Friday, September 20, 2002

Motorcycles and Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #191, September 20, 2002)

Why do motorcycles have such a hold on the imagination of the leather tribe? Why did last year’s International Mr. Drummer contestants make their entrances on bikes? Why are the Dykes on Bikes such crowd-pleasers at Pride parades? Because motorcycles are butch—they are probably the butchest form of transportation available to the average person without access to a tank, Stealth bomber or Humvee.

A romance (a very butch romance, mind you) is connected with the image of bikes, bikers and biker culture that was a seminal influence on the early leather scene (and that continues to influence leather culture to this day).

In post-WWII America, bikers were gangs of modern-day cowboys on their internal-combustion-powered stallions following the lure of the open road, independent souls who lived life as they pleased, adventurous rebels who followed their own rules rather than conform to society’s norms.

That reputation was splashed all over the silver screen in 1954 when Marlon Brando appeared in The Wild Ones wearing black leather and leading a motorcycle gang that terrorized a small town. The gang/rogue imagery was a bit intimidating and off-putting to most Americans.

This reaction was so pervasive at the time that motorcycle sales suffered as a result. Honda tried to counter that image by running ads full of clean-scrubbed, Ivy-League riders and non-threatening, upbeat Beach Boys-style voices singing “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”

Homosexual men returning from military service in World War II, however, embraced the rebel image—which fit their feelings of being rebels and outcasts from the rest of society. They used this image to build their own culture.

Gay male leather clubs like The Atons and The Black Guard in the Twin Cities grew out of gay motorcycle clubs like The Satyrs, founded in Los Angeles in 1954 and now the oldest continuously operating gay organization in the country. (News flash: a gay motorcycle club has formed in the Twin Cities—see below for details.)

Although most of heterosexual society was too polite to mention it, or was perhaps too repressed to even notice, the erotic appeal of bikes and bikers was not lost on gay men. The image of the biker represented masculinity and power (“My, look at that big powerful machine between your legs!”). A biker’s chaps were a perfect frame for interesting areas of the body both fore and aft. The experience of riding with a buddy, holding on to him or having him hold on to you, was a permissible public intimacy. One attraction of a bike couldn’t really be seen but could certainly be felt: the vibration of the engine on the areas framed by the chaps.

When I was just getting into leather, one of the most impressive sights I remember seeing on a visit to San Francisco was the long row of bikes parked outside the San Francisco Eagle. At closing time I stood in front of the bar and watched as each bike was mounted (notice the imagery) by one or maybe two men who proceeded to ride off into the night. The image fascinated me then and still fascinates me today.

No matter how fascinating motorcycles are, though, there’s no escaping the fact that they are not always the most practical method of transportation. One almost has to be something of a rebel and an outlaw, or at least stubborn, to ride a machine that has so many disadvantages.

Downside: Motorcycles are not cheap transportation—the bike itself can cost as much as a car, and then there are the accessories: helmet, saddlebags, and all that leather riding apparel. If you want cheap transportation, buy a used Hyundai. Upside: Bikes are cheap to operate, although few Americans riders care. In Europe people ride motorcycles or motor scooters because the streets are narrow and gasoline is much more expensive. In America, land of wide-open spaces and relatively cheap gasoline, those aren’t major considerations.

Downside: Motorycles offer no heating, no air conditioning and no weather shielding. That makes them spectacularly unsuited for places like Minnesota, where good days for riding are vastly outnumbered by bad ones. Winter is too cold and icy, and black leather can get awfully hot and sticky on a sweltering summer day. If it happens to rain while you’re riding, you have a choice: duck under a freeway overpass and get out the rain poncho (which is even hotter and more stifling than your riding leathers), or keep going and get soaking wet. Possible erotic upside: If the leathers, and you, are rain-soaked (or perhaps better yet, sweat-soaked) when you get home, perhaps there’s someone waiting there who will sensuously peel all that wet leather and other clothing off you.

Downside: A motorcycle actually produces more exhaust emissions than a car—if you really want to be environmentally friendly, ride a bicycle. Upside: Because there are so relatively few motorcycles on the road, the total emissions produced by motorcycles are basically insignificant in the overall air-pollution picture. Currently the government is more concerned with emissions from power lawn equipment and outboard motors.

