One of the most important figures in the development of the gay leather scene was Tom of Finland. That was the pseudonym used by the Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), who produced an enormous stream of erotic drawings of men (an estimated 3,500, which is probably low), starting in 1956.
Tom’s drawings featured handsome young men with exaggerated muscles and impossibly large dicks and nipples, ranging from men in tight suits to men in snug black leather to men mostly or completely naked. Tom’s characters were sometimes merely studies in the male body, but they increasingly featured in homoerotic or sexually-explicit activity. They strut and cruise for sex, ogle and grope each other, suck, fuck, and sometimes torture each other, in pairs, triads, and both small and large groups. Sometimes the images are explicitly about power exchange, boot worship, and the like. Many of his men wear leather fashions derived from WWII-era motorcycle soldiers. Some of his drawings are stand-alone images, while others constitute small, usually dialog-free, comic books in which a main character engages in some sexual exploit.
It’s incredibly hard for younger gay men to realize how revolutionary Tom of Finland’s work was at the time. In the 1950s and 60s, Western society largely embraced a very rigid set of rules about how masculinity could be performed. Men had to be stoic and emotionless, rugged, disinterested in their appearance, the lookers not the looked at, and 100% heterosexual. Homosexuals, when they appeared in the media at all, were depicted as pathetic, scrawny, ugly men who were either sexually predatory or effeminate victims (and sometimes paradoxically both at once). They were failed men, would-be women, utterly without any redeeming qualities except perhaps a sharp wit, and even that was coded as feminine. When they appeared in film, they had to be either victims or predators and they had to come to be bad end; the best ending a Hollywood sissy could hope for was a life of loveless misery and isolation.
Tom’s men subverted all of that. They were unabashedly homosexual (although very rarely, one of his characters will fuck a woman as well as a man). They subvert the looker/looked-at binary because Tom’s men parade and display their bodies and openly look at each other, thus reveling in the man as the object of desire. Unlike the limp-wristed ‘sissy’ of Hollywood, Tom’s men are undeniably masculine, with big pecs and big dicks and they walk with confidence. They exude strength and power. And they are happy. They enjoy their lives, they enjoy fucking, and they want to share their pleasure with those around them. If they are punished, it’s because they are trying to block or resist pleasure, and the punishment is always to be made to join in and discover just how good sex with other men can feel. Tom’s out-put is a literal orgy of attractive, happy gay men, cheerfully pleasuring themselves and others without shame, condemnation, or remorse.
It’s no wonder that he became increasingly more popular in the gay community as the 20th century progressed, and a majority of gay bars today probably have some image somewhere that is either one of his drawings or modeled on it. Tom offered gay men an alternative vision of themselves. Instead of being miserable freaks, they could be strong masculine men, and instead of being isolated and love-starved, they could find other men like them.
The result was that gay men began adopting the style Tom’s men sported. Tom’s drawings had a powerful influence over the evolution of leather culture. Kinky gay men began to wear leather in part because of how Tom presented it, and Tom’s depiction of leather continues to shape how leatherman dress. (It’s not the only source of influence however. Gay leather was also heavily influenced by the 50s biker community and both Tom and the bikers were reacting to developments in WWII military styles. Nazi uniforms definitely had helped inspire Tom’s style.) Tom’s physically robust characters also helped spur an interest in bodybuilding among gay men, although the real emergence of the buff gay man is a reaction to the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s.
I first ran across Tom’s drawings in 1988, while I was on my Christmas break during college. I wandered into a bookstore in a shopping mall and saw a folio-sized book of his art. To a still-closeted, still in denial gay guy, Tom’s drawings were mesmerizing. They got my dick hard instantly, but I was also attracted to his men as characters and to the freely-available sex they engaged in. I knew I wanted into that world, and I wanted the men in those drawings. I still do. My erotic imagination was still in its infancy, and those muscular, leather-clad confident men burned their way into my psyche and haven’t ever really left.
I wasn’t ready to admit yet why I was so attracted to those men, but they had a powerful impact on me nonetheless and once I found leather, I understood just how Tom had helped shape my life and still does.