January/February 2002
Black Leather Jackets
by Chris M


Myth is a great teacher. We are a storytelling people, and the ghosts of the past haunt the present, guiding us, warning us, always informing our actions. Churchill once said that because he had read further back, he could see further ahead. We need myths and fables to sustain us, to tell us where we come from, what other realities have existed before our time and why they have passed away. In the world of kink, the past plays a mighty role. The infantile fantasies of childhood, the fixations, therapists assure us, originate in long forgotten trauma and the reenactment of humanities great failings - slavery, imprisonment, torture chambers, rape - all echo in the fantasy play of SM practitioners. People invent fictive personal histories, and pad their resumes to add years (and it is assumed self assurance skill and wisdom) to the image people have of them. And many of us, myself included, root endlessly through world and art history looking for kinky ancestors to supplant the paucity of mentors in the present era.

The following letter was part of a correspondence between Shiloh and a novice dominant he was mentoring some years ago. But be warned. As knowledgeable as he is, Shiloh has been known to tell a whopper or two. He also, for whatever reason, invents characters like Biker Nick (his alter ego) and attributes his adventures to them. Caveat Emptor. And now Shiloh speaks.

(Be prepared.. this is long!)

I’m writing from my hotel room at the Black Rose festival in suburban Washington DC, what the organizers assure me is the largest SM conference in the country. Two thousand conventioneers in stilettos, jackboots, or padding about barefoot at the end of a leash. The elevators are crammed with smiling kinksters of all ages and persuations clutching bags of brand new “toys” freshly purchased from the gargantuan vendor floor. In my day, an unfinished basement, fifty feet of rope and a whole lot of imagination was all you needed to create a little dollop of heaven on earth. But, the times have changed.

These conventions have been happening for about ten years, and this one is typical, if larger. That is typical too, every year they grow like KS lesions and there are more of them. This one is the third or fourth hosted by Black Rose. Two hotels! A vendor floor the size of Macys overflowing with more toys than Santa’s workshop! Workshops beginning every hour! Awards ceremonies. Inspirational speeches. A dungeon the size of a small aircraft hanger patrolled by baby-faced “dungeon monitors” making sure that nothing too hairy takes place. The attendees all looked like mad max - even the girls.

So why am I cowering in my room trying in vain to find a decent country station on the radio with that bacchanal raging below? Because I feel old. Not chronologically mind you. Easily half of the kinksters reveling downstairs are in their late forties or higher. Many of them are as silver haired and ancient as I am. It’s soul weariness, my young friend, brought on by …well you’ve heard my rant on this theme before. SM is so different today from how it used to be. For decades it was the most intimate, scary, beautiful thing you could share with another human being! And now? A freak show, with all the subtlety of a Mardi Gras float. They have taken what was once intimate, forbidden and holy and turned it into a garish theme park.

The play area downstairs (Play. Man do I hate that word) really does resemble a Sadomasochistic Epcot. Picture this: A white walled medical area stocked with dentists chairs, rubber gloves and needles for piercing play, scalpels, speculums and urethral sounds. Ten feet away are suspension rigs for giving your lover a lift. Then, a fleet of waxing tables, a forest of crosses for standup floggings, a fake bordello for the sissy maids catering to the whimsy of cruel, lounging dominatrixes. There’s a Roman amphitheater with bleachers on both sides for world class voyeurs and exhibitionists. An oversized nursery with oversized cribs, inhabited by two hundred-pound toddlers in human scale diapers and bonnets. And a pony paddock for human ponies and their equestrian riders. These creature really are thrilling to behold, some of them, wearing unbelievable gear: Reins, bits, blinders, six inch hoofs right out of Equus, headgear you might see on Clydesdales in beer commercials, and very authentic tails, often attached by ergonomically designed plugs.

I could go on but what’s the point? It’s huge. It’s loud. It’s very right now. And more than anything else it makes me miss the leather scene I knew when I was young. Shortly after I agreed to teach you the art and intrigue that is SM, I promised I would explain its twisty history here in America. Perhaps this is the right time Last time we spoke, you asked about the leather jacket, did I think you were ready for one, etc. I told you that it was a tricky question and that I wanted to get back to you. Sometimes a jacket’s just a jacket, and for that you don’t need my permission or advice. But if you want it to mean something, as many people do, you need perspective, something most of you youngsters today sorely lack. They are magnificent aren’t they? Like soft warm armor. And black is a profound color. Renoir called it the queen of colors. Black is a color of ritual, the preferred hue for the robes of priests, nuns and judges. It is the color of mourning, bohemia, the Amish, the Hassidim and the Gestapo. To wear one is to forge a link with the past, a past departing at ever more rapid speed. And since I have previously refuted the preposterous wives tale that we originated from thousand year old druidic spanking clans, I feel impelled to explain where we did come from. Perhaps then you’ll be able to decide whether its time for you to own a jacket like mine.