Downside: Motorcycles obviously aren’t as safe as automobiles. Riding leathers and helmets offer some protection, but in a contest between the driver of a car (or an SUV or an eighteen-wheeler) and a motorcyclist, guess who’s going to get hurt worse? Upside: Of course, in some cases that very danger is part of the excitement and thrill of riding; in that sense, cycles can be looked at as another form of edge play.

Automobiles and motorcycles have been around for about the same length of time, but there are practical advantages to automobiles that have allowed them to become the basic form of personal transportation in this country. Motorcycles, meanwhile, are transportation that’s anything but basic. They’re fun, and they make any journey an adventure. Oh, and—did I already say this?—they’re butch, too.

Twin City Riders, a New Gay Motorcycle Club

A new gay motorcycle club called Twin City Riders is in the process of forming. They currently have five members and three bikes, and are looking for more of both. If you’re interested, e-mail

Friday, September 6, 2002

Bears Come Out of Hibernation at Trikkx

(Article published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #190, September 6, 2002)

It’s the Fourth Friday of the month, and that means it’s time for the North Country Bears’ monthly Bar Night at Trikkx in St. Paul. Officially things start at 7 PM, but by then the place is already reasonably full. People keep filtering in all evening, and by 8:30 the place is packed with both bears (masculine men with facial and/or body hair) and guys who aren’t bears themselves but who like their men masculine and furry. Average monthly attendance is 150.

The atmosphere is laid-back and mellow rather than boisterous. The noise level is low enough that conversation is actually possible, and the banter among the men is easy-going, friendly and familiar. There’s a pleasant lack of competitiveness and attitude. The pool table is busy all evening. There’s surprisingly little smoke in the air. For five dollars you get all the beer or soda you can drink, but the evening will end without anyone getting loud or obnoxious. The Trikkx kitchen is open and food is available; I order a burger and settle down to watch the action.

Trikkx owner Molly Kauffman is on hand looking relaxed and happy, glad to see that her guests are having a good time. She says of the Bears, “They’re just the nicest group we’ve ever hosted on a long-term basis. How could you not love such a cuddly bunch of guys?” Lars, president of the North Country Bears, returns the affection for Molly and the staff at Trikkx: “We just love ’em—they take very good care of us.” Lars especially compliments the Trikkx kitchen and says that the food at the North Country Bears’ upcoming holiday dinner is fabulous and not to be missed.

Who are these bears, anyway? According to Richard Bulger, original publisher of Bear Magazine, a bear is “a gay man whose disposition is rooted in contemporary male culture (decidedly not contemporary gay male culture) that emphasizes and celebrates secondary male characteristics such as beard and body hair.” Sure enough, a scan of the crowd reveals that most men have some sort of facial hair, and furry arms, legs, and chests are on display.

Some people might think that part of being a bear is being overweight and sloppy, but the crowd tonight disproves this. An entire range of bear body shapes is present, from short to tall and from reed-thin to portly—and there’s not a sloppy one in the bunch. (There are a lot of sexy ones, however.)

Specialized categories of bears include “cubs” (maybe youngish, maybe older, but definitely cuddly); larger, huskier, more mature men known as “grizzlies”; and striking white- or gray-haired “polar bears.” These categories were explained to me by Buck Bongard, who was wearing a black leather vest emblazoned on the back with “T.B.R.U. Polar Bear 2002.” “T.B.R.U.” stands for Texas Bear Round-Up—like the leather community, bear groups have yearly gatherings that include contests and titleholders. Many bears also participate in other gay male subcultures such as leather, rodeo, and country/western dancing.

What does a bear wear? Comfortable, casual, unremarkable guy stuff: the crowd sports mostly t-shirts (with a few polo or sport shirts) and jeans or jean shorts. Footwear is athletic shoes or hiking boots, and many of the guys wear baseball caps. Everything is clean and neat and no one is mixing stripes with plaids, but as long-time bear Gary Gimmestad points out, “It’s almost anti-fashion, or at least non-fashion.”

