Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Unbuckling Straps: An undoing of the NYC Leather Community

Past or present?
A week ago the decades-old organization of Gay Male S/M Activists (GMSMA) of New York put the kibosh on their twice a month meetings and community. Over the years numbers of attendees dwindled from hundreds to just a handful and as the letter below states, "there are simply not enough men who are willing and able to step forward to lead the organization."

The letter below was dropped in my inbox a few days ago.
I recently attended the final Wednesday night meeting of Gay Male S/M Activists (GMSMA). That’s right, I said “final.” Finished. Done. It’s over. The organization’s annual meeting on Wednesday, June 17, 2009, was billed as a “celebration of GMSMA." What’s happening is that after decades of being a vibrant, thriving organization of gay men interested in learning about safe, sane and consensual s/m, GMSMA is now “transitioning” into a non-profit foundation. There will be no more Wednesday night programs.

During its heyday, GMSMA had hundreds of members from not only New York City but from across the country and even from overseas. Regular meetings were held twice a month, and it was not uncommon for the third floor meeting room of the gay community center on West 13th Street to be jam packed with dozens or even 100 or more men eager to learn and to socialize. One night the topic might be how to tie up your boyfriend in really good rope bondage, another time you could learn all about flogging and whipping, or how to put together a really kick-ass cop or firefighter uniform....

GMSMA was also an activist organization. Its leaders were instrumental in securing a place at the table for the leather community in groundbreaking gay civil rights marches in our nation’s capital. It was also the first s/m organization to include “S/M” in its title. That may not sound like much of a big deal today, but when GMSMA was founded back in 1981 those who engaged in s/m activities were often looked upon as freaks or deviants — even by those in the larger gay community. Believe it or not, GMSMA had to fight to be allowed to meet at the gay community center. In later years it became one of the center’s biggest financial donor organizations.

There were about 45 men in attendance at the last meeting in June, including a leather top who brought a very sexy and shirtless tattooed slave on a leash, who greeted the men he was introduced to by getting down on his hands and knees and licking their boots. Most who showed up were old-timers — one came in on the train from northeastern Connecticut. A few who came were newer members. At least half — including me — were former board members of the organization who had put in years or in some cases even decades of service to the community. But when the official business of the meeting got under way and the remaining officers announced the sad plans to effectively shut down the organization, only one man in attendance raised an objection.

It was painful for many others as well, but the unfortunate fact, what everybody knew — and what ultimately led to the end for GMSMA — is that there are simply not enough men who are willing and able to step forward to lead the organization anymore. The current board was down to just three members (a fourth signed on to help in the coming months with the transition). They were over-worked and under-appreciated. The harsh reality is that the organization simply could not continue to exist in its current form without more manpower.
It's unfortunate when an organization such as this, where gay men can come together and learn "safe, sane and consensual" ways to broaden their sexual horizons comes to a close.

I'm not a leather guy and I suppose that's just the problem. Very few men hovering around my age range and younger seem to be interested or know or know-to-care or care-to-know anything about the leather community or the meaning and history behind it. Sure some of us have our Sam Brownes and harnesses for events like The Black Party and Folsom Street East, when leather is acceptable and down-right dress code but by no means is there a trend going toward the leather lifestyle. Older friends tell stories of what leather truly means. That it is much more than fashion, accessories, more than "Masc and solid," more than butch and mean. Leather is a means to discovering the deeper connections two men can have between one another. A bonding experience. An exposure and measure of trust and vulnerability. Still, maybe for those of us whose closet doors were left ajar rather than bolted shut there isn't that search for sexual comprehension or need for fetish-based sexual fulfillment. Sex is here. It's now. It's out, it's open. It may not be talked about as much as it's happening but it is happening. The analogy of leather, no longer, necessarily applies? Maybe if play spaces and dungeons were more widely available, established or more culturally/socially accepted leather would be more current or stand a greater chance? Yet even though I'm one of those casual street event, Folsom-based leather guys it strikes me as a loss, a changing of landscapes, a shifting of wavelength when communities such as these meet an end.