It… we… emerged from that American explosion of culture following the war against Hitler: Bebop, the birth of modern jazz, abstract expressionist painting, the beat poets, and the first generation of American SM. All this beauty, modern art, modern music, and modern sex has, as its common backdrop, the death camps, the blue eyed swastika youth of Hitler’s Germany, the H-bomb, and the modern industrial state devoted to the liquidation of the different. Each of these art forms was pioneered by angry, rebellious young people unwelcome or unwilling to join in Ozzie and Harriet’s bland suburban America. You will note that I am assuming some cultural literacy on your part. Unless you can hold an interesting discussion about the works of Charlie Parker, Bill Burroughs, Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, Ralph Ellison, Louie Armstrong, or Chuck Arnett, then you need to start taking some breadth courses evenings or weekends. No I am not kidding. A person oblivious to culture has no business bossing other people around.

Let’s return to the jacket. I received mine used, from my old friend Biker Nick in 1986 when we were working together in an AIDS clinic. It was, I believe, his fifth and I’m proud to wear it to this day. Nick is a true force of nature. Indeed I can’t think of anyone with as rich a zest for living as he had. And as I sit here thinking about it I am surprised I haven’t mentioned him to until now. You remember of course the first afternoon I worked with you on your ruinous flogging technique? How pissed off you were that I made you waste the day doing figure eights. Oh you were fuming! And the next day the same? I’m having a good laugh now, my first in ages. And that night when I put that young thing in front of you, do you remember how smooth, how controlled, how utterly present and in command you were. I don’t know who looked more surprised you or the boy you were flogging. And that was after only two days of serious focus. You will recall I gave you a copy of “Zen in the Art of Archery” and told you to read it and do two hours of air flogging a day. Guess who once gave that same task to me.

Nick was - well actually, is - one of the most spectacular SM artists I have ever known, really more a legend than a man, and he acquired that skill the old fashioned way: through thousands of hours of devoted work, a love for what he did and the desire to improve. He is also something of a bullshit artist, a brilliant storyteller though I would stop short of saying they can all be uniformly believed. But I cant tell you about that jacket without telling his tale also, or at least the tales he shared with me, since I wasn’t even born when his career in the lifestyle had begun. He was born in 1930 in Lubbock, Texas. He grew up in a respectable, rotten, abusive, God-fearing suburban home, like mine and so many others. He was beaten regularly and routinely treated to the spectacle of Dad brutalizing mom. He was a poor student, lousy at sports, friendless. But he read endlessly, and often escaped to the movies alone. He claims to have seen Wizard of Oz forty times by the time he ran away from home at seventeen. Biker Nick is not alone in finding it pretty mythic. The business in the poppy field? That was from the Odyssey. And it became a touchstone for Biker Nick as it did for many generations, especially of gay people. Was it the theme of fantasy and longing for escape to an undiscovered home? Or because strange adventures with eccentric new companions coming together form comfort as families? Or because of the horrific predators always lurking in ambush? Or perhaps it’s the characters, all sure they are defective, short of heart, brains, brawn, and how they gradually learn, through adventure, that they are whole. “Are you a friend of Dorothy?” It became the first covert gay come-on line recognized by queers throughout the USA.

I know. I’m digressing. Nick’s boyhood reading materials were tightly controlled. Mostly the Bible, National Geographic and an old encyclopedia. But Nick learned early to make lemonade from lemons. In the Bible, he found lurid tales unmentioned in Sunday school, even darker and more terrible than his home life. In the National Geographic, and Encyclopedia Britannica a whole universe of wild tribal acts of violent bodily ordeal revealed themselves. Later editions would be tidied up by censors, but those early ones really rocked. George Catline’s jaw-dropping paintings of Indian braves hanging by flesh hooks, crazy photos of native practices from New Guinea, Africa, the plains Indians, elaborate tattoos, body piercings, stringent corseting, violent, cool rites of passage. Well? Wasn’t it inevitable a red blooded American boy would get sick of just reading and give it a try? So when his parents were out, he would trot down to the basement workshop, where he constructed his own personal home torture chamber: ropes, weights, a screaming hot iron, Exacto knifes, broom handles, axle grease. He explored for thousands of hours the art of getting high on the natural opiates of the body.

