Inside the Changing Leather Scene

As the stigma against BDSM and kink subsides, how does a long-underground culture move into a new era?

Thousands of leathermen descended upon Chicago for the International Man of Leather competition this summer. Credit: Matt Baume for Rolling Stone

They arrive beneath an ornate spiral staircase in the marble foyer of Chicago's Congress Plaza hotel wearing leather dog m­asks, Dalmatian-print rompers, and wrestling singlets with zippers strategically placed down the cleft of their glutes.

Rubber mats line the floor of the Buckingham Room, a typical hotel conference facility with subdued carpeting and neutral gold curtains. There, amid stiff-backed chairs and folding tables bearing enormous coffee urns, dozens of men bend down on all fours, stick out their tongues and begin to bark.

But hotel staff doesn't bat an eye. The occasion is the International Mr. Leather convention, an annual gathering of some of the most sexually adventurous people in the world.

The barking men had convened for a "pup romp," organized for people gratified by role-playing as dogs. There in the Buckingham Room, they cuddled for an hour, and joined in a frenzied chase when a man in a squirrel costume ran through the crowd.

Outside of the romp, thousands more people – mostly men, mostly gay – had descended on the hotel for five days of parties, kinky commerce, creative sex and fashion. The Congress Plaza was packed for the weekend with people wearing next to nothing, jostling through the halls between social and sexual engagements.

In the hotel lobby, attendees mingled with giant phallic balloon interpretations of the blue and black leather pride flag, drifting through the colorful inflated tubes like fish in the tentacles of sea anemones.

In the world of unusual tastes, IML has functioned for decades as a sort of annual conclave. But it's undergoing a remarkable change.

The leather enthusiasts who convene at IML inhabit a mid-point between subcultures. While the broader LGBT community encompasses everything from lesbian bookstores to the occasional gay Republican, the leather tribe inhabits a few narrow bands of that spectrum. And then, nestled inside of leather, are smaller stripes like pups, hypnotists, foot fetishists, floggers, superheroes and kinks yet to be named. In the world of unusual tastes, IML has functioned for decades as a sort of annual conclave. But it's undergoing a remarkable change.

There's always been a tension in the leather community between the "old guard" and "new guard." One has always been more conservative and devoted to tradition; the other more experimental and open to change. For decades, the old guard has grumbled about the new guard, until the youngsters age into old-timers who roll their eyes at yet another wave of newcomers.

So it has always been, as in so many subcultures: A cascade of generations, each one rippling from young into old. But in recent years, the leather scene has experienced a rapid expansion, testing its elasticity as it stretches further than ever before. It's a fundamental shift in the boundaries and values of the community – a shift that, depending on whom you ask, may disintegrate the community, or may be necessary for it to go on.

What began as a humble bar party at Chicago's Gold Coast in 1979 – a celebration of animal-hide uniforms over muscular male physiques – has grown to fill the downtown hotel with thousands of fetishists, allowing organizers to expand their offerings from a simple social gathering to a full multi-day convention. "It takes a hotel and turns it into a leather bar for the weekend," says writer Dan Savage, a frequent attendee.

Every year, IML concludes with a pageant to select the men and women best suited to represent the community, with titles reminiscent of Midwestern agricultural festivals. But instead of Miss Rhubarb taking home a trophy for her cobbler, a leatherman will be awarded a the sash as International Mr. Leather for his appeal in a jockstrap.

The subculture is thought to have grown out of the post-World-War-II biker scene, which tended be dominated by uniforms, buzz cuts and military honor codes. It was an aesthetic that resonated with gay men who couldn't identify with the more effete stereotypes of the time.

Those gay men formed motorcycle clubs like the Satyrs in Los Angeles and the Warlocks in San Francisco. They covered themselves in leather, conforming to a look of masculine independence that came to mainstream attention by way of Marlon Brando's 1953 film The Wild One. Chicago's Gold Coast was the first gay bar to cater to the leather scene in 1958, and it was there that IML began in the late Seventies.

At the time that the community formed, being discovered as queer was enough to ruin a person's life. Police conducted routine raids of gay bars, with their victims identified by names in newspapers. Even in the relative safety of the mid-century gay enclaves, an interest in kinky sex led to stigma and ostracism.

"The word 'leather' was the code word for men in the Forties," explains Carmelle, a longtime photographer in the scene. "Back then, it was a way of asking, 'Are you into rough sex, bondage, S&M?' It's like Christians drawing half the fish," she says, referring to stories of early believers drawing half-arcs so others could draw a second arc to complete the symbol.

