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.