The History of Old Guard Leather has its roots in the post-World War II era, when many veterans returned home and formed leather (motorcycle) clubs and organizations. These early leather clubs placed a strong emphasis on protocol and tradition, drawing inspiration from military and fraternal organizations. Here is the history of the culture that started the iconic Leather subculture in the glbt world.
Post World War II era
As explained in our “What is Old Guard” article, the term “Old Guard” refers to a very specific subculture and lifestyle based on strong emphasis on formalism, etiquette, protocols, brotherhood and hierarchy, stemming from military culture. The name “Old Guard” itself comes from a small artillery detachment left in place after the Revolution in 1784 as a result of the Treaty of Paris. After World War II, many veterans returned home, often awarded by the Army with motorcycles; these men started to form leather clubs (motorcycle clubs actually) and organizations.
The history of Old Guard and the birth of Leather Clubs comes both from need and from opportunity; military life, especially during conflict times, used to be a life-altering experience by definition. Men living and dying together in the army and other corps struggled to return to a “normal”, social everyday life. This phenomenon is linked both to PTSD and the feeling of not being understood by civilians (similarly to how people who had a traumatic HIV seroconversion, have a hard time bonding with seronegative people). Both these phenomena revolve around the traumatic impact of wartime, but also the trauma of going back to civilian life has, after having lived and bonded in a highly structured, hierarchical, and pack-based lifestyle.
The opportunity to form such private venues, came from the fact that most of these men owned a motorcycle, and the fact that they used to often wear Leather Boots and Jackets, was due to the same reason.
Men still needed to spend time together the way they have grown accustomed to, and where they’ve learned to find quality, honor, and a higher purpose. That’s also where the cardinal importance of Honor and Integrity comes from, in Old Guard Leather, as well as the importance of Brotherhood in Leather.
These early leather clubs, often formed by gay men, placed indeed a very strong emphasis on Protocol and Tradition, drawing inspiration and adherence from military and fraternal organizations. The leather community at this time was also heavily influenced by the working-class culture of masculinity of the time (and most of the past times in history as well), and the leather gear that came together with these men, became a symbol of this culture.
These men were called Leathermen, indeed, because they often wore Leather Motorcycling Boots, Leather pants or jeans, gloves and more; at the time, Leather Boots were still in style for manly footwear in many parts of the United States, but the largest impact on how they dressed was given by the fact that cowhide was the best protective gear for bikers, working men and so on. You can deepen this topic in our article on why Leathermen wear leather.
During the 1950s, the leather community continued to grow, with the formation of more leather clubs and organizations, including the well-known Satyrs Motorcycle Club established in Los Angeles in 1954.
More Motorcycle Clubs sharing the military camaraderie, bond, brotherhood and hierarchy-oriented discipline, were:
- Oedipus Motorcycle Club (est 1958 in Los Angeles)
- New York Motorbike Club (est 1959 in New York)
- The Warlocks (est 1967 in Orlando, Florida, now sporting 48 chapters worldwide)
This decade was also marked by the increased visibility of the gay community, which helped to fuel the growth of the leather community, and at the same time, the growth of a subculture within a subculture, which marked the early stems for what would have driven to the divide between “Old Guard Leather” and “New Guard Leather”.
While Old Guard Leathermen adhere to a lifestyle based on the principle of Discipline and Respect based Protocol, highly influenced by the idealization of the existential and spiritual takes on Military life and culture, Renegade Leather or New Guard Leather was a scene influenced by the idea of masculine independence, being a “sexual outlaw“, and not accepting rules and schemes imposed by the external society; this kind of vision have been fueled by two relevant events happened between the 1950’s and the 1960’s: the so called “hollister riot” and the release of the movie “The Wild One” (1953) starring Marlon Brando, a movie of which character design has been strongly influenced by the ramping popularity of Tom of Finland’s drawings.
Leather bars and clubs began to open in major cities across the United States, providing a social space for members of the community to gather and socialize. The first ever official Leather Bar in the United States, was the Gold Coast, which opened in Chicago, Illinois in 1958, founded by Dom Orejudos and Chuck Renslow.