At the time that the community formed, being discovered as queer was enough to ruin a person's life. 

Though the pageant is strictly focused on leather, IML attendees generally interpret "leather" to include any fetish garb.

"Leather means just about any material," says Jonathan Schroder, general manager of the fetish store Mr. S Leather in San Francisco. For him, "leather" can be anything from flogging to rope to inserting your entire fist into another person's ass. "Fisting doesn't involve much clothing at all," he points out.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's BLUF, the Breeches and Leather Uniform Fanclub, which maintains a dress code that includes tall boots, leather trousers, and a leather shirt and tie.

Most people in the community fall somewhere between. "Like a leather jockstrap under their business suit," Schroder says with a giddy look on his face.

For decades, practitioners have maintained a sense of continuity by conforming to at least some measure of protocol and mentorship. Traditionally, an older leatherman would take a younger man under his wing. Dominant, assertive men of a certain age might go by "Daddy" or "Sir," and would pass down leather traditions. In return, a younger member might identify as "Boy" (and increasingly, "Pup") and get a role model of a kind that, until recently, was denied to gay men by the mainstream culture.

At one recent IML party, a millennial was overheard asking an older man, "Could you hold my jacket, please?" to which the older man replied, "What was that?" The boy corrected himself: "Could you hold my jacket please, sir?" The older man obliged, flicking a riding crop against his leg as he helped the younger man into his gear.

Caretaking such as this was particularly necessary during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic. Over morning coffee with friends baring various amounts of skin, Carmelle recalls her experience in the 1980s, living in a tight-knit arrangement known as a "leather family." These familial structures can include numerous people looking out for each other when biological relatives can't be counted on.

"We discovered almost all the men were HIV-positive," she says. "Our Sir got pneumonia and he died in, I want to say, five days."

Knowing what lay ahead, the family dominatrix decided that Carmelle should be trained in hospice care. She helped many of her leather family die in peace, adopting Miles Davis' record Ascenseur Pour Léchafaud ("elevator to the gallows") as the music for the house.

"They were all dying at the same time," she says. "They become your brothers and sisters. There's that one thing that bonds us – we can protect each other in a world full of strangers."

"HIV/AIDS flipped the script," says Dan Savage. He recalled guerilla sex education programs in the Eighties that consisted of informal meetups in dorm rooms to talk about how kinky sex, like bondage and spanking, diminished the risk of transmission. "Things that were insanely kinky and depraved, like fisting or getting whipped, were safer than boring anal intercourse."

But as the hazards of being openly queer disappear and more casual kinksters discover leather, those traditions have fallen away.

Young people are eager to dive in to the sex – but they don't understand the extensive rules and protocol.

"Back in the day, it was important that you received your first leathers from someone in the community," says Schroder. "There was a sense of earning." A jockstrap might be passed down after an intense sex scene, for example. "I think people today have a sense of freedom to discover sexuality on their own. And experimenting doesn't seem so spooky."

Today's IML attracts far more casual kinksters than in decades past, and fewer devotees of the leather rulebook. Vendors at IML now find themselves selling more gear to first-timers than ever before, showing the ropes – sometimes literally – to young people eager to dive in to the sex without also signing up for the extensive rules and protocol.

The reasons that the leather community originally formed have faded as it's become easier to be open about an interest in leather, rubber, or rope. The stigma of kink has decreased; being queer is no longer an arrestable offense; HIV is treatable; and a handful of states have made it illegal to fire or evict a person for being gay.

As mainstream interest in leather has grown, the community has had to address an atmosphere that, at times, has felt unwelcoming to those who didn't match the traditional 1950s biker look.

"I almost didn't come," says Mama Cleo, an African-American woman. IML is an overwhelmingly white male event, which made her feel unwelcome – until she learned of a caucus where she could discuss minority issues. Attending that group was a relief, she says, proving to her that she did indeed belong.

"The leather community is just a microcosm of the general gay community, where people of color are still a minority," says Mufasa Ali, founder and National Council chair of an organization called Onyx. "The community is supposed to be about inclusion and being for everyone, because it's an outlaw community. But when I walk into a leather bar, do I see me? Oftentimes you don't see anybody like you."

Onyx arranges workshops, parties and newsletters to connect people of color within the leather community and address their unique concerns. Those topics can range from the fetishizing of dark skin to the implications of the master/slave dynamic; and on a practical level, mindful training is necessary to recognize when dark skin has been excessively flogged. He's definitely noticed a shift in demographics.

"We're attracting younger people now," he says. "Our youngest member in the last few years was 22, but we've been seeing a number of people in their twenties and early thirties come to us."

