Friday, August 3, 2007

Leather’s Next Generation

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #318, August 3, 2007)

“Where are the young people in the leather community? Where’s the new blood? Where’s the next generation?” Over the last few years I’ve participated in many discussions centering around these questions, and I’ve written at least a few columns that touched on them. I thought they were good and worthwhile questions to ponder, and ponder them I did. But did I have an answer? Nope.

Now I think I might, at least partially. But the answer I think I’ve discovered isn’t what I would have expected.

The series of questions above are presented as three aspects of the same question, But they really aren’t as related as they seem. If we as a community assume they are, we will not be doing ourselves any favors.

Since the beginning of the year I have been quite pleased to see several new faces at leather events. I have talked to many of these individuals, asking who they are and what brought them to that particular event. After hearing several similar stories I have come to realize a few things about the future of our community.

I’m happy to report I don’t think leather is in danger of dying out anytime soon, any more than the GLBT community will be disappearing. In both instances, every day more community members discover and claim their membership. The process has been going on for some time now in both communities, and I believe it will continue.

But while the age at which people identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender seems to be getting younger, it appears to me this is not what’s happening with leather. If anything, judging solely from the new faces I’ve seen in leather recently, many people are finding leather later in life. That’s not what I personally would have expected, but that seems to be what I’m encountering.

Now that I’ve noticed this, I guess it stands to reason. Major life changes offer people opportunities for reassessing their personal history—where they’ve been, what they’ve done, where it’s gotten them—and perhaps making some course corrections. The kids are grown; a job disappears; a relationship ends; suddenly there’s a freedom and an opportunity to explore parts of oneself that formerly, for one reason or another, couldn’t be explored. The start of my leather journey was triggered by just such a major life change, and I’ve talked to many others who can say the same thing.

But these kinds of life changes don’t—can’t—happen to people in their twenties. People in their twenties can’t be empty-nesters. They can’t end a decades-long relationship because they haven’t lived long enough to have one.

Many, many years ago, your humble columnist came out as a gay man at age 19. I didn’t get into leather until I was 37. Getting into leather took me almost twice as long as coming to terms with my gayness.

People discover leather when they’re ready to discover it. Some people do it early, others do it later. Fortunately, there’s no rush—leather is one of the few communities where “sexy” is not necessarily linked to “young.”

But even though our community prides itself on not being age-discriminatory, when we expect and assume our community’s “new blood” and “next generation” will be young people—isn’t that being a bit ageist? While we’re busy wondering where the younger folks are, and worrying about reaching them and bringing them into the fold, we might be overlooking many, many people who may not be young but are certainly interested and enthusiastic.

Perhaps it’s time we realized that “new blood” can be any age, and started to think a bit differently about the future of the community and how we reach out to leather’s next generation.

For many years, one of the guiding principles of twelve-step recovery programs has been “attraction, not promotion.” Noted leather author and speaker Guy Baldwin has suggested that this same principle be applied to leather, and I second the motion. Rather than trying to figure out how to get a younger crowd interested in leather, wouldn’t our community be better served by simply 1) being who we are, and 2) being visible? If we do those two things, we will attract people—of all ages—who like what they see in us and want to join us.

At that point it doesn’t really matter what mileage is on someone’s odometer. Once they realize they’re interested in leather—when they’re 20 years old, 40, 60, whatever—what they need and want is someone willing to welcome them, show them the ropes and explain how leather works. If they are provided with that, they will be part of the future of leather.

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