From Fetish to Fabric

Every Thursday, the Eagle hosts Code, an homage to the strict dress code of bars like the L.U.R.E. While the website warns that the first floor is "reserved for men in leather," "now they allow guys in who take their shirts off," Leven complained.

More ominously, Folsom Street East, an annual fetish street fair that brought thousands of men together to drink beer, watch flogging demonstrations, and walk their human puppies, was cancelled this year. Originally held in the meatpacking district, after the L.U.R.E. closed, it moved to the same block of West 28th Street as the Eagle. The High Line park overhead brought hordes of Sunday strollers, some appalled, others titillated by the goings-on below them. Last year, a flyer circulated by a handful of residents of +ART, a condo adjacent to the Eagle, complained that kids going into the building were forced to witness "lewd conduct" and nudity.

Organizers maintain that major construction on nearby luxury high-rise projects like the 30-story Avalon West Chelsea and the Onyx Chelsea made the logistics impossible this year. But many fear the fair will go the way of New York Leather Weekend, a meatpacking district street fair that ended in 2009, the victim of protests by local businesses.

More than the changes wrought by AIDS, fashion, or real estate, however, the Internet has rendered leather bars and organizations all but obsolete. Why bother going to a bar or volunteering for an organization when you can find exactly the partner (or partners) you desire just by clicking a mouse? "My coming out was coincident with the Internet," Levine notes. "I had a resource immediately. I knew what my type was even before I was with a guy."

London-based Recon, the dominant site for fetish hook-ups, provides the ultimate safe space for users to explore their sexual fantasies (or at least pretend they're exploring them). Founder Philip Hammel admits that after a while, users are likely to see the same profiles pop up, even in New York, but adds that it lets visitors scope out the locals—and vice versa.

The privatizing of kink, however, has led to a feeling of loss. Bars and s/m organizations provided a sense of belonging. "You can always go on these sites and meet on a one-to-one basis," Levine says. "For people with specific fetishes, there's a certain amount of loneliness to the anonymity of it."

Nor does the Internet provide the kind of mentoring that those new to the scene need to play safely. Online, "there's no education about safety," Peyton explains. "If you meet someone online and say, 'I'm a fisting bottom,' they may not be smart enough to clip their nails or wear gloves. GMSMA taught people safe activities. You had mentors, education, and community. If you don't do these things correctly, not only aren't they as much fun, they're dangerous."

"It's an oral tradition," Vocasek adds. "These things are passed on through example."

In sharp contrast to what has happened here, leather bars, organizations, and competitions continue to attract patrons, volunteers, and competitors in other cities. Events like Folsom Street East are organized entirely by volunteers and donate their proceeds to gay and AIDS-related charities. More than just denying the opportunity to show off a gym-toned ass, Folsom was one way leathermen could feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

Its cancellation should serve as a "wake-up call to the community," warns Vocasek, a co-producer of Folsom and chair of its nonprofit arm. "We get a lot of helpful suggestions, but when we look for qualified people, everyone's too busy. People want the fun but don't want to do the work. I truly hope that everyone appreciates the importance of a physical human connection. I didn't move here so I live in a suburb of the Midwest. It's important to keep New York kinky." ❤

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