Is it all be too far gone? The men of true leather are either dead or significantly older and the few still proudly fastening chaps and strapping harnesses, outside of commercial scenes, are seeing their beloved, sought out organizations closing. I suppose it's all fitting. What place does leather have these days? Here in NYC. New.York.City. We have only The Eagle, which is rather leather-light and The Lure and Spike are long gone, gone, gone. If International Mr. Leather and Mid Atlantic Leather are major events, then where are the pockets of that in other urban/rural areas? Have we become lazy or casually unconcerned?

Will we see a resurgence in leather and this community? Will men step up and lead or will this be yet another relic of our past?


Lolita said...

GMSMA was not willing to change the way they always did things in the past. It became stale. There is now a void. Let's see what will start up to fill that void.

kitchenbeard said...

You touch on an important point when you discuss that for many guys of your age, there was never a need to be barricaded in the closet. Instead, their attitude is more "what's the big deal?" with out really having a sense of what the hypermasculinity of the leather community represented at one time and in that, further pushing the boundaries of sexual expression to include kink and all that it entailed. Without the need to go to exteremes to hide or extremes to not hide, there is less need for orgs like GMSMA. It's a shame, I agree, but as someone has already commented, the group was unable to evolve in the face of these changes in how our community is operating.

Jason A. Smith said...

Great post. Curious why you think there are fewer leather guys your age or what that means. Perhaps this is an opportunity for something to take its place.

Jimbo3DC said...

The same thing is happening here in DC - these groups are simply dissolving. It's easy to blame the Internet, but Lolita and kitchenbeard have a point as well. Maybe there are many reasons, but it's interesting to observe.

At least they had the good management sense to come to a close.

David said...

There are plenty of niche organizations in the straight world, both sexual and non, that have gone by the wayside as society has shifted, evolved or otherwise changed. I'm not one to morn the passing of things that are not truly essential. There are groups that existed at my old alma mater that used to be "institutions" that are now defunct. I have a moment of wistfulness and then I move on. GMSMA seems like another such case. I know how much you value the history of the gay community, but things come and go. It is the nature of the world. At least GMSMA is going during a time where it looks like the LGBT community is moving forward. More a victim of progress than one of oppression. Celebrate their triumphs, honor their history and close the book.

ted said...

Longtime lurker, first time commenter.

I don't really believe in cultural progress, just cultural change. The slow decline of the Leather community is certainly not a good thing, not just for the people who identify with it and the people who would be part of it if they could find it, but also for all LGBT people, who need to know the history of the culture they became part of -- even tangentially -- when they came out. There are so many reasons that the decline has happened, from changes in gender roles, to the assimilation of the LGBT community, from the vanishing of most of a generation of Leatherfolk because of AIDS, to changes in numerous pyschosocial things that push people towards S/M. Gayle Rubin has written a lot about the changes in the Leather community, and some of it is free via Google.

King.of. said...

Hmm, I wouldn't say that guys our age aren't interested in leather or BDSM. But its always been my thing to notice that guys usually get into that deal later in life? Late 30's-40s-50's crowd. Like Swingers, you're gonna find more of an older crowd in that particular sexual niche than you would younger people (and its not because younger don't swing but because we're just less likely to organize an event around it and just 'do the damn thang'. Just you said, young gays may have some leather in their closet somewhere buts its not gonna make them go all out and nurture a leather community)

I think others have pointed out reasons why its becoming defunct as it were but... eh, there's a whole het. leather scene out there too and with wider acceptance I guess there isn't a need for a Men's Only Leather space that much; or at least the general leather scene is accepting enough whereas gay leathermen/boys don't feel the *absolute* need to create their own space?

I don't see the gay leatherman fading into obscurity though; its just too powerful a sexual force/dynamic that I think a lot of men will gravitate to or experiment with.

But I just think we'll do it later rather than sooner and thats why the community may not see a surge in youth joining their groups. They may have to wait till they aren't youths anymore.