One day his increasingly suspicious dad popped in mid-session and that was the end. So while Eisenhower’s America celebrated its new prosperity, bought homes on the GI Bill, held barbeques and worked on their basement atom bomb shelters, Biker Nick, stiff and bruised from head to toe, rode off for Oz with a biker gang he met at a hot dog stand. Most of whom were young veterans returning from the war. Half of them had served in a unit that had liberated Treblinka. They had left their small towns kids idealistic and eager to fight for their country. They returned as grizzled old men, changed forever by years of combat, the bottomless horror of the death camps, and the apocalyptic storms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some, not all, had discovered sex through their shared experience of man to man foxhole love. Some were able to adjust, donning the gray flannel suit and beginning their ascent “up the organization.” But for Biker Nick and his fellow survivors no such assimilation was possible. So they saddled up and took to the highways, futuristic cowboys searching for new frontiers. First as mascot, later as full member, Nick grew to manhood among those new frontiersmen, learning their outlaw sensibilities, paramilitary rigor, and rock and roll sexuality.

Despite today’s hoopla about the old guard, there were no standardized rites of training and protocol, no more than you would expect from a bunch of rowdy leathernecks. All that came later. Nonetheless, training was far more rigorous than attending a string of Tuesday night seminars at the Hyatt, with printed handouts, a donut tray and a coffeepot. More like joining a frat with a hell week lasting years. If you wanted to join a club and you were accepted as a pledge, the drill was simple: You belonged to a man; he did what he wanted to you. That’s basically it. Over the months, you learned what he could do (as well as his club brothers) and you learned all scenes from the receiving end. If lucky, you belonged to a skilled craftsman and committed teacher. If unlucky, you belonged to a brute, who administered rapes and beatdowns and you taught yourself to be tough. From what Nick tells me, SM has never been sweeter than it is today with our charming rubrics of “safe sane and consensual”, and “bottom sets the limits” It had not yet become the weekend hobby of bored suburbanites. Bottoms spent a lot of time with bones, muscles, orifices, and hides in various shades of black and blue. Those not man enough to take it were out of the program. Small wonder tops outnumbered bottoms ten to one in those early days.

Maybe because of his home schooling Biker Nick took it all in stride, becoming a famously mouthy bottom who shouldered an insane load of punishment and earned the nickname “ Toughie.” Nick’s first mentor was Mandrake, a nationalized German, older than the rest of the pack, who had fled Berlin in 1935 just as the Nazi book burnings began. After escaping to America he had returned in the uniform of a tank commander to pummel the regime that had raped his country. Mandrake used to regale his biker brothers with tales of Berlin in the 20’s, a sexual Mecca where everything was allowed. He used to go on and on about this sadoerotic bohemian paradise where nudism, cross-dressing, SM bars and countless other earthly delights were openly condoned. There was even some kind of sex university where Mandrake professed to be a researcher of some dubious sort. All was swept away by Hitler and his puritanical horde. This is a lesson Mandrake pounded into Nick’s head: Never take freedom for granted, for no matter how permissive and wild the times, it can all end in an instant.

For Biker Nick, those were good times. The community was small and friendships were close. The brotherhood forged by war, shared persecution and willing banishment from the mainstream laid the foundation for lifetime friendships. In the old day it meant something to say you were in a club, like the Spartans. It meant you had admitted you wanted in, that you had endured a pledge period, wondered if you’d make it, if you’d be accepted. It meant you’d been accepted as a brother, a craftsman, become a better man. It meant you had raised this thing we do to the highest priority in life, even if you worked for a living in a straight job. It was a time of craft. The gear was all hand made. There were no books, no videos, no magazines, no personal ads. Even the idea of a leather bar would have seemed like science fiction to us then. There was none of today’s moony yearning for acceptance or understanding from the outside world. It was a dirty, nasty, secret thing, and hotter for it. Busts and hassles from the police were a fact of life. Like the early Christians we lived with secrets that we knew could cost us our lives. But like them we had access to a forbidden holiness, unknown, unobtainable to outsiders. We were a tribe and it felt that way. The tribal language was different too. We used tools not “toys,” held runs not “parties,” engaged in work not “play.” And by “work” I do not mean burdensome toil, but artistry and craft, the activity of adults done for a purpose, even if that purpose is the creation of pure bliss. That level of monastic focus forged responsibility in a way the casual mixed groups of today never can. Saying “I’m with Black Rose” means the check cleared, nothing more.

That generation of cowboy/warriors became the genesis of the American leather movement, as well as the earliest of the biker clubs still riding the highways today. Their dress code was pure function; biker from the waist down (jeans, chaps, heavy belt, boots), airman from the waist up (Bomber jacket with epaulettes, peaked cap, military insignia). With the men of this generation only is it appropriate to invoke the phrase “Old Guard”.