It’s also anti-drag, whether drag is construed as swishy and feminine (i.e. Radical Faeries) or hypermasculine and super-macho (i.e. leather), according to Peter Hennen. In his doctoral dissertation (“Gendered Sexuality in the Age of AIDS”), which deals with gay leathermen, Radical Faeries and bears, Hennen says that bear culture is about gay men “reconnecting with their regular-guy status.” Most bears could easily pass as straight guys, good ol’ boys, rednecks—except for the fact that bears generally dress and groom themselves better.

This ties in with another point Hennen makes: being a bear “is also a way for larger and hairier men to eroticize their bodies and to reclaim pride in them.” Bear culture is a reaction against the image of the shaved twink that prevails in so much of gay male culture, a declaration that it’s possible to be sexy even if you’re not young or totally smooth or don’t happen to have a swimmer’s build.

According to Hennen, the earliest account of gay men identifying as bears comes from Los Angeles in 1966, followed by loosely-organized bear groups in Dallas and Miami in the 1970s. But Gimmestad notes that in the 1980s bear culture “really went from 0-60” and became a recognized subculture because of the pre-Web internet and other forms of electronic communication, such as the old Outlines BBS in the Twin Cities. The image of the bear has now spread around the world, with bear groups in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and even Turkey.

Bears are very social animals. In addition to their monthly bar night at Trikkx, the North Country Bears’ calendar is full of many other activities, including a weekly Bears Coffee Night and Bears Dinner, both on Wednesday evenings. Check out the calendar and subscribe to their e-mail newsletter at, or call the North Country Bears Info-Line.

Share a Bear with Kids in Crisis

In October and November the North Country Bears are holding their annual Teddy Bear Roundup. The Bears will be accepting donations of new or slightly used teddy bears (or other stuffed animals of any size). These bears will be delivered in the name of the North Country Bears to the County Sheriff’s Patrol “Crisis Bears” program. As the Sheriff’s Patrol responds to emergency calls, they will have the bears available to be given to children in crisis.

Lars of the North Country Bears recalls being very moved when the teddy bears from last year’s Teddy Bear Roundup were donated to the Sheriff’s Patrol: “The guy who showed up from the Sheriff’s Patrol was just overwhelmed! It was so touching I almost cried. We helped make life better for a lot of kids.”

Teddy bears can be donated at the Bear Bar Nights at Trikkx on October 25 and November 22. Further information is available by contacting Arthur Finnell at

PHOTO: Buck Bongard (left) and Jack Erickson at a recent North Country Bears bar night at Trikkx.

Leather Cellar vs. The Cockpit Project

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #190, September 6, 2002)

Not too long ago, when a Twin Cities leatherman or leatherwoman wanted to do some serious leather shopping, the first thing they did was get on a plane. I used to shop at leather stores in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, because there wasn’t an actual leather store in the Twin Cities.

Now there are two: Leather Cellar and The Cockpit Project. Where did they come from, and how do they compare? After discussing each store separately I’ll examine the larger leather retail picture.

Leather Cellar

Leather Cellar started life in 1996 as Back in Black Leather and later was known as Fit to a T Leather. Located in the lower level of the late Club Metro, it was the Twin Cities’ first real, live, honest-to-goodness leather store. After going through a series of name and ownership changes, and a location change due to the closing of Club Metro, Leather Cellar is now located at 2315B Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, below the Shoe-A-New shoe-repair shop.

Co-owners Jennifer Langland and Lars and Mark McCrary are building on and fine-tuning the formula that served Back in Black and Fit to a T Leather so well: a comprehensive, well-rounded selection of quality leather and leather-related merchandise.

For anyone who was ever in the Club Metro store space, the new location will feel familiar and comfortable (“except that people can no longer shop with a drink in their hand,” notes Langland). Glass display cases and counters hold jewelry and smaller items. Apparel is displayed on the walls and on racks in the remaining floor space.