The 1960s and 1970s
During the 1960s and 1970s, the leather community continued to evolve and grow. This was a time of significant social and political change, and the leather community was heavily involved in activism and advocacy, blending more and more with the general glbt scene. Many members of the leather community were involved in the fight for gay rights and the anti-war movement to a significant degree, and I have personally heard many stories on this subject from people like Dirk, John and other members of our Family.
Three popular Leather bars that opened in the 1960’s were:
- The Tool Box, San Francisco 1961
- The Stud, San Francisco 1966
- Fe-be’s, San Francisco 1966 (the first leather bar on Folsom Street)
Meanwhile as mentioned, the famous “Tom of Finland” drawings of Leathermen (specifically, Kake), were made public on Physique Pictorial in 1956; it didn’t take long before the number of gay clubs started to multiply in the country (while still being significantly underground venues), and this along with similar publication were easy to find in bars, clubs and similar gathering venues. That’s how the visual imagery of Tom of Finland became a pop standard in the broad gay scene at the time, as an opposition to the homologation of the social image of how a gay man was supposed to look and behave like.
The men who were drawn to the open Leather scene weren’t so much into camp, show tunes, and cashmere sweaters. The soul of the pop vision of the scene was the one of masculine independence.
Unavoidably, this led to a detachment from the original values and principles that would push a man to join a motorcycle group. If you think about it, the moment that Leather exited Leather Clubs, and became a gay culture standard, it stopped being about motorcycles and value-driven ideology altogether. While Old Guard Leathermen were drawn by the seek of brotherhood, a highly structured lifestyle based on hierarchy, camaraderie and discipline, the New Guard scene was moved by an ideological (and rightful, in my opinion) opposition to the homologation of homosexual = less masculine. It’s curious how nowadays general queer scene is still keeping the “Leather look”, while striving so desperately against the idea of masculinity altogether.
As a matter of fact, and this might come as a surprise to most, Old Guard Leathermen don’t have a fetish for Leather; Leather is on one end simply equipment, gear that goes along with the lifestyle. On the other hand, Leather Gear for an Old Guard Leatherman has sacredness and spirituality associated with the items, but the spark doesn’t come from the need to restore any masculinity whatsoever. It comes instead from the belief that a man’s Leather embody a part of that man’s experiences, lived life and identity over time.
The 1980’s and the HIV/AIDS crisis
In the 1980s, the leather community was heavily impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis, especially at first in the United States. The HIV pandemic didn’t hit only the leather community, but had a particularly disgraceful impact on it, and its roots and reasons as well indirectly; while the infection spread across all genders and sexualities, Leathermen were particulary sexual, active and passionate about their lifestyle. Being a subculture within an already significant minority in society, our community was impacted heavily. Many members of the community were affected by the disease, and the same community that welcomed leather folk when it was time to fight for gay rights, was in several cases the one who created a stigma around Leathermen, as the depraved spreaders of infection.
As a result, the leather community became heavily involved in advocacy and support for people living with HIV/AIDS, both from the direct experience of living through the horrible pain of seeing your family decimated by an invisible killer, nested and hidden in the most intimate and valuable means of self-determination and self-expression (sexuality and intimacy), but also they had to somewhat redeem themselves to show that indeed, Leathermen cared about not contributing to the spreading of the infection.
This decade also saw the formation of many HIV/AIDS education and support groups within the leather community.
The result of this terrible event influenced heavily how the following generations interpreted Leather, Leather Culture and the History of Old Guard Leather itself. In fact, where most of the family founders and the most active and involved personalities of the scene disappeared, the symbols Leathermen have left behind them and the impact on pop culture were there to stay. As you’ll read in the next paragraph, the arrival of an open market for venues, gear and clubs, together with the insurgence of the internet and social media, represented for the Leather scene the beginning of a pivotal change that is still going on to the present day.
