Leather Bolero Jackets and the Weight of the Past

Yesterday a gay elder I follow on Twitter tweeted about what he considered to be improper leather fashion. He complained in rather rude terms about high-waisted leather jackets that weren’t designed for riding, deriding them as ‘girly bluff bolero’ jackets because their waistline was too high. The post was angry and had more than a little One True Way about it, but he phrased it as his ‘pet hate’. If you care, you can see the original Tweet here: https://twitter.com/dgbastide/status/1256956323951976449

This morning, perhaps predictably, I woke up to discover there was a Tempest in the Twitter Teapot about that post. He was receiving a lot of pushback about it, mostly (but not totally) from younger gay men who were pointing out that “this is why so many younger guys prefer rubber over leather”.

They were, quite reasonably, objecting to his One True Way approach to leather. They disliked the gate-keeping implicit in his post. Some of the responses, though, came close to telling him to just shut up, suggesting that he didn’t have a right to his opinion. One younger guy I vaguely know on Twitter asked why this even matters to the original poster. Why does he care about how total strangers wear their leather?

I have chatted with the elder in question just a little bit in the past year or so. I don’t claim to know him, but I have read some rather moving posts he’s made online. And I wanted to make a point about this whole incident. I want to emphasize that I am in no way speaking for him, nor am I even really trying to defend what he said. It was pointlessly confrontational and looked a lot like an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. I have no idea what prompted him to post it. But I can see a lot more going on in that post than most of the younger guys were seeing in it, namely the AIDS Crisis.


This elder grew up in a period when gay men were objects of contempt and scorn who often risked violence and arrest simply for trying to love the people they loved. He lived in a time when loving another man was a literal crime in most parts of the world. But he found the courage and strength to push past that public hatred and begin connecting with other gay men. He also found the courage to explore BDSM, which in the 70s and 80s mostly meant the leather subculture. Shared adversity and the need to support each other from the outside world made the leather scene about much more than sex. For many it was a place of bonding, brotherhood, and support. Many leathermen used leather to craft a self-identity that celebrated their strength, their masculine beauty, and their moral worth, at a time when mainstream culture insisted that gay men possessed none of those things. The idea that there was a right way to wear leather emerged in part because this was such a crucially important practice for them. They were breaking all the rules of mainstream society, and they needed to create new rules, a framework that could support them like bone when the rest of the world mocked and spit on them.

And then the AIDS Crisis came. Because leathermen celebrated the value of casual sex (in defiance of the rigidly monogamous sex demanded by most of the heterosexual world), AIDS hit the leather community hard. It plowed through leathermen like a pick-up truck speeding through a street fair. In the major metropolitan areas, gay men died in their thousands in the 80s and 90s. (For decades it was the leading cause of death in San Francisco. The New York Times recently celebrated its first week without any AIDS obituaries.)

And the mainstream world by and large didn’t give a damn. Straight people, including elected officials, sniggered about gay suffering. They told jokes about Anally-Injected Death Serum, suggested that it was God’s righteous vengeance for sin, and demonstrated that they thought gay life was worthless.

The gay men who lived through the Gay Holocaust* in one of the major gay communities have horrifying stories to tell. They talk about going to funerals every day. They talk about having address books with more dead numbers than active ones. They talk about watching beautiful young men turn into walking skeletons. They talk about wondering if that unfamiliar bruise they found on their body was the first sign they were going to die. A friend of mine moved away from Philadelphia but moved back a decade later; after he moved back, he ran into someone who was shocked to see him alive because this casual acquaintance had assumed he had died of AIDS simply because my friend had disappeared from the gay community and that was the logical assumption to make.

The men who survived the Gay Holocaust have scars. Deep ones. Many suffer from Survivor’s Guilt. They carry the weight of all their dead friends around with them. They think about all the promise and talent and potential those men had and how brutally that was snuffed out. Some of them drink excessively, or they shoot up, or they flirt with suicide, because they need such self-destructive things to help them manage an unmanageable load of pain. They proclaim that their friends “won’t ever be forgotten”, even as they see the next generation simply not remembering at all, which makes the weight of their memories that much heavier.

Some of these guys are furious at younger gay men who are getting to experience the freedom of Gay Liberation in a way they had snatched away from them. They see younger gay men getting to experience sex with much less risk of HIV, thanks to PrEP, and they see that HIV+ young man aren’t facing the death sentence their friends received and it hurts. They see a younger generation who enjoy the fruits of their fighting and suffering and who then turn around and ungratefully tell them to be quiet, that their opinions don’t matter. They see gay culture moving away from them, telling them they don’t have a right to the old way of doing things.

Think for a moment of how disruptive the Coronavirus is proving to be in our lives. Then realize that the death toll from it is a fraction of the death toll from AIDS, which in the 80s was virtually 100% fatal. Think about how much anger there is at the government for its profoundly inadequate response to the pandemic, and then realize that in the 1980s, the government just ignored AIDS almost entirely. Think about whatever struggles you are having right now, and realize how much worse were the struggles of gay men in the 80s.

What does this have to with that elder’s post about guys wearing leather wrong? A lot, I think. For some guys, the leather brotherhood was a tool for surviving those dark days. Their fellow leathermen supported them a lot. They saw their mentors, their masters, their slaves, their brothers, their lovers die of that cruel disease; in some cases they nursed their partners in power exchange through their last days, because hospitals wouldn’t nurse those dying men at all, or wouldn’t allow them in because they weren’t legal family. They buried their dead because their families wouldn’t. They saw men who knew an enormous amount about how to do BDSM safely and skillfully die.

