In this article we’re about to cover what historically, originally and therefor, truly for Old Guard folk a Leatherman is.
What is a Leatherman?
- What is a Leatherman
- The roots of the leatherman’s culture
- The difference between wearing Leather and wearing Fetish wear
- Tom of Finland and his Leathermen
- What does being a Leatherman mean today?
- The right to wear Leather
What is a Leatherman
Many gay men around the world, nowadays, have at least a piece of leather – fetish wear in their wardrobe. With the arrival of globalization and the internet, everybody got to see men wearing leather, exposing our tribe’s unique lifestyle to the masses, and formatting / standardizing it also thanks to talented artists like Touko Laaksonen (Tom of Finland), a true symbol and milestone in gay culture. Most of men nowadays have bough a colored harness, or a dog mask. Some others have invested thousands of dollars in Wesco Boots and Langlitz Leathers. But of all of these men, how many of them actually identify as Leathermen? And how many of those who identify as such, has a clear idea of what it means to them, if not historically?
What does it mean to be a Leatherman? Does it mean that you’ve bought some gear? Wouldn’t it be tragically shallow and sad? Many people associate to this from the definition of “Rubber men”, understanding that if a man wearing rubber is a rubber man, then a man wearing leather is a Leatherman. Things run with a little deeper meaning than that, and being a Leatherman has to do with something more than just associating the fabric to the fetishist.
Unfortunately this is the trend nowadays, where you are a Daddy just because you think you’re older than average, where you think you are a bear because you’re hairier than average or you’ve groomed a laser cut beard. Some thinks they are Masters because they act up tough as they want to achieve money or praise for nothing. Others think they are boys just because they want to be brats not facing responsibilities; the alternative, tends to be “pups”.
Instead, truly words have a meaning and a power, and one can’t conveniently cling to a “culture” when it wants to defend a position, but then deny it when it wants to be part of a “trend”.
Being a Daddy means living lead by a sense of fatherhood, the need to teach and inspire youngers, taking care of them, but also being resolute and serious, not making necessarily life easier for them. Being a Daddy means taking responsibilities. Yes, also when it comes to just a one night stand. Being a Bear means you don’t give two shits about trends and fashion, and you like to eat like a beast, drink and fuck as much as you like; this sort of lifestyle leads to become big or overweight, and not caring too much about manscaping. People into Bears see masculinity and power in the body size and the animal-like traits. And so on.
The Roots of the Leatherman’s Culture
But then what does it mean to be a Leatherman? And where did it all started?
As we have explained in our article about the Roots of Old Guard Leather , at the time in which Old Guard saw its golden days, it was pretty frequent to wear Leather amongst men, especially men who were or had a past in the Military. It was frequent to ride a motorcycle, and the whole cult of Motorcycles and Bikers (as a lifestyle too) started to develop stronger and stronger in the US and the rest of the world. A lot of these men were homosexuals, or even without putting a label on everything, they simply knew what kind of connection they could establish with their brothers. Most of them had a family, but the unique connection and bonding they have experienced during War just couldn’t be buried. These men started to spend their time in Motorcycle Clubs for men only, and those were the very first “Leather bars”.
Just like today, not all Leathermen were Old Guard Leathermen. Most of those coming from Military life, stood by the values of Integrity, Strictness, Structure and Stability that the highest form of Military Life was based on. Many of the other men who started spending time in Leather Bars, were much closer to a way of living Leather as being without rules, without institutions, as sexual rebels in a way.
Both these groups share the same basic concept, which is that there are the rules of society, and then there is our society as Leathermen. As Leathermen we refuse the moral concepts and hipocratical rules of society, and we live in freedom amongst us. But the huge difference I would say is that while Old Guard Leathermen needed to abandon social rules in order to live by their own rules, values and morals, renegades decided to have as a value the one to be completely free, and not to recognize any rule at all.
So the Symbol of a Leatherman’s Uniform (where the fact that it is a Uniform and not a singlet or else should speak clearly about what being a Leatherman is about) comes from those values carried on, from the times in which men lived together as an Army of Brothers, and started to become in the larger gay community a symbol of freedom and sexual liberation.
