Let’s Dissect Queer Men’s Longstanding Connection to Leather and BDSM
You just don’t see a guy in a straight bar wearing a leather harness. Meanwhile, if you head to any gay bar, maybe even one that isn’t a “leather bar” per se, you’ll always find at least one man wearing some leather accessory — a harness, armband, wrist cuff, cap. And if you find yourself at Folsom Street Fair (East or West) or The Eagle (pick a city, really), you’re likely to find yourself in a sea of full moons in ass-less chaps.
“When I think of some of the earliest images that turned me on, I think of Tom of Finland,” Saynt tells Hornet. “His images captured a real moment in the emergence of gay culture, of fashion as a part of an identity. Images of men in uniform, hyper-masculine leather daddies with chests full of hair. He captured a strong, sensual side of male sexuality and in the process inspired a global movement of gay men embracing leather.”
While Tom of Finland is undoubtedly the father of the leather aesthetic, for many gay and bisexual men it goes further than a look. As Saynt implies, it’s part of their queer identity — which is heavily intertwined with BDSM.
Something happens the moment you put on your first leather harness. You change. Your posture is more erect. You’re more confident. You feel in power.
Dominus explains to Hornet how he feels while working:
When I do professional work as a dom, wearing the gear is like putting on my superhero costume. It makes me feel extremely powerful and sets the tone immediately.
Wearing leather puts you in a different headspace during sex, which for many is the ultimate allure of BDSM: taking you to a different mental space through inflicting or receiving pain, humiliation, a golden shower maybe, and so on.
But BDSM isn’t so much about the pleasure (or pain) as much as it’s about the experience and the intensity. There are certain feelings that arise from being in a place of power or submission and humiliation. Wearing leather helps many guys get into that headspace, which then allows them to experience those feelings more intensely.
The first time I wore a harness I was 22 years old. I walked into an underground leather bar in Boston with an older French couple I was sleeping with. I decked myself out in leather chaps, suspenders, a hat, arm cuffs and big ol’ ass-kicking boots. (My gay uncle had seen about $2,000 worth of gear at a yard sale and bought it all for five bucks. He kindly bestowed it all to me, joking, “I’m too old for this shit.”)
I’d say it took a little bit of time to get used to. At first I felt like an imposter for wearing it. I thought, “That isn’t actually who I am.” I felt I was co-opting a BDSM identity that wasn’t me. But after a couple hours, being surrounded by other men in leather, I felt a sense of belonging, that this is where I should be, and this is who I am. It was an element of my masculinity and sexuality that I hadn’t properly tapped into yet. And I knew at the time that my whole world was about to change, and it did. I delved further into the leather, BDSM and sex party scene — a rabbit hole from which I haven’t yet re-emerged all these years later.
In fact, these days I can’t go out to a gay bar without having a least one leather accessory on me at all times. Even if it’s something other guys can’t see — maybe an armband underneath my shirt — I like knowing it’s there. It’s for me. It instills in me not only confidence but a sexiness I don’t quite feel without it.
“The smell, feel and texture of leather is simply amazing,” Dominus says, “because it hits a variety of senses from the visual to tactile as well as mental.”
Saynt also notes that leather helps to tap into a unique childhood experience specific to gay men. “For many men, growing up gay or bi brought a lot of ridicule,” he says. “We were constantly bullied. But when you put on some leather, that all disappears. You take control.”
For so many leather is greater than the sex, the headspace, the aesthetic and the embracing of masculinity. It’s the ultimate catharsis.
As a queer man, what is your relationship to leather and BDSM?
This article was originally published on June 11, 2018. It has since been updated.