The leathermen who survived that holocaust see the massive void left in the kink community by the disappearance of so many knowledgeable kinksters. They look at the younger kinksters and see how many of them are seeking mentorship (often without understanding that) and not getting it. They don’t want the powerful and beautiful traditions of the past to die and be forgotten like the men who created them.

For some of those guys, how you wear leather matters, because it’s a sign of a much wider set of values and practices. For them, when you see a man wearing leather properly, you don’t just see a fellow kinkster. You see a man who understands pride, honor, discipline, sacrifice, commitment, caring, and brotherhood. And when you don’t see those men, when instead you see a lot of men wearing their jackets ‘wrong’, you also see an absence of those values.

Is this exactly what prompted that elder to complain about leather bolero jackets? I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure that some piece of what I’ve said is hiding under that Tweet. And even though I think that Tweet was sort of rude and pointlessly confrontational, I can overlook that, because the guys who survived the AIDS Crisis deserve our respect. They’ve seen horrors the rest of us can’t easily imagine, and I’m willing to cut them some slack when their trauma comes out. When I meet one of these guys, I always ask them to share their stories, because those stories are part of my heritage as a gay man. And those stories contain a lot of beauty and wisdom and dignity, even if they’re mixed up with a lot of pain, anger, and unexpressed grief. These men have stories you need to hear, even if they’re occasionally jerks about it.

*My use of this term in no ways implies any lack of respect for the victims of the original Holocaust, merely my belief that AIDS holds a roughly equivalent place in LGBT history as a event of unimaginable suffering.

4 thoughts on “Leather Bolero Jackets and the Weight of the Past

  1. Wow. That was amazing and well put. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you. So many gay men have the same kind of deep trauma that Jews who survived concentration camps had. I think a lot of people don’t understand that.

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  2. Hello from Montreal,

    i was a young leather man in the 1990’s. 26 to be exact. When diagnosed with AIDS in 94, i was working at the Stud in Fort Lauderdale. A very prosperous and packed house of leather men. Out of 300 men, only my friend Mark and i survived that maelstrom. i am still a leather man today. i agree with your elder’s post about the Bolero jacket comment.

    i too look at leather posers and just that, posers. when i see a man wearing leather on BDSMLR or other fetish websites, i want to see how the entire ensemble looks. Leather with bare feet, or leather with sneakers, those “little things” people miss in fashion cues. i have a certain vision of a leather man because my Master was one of them. Todd was the greatest man i ever knew, who in his own way, saved my life with his leather teachings.

    You talk about leather wisdom. i use that wisdom to teach my guys about life, and many of them are straight men, in the recovery community here. The lessons are accepted willingly, because they translate across the divide. But not many want to hear what i have to say, because they think i’m an old fuddy duddy.

    Kids today, and many men, forget, that we came before them and carry with us, those “deep scars” you mention above. i have them myself. i watched my friends die, and i sat shiva as they died and then buried them because nobody else would. People today don’t get what we got, they don’t get what we experienced, and they tell us to just go away and shut up. If you’ve ever watched the PBS series “We Were Here” it is Our Story. Many of us walk around like ghosts still to this day, in SFO to be specific. I was in Fort Lauderdale, and not NYC or SFO.

    Today on tv, there are “Urban” hiv med commercials, one specifically “Bictarvy” and it opens with “If you have HIV keep being who you are!” and it goes on, with this lackadaisical vision of HIV today, as a prosperous, you can live with this pill kind of attitude. i resent that commercial and all it stands for, because no, it isn’t a death sentence any more, but still, in my time there weren’t these lazy day hiv pill commercials, because people reviled and degraded us at every turn. i see these commercials and i want to hurl something at the tv. it makes me nauseous. People with HIV, have no idea what we went through and if we speak up, they tell us to just shut up. i resent that attitude.

    i go to Pride in Montreal or Ottawa, and there has not been One Leather man in attendance over many years. i went to Ottawa Pride a few years ago, in leather, and the disdainful looks i got made me ill.

    Yes there was leather culture back then in the 90’s for sure. There was the Old Guard and the New Guard. i was formed in the ilk of the old Guard, because Todd was Old Guard. i have true respect for my elders and their way of life. There are not many of us left to talk about it today. i resented the new guard, as did all the others of Old Guard Fame, during those old days. The New Guard thought themselves avant gard, using drugs and drinking excessively and hurting boys left and right. All of them died and took their boys down with them. And are memorialized in the AIDS quilt in the same blocks of quilts, if you’ve ever seen the whole Fort Lauderdale contingent in a display. i’ve seen it many times.

    If you cannot wear leather correctly, in my vernacular, then don’t wear it at all. Show some damned respect for those of us who wore it with honor, dignity, and respect. Don’t tell us to shut up already, rude fuckers … Because we know what Leather MEANS. It identified many of us in that leather subculture, that was reviled by many, but We Were Here God dammit. Respect that.

    If you’re gonna wear leather chaps with Nike Shox sneakers, then take off the leather already !!!

    Leather is a statement of Pride, Dignity, and Respect. Sadly, leather poseres today take that for granted, they think it looks cool and fly … sorry boys … y’all are but posers.

    That’s my story and i’m sticking to it.

    Jeremy In Montreal.

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    1. Thank you for telling your story. I’m sorry that you suffered so much. It truly was a horror story and it saddens me how much the younger gays remain in ignorance of what our generation went through.

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