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7 min

What happened to queer men’s leather and BDSM?

Breathing new life into Vancouver queer culture

A QUEER ARCHETYPE: For many, the hypermasculine leatherman is the stuff of secret wet dreams. So why is he expressed so rarely in Vancouver? Credit: James Loewen photo (1979)

With over two million people living in the Lower Mainland, the queer men’s leather and BDSM scenes in Vancouver seem conspicuously small and frail even in comparison with those of our close neighbours in Seattle.

“There’s an old joke: What’s the hottest leather bar in Vancouver on a weekend? It’s the Eagle in Seattle,” says Douglas Gault, a longtime leatherman who, among other things, says he designed the sling room at F212. “There are all these guys who will go out in full leather in Seattle, but their friends in Vancouver never see them in it because God forbid anyone should think that they’re kinky.”

“Leather is so much fun and it’s sad,” says Michael Graf who works at the queer leather and fetish retailer Priape, and who outfitted most of the luscious models who posed for Xtra West’s cover story this issue. “I love watching younger guys come into Priape. They point and do the shy thing. You can see that they want to try it on. They want to come in and they want to have fun, but there’s so much stigma attached to it. Everyone is so goddamn serious about leather. When did it stop being fucking fun?”

Why does enthusiasm for leather and BDSM among queer men in Vancouver seem to be on the wan?

Times change, values change, and communities evolve. Perhaps with the legalization of gay marriage and the depiction of queer characters in entertainment media becoming so ubiquitous they flirt with the blasé, too many queer people have allowed themselves to be assimilated. What if the rebellion against straight society that is so clearly manifested in leather and BDSM imagery no longer holds the appeal for queer people it once did? Has the hypermasculine leatherman become an anachronism?

Donal Hebner, a longtime leatherman and manager of Priape, says he’s sure that assimilation plays a part, but he doesn’t think leather is on the way out anytime soon.

“I see assimilation to a degree with some of my friends who live in the ‘burbs, but I think that’s just environmental,” he says.

In fact, Hebner thinks that the straight world has learned a thing or two about sexual expression from queer culture. He credits the leather and BDSM scenes–that were developed by queer people for queer people–with helping straight people to explore more diverse dimensions of their own sexualities. It’s something he sees in the increasingly popular pansexual play parties in which sexual orientation seems almost irrelevant.

“Straight people are looking at the queer community and saying, ‘Sex is a natural human desire, condition and experience. It’s healthy.’ I think that because straight people are asking: ‘What do they know that we don’t? Why are queer parties so much fun?'”

Steve Glassel, a leather master and BDSM aficionado, agrees.

“If somebody’s not out, going to a pansexual event would seem more accepting and comforting to them than attending a gay leatherman’s event,” he says.

But assimilation doesn’t mitigate the raw masculinity and sexual appeal of the leatherman. The feel and smell of leather is still erotic and attractive to many queer men and wearing it makes people feel sexy, changing values be damned. And BDSM has always played a role in sexual expression, marriage or no marriage. A general shift in attitudes by and about queer people doesn’t explain why scenes seem more vibrant in other cities than they do in Vancouver.

Another possible reason for the flaccidity of Vancouver’s scene is HIV.

One of the cornerstones of leather culture, especially among members of the so-called Old Guard, is the idea of mentorship. It’s the notion that leather traditions are methodically passed from generation to generation as older men act as guides to younger ones. But with so many queer men cut down by AIDS over the last two-and-a-half decades, a generation of young men are left with less chance of finding mentors, and a generation of older men are either gone or carrying the emotional baggage that results from living through the first AIDS crisis. And Vancouver has comparatively high HIV prevalence rates, so the effect might be stronger here.

“We’ve lost a generation because of a lack of education, and I think we’re going to lose another one,” laments Glassel. “Definitely, that’s part of the situation.”

Glassel is alarmed, for example, by the number of queer men cruising on the Internet who boast of being BDSM tops or masters. He’s concerned that too many younger men are entering into sadomasochistic play with too little experience. As a result, he says, people are more likely to get hurt, the stigma against BDSM is reinforced, and those who are curious about it may be less likely to explore it.

Another thing that may drive the generations apart could be a perception among younger men that leather and BDSM enthusiasts are more likely to be HIV-positive. The stigma surrounding HIV may be, at least in part, projected onto leather and BDSM.

“A lot of younger guys think older guys and guys into leather are all pos and they’re scared of that” says Gault, who happens to be pos himself and who says he has a younger boyfriend who is HIV-negative. “They’ve got it in their heads that they could get infected, but when you’re playing properly there are rubber gloves and lots of condoms. There are very specific things everyone should do. Anyone could be pos.”

