exuberance of youth and the wisdom of age
By Will O'Bryan
Published on January 17, 2008
As Gary Samuels competed for the title of Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather 2007 a year ago, he made a pledge to the judges and audience gathered at Almas Temple that afternoon.
"As an MAL contestant, I made a promise to anyone coming into this culture, this scene, regardless of how far they've decided to go, if I'm around they won't have to go through it by themselves," recalls Samuels, who went on to win the title that day. That means he's spent a year carrying a banner of mentorship and outreach to youth who may be interested in leather/BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism), stressing that the community veterans need to look to a new generation to keep the community viable. But it can be a tough sell in a community that has evolved out of strict, militaristic roles that stress rank and position, dominance over submissives.
"Have I converted anybody?" he asks. "I don't think so."
What's at stake may go beyond the leather/BDSM community's strength and potential. It may be a matter of its existence.
"[I fear] the culture is going to die," says Samuels. "The leather community goes back to the '40s, the '50s, guys coming out of World War II. The 'founding fathers,' or however you think about it, we lost a lot of these guys in the AIDS epidemic. Even some of the older guys now, what they know of leather history had been passed down to them. And if they have no one to pass it down to, the culture will die out. I am hopeful that won't happen. I remain hopeful in the worst of times. I don't think, realistically, that the culture will die out in my lifetime.
"For all outward appearances, it will probably look the same. Ask anybody not involved to describe a 'leatherman,' it's always an older guy. Walk into any of the bars and that is what you will see. I've seen some younger guys, but they're way outnumbered."
That's how Samuels lays it out. In a nutshell: Adapt and outreach, or die.
But the leather/BDSM community is by no means monolithic. There are polar extremes, shades of gray, and -- for some but not all -- black-and-white dictums. There are a variety of perspectives. That holds true when it comes to issues of age in the local leather/BDSM community.
Ask a leather person about his or her first yearnings for being bound, playing with power, etc., and you usually go all the way back to childhood, much the same as a gay person might recall sparks of same-sex attraction beginning to glow even before puberty.
"When I was maybe 10, my brother invited some friends over for a sleepover," remembers Justin Smith, 28. "They tied me up in a chair and it was a thrill. I liked it. Whenever they'd come over, I'd mess with them till they'd tie me up. I realized I was getting sexually aroused by these guys tying me up. I was being dominated, and I liked it."
Today, Smith's affinity for leather/BDSM has led him to the DC Boys of Leather, where he serves as secretary, and to ONYX, a men-of-color leather/BDSM club, where he's an associate.
Smith's childhood rope-play is not so different from Samuel's awakening. "I was probably about 11 or 12, walking home from school," Samuels recalls. "In some woods, I stumbled across an old Tom of Finland book. It was wet, rained on. I saw the drawings and immediately identified. I took it home. The attraction was always there, but I didn't express it till my wife and I divorced and I came out as an active gay male."
Wayne M. Nesbitt, 44, jokes about sneaking into the DC Eagle leather/Levi gay bar nearly three decades ago -- he was 16 -- not to drink, but because he wanted to buy one of the bar's signature T-shirts. Little could he have known then that 1997 would see him becoming the first African-American Mr. DC Eagle.
The virtual world offers even greater opportunities, and potential traps, for the next generation following in their forefathers' -- and foremothers' -- footsteps of leather/BDSM awakening. Ben Heisler was about 12 years old when he was looking at BDSM imagery. But he didn't have to trust chance to deliver the goods on a wooded path when he could link to the Web. While the chances of Samuels' parents tracing his tracks through the woods were slim, Heisler's Web tracks were easier to spot, allowing his parents to examine his online history. "They said, 'We know that you're gay,"' Heisler, 20, recalls, "'but we're worried that you're into BDSM, because it's dangerous."'
Michele Smith, 42, a coordinator for FIST (Females Investigating Sexual Terrain), doesn't point to a time as early as Justin Smith's (no relation) when it comes to the thrill of ropes, but she does remember her first experience as fondly.
