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The leather subculture denotes practices and styles of dress organized around sexual activities and hedonistic eroticism ("kink"). Wearing leather garments is one way that participants in this culture self-consciously distinguish themselves from mainstream sexual cultures. Leather culture is most visible in gay communities and most often associated with gay men ("leathermen"), but it is also reflected in various ways in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight worlds. Many people associate leather culture with BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sado/Masochism, also called "SM" or "S&M") practices and its many subcultures. But for others, wearing black leather clothing is an erotic fashion that expresses heightened masculinity or the appropriation of sexual power; love of motorcycles and independence; and/or engagement in sexual kink or leather fetishism.


Popular and Social Origins

Gay male leather culture has existed since the late 1940s, when it likely grew out of post-WWII biker culture. Early gay leather bars were subcultural versions of the motorcycle club. Pioneering gay motorcycle clubs included the Satyrs, established in Los Angelesmarker in 1954; Oedipus, also established in Los Angeles in 1958, and the New Yorkmarker Motorbike Club. Early San Franciscomarker clubs included the Warlocks and the California Motor Club.

These clubs, like the motorcycle culture in general, reflected a disaffection with the mainstream culture of post-World War II America, a disaffection whose notoriety — and therefore appeal — expanded after the sensationalized news coverage of the Hollister "riot" of 1947. The 1953 film The Wild One starring Marlon Brando wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a leather jacket, and muir cap, played on pop-cultural fascination with the Hollister "riot" and promoted an image of masculine independence that resonated with some gay men in a culture which stereotyped gay men as effeminate. To that end, gay motorcycle culture also reflected some men's disaffection with the coexistent gay cultures more organized around high culture, popular culture (especially musical theater), and/or camp. Perhaps as a result, the leather community that emerged from the motorcycle clubs also became the practical and symbolic location for gay men's open exploration of kink and S&M.


The more specifically homoerotic aesthetics of men's leather culture drew on other sources as well, including military and police uniforms. This influence is particularly evident in the graphical illustrations of leathermen found in the work of Tom of Finland. The pornographic films of one of his models Peter Berlin, such as his 1973 film Nights in Black Leather, also reflected and promoted the leather subcultural aesthetic.

Aspects of leather culture beyond the sartorial can also be see in the 1970 murder mystery novel “Cruising” by Jay Green. The novel was the basis for the 1980 movie ”Cruising,” which depicted aspects of the men's leather subculture for a wider audience.

Rob Halford, the lead singer of heavy metal band Judas Priest openly identifies as gay and wears black leather.

And lastly, perhaps no figure has more vividly represented the leather subculture in the popular imagination than the leatherman portrayed by Glenn Hughes of the Village People.

Association with BDSM

SM Gay Men at London Pride 2008
In recent decades the leather community has been considered a subset of BDSM culture rather than a descendant of gay culture. Even so, the most visibly organized SM community has been a subculture of the gay community, as evidenced by International Mr. Leather in the US (established 1979) and SM Gays in the UK (established 1981). Meanwhile, other subcultures have likewise appropriated various leather fashions and practices.


The Leatherman's Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, epitomizes the association of the leather subculture with BDSM. This book also encoded what is called old guard leather culture. This code emphasized strict formality and fixed roles (i.e. no switch). Other old guard practices emphasize discipline, honor, brotherhood, and respect, and are said to promote a stricter lifestyle, education, and intra-community privilege based on successive ranks or levels.

New guard, or new leather, which describes an era in leather culture that started in the early 1990s, embraced switching and a greater variety of approaches to eroticism. An increasing number of pansexual clubs evolved as well.


Leather subcultural practices have also become a common, though perhaps not widespread, element of the goth subculture.


Relatively few lesbian women or heterosexuals were visible during the early emergence of the leather subculture. Patrick Califia, who was a lesbian activist in the San Francisco leather subculture, is credited for defining the emergence of lesbian leather subculture. In 1978, Califia co-founded one of the first lesbian S/M groups, Samois. Califia became a prolific contributor to lesbian and BDSM literary erotica and sex guides.

