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The Leatherman in History
By LIN ORNDORF

In the late 1970's, The Village People personified and exaggerated several gay fantasy stereotypes. One of those was a leatherman. Complete with a horseshoe moustache, Glenn Hughes was the perfect vision of a leatherman dressed in leather from cap to boots. But, alas, he was, in reality, a straight biker fanatic who had an amazing bass voice and could shake his booty like nobody’s business.

But leathermen are a real part of the LGBTQ community. They are one of our many subcultures. The leather/Levi/biker community is alive and well in Asheville, NC. I had coffee with Jim Haggerty and John Yelton, president and vice president of the WNC Leatherman recently to learn more about their group, the culture, and hopefully bring some understanding to another gay stereotype.

Haggerty started things off by asking me what I knew about leathermen.

I stammered out an answer that immediately revealed I was fairly ignorant about the subject and that most of what I knew had been learned from magazine and book covers in queer or adult bookstores, “Well, I know they’re guys, really masculine or tough guys who are into wearing leather and…uhmm, it’s maybe related to some ya know, kinky stuff, sort of.”

Don’t be scared to read the rest of this article; we didn’t go into any real specifics about the “kinky stuff.” We stuck to a general overview. If you want to know more, the WNC Leathermen have a monthly Meet ‘n Greet at Straps.

My answer hung in the air and both Haggerty and Yelton politely smirked. My poorly formed vision of the leather community amused them but they were interested in answering my questions so we could breakdown a stereotype and build understanding in the LGBTQ community with a little education.

Haggerty said, “Let’s start with a little history…”

The origins of the Leather/Levi/Biker culture can be traced back to the 1940s, more specifically to the end of World War II. Men being discharged from military service were often given leather jackets and even motorcycles. Many men did not return to their hometowns but stayed in and round the ports of call where they were released from the military.

Many of these men missed the camaraderie they had when they were in the military. So, they formed clubs. Out of these clubs, grew the “old guard” leather culture that incorporated rigid order and rules and a pledge system with a new member being apprenticed to a more experienced member, in a daddy/boy (not based on age differences but rather experience, think of it like military ranks; Captain/Private) or master/slave kind of relationship.

In this day and age, there are a lot of different subcultures within the leather community. Many of the groups have a greater social aspect to them but for some the fetish aspect is very important.

Asheville’s local club, the WNC Leathermen, is “new guard” group. Haggerty explained that they don’t operate under the strict codes and pledging system of “earning your leather or marks” that was common in the past. The membership of the WNC Leathermen encompasses a wide range of lifestyles and subcultures from leather and Levi to sports gear to rubber.

Yelton admitted, “I like that our club is open to anyone. It’s cross-cultural within a subculture.”

He and Haggerty told me they think the stereotypical image of a leather daddy, bare-chested with crisscrossing leather harness, etc., may have grown out of a contest or pageant. Also, Tom of Finland’s art was a major influence on the leather culture. Over a 40-year period, he produced some 3500 illustrations of hyper-masculine men with exaggerated features. He is best known for “homomasculine” archetypes such as lumberjacks, motorcycle cops, sailors, bikers and leathermen. (Hhmmm, I wonder if he was also the inspiration for The Village People…)

Asheville, in all its sometimes-freaky glory, is not a place I expect to see men dressed in leather from head to toe, at least not many.

Yelton, who grew up about an hour from Asheville and has lived here since 1988, said, “20 years ago, if you wore leather, you could raise some eyebrows.” He admitted that it’s not much different now. “You have to develop a thick skin…accept that a lot of people will give you a cold shoulder. You’d run into folks all decked-out in some place like Atlanta, but not here.”

Haggerty, who moved here about a year and a half ago with his partner from Ft. Lauderdale, told me how the WNC Leathermen started, “John was the only one I knew…we talked about starting a club and put the word out that we would meet at Straps.”

Both men told me with big smiles how surprised and pleased they were with the turn out for that first gathering almost a year ago. Now they have about 40 members and non-profit status. The WNC Leathermen are part of a regional association, the Southeast Conference of Clubs (SECC).

From there our conversation moved toward the culture and images or stereotypes of these leather-clad men, how other folks in the LGBTQ respond to them, who they are, and what some of the symbology is.

“My experience is that when you’re out in the clubs, women are more likely to come up to you and talk about it and ask questions, sometimes just about the gear. The men sometimes are more likely to be standoffish…” commented Yelton.

Haggerty concurred saying, “Yeah, they’ll [men] look you up and down and think he must be into some freaky shit.”

But, for the most part, everyone gets along. And since the WNC Leathermen are a “new guard” club, our local leather community is a little more laid-back than the “old guard” clubs.

Yelton elaborated, “There used to be a stricter code, and there was the hankie code, or guys can’t talk until their master says so.”

Hankie code?

“It developed after the war [WWII]. In the 1970s it was more popular than now. It was a way to let people know what you were into without being out…different colors and pockets meant different things,” explained Yelton.

Haggerty told me, “Even some of the leather gear is that way. I bought some cuffs and the guy asked me if I wanted the snaps up or down. Apparently it means something different...”

All kinds of men from all walks of life can be found in leather groups. Some are doctors or attorneys. Some are working class men who struggle and save from week to week to buy their gear. But they are all men.

Haggerty admitted, “We don’t have any women, even as associate members. It is a gay men’s club. But there are women who are into leather and we’ve put it out there that we would provide assistance in getting something started.”

We talked about the dykes on bikes stereotype and how some think it’s a negative image of the LGBTQ community.

Yelton said, “People say the same about the leathermen, ‘we don’t want to show those extremes.’ If you want to bust those stereotypes, go into a leather bar and listen to the conversations.”

I was a little puzzled but Haggerty gave me an example. “In Ft. Lauderdale, it’s hot. These guys were in their leather jackets and leather hats and they were talking about opera and which aria was their favorite.” Now, that’s a good way to break a stereotype.

The WNC Leathermen will turn a year old with an anniversary celebration on Saturday, November 1 at O. Henry’s, Straps, and LaRue’s. Their Boots, Boxers, and a Bag of Groceries event is a benefit for Loving Food Resources. The cover will be waived for anyone bringing 5 or more non-perishable food items. And there will be a “clothes check” for those who take the “boxers” part seriously.

For more information, visit www.wncleathermen.com.

 

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