"My first experience was a pansexual play party in the early '90s. I spent my entire night in rope bondage," she says, ending the statement with what seems a brief, barely audible, yet highly satisfied moan.
Then there's the feeling of entering the arena more formally, where there is nearly universal anxiety followed by relief and sense of homecoming. The range of decades seems to make little difference.
From Dr. Larry Barat, 47, a member of the Centaur MC and Mr. DC Eagle 2003: "I came out when I was 19 -- 28 years ago. I first stepped into a leather bar when I was 20. I remember it very vividly, the Boston Ramrod. I remember feeling terrified and excited."
Barat's memories aren't that different than Robert LeCompte's. At 21, he's the newest and youngest member of the DC Boys of Leather.
"I felt like I had some type of kinky side," says LeCompte. "What really brought it out was I was seeing someone, a 'daddy' from Alexandria. For my 21st birthday, he told me he'd take me to my first leather/Levi bar. At the entrance, I was a little bit nervous. But when I walked in, it felt like home. I'd never felt that comfortable in a social scene."
Another DC Boy of Leather, Jason Carcione, 28, the group's sergeant of arms, speaks similarly: "I went to the DC Eagle by myself, MAL by myself. I think the Eagle was more intimidating than MAL.... For a long time, I was so afraid to experience it, but I felt much more involved and welcome than I ever had [in mainstream gay community]."
Many describe their leather/BDSM lifestyle as a second coming-out, one as innate as sexual orientation, but often more controversial with family and friends. Although many common threads tie the generations together, the differences can be jarring.
ALL THE SAME? NO, SIR
The spots where frictions may arise between generations may be both familiar and alien to the rest of the GLBT community. Youth being dismissed as irrelevant, while accusing their elders of predatory behavior is a song everyone knows in gay community. So is the one about young people disrespecting those senior members of the community who fought for freedom, as those freedom fighters resent the younger generation enjoying those freedoms as their own libidos wane.
But grumblings about the sports gear or asking permission to speak fall squarely on the leather/BDSM community.
"My first MAL, in 2001, was very different," explains Samuels. "Last year, there were way more different types of fetishes and kink than there was seven years ago. Sports gear, 'plushies,' motocross. That's younger guys, mostly. The first year I attended, it was leather and military. That's changed a lot.
"It's transition into the fetish/kink community, rather than BDSM. Bondage, discipline, dominant, sub -- if you think in those terms, it's totally different than guys running around as 'plushies."'
The 'plushies' Samuels has set his sights on are people dressed in mascot-like animal costumes for sex play. There's an implied scratching of his head when he mentions his last visit to the International Mr. Leather weekend in Chicago, where he saw at least one attendee in street clothes and costumed dog head. Certainly it's not your grandfather's leather scene.
"Fetish, for the most part, should be kept separate," Samuels concludes. "It doesn't mean you're not part of the community, but it's something different."
Though the 48-year-old Samuels harbors his measure of resentment toward a perceived increase of guys in animal suits or diapers invading leather conclaves -- a community component fueled by the young, he guesses -- Justin Smith and other relatively young people have their own beefs about attitudes.
"I think the older leather community needs to embrace change, and a lot of them don't want to," says Smith, who identifies as a "boy" in a household of one "daddy" and two "brothers" who outrank him in the domestic pecking order. "That's sometimes seen as being stubborn. That turns young people off.
"I once made a suggestion to a 'sir,' and he said, 'I didn't give you permission to speak to me.' I apologized. I just wanted to suggest a different way of doing something. He still paid me no mind and said, 'Don't speak to me, boy.' I should've asked permission, but he shouldn't have come across like that. That's 'old guard."New guard' is a different interpretation of protocol."
