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Are leather/SM clubs a thing of the past?

There was a time when Motorcycle clubs were almost the only means of community for kinky gay men. In the 70's that began broadening to include leather clubs specifically for SM sex. But in the world of 2000 and beyond, do we need them anymore? In the world of sex clubs like San Francisco's BlowBuddies and The Power Exchange; the world of the internet and AOL chatroom hook-ups; do we still need these aging institutions, or are they just the last hold outs of an "Old Guard" dying a slow but inexorable death?

I've wondered about those questions often over the admittedly few years I've been active in this "community." My answer has always been a firm "yes, these clubs serve a valuable service and are an important part of our culture, worth preserving and participating in." My main belief was summed up rather well by John Preston in an essay many years ago, where he discussed how the leather world provides young gay men things the culture at large does not -- initiation, brotherhood, belonging, acceptance of their fullest selves that is rejected as perverted by the world. Starting in college, I'd had a huge interest in things such as Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell's comparative mythology, and for a long time the subject of the male initiation process had been a special interest among all of that. The rituals of the SM clubs are like the brutal, ecstatic tribal initiations of long ago -- they touch upon deep-seated and often misunderstood needs within us.

I have seen and experienced those things in action through my participation in an SM club. I'll always remember a night where a young man watched me getting flogged, entranced and with a raging hard on. Afterwards he came over to talk with me about it. It was something he'd never done, but watching me, he said, had made it look so incredible. We talked. I encouraged him, shared my experiences -- through the glow of that glorious post-flogging high. A couple hours later I looked across the room to see that young man bound to a cross, taking his first flogging, and loving it as much as I'd loved mine. It was an amazing moment -- something had passed through me to someone else. The thing that had let me become more me than ever had now touched someone else and taken him to his own new heights. I felt humbled and deeply moved.

In the world created by these clubs, my heroes have become my friends. After nearly 30 years of life experience piled up on me to say I was never good enough, never on the same level as anyone else, these men didn't see me that way at all and refused to let me think that way anymore. Even promised to beat the shit out of me if I ever felt that way again. Me, the perpetual younger brother, always looking up to the "big boys" I thought I'd never be -- for the first time I was one of those big boys.

But then something happened. That luscious fruit turned out to have a rotten core. Turns out those moments of glory were more miraculous than I'd thought. Because the club turns out to be a disastrous mess, crippled by power struggles between doddering old codgers who can't see that their time has past; backstabbing sneaks who, apparently having absorbed too many episodes of "Dynasty," engage in malicious smear campaigns against their imagined enemies; and a few valiant individuals fighting against hope to restore reason and dignity. And whenever you start to think the good guys are winning, some sleazebag pulls out another scheme to undermine the whole works, and the cycles start over again.

Sure, I knew before I joined there were political issues. In a club that size I suppose a little of that is to be expected. But I never knew just how bad it was. The other night, after the latest episode of the soap opera, I found myself wondering if it was time to start a new one, with a different batch of guys who saw things the way I did. And then that thought was followed with another one: why a club, at all?

I mean, the vast majority of kinky people out there never go to or have anything to do with the leather clubs, right? And I've got lots of great friends with whom I feel I belong, so I don't need a club for that anymore, now do I? And there are certainly other ways to find people to "play" with. Why bother with the hassle of a club, old or new?

But then... I think back to years ago, when I was still very much in the "leather closet." Hell, farther back than that -- to high school, when I was still very much in THE closet. I remember when I used to see drag queens and nelly fags on TV or something, and I'd think, "that's a gay guy. I'm gay. But I don't want to be like that." I remember seeing Bob Paris on the Phil Donahue show eventually, and probably for the first time believing that there was such a thing as a masculine gay man. That gave me a lot of hope.

Then I started realizing I was into kinky stuff too. But the only representatives of the leather world I ever seemed to see were monstrously unattractive old men with guts pouring over their chaps, in harnesses that looked equally ridiculous. And if they weren't old, it seemed there was usually something else creepy about them. Leatherfolk, it seemed, were the freaks all self-respecting gay people wished would just go away. I finally managed to meet enough real people (often online) and, most importantly, got myself to a big leather event to see all that wasn't true. It was finding the right examples that made all the difference. Finding the men who were what I wanted to be, who had that something I wanted to have.

I remember one night, some time after all that, with a guy I was sort of seeing for a while. After some particularly beautiful sex, I said something like "I feel like I can never repay you for teaching me about all this." And he said "you pay me back by teaching the next kid."

And so now, I think about all those guys out there who are other versions of the me from a few years ago. Granted, coming out is easier for lots of people nowadays, but not all. And granted, it's more accepted to be a little kinky, to tie up your boyfriend for a little thrill, but it's still not all that cool to be a full-on leatherman. There are still young men out there with my old fears. And they need to see, when they walk into a bar, or at a parade or other event, a group of proud men in slick leather uniforms, smiling and reveling in each other's company, and think "whatever they've got -- that's what I want."

And then we'll smile over at them invitingly, and we'll proceed to teach that next kid.

So yes, I think there are still some good reasons for having leather clubs. Just, maybe, not the ones we have now.

© 2000, Dan Nash

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