must share the sidewalks with gawking tour groups. Many leatherfolk moved from the Castro to the South of Market area in the early 1990s only to have that neighborhood then stolen from them by the dot-com crowd—who later slunk out of town once the dot-com craze bombed.

By way of postscript: The unfortunate fact is that nothing lasts forever, and I will never be able to visit legendary places like The Catacombs in San Francisco or The Gold Coast (in any of its incarnations) in Chicago. But we can all be thankful that leather historians at The Leather Archives & Museum (<>) and elsewhere have made it a mission to collect and preserve memorabilia and pictures and stories of these wonderful vanished places.

Friday, May 2, 2003

My Ideal IML

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #207, May 2, 2003)

Last year at about this time I was contemplating my duties and responsibilities as a judge at the 2002 International Mr. Leather (IML) contest. I had the idea that it might be easier to make an informed and sound choice of the next IML if I had a very clear understanding and image of the qualities I felt an IML titleholder must possess. After careful consideration I made a list of those qualities. Then I tried to distill them all down into one word.

As a warm-up act for IML 2003 (the 25th anniversary! <> for details), here’s my list from last year presented as a thought-provoker and discussion-starter. This list is mine—yours might be different, so feel free to agree or disagree.

Profile of My Perfect IML*

1. Physical/Material Attributes

A. Looks: Attractive is a must. Beauty is nice, and built and buffed is nice, but sometimes those qualities can actually work against attractiveness. Attractive means approachable, not intimidating, so attitude is not what we’re looking for here. Nice eyes, good grooming and a winning, genuine smile contribute to attractiveness.

B. Age: Immaterial. IML can be 25 or 65. While age is immaterial, maturity is very definitely a necessity. IML should be old enough to be mature and young enough to have the stamina to do the job.

C. Education: A plus. But intelligence is more important. (See #2 below.)

D. Money: At the very least IML must possess the Basic 5 to which Guy Baldwin alluded in his speech at last year’s Leather Leadership Conference: job, home, car, telephone and enough disposable income. Looking at the reality of holding a title, the amount of disposable income needed is a significant consideration, along with the willingness to spend it on being IML. Holding a title should not be an honor that bankrupts the titleholder.

E. Status/Prestige/Social Position: Nice as long as they don’t interfere with attractiveness and approachability, but not essential.

2. Intellect

A. Level: My preference is higher as opposed to lower. More intellectual horsepower means a better representative for the community, one who is more able to deal appropriately with people, situations and ideas.

B. Use: There’s book-learning and there’s street-smarts. IML probably needs more of the latter than the former.

C. Wisdom: This is really what we’re looking for. Wisdom is intelligence used in the service of spirit or principles; this makes ideas a means to an end. The opposite of wisdom is intelligence used in the service of the ego, in which case ideas are used to measure self-worth and to impress others; the ideas become an end in themselves.

3. Interests

A. Hobbies: IML should be someone who is really into leather. That should go without saying, but some IML contestants are still new to the scene and inexperienced. While they probably won’t win the IML title, the experience of competing in IML can still be a priceless learning and growth opportunity for these contestants.

B. Work: IML needs an adequately paying job (see #1D above). But to be able to fulfill his obligations he also needs schedule flexibility and enough time off. IML should be “out” at work and have an employer who supports his holding the title.

C. Leisure time: IML should have lots, and be willing to give it up for a year. He should really enjoy being IML and thrive on it.

4. Values/Way of Life

A. Religion: Open to any or none.

B. Spirituality: An understanding of and interest in the spiritual aspects of leather would be an asset (see #7, below).

C. Ethics/Morals: An understanding of, respect for, and commitment to the leather community’s code of ethics and sense of morality is essential. Again, this should go without saying, but unfortunately the judges can’t necessarily count on it being present in every contestant.

D. Way of Life: Respect for the leather way of life is essential—except how do we define it? Who gets to define it? For example, does IML have to be a heavy player? Not necessarily, but he must be comfortable with and knowledgeable about that scene, since he will be a spokesmen for its devotees. IML must be able to represent all aspects of our way of life effectively and believably, even though he may not partake of all of them.

5. Psychological/Emotional Attributes

A. Capacity for intimacy: Essential. He must have the ability to be open and to share himself with others.

B. Emotional maturity and balance: The counterpart of the above. IML must have a well-developed sense of decorum, appropriateness and boundaries, so as neither to take advantage of others nor to be taken advantage of by them. In other words, for just one example, the position shouldn’t go to his head—he shouldn’t become a sex addict just because he can have his pick of the bar, and he shouldn’t feel he must sleep with everyone out of titular obligation. He must be comfortable with himself, self-assured, honest, and kind.

6. Creativity/Passion

These would be definite assets, obviously. IML must be able to be new, interesting, fresh, exciting, and novel.

A. Playfulness: IML must have the ability to laugh at himself and not take either himself or the title too seriously, at least not all the time. He will be the butt of many jokes during his title year and must be able to accept ribbing graciously.

B. Talents: He must be outgoing, able to meet people and schmooze comfortably, able to be “on” when necessary, comfortable on stage and in front of large and small groups, able to be the center of attention, to work a room, to command and hold a crowd’s attention.

C. Level of energy and joy: Must be high and boundless.

7. Spirituality

The man suited to be IML must possess a commitment to leather ethics and principles as well as to a path of truth, integrity and service. He should treat the title and the community with gratitude, realizing he has been given an extraordinary opportunity to play an important role in the community’s life.

8. Essence

IML doesn’t have to try too hard. He makes it look easy to be IML—and for him, it is. Former IML chief judge Thom Dombkowski has spoken about the King Arthur legend, the one knight who easily pulls the sword from the rock after all others have been unable to do so no matter how hard they tug. The selection of the new IML may seem similarly preordained, perhaps because on some level it is. It’s just up to the judges to recognize him when he shows up.

One word to describe My Perfect IML

Actually, I have two. As I made my list last year I decided the one word to describe IML was “Ambassador.” After last year’s IML judging process was over I decided that I needed to add another one-word description that I learned from my fellow judges: “Leader.”

Here’s hoping the judges at this year’s International Mr. Leather contest find their perfect IML.

(*The eight categories are taken from a list of the ways in which people relate contained in If the Buddha Dated by Charlotte Kasl—one of the best books on human relationships I have ever come across. Highly recommended.)