It's tough to discuss issues of age and friction in the leather/BDSM community without brining up the "old guard" and "new guard." In the simplest terms, "old guard" refers to those members of the leather/BDSM community who prefer a rigid hierarchy and a strict interpretation of traditional roles and protocols. "New guard," meanwhile, advocates a more liberated community, with members free to move through different identities or seek whatever stimulus they like, using their desires -- rather than convention -- as their guide. The notion that the "old guard vs. new guard" debate has anything to do with age is dismissed by most, countered by examples of young advocates of the "old guard" and elderly community members heralding "new guard" values. Still, those youngsters do seem a little more loose in their interpretations.
Take Carcione, for example. "I've been involved in the leather community for the last five years. I identify as gay, as a 'boy.' For me, it's kind of submissive. But I don't wrap up my entire identity in someone else being dominant over me."
Or LeCompte, who may be falling behind if his goal is to learn the leather/BDSM ins and outs with military precision: "I'm still learning about the two sides. It's a big mystery. From what I understand, with 'old guard' you have no say with a 'sir' or 'master.' With 'new guard' -- I'm not sure this is accurate -- you can say something. A 'daddy' told me about it, but I really haven't grasped the difference."
And Heisler, the youngest of the bunch and a dedicated submissive, isn't even certain that he needs to formally join the community in all its tradition and ceremony.
"There are a lot of reactions you get as a young person coming into the leather community. You can be met with total snobbery occasionally in the 'old guard' leather community. They were the pioneers, the people it means the most to, so they don't want new people coming in. I haven't dealt with it personally, but I have heard it from people I know.
"But I feel like I'm so open about [bondage] that I may not need the community as much as some people do. I'm ready to see what's going to happen. I've had years of sexual practice, and now I want to get involved in other ways. But I've realized over the past year that I really like being alone, being independent. The fact that I've never really fit in anywhere is fine with me."
Some of the biggest differences pop up where the leather/BDSM community faces the same struggle as any suburban mom sweating over her daughter's Facebook page. Web access is embraced by the young, and embraced conditionally by their older peers.
Michele Smith offers a sobering warning to the younger set who may appreciate the ease of surfing for playmates.
"I've heard horror stories about meeting people online and it turns out to be a horrible situation," she says. "One woman, probably in her upper 20s, was abandoned. She thought she was meeting one person, but it turned out to be three. They took advantage of her and left her. It happens. I'd like to see young people seek out groups like FIST, because there are so many young people who want to know more.... I always tell them to check references."
Barat, who says he's thrilled to speak online to leather people around the world -- recently getting a firsthand report from a Chinese leatherman of possibly that country's first leather gathering -- is still quick to back Smith's caution.
"There are also great risks in using the Net. The Net allows fakes and people with bad intentions to hide their identities. There are predators on the Net. There are many guys who pretend to be experienced 'sirs' or 'masters,' who are no such thing. And for a guy who is new to the community, they may not have the capacity to differentiate between a fraud and the real thing.... For a guy who is new to BDSM, I always suggest that they meet someone out for a drink or coffee first, before agreeing to go to that person's home. An experienced leatherman would not find that unusual or unreasonable."
But for every older and wiser caution, there is that youthful abandon.
"The Internet works wonders," says Justin Smith. "You can be anybody on the Internet. I know a lot of young leathermen of color on the Internet. Men of color hit me up: 'I'm so curious about leather, what do I do?"'
Heisler takes his Internet endorsement a step further.
"The Internet is the greatest thing that could ever happen for young people interested [in leather/BDSM]," he says. "The place I refer people to most about sub-dom relationships, leather, the community, theory, is Wikipedia.... In my firm opinion, with Web sites like Recon.com, it almost creates an accountability. If something ever did happen to me, there would be an accountability. There would be a clear way to find out what I'd been doing, because when I'm going to meet someone new I always leave my little note on my desk that says I'm going to go out and meet this person. If I never come back, look here!"
Though he's a fan of Recon.com, he does grant that some caution is necessary.