And when you think about it, BDSM could be among the safest forms of sexual play because there’s not always such an emphasis on swapping juices as there is even in garden variety vanilla sex.

“I do lots of things where I don’t even take my clothes off,” says Glassel. “Some BDSM clubs even have a rule that there’s no sex involved. It also has to be something that’s agreed upon.”

Perhaps some Vancouver men who are curious about exploring leather or BDSM might also be scared away because they worry that they will be taken advantage of.

Clearly, leather and BDSM are not necessarily linked. Many people love leather but have no interest in BDSM, and many people who are excited by BDSM have no interest in leather. Sexuality is as diverse as individuality, after all.

“I, for example, am completely monogamous,” says Graf. “I have one partner. I get off on leather and my own little kinks that I keep for myself. I still like to party in the raw energy, but at the end of the night I’m going home with my partner.”

Perhaps another reason leather and BDSM gives the unliberated the irrational willies could be unsophisticated perceptions about the psychology of leathersex, BDSM and interpersonal power dynamics.

Is someone who likes to be a BDSM bottom or slave–a masochist–really plagued by some horror in his past that drives him to seek punishment as a balm for his own self-loathing? Is someone who is tortured by personal demons that compel him to submit to pain and humiliation really only perpetuating a self-destructive cycle?

What about the top or master? Is someone who gets a sexual charge from inflicting pain and humiliation on others–a sadist–really only expressing long-standing resentments and frustrations born of some dark, early feelings of powerlessness and victimization?

Is all this talk of safety, sanity and consent really just a half-hearted attempt to paint a respectable face on the simple truth that some people get sexually excited by looking tough and dominating other people while others get sexually excited by being victimized?

“I think it’s healthy if a person wants it, it’s agreed upon and they know what they’re getting,” says Glassel. “If it helps them with an issue, helps them work through something, or it helps them expand their personal boundaries, that’s healthy.

“Some guys work out in the gym to the point where their muscles are coming apart,” he continues. “Why would they do that to their bodies? Other people exhibit potentially self-destructive behaviours in all sorts of ways. If it’s self-destructive in a way that you want to really injure yourself, or possibly kill yourself, that is a whole different set of situations.”

Glassel says the men who submit to him are often doctors, lawyers, corporate executives; men in powerful jobs and positions of authority. He says many of those men look to BDSM as a vacation, or cathartic release, from the pressures of always being in complete control and bearing ultimate responsibility.

When you think about it, an argument similar to BDSM-fetish-as-mental-disorder is often used to attack homosexuality itself. Why would a man want to have sex with another man unless he had a domineering mother and weak father, or unless he suffered sexual abuse as a boy? Why would a woman want to be with another woman unless she hates men? This is obviously a scurrilous line of sophistry.

As well as all these irrational stigmas, all the men Xtra West asked about weakness in the men’s leather and BDSM scenes in Vancouver alluded to one issue: political backbiting and maneuvering within the queer leather and BDSM communities that has become so unpleasant that few want to be involved in any organized clubs or social groups and those who are new to the scene are put off.

“The biggest problem in the leather community is intolerance,” says Graf. “Bikers say you shouldn’t wear leather unless you’re a biker, Old Guard say you shouldn’t wear leather unless you’re into serious leather play, the new guard are doing things against tradition and the Old Guard doesn’t like it. There’s all that clashing.

“In any subculture of any society, there are going to be those who choose to be leaders or have leadership thrust upon them who shouldn’t really have it,” continues Graf. “Right now I think that there is bad blood, bad feelings and bad karma among the people in the leather community who really need to realize that they all have common goals and need to work together. We need to have new people step up who are willing to do what’s necessary.”

What will it take to lure those new leaders and revitalize the leather and BDSM scenes?

Hebner, Graf and Gault say a series of well-run and stable leather parties and events would help. Glassel agrees, but thinks leather and BDSM also need some extra PR.

“For me the whole issue is education,” he says. “We need to teach people that leather and BDSM are not bad things. They are very healthy and natural expressions of diverse, queer sexualities.”

For those who might be curious about leather or BDSM–vanilla or raunchy–Glassel offers this advice:

“Keep an open mind. Have the strength that is within you. You simply have to tap into it to explore these things in a safe, sane and consensual manner. Find somebody who is going to respect you, who you can trust and who will work with you to help develop whatever it is you’re interested in.”