In North America, with the possible exception of Quebecmarker, gay men's leather culture continues to be associated with men above the age of 40. In Europe younger men have combined the aesthetic and exploration of sexual power with the gay skinhead movement and social-fraternal organizations like BLUF.

Today, while some may still use the term strictly in the old fashioned sense (i.e., Old Guard), more than ever the leather subculture in the 21st century represents the activities of several major sub-communities. These include BDSM practitioners, whether high or low protocol, and whether gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, or pansexual. They also include people who have a preference for aggressive or masculine sexual styles; people who love motorcycles; people involved in kink or leather fetishism; and people who participate in large-scale cultural and marketing events such as Folsom Street Fairmarker or leather-themed circuit parties.


Several major cities host Leather Pride events, including San Franciscomarker's Folsom Street Fairmarker, New York Citymarker's Folsom Street East, Torontomarker's Leatherball and Mr. Leatherman Toronto, Chicagomarker's International Mr. Leather, Montrealmarker, and Berlinmarker.

Influence on mainstream

Styles of dress associated with gay men's leather culture also had influence on mainstream pop culture. It may be seen in the chains and leather or denim and leather look espoused by heavy metal bands. The first practitioner of this look in a heavy metal context was Rob Halford, the lead singer of the influential NWOBHM band Judas Priest. Halford (who is himself openly gay) wore a leather costume on stage as early as 1978, a look he described as originating in the gay leather subculture. The subsequent influence of his costume may be seen in many metal bands, particularly in the widespread and creative appropriation of the codpiece in metal rockers' costumes.

Museums and exhibitions

The 10,000 square foot, two-story Leather Archives and Museum, based in Chicagomarker, has much information and details on the beginning of the leather subculture.

In addition to activities in Chicago, the LA&M serves the leather world by preserving material from various leather communities, and sends traveling exhibits around the country.

In 2005, Viola Johnson started traveling with her collection and telling stories from her 35 years of personal involvement in the leather subculture.

See also


  1. "Elegy for the Valley of Kings," by Gayle Rubin, in In Changing Times: Gay Men and Lesbians Encounter HIV/AIDS, ed. Levine et al., University of Chicago Press
  2. Rubin, Gayle. "The Miracle Mile: South of Market and Gay Male Leather, 1962-1997" in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (City Light Books, 1998).

Further reading

  • Gayle Rubin: Leather Times, Samois 2004, 21:3-7. Online unter
  • Samois. What Color is Your Handkerchief: A Lesbian S/M Sexuality Reader. SAMOIS; Berkeley 1979.
  • Samois: Coming to Power. Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. Alyson Publications, Boston, 3. Auflage Oktober 1987, ISBN 0932870287
  • Pat Califia: "A Personal View of the History of the Lesbian S/M Community and Movement in San Francisco". in: Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M
  • Pat Califia (Hrsg.), Robin Sweeney (Hrsg.): The Second Coming: A Leatherdyke Reader. Alyson Pubns, 1996, ISBN 1555832814 (enthält u.a. eine Schilderung Gayle Rubins über die Geschichte der Outcasts.)
  • Pat Califia: Sapphistry: The book of lesbian sexuality, Naiad Press, 1988, ISBN 0-941483-24-X
  • Pat Califia: Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex (Essays), Cleis Press, 2001, ISBN 1-57344-132-5
  • Gayle Rubin: Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. In: Henry Abelove u.a. (Ed.): The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York (Routledge). 1993. (1st Ed. 1984.)
  • Gayle Rubin: Samois, in Marc Stein (Hrsg.), Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. PDF download
  • Gayle Rubin: The Valley of the Kings: Leathermen in San Francisco, 1960-1990., 1994, Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (01A), 0249. (UMI No. 9513472).
  • Gayle Rubin: Sites, Settlements, and Urban Sex: Archaeology And The Study of Gay Leathermen in San Francisco 1955-1995, in Robert Schmidt and Barbara Voss (Ed.): Archaeologies of Sexuality, London, Routledge, 2000, ISBN 0415223652
  • Nancy Peters (Hrsg.): Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1998, ISBN 0872863352
  • Gayle Rubin: From the Past: The Outcastsfrom the newsletter of the Leather Archives & Museum No. 4, April 1998

External links

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