"I'm very, very wary of meeting people off a site like Craig's List, because there's much less accountability. You haven't created a registered profile."
A LEATHER LEGACY
So how does an attitude like Heisler's -- a go-it-alone, relatively self-made attitude of tomorrow -- bode for the future of the leather/BDSM community? If Nesbitt's history in the community is any indication, things may be better than anyone can imagine. Whether they know it or not, Heisler, at 20, and Nesbitt, at 44, are birds of a feather.
Nesbitt, a stalwart member of the local leather/BDSM community, is a bit of a standout for standing apart. Heisler's attitudes toward independence, coupled with his firm leather/BDSM identity, make the two fellow travelers, even if decades apart. Nesbitt, though incredibly well respected in the community, has been invited to join many leather/BDSM clubs, declining every time.
"I considered it," Nesbitt admits. "All the area clubs invited me to join, but I chose never to be in a club. There are advantages. You don't get involved in the 'office politics.' If you have a club, there's going to be drama. There are advantages to not being involved. You can serve the leather community without being involved in those interpersonal complications."
Listening to the two speak about the other's end of the age spectrum, it's obvious that similarities run deeper than differences.
"It is so difficult to find people who are legitimate, worthwhile 'doms,"' says Heisler, referring to BDSM partners playing the dominant role.
"I think that it is hard to find...quality leather people under the age of 30," says Nesbitt.
And, affiliated or not, they'll both be at MAL Weekend, the theme for which just happens to be "Get in Gear." The promotions even feature Gary "no fetish, thank you" Samuels, front and center in football gear.
Barat, a self-identified "sir" or "daddy," who confesses some allegiance to the "old guard" way of doing things, says that if the theme looks as though it was designed to appeal to a younger crowd, well that's because it was.
"The whole idea of the 'Get in Gear' theme is making guys into sports/fetish gear feel welcome. That tends to be younger guys," says Barat, who manages marketing for the Centaur MC, producers of MAL Weekend. "Certainly that's been one thing I've put effort into: figuring out what young guys want, figuring out where they get their information. We've shifted a lot of our marketing online.... It's not about pushing aside people who are older. It's about welcoming younger guys into an existing community. People understand and welcome that."
Indeed, it's not just the young who recognize the value of youth.
"Some of the older leather guys, they see a younger guy and they treat him like a fish out of water," says the gear-sporting Samuels. "It's something I wanted to work at, welcoming the younger guys into the community. Does he really want to be a leather guy? Maybe not, but make him feel comfortable, welcome. Teach him, answer questions, rather than have him walk in and feel totally alienated."
Adds Nesbitt: "Everything evolves. We can't ride the wave of traditional 'old guard' role-play forever. The reality of human existence has changed. The play has changed with it. I'm hoping that when I'm 60, I won't be standing in a corner saying, 'Look at those younger people. They don't know anything.' I'm hoping I'll be saying, 'I hope I can do that,' even if I have to do it on my walker."
And there's no reason not to give the next generation the benefit of the doubt. Though the Centaur MC, for example, may not count any members younger than their mid 30s, the next generation is out there. And they are dedicated.
Justin Smith, though he may have felt slighted by an 'old guard' snub, insists the overwhelming feeling in the leather community isn't friction, but love: "When I walk into a leather event, everyone is very warm and engaging. You could be a crabapple and they'd still love you."
For Carcione, his dedication to the leather/BDSM is payback for the measure of acceptance he's found: "There's much more of a celebration of individuality in the leather community. I always feel restricted when I go out with my non-leather friends. I've always sort of marched to the beat of my own drum, and I see this community as something that celebrates that."
And no aged leather momma or daddy could possibly help but recognize some of his or her own initial wonder from years ago in LeCompte as he readies himself for his very first MAL weekend.
"I'm more excited than nervous," the 21-year-old shares. "I've never been to MAL so I don't know what to expect. I'm just excited to meet new people and get a whole view of it. My club brothers tell me it's going to be a lot of fun."