In addition to leather/kink/fetish apparel (for both men and women) and a wide selection of dungeon gear, the merchandise mix includes T-shirts, gay- and leather-pride items, and toys and novelties. Fellow leather lesbians told Langland they didn’t like shopping for “adult” novelties at sex shops (they described the stores’ atmosphere as “slimy and disgusting”). Langland takes pride in having created a comfortable, welcoming and non-intimidating retail atmosphere for her customers.

Stores hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 7 PM. In addition to their storefront location Leather Cellar is carrying on its tradition of displaying and selling merchandise at area nightspots. You can find them on Sundays at The Tank (the leatherspace in the backroom of The Saloon), Over the Rainbow on Mondays, Lucy’s on Wednesdays, Trikkx on the second and fourth Fridays of every month, and The Minneapolis Eagle on Fridays. (Hours at each location are 9 P.M. to closing.) Call Leather Cellar for more information.

The Cockpit Project

Step into The Cockpit Project (3015 Lyndale Ave. S.) and you’ll feel like you were instantly transported to Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris. House/trance music pumps and pulses as it fills the narrow, sleek store. At the front of the store, sales clerk Justin stands behind the cash register in front of an amazing piece of contemporary art (a pair of chaps, rear view) by Richard Luka. The predominantly black leather is set against clean white walls and fixtures with accents of bright yellow and shiny chrome. The space, inspired by a trip to Europe, was designed by co-owners Wil and Molly. Wil says they liked the openness of European attitudes toward sex and designed their store to “open things up and take the smut out of sex.”

The self-described purveyor of “luxury leather & latex” has an interesting merchandise mix that includes top-end fetish apparel from cutting-edge designers along with serious dungeon gear and accessories. There are a few educational and artistic leather books but no porn; Wil explains his customers “know they aren’t coming to a sex shop.”

In keeping with its European decor, The Cockpit Project is the exclusive dealer in the United States for several lines of leather from all over Europe, including Poland and Amsterdam. To name just one: Wil is proud to carry apparel by David Spain, a designer from London who creates fabulous fantasywear in combinations of leather, metal and lycra.

Wil and Molly were selling this kind of merchandise at Lava Lounge for over five years before opening The Cockpit Project. Wil says that means he’s had plenty of time to “weed out the bad suppliers and keep the good ones.” That also means The Cockpit Project has access to a network of sources and suppliers for alterations and custom creations, whether fetish apparel or dungeon equipment.

The Cockpit Project is open Thursday-Saturday from noon to 8 PM and Sunday from noon to 6 PM or by appointment. Call for more information.

So, Where to Shop?

To limit the question of “where to shop?” to these two leather stores is to miss the larger leather retail picture, which includes shopping-mall leather stores like Wilson’s for apparel (good luck finding a bar vest at Wilson’s, though) and area sex shops for toys and accessories. And then there’s the mind-boggling array of merchants selling on the Web, which has made leather and other kink/fetish-related merchandise easier than ever to find and to buy.

But while websites in some ways bring buyers and sellers closer together, in other ways they keep them maddeningly farther apart. In effect I must order (and pay for) that leather jock or flogger while it’s still inside that glass display case known as my computer screen. Then, in a couple of days or weeks I will finally be allowed to judge the actual item and see how it feels—or if it actually fits. (With my mail-order shopping luck, it probably won’t.)

It’s much more efficient to have an item in front of you, inspect it, feel it, and try it on or try it out. It’s nice to deal face-to-face with helpful merchants and sales clerks who know the merchandise. They are experts who can offer the kind of valuable advice, feedback and recommendations you can’t get from a website.

How do Cellar Leather and The Cockpit Project compare? Some of the differences between them arise from the selection of merchandise each store carries. For example, The Cockpit Project sells latexwear while, at least at this writing, Leather Cellar does not. Leather Cellar, being gay-owned, sells gay- and leather-pride merchandise that The Cockpit Project doesn’t offer.

But despite their differences, both businesses are locally owned. Both are intensely focused on, driven by, and committed to their customers. Both base their merchandise selections on what their customers want and request. Both are competing earnestly for your leather dollar.

Who wins the competition? You do. You have two great stores that can satisfy all your leather/fetish needs, and you don’t even have to get on a plane. Visit them both. You’ll undoubtedly find plenty you want—and even need—at both places.