Women have also faced ostracism within the leather community. Since 1993, IML has hosted a contest for bootblacking, the art of cleaning and maintaining leather goods. The contest that was open to all genders, with IML attendees scoring the contestants, but before long, the late Amy Marie Meek – who produced International Ms. Leather – noticed that attendees tended to judge women bootblacks less favorably than men. Her solution was to create a separate competition for women, which has remained in place since 1999.

And although overt misogyny has waned, it remains an undercurrent at IML, with the historic devotion to masculine ideals leading to occasional schisms. When Jefferson Ely competed as Mr. Phoenix Leather in 2015, he drew scattered boos with his apparel: Amidst the men in quasi-cop outfits and biker gear, he marched out on stage wearing heels, a corset, and a fur wrap.

"Some people in the leather community really tend to romanticize the Tom of Finland image, the super masculine, super butch, highly cartoonish image," he says. "They assume that you don't belong in their community [if you don't look like that.]"

This is an issue that IML is aware of, and working to address in any way they can. "We have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any incidents involving racist or misogynistic activities," says IML Media Coordinator Tyesha Best. "Visual representation of BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) existence in leather and kink is one of the most important priorities in our communities at large. We strive to remain as educated and self aware of this as possible."

Best cites organizations like the Panthers Leather Club as having expanded visibility for marginalized groups in the community.

"There are many individuals who work to make leather more inclusive," she says. "It starts at the top. It is up to the producers and coordinators of conferences, organizations and other events that inclusivity goes beyond just volunteers."

This year, 63 contestants worked their way up through leather contests at local bars, then cities, and then states, arriving in Chicago to compete for the International Mr. Leather title. The pageant is like a Miss America pageant soaked in testosterone: There's a "pecs and personalities" component; a jockstrap segment; and contestant speeches delivered like a series of short kinky TED talks.

"What now is our role as leather people?" demanded contestant Kenn Kennedy from the stage, his tight uniform squeaking as he paced. "To show those who despise us that we do not fear them here in Leatherland."

Numerous contestants shared that eagerness to engage in of bold, unashamed publicity. While in the past, leather was an inward-facing community that looked after its own, it's become increasingly visible as the definition of leather expands. The secret sex-ed gatherings, the mentorship and the leather families are slowly giving way to more casual kinksters. Leather is no longer the only available refuge for those in the kinky underground, now that it's easier than ever to learn about gay sex, to find role models, and to form close bonds within a community of queers.

The celebratory atmosphere of recent IMLs reflects a wider optimism within the LGBTQ community.

Events like the goofy, lighthearted pup romp would have been hard to imagine under the formal masculine ideals of previous decades. But so would such advances as open military service, the freedom to marry and treatments that prevent the transmission of HIV. The celebratory atmosphere of recent IMLs reflects a wider optimism within the LGBTQ community that's accompanied progress in civil liberties, public health, and inclusion.

Several speeches acknowledged the challenges faced by minority groups within the community. "Imagine if existing means coming out every moment every day," boomed Daddy Jeff, Mr. Midwest Leather 2016, from the stage. "Imagine how that must make our people of color, our women, our trans friends feel."

Leather evolved as secret code issued from the closet for the protection of men whose lives would be ruined by outing; later, it was a community of support that weathered an epidemic. Now, as leather and the queer community grow steadily more welcoming, the focus can shift to an increasingly public and unapologetic enjoyment of sexuality.

"The stigma around being a leatherman has decreased," Schroeder, of Mr. S Leather, says as he arranges harnesses in the morning, anticipating the crush of customers about to pour through the doors.

"I'm 52, so I remember in my early twenties, going to a leather bar was really stigmatized," says Dan Savage. "If your other 22-year-old friends found out you went … they'd look at you like a deranged pervert." Now, he says, "there's a joyful acceptance of everyone's different thing. And everyone recognizing that we're part of a larger kink community. That's a wonderful thing to see happen over the last 30 years."

That's not to say that the community has abandoned its past, and isn't preparing for challenges that lie ahead. At this year's competition, contestants spoke passionately about the threats posed by a Republican administration that's gutting HIV programs, that's revoking civil rights protections and that appointed a hostile justice to the United States Supreme Court.

But there was no attitude of resignation or despondency in the speeches. As the boundaries of leather expand, so too has a spirit of confidence and pride and determination to be heard.

"Hope is in fighting back together," declared Mr. San Francisco Leather Geoff Millard, an Iraq war vet, looking out upon an international audience in extraordinary costumes. "And doing it all while looking fabulous in leather."