By Jared Chausow
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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."
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." ❤