The difference from wearing Leather and Leather – Fetish Wear
The two roads splitting in more and more divergent directions over time, sees Old Guard folk on one side, and the renegade leather people on the other side. One celebrating endlessly Protocols, Rituals and Etiquettes which started to become “old fashioned” for the constantly evolving queer scene, moving under the influence of society and political agendas.
Gradually, the most sexual aspects of Leather lifestyle became something of wide interest for kinksters, and a lot of sexually appealing variations of gear started to spread. BDSM Gear and Sexy wear started to be made more frequently of Leather, and they started to be wore at clubs normally, because of the eroticism embodied in that “look”.This, is Leather – Fetish wear.
Wearing Leather, in Old Guard, is something different. Normally you’d see and Old Guard Leatherman mainly wearing simply Boots and Jeans. He could have a Leather Vest, or other simple Leather Items, like gloves and such. This is because if you’re naturally wearing Leather, it’s because of a purpose or a reason. If you drive a motorcycle, you’ll need protective footwear. The same goes if you live in the country side. It’s your normal every day wear. Unless you’re a biker or ride a horse, you normally wouldn’t wear chaps. Also Leather Pants tends to be wore with a reason, like very cold weather or again, riding (but who needs that in 2021 where you have technical clothing and such?). A Leather vest is usually a dear piece of garment as it often carries the name of your Club or Family, and has different stories attached to it.
Of course, not all Old Guard Leathernen today live in the countries or ride a motorcycle. So why do we wear Leather still today? Well in my case, I do live in the countryside and yes, I do find that wearing Boots the whole time is the most comfortable wear for me, and is very practical inside and outside the house. But, when I wear the rest of the gear, it’s an act of worship. It’s an act of celebration of what I live for, as the Uniform, the Leather, it’s a symbol. It’s, to us, a sacred symbol, which conveys our whole culture and way of living.
Tom of Finland and his Leathermen
I’ll write a bold statement here. Tom of Finland and his Art (because yes, I absolutely recognize the artistic value of his legacy) didn’t help Old Guard Leathermen. Actually, what didn’t help wasn’t his erotic art, but the globalization of it perpetuated by general queer public and clubbing in the America’s 70’s.
No introduction is needed about Touko Laaksonen (but if you need one, there is a well built Wikipedia page and an official website of the Tom of Finland Foundation); his work represents in gay culture a beacon of freedom and rebellion to oppression, and contributed to fight against the stereotypes of that era.
What we care to underline here for the sake of the topic, is that “Kake” is a motorcycle rider who dresses in black leather. All of the other Tom’s men, were not Leathermen at all. There were Cops, Cowboys, Sailors, Truckers, and so on. Many people claim that Touko would get inspired to draw these characters by his own sexual adventures, or just men he saw. The whole point is that Tom of Finland has nothing to do with Old Guard Leather, nor it shares or embodies values and principles. It’s homoerotic illustration at its finest, with all the strong political and social power that it had, and still has. So why everybody nowadays associate Tom of Finland with Leather, and why are some of the readers clutching their pearls?
In the 40’s and 50’s, in many parts of the world being gay or even just depicting homoeroticism was considered illegal, and would result in imprisoning or worse. Touko, a young advertising student, began taking photographs and making drawings of men, and started appearing on the Beefcake publications in the 40’s and until the late 60’s and 70’s, a very low profile had to be kept. But after the Decade of the US Censorship Codes, although the world was still very conservative and homophobic, the winds of change started to raise.
