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If you want to know what happened to New York's once-subversive leather scene, take a look at the photo in an optometrist's window on Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen: a hot, hairy, square-jawed Clark Kent type dressed in designer eye frames—and a leather harness.
David Hughes, 30, recalls walking in Williamsburg en route to the subway while dressed in full leather gear. "A straight couple asked if they could take a photo of us with their baby. I mean, how wholesome can you get?"
For the men of the post-Stonewall era, leather was a public declaration of hyper-masculinity. "When I wore a motorcycle jacket in the '70s, it identified me," Bruce-Michael Gelbart, 61, tells the Voice. "You didn't wear sneakers. You wore the uniform. You were clearly identified as a gay person definitely in this scene."
Hard as it is to believe, hordes of leathermen used to cruise the streets of the Village when they weren't prowling around the darkened corners of the many bars or sex clubs that lined the far West Side of Manhattan. "Code" defined "gear," everything from head (motorcycle cap) to toe (work boots). Rules governed the fly on your Levi's (button, not zipper) and what cigarette you smoked (Marlboros, of course). "Older guys used to be real judgmental," Mike Peyton, a longtime observer of the scene, tells the Voice. "They were into that whole 'brotherhood' thing."
Inevitably, this demimonde caught the attention of Hollywood. In the 1980 movie Cruising, a hunky cop goes undercover to find a serial killer. Hugely controversial at the time, Cruising has become an artifact of a long-gone age. It even inspired a tribute "docufiction," 2013's Interior. Leather Bar. By the time of the movie's release, however, a far deadlier threat would decimate the leather community.
AIDS robbed younger men of mentors who could show them the ropes. Instead, they have had to find their own way. "We lost a generation," Fil Vocasek, 33, tells the Voice. "These things are passed on through example. When I was entering into it, the prevailing attitude was that 'It's these old guys.'"
Over a dozen s/m groups once flourished in the city; now there are two motorcycle enthusiast clubs. In 2009, Gay Male S/M Activists, formerly one of the largest such groups in the country, held its last meeting. Only 45 people bothered to attend. Similarly, leather contests have either consolidated or folded; the few remaining have trouble finding anyone interested in competing.
Today, leather has become just another sexually charged fabric alongside rubber, latex neoprene, spandex, sports uniforms, pantyhose, business attire, or gladiator getups. "It's not the traditional Tom of Finland leather daddy anymore," Hughes observes. "There are a lot of things people fetishize, like athletic-wear and socks. Leather has blurred into slick—not leather, but a fetish. Wrestling singlets have nothing to do with wrestling. The new look is rubber, puppy play. You can go into your closet and dig out your old sports gear without doling out $700 for gear."
Growing up gay and coming out earlier in life, millennials haven't had to prove their macho bona fides. "Gay men used to have to defend and define their masculinity," Peyton notes. "Younger guys don't have to defend anything. Kink is something they do, not what they are."
It's not that they aren't into kink and fetishes—if anything, they're more comfortable with sexual experimentation because it doesn't compartmentalize them. "Leather used to be a political statement," says Eric Leven, 31. "Now someone will do leather on Friday because he's bored. It's a fashion thing more than a statement of personal values."
Instead of dedicated leather bars, occasional parties like Skin Tight USA cater to specialized interests. "I provide a fun space for people to interact with those with the same likes and not have to worry about freaking somebody out," says Matthew Levine, the promoter of Skin Tight, which is devoted to anything that clings, including superhero costumes and Speedos.
Back in the '80s, everyone transformed himself into a leatherman for one night at least. The Black Party, the annual March mega-dance, has since morphed into a fantasy fest where, event producer Stephen Pevner says, "the freak is totally acceptable."
"If the Black Party had to rely just on leather," says Peyton, who works for Pevner, "we wouldn't fill Roseland. It is a fetish event."
Even if someone believed that enough leathermen could fill a bar these days, it's unlikely to be located anywhere near the far western fringe of Lower Manhattan, where dozens of such spaces once thrived. In the meatpacking district, legendary s/m bars and sex dens like the L.U.R.E., the Hellfire Club, the Anvil, and the Mineshaft have given way to designer boutiques and chichi restaurants. After 25 years as a Levi's-and-leather dive bar, the Rawhide closed its doors on Eighth Avenue in March. The buildings that once housed the old Eagle and the Spike are now art galleries.
At West 28th Street and 11th Avenue, the Eagle remains the last redoubt. And even it, sniffed Gelbart, has become "a Chelsea bar as much as it's a leather bar."