Aegletes said...

This is an interesting entry on the demise of an organization that taught me a lot. A couple of years ago, I finally got comfortable enough with myself to want to explore my repressed interest in BDSM (seriously, it's almost like coming out the closet a second time), I was fortunate enough to learn of GMSMA and its many resources for novices and through GMSMA I learned a great deal not only about technique and safety, but about human nature and the beauty of sexual expression. In an age when too many men think they can just teach themselves or figure things out on the Internet, the absence of an educational resources like GMSMA will certainly be felt. In fact, I can't help thinking that much like brick-and-mortar gay bookstores, organizations like GMSMA may be suffering because of people's preference for the immediacy of online resources. However, when it comes to BDSM training, there is no substitute for mentoring and hands-on training. In that sense, GMSMA will be missed.

Boomer said...

I don't think the actual leather scene will ever go away. In bedrooms and basement dungeons across America guys are still gonna be getting tied up and paddled...some guys are always gonna like that stuff. It is just the organizations that are going away. Like with many things, the internet makes finding playmates easy without the need for a club.

Also when most of these groups were formed they were one of the few organized outlets in the gay community for guys that identified themselves as more on the manly man or butch end of the spectrum. Now with the thriving Bear movement, etc. there are plenty of other places for guys who like manly man types to meet.

The Bobsters said...

When you have found yourself less marketable as a young man you resort to this. It is cheap and an affront to the goals of civil rights.

RJP3 said...

As the gay commmunity bonded together so did the Leather Community ... with it's call for SAFE AND SANE PLAY.

Once the SAFE and SANE fell by the wayside ... the leather and gay community started to collapse --- because the positive energy went away.

We start CELEBRATING be wise adults men celebrating SAFE and SANE === and turned into a bunch of HIV POZ QUEENS crowing about how much they LOVE barebacking ... the community died.

Time to start manning up again.

M said...

I am the author of the article about the end of GMSMA, and I posted that piece to my blog, which is at after the final meeting.

Interestingly, this one post has become the most commented upon posting on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe the leather community is dying, and even more strongly disagree that there aren't younger folks interested in leather. But our community has shifted. The internet has made education easier for folks just starting out (not to mention easier to find hook ups); it has also made it easier to find folks with our own particular fetishes.
The age of titleholders is dying because we no longer need public figures to find leather folk or mentors or leaders. This is definitely a shift in our community and leather landscape, a cultural change as someone noted, but certainly not its death. In fact, it's future may be bigger than ever-- but the loss of GMSMA and other institutions will be gaps and challenges the new leadership will need to surmount.

Avatar LA said...

Greetings from Los Angeles: I am the current Secretary Elect of Avatar Club Los Angeles, and heard of the demise of GMSMA. We have members who came from that tradition and they brought knowledge and education to our club.
We were faced with many of the same challenges here, declining interest, stale meetings, yet unwilling to change; with subsequent generations who received their information in ways inconceivable to our elders.

However, Avatar has always been blessed with a strong-willed core of brotherhood, with three founding members still active after twenty-six years, and many dedicated long time participants.

Southern California is blessed with an embarrassment of riches in our larger Leather/Fetish community. We have an ever-growing title system, which has been a launching pad for new generations of leaders. This contest is sponsored by the Los Angeles Leather Coalition, the LALC, which is an umbrella organization for every type of club, bar and business in our community. LALC's ongoing job is to coordinate event calendars to reduce schedule conflicts among its members.
There is much more to share. My partner and I are coming to NYC and would enjoy the opportunity to meet with anyone who could share more insight as to what happened with GMSMA.
I would also like to meet with anyone who is interested in establishing a cross country bond with Avatar in hopes of reinventing some kind of BDSM educational resource in NYC.
Our website, still being remodeled, is
"I refuse to assimilate, but I DEMAND Equal Protection Under the Law".
In Kink,
Tom T.
Avatar Club Los Angeles