His drawings were exported to the United States and started to be freely distributed in general gay clubs and private parties. That’s how the “look”, the Tom of Finland combination of Muir Cap, Boots, Leather Jacket, started to be sported out in clubs and parties, to maximize pecs and bulges, and so on. Plus, some of the Motorcycle clubs around the country decided to become more inclusive, and to take part to protests and pride parades, which helped in spreading the symbols of Leathermen’s wear, but without any context. However, at the time Leathermen tried to also share their values and principles with the Gay Community (which wasn’t friendly at all to Leather Crowd in the early years), and many Leather Families expanded, new clubs were founded, and Leather Life and Culture started to soar, although already detaching from the absolute strictness of Old Guard; each and every family implemented slight changes to Rituals, Protocols and Etiquettes, but at least they still believed in what they were doing (as opposed to today, where most people really don’t care about anything else than perceived popularity on social media).
The tragedy of the enormous death toll that the HIV Epidemic took on our Community, sadly made many Leather Masters disappear, together with many Leathermen and of course countless other queer (and non queer) folk. But Tom of Finland’s drawings remained. The symbols, the look, the commercialization of that symbol was selling strong, and that’s what brought us to where we are today. All looks, but no authenticity and context; which makes for many people wearing leather, but very few knowing why they do so.
What does being a Leatherman mean today?
It saddens me, but I’m pretty sure that a large majority of gay men to which you could ask “why do you define yourself a Leatherman”, wouldn’t be able to answer you in serenity. Wether they’d get defensive, or they’d be repeating something they heard somewhere, but you could see in their eyes always the same feeling. Confusion.
That’s why, as a first thing, we’d like to point out that buying a piece of Leather won’t make you a Leatherman. I mean, if you want to stand by the definition of Leatherman as a “fabric-man”, or “adjective-man” (rubber man, smoker man, pig man…), then yes. You are a Leatherman, congratulations.
In the case you’re looking for what being a Leatherman means, then you’re going to find out only one thing in this article: what traditionally it has meant in Old Guard, which is of course for us the only meaning of the word Leatherman. But we’re not here to tell you what you should love and feel. So feel free to define for yourself what means for you being a Leatherman, as long as you believe in it. As long as it means something for you. As long as it’s worth living for, or fighting for. If wearing leather for you means more than just wearing some piece of dead cow, if you’re not doing it to follow a trend and look cool, if it means something deep in you and talks about you, then you’re a Leatherman.
Old Guard folk will probably still have strongly different opinions on different things, and might not want to include you in all of their interests and activities, but for sure they will respect you. As long as you wear Leather with your heart, you’re always deserving respect from another Leatherman.
Often, today you can find some respectable people who think that being a Leatherman equals being an activist for the rights of all GLBTQI+ people, being the most inclusive as possible which obviously results in also feminizing leather, undressing it from traditional sexual symbols Lyle hyper polarization of masculine vs feminine and so on.
The result is that nowadays it’s very difficult to define what a Leatherman is. In a world that needs to continuously be at the same time everything and nothing, a society that wants peace and sustainability but who can’t respect what’s different from progress at all cost, a way of living that constantly tries to upgrade itself without context, being a Leatherman could be a million things. Maybe, today, being a Leatherman means nothing no more, out there.
But it will always mean something very specific and very clear, as long as there are Old Guard Leathermen with a beating heart.
The right to wear Leather
Of course, everybody has the right to wear Leather. Everybody has the right what they want to do, as long as it doesn’t hurt, mistreat or threat other people’s lives. It’s curious how we live in an age where you can’t be yourself, you can’t express any opinion without hurt the feelings of any minority, and yet cultural appropriation when it comes to Leather seems not to bother anybody, and actually to be laughed at when mentioned.
Yet, if we were making porn movies wearing a tribal Cherokee Indian Chief Hat (kind of the equivalent to a Muir Cap in Leather), the whole GLBTQI+ community would be clutching their pearls and shouting at racism, whitewashing, and so on. We believe that everybody’s culture, roots, heritage and history should be kept protected and always respected, and not only those ones which are in trend socially.
So it would be so wonderful for us Old Guard folk if weekend players at least knew what their clothes are about, and that they respected that some people might feel hurt or pissed to see what to them are sacred symbols used as playtoys. But, after all, we don’t expect that much. Real Leathermen has always been a very private and very selective crowd, and maybe it should always be that way. The fabric, after all, is just a piece of Dead Cow… no?