The reason why so many Old Guard people disappeared during the HIV pandemic is both due to the enormous amount of lives that were taken physically by the disease, and both by the exponential number of lives ruined by this event, and how this event marked forever men and women who’ve experienced one of the darkest moments of our history. It was indeed very hard for the survivors to go back to clubs, venues and a scene that was now populated only by people who didn’t live the History of Leather as it has been presented. It was painful to go on, and it felt, as reported by many survivors, as if they were going on without their brothers and sisters, and without their Mentors. Therefore, many Old Guard and New Guard Leathermen decided to stop teaching, stop showing up, and many times stop being Leathermen altogether.
Recent History and Old Guard Leather today
In recent years, from the end of the 1990’s to the present day, the leather community has continued to evolve and grow into a completely distant picture from where it started. The internet, dating websites for kinksters and BDSM players, and social media have played a significant role in connecting members of the community and promoting Leather, more often as a fabric to look cool in, rather than a symbology that stands for something.
In fact, sadly, the most promoted aspect of Leather has become the commercial benefit that can be achieved from it, where clubs, venues, resellers and gear producers have found a florid niche to grow into a strong market trend. Today, as a Leatherman, I feel comfortable admitting that the Leather scene no longer exists. What exists today is a very colorful and mixed GLBTQI+ scene, where kinks of all sorts (especially in the form of gear bought and worn, rather than an actual adherence to a specific lifestyle) mix together to coexist in one large container, where everything goes, and everyone’s included (as long as they can afford the right gear, or have enough followers, and so on…).
The very positive aspect to this disruptive change, is that the leather community has become more inclusive in a qualitative term, with a growing number of women, people of color, and members of other marginalized communities becoming involved in the what the pop scene is today. The negative aspect to the disruptive change, is that there has been a cultural appropriation, washing away the original meaning of Leather, and therefor any logic associated with wearing Leather at all. In other words, today’s scene lacks 100% in soul, authenticity and meaning, while still being a very profitable market for venues, merchants, and people looking for fun.
Today, Leathermen who actually identify as such, prefer to gather at private events, forming closed and small circles where to continue to live the same way they started: as a closed, exclusive niche, sharing the same lifestyle and values. A niche that isn’t exclusive out of the idea of being better, but out of the authenticity in seeking a very specific connection, that only specific people share.
The history of Leather as part of the glbt culture, stems from the years of the motorcycle riders, with a strong emphasis on a cisgender and today considered outdated vision of manhood and masculinity, born mainly by the idealization of hierarchy and dominance inspired by Military symbology.
While today Leather has been digested and renewed into one of the many accessories that one can wear to create “an outfit”, its original meaning (and only meaning, from the opinion and experience of a Leatherman living the lifestyle 24/7 since over 16 years) is the one of camaraderie inspired by Military life, in a strongly polarized dynamic of roles and identities based on hierarchy, where formalism and Protocols are appreciated and worshipped.
What is Protocol
Protocols are a set of rules of behavior covering several aspects in the everyday life of a Leatherman. BDSM Protocols create and guarantee a framework shared by the same community, regulating the way to speak to each other, body language, rules for various occasions and more. You can read more on this topic in our article on Leather and BDSM Protocols.
What is Etiquette
Etiquettes in Leather and BDSM are a set of rules that apply to everybody, and are especially important to interact in harmony amongst different Leather families, clubs, groups and individuals. They are affected and reflect cultures, backgrounds and situations. Etiquettes are about “good manners” between Dom, between men, between Leathermen in general.
Why do glbt people wear Leather today?
Most people in the glbt scene wear leather to “steal a look” or “serve looks”, and to define a custom identity pretty much like in an online RPG Roster. It’s part of a set of tools to build notoriety, validation and popularity in the scene and online. Being Leather a work or protective gear, the only people genuinely wearing Leather today are people who are still riding a motorcycle, who are still working the fields, who live in the countryside, or who want to stick to the traditions in terms of manly footwear, when it comes to Boots as an example.