Leather was not fashion wear in those days, and the decision to wear it, particularly for gay men, was a defiant proclamation of identity. Remember that before the war, to be queer was the very image of sexual submission: Tight sweaters, pinched shoes, eyeliner and rouge, French perfume, feminine deportment… the same bullshit stereotypes imposed on women. And we bought it! We all wanted to be Judy Garland: nelly, wide eyed, and dependant. We wanted to surrender to strong masculine men (read “straight acting”). We didn’t dream we could be that way ourselves.

Leather changed that. Just as rock and roll would soon explode across the radio dial, Leather blew away the dainty, feminized "queen" image. For gay men, motorcycle gear, a greaser cut, scruff, and a “fuck you” attitude said, "I'm a faggot AND a man”. No apologies offered, no quarter allowed. That’s why SM was part of it - for bottoms it demonstrated toughness and grit. For Tops it demonstrated power and the willingness to use it. It was not delicate or ladylike. Try to imagine Nick’s disgust when the hets came and stole it all. When Marlon Brando in the "Wild One" hit the screens our sacred leather vestments became a national fad. Who cared if you owned a bike or not? It was 1953 and mainstreaming of leather had already begun.


By this time Nick’s biker days had already come to an end. Some preposterous motorcycle stunt landed him a lengthy convalescence in New York City where he roomed with a friend from the war, the now legendary fetish artist John Willie, publisher of “Bizarre” magazine. As Nick mended he became acquainted with the embryonic het scene forming in the readership of the semiannual "Bizarre”. Published sporadically between ‘46 and ‘59, “Bizarre” explored the dark side of American sexual life hidden behind the white picket fences and aluminum siding of the cold war puritanical America. Sadists and masochists of both genders, cross-dressers, fetishists of every imaginable stripe subscribed and wrote to Willie about their tastes and proclivities. The letters section forms an extraordinary archive of human desire and a blueprint for the fetish BBS systems still forty years in the future. Before long Rick was helping Willie on the magazine. The sadoerotic porn trade was a Chandleresque cloak and dagger existence. Willie and his staff were always dodging the cops and censorious postal laws, getting busted, having their artwork, photography and writings impounded or destroyed, hammered with crushing fines, legal fees and interruption of the always meager cash flow. But Willie saw “Bizarre” and his war against censorship as a continuation of his fight against Hitler, a battle for human peculiarity, individuality and freedom.

Biker Nick had been too young to fight the Germans, but this was a battle he had been born to wage. Perhaps it was the devastating beauty of Willie’s fetish drawings and lush watercolors, which have never been matched, let alone surpassed, in the history of erotic art. Clearly inspired by the anything goes decadence of Weimar Berlin (Nick recounts spending hours weaving yarns for Willie and his staff, retelling and embellishing on the stories Mandrake had told him), Willie’s pen and watercolor brush breathed life into those yarns constructing an entire SM universe: Fantastical bondage devices, unreal dungeons imprisoning gorgeous submissive women at the mercy of equally beautiful dominant ones (the men are hacked in as virtual afterthoughts). And just as the biker archetype can still be seen today in leather bars around the world, the imagery disseminated in “Bizarre” all but created the exotic fetish fashions of the present day, especially for women: Gleaming body suits of the new polymer materials which had not yet been introduced into real world attire; Leather and chain as fashion wear; impossibly tight wasp waists; micro short skirts, high boots, long gloves; and skyscraper heels. There was even - seven years before Playboy - a sexy gal dressed up like a bunny. Even fifty years after the fact, Willie’s illustrations are startlingly contemporary, both vintage and futuristic.

Despite the opulent fantasy world created by “Bizarre,” they were dirt poor. Both Willie and Nick were rotten businessmen but for the first time since childhood, Nick had a fixed abode, and something like a real job. And with perks like these who needed a hefty cashflow? Nick worked by day in Willie’s office on Church street, binding and photographing beautiful women, dabbling in writing, doing page layout, and watching Willie create his exquisite works of art. Afterwards they went drinking at Chumly’s, where Willie played a banjo they kept for him behind the bar and Biker Nick sang in a gorgeous tenor voice.

The social world of heterosexual kink in the fifties was an entirely different beast from the leathery men’s biker clubs. It was an intensely secretive, person to person enterprise, constructed through years of interpersonal networking and study of thinly veiled personal ads using keywords like “strict”, “domineering” and “compliant”. In terms of visibility, being editors of the nations premier fetish mag didn’t hurt. Many of the letters that jammed Willie’s mailbox were better than porn; not for nothing did he publish three different correspondence issues. Readers of Bizarre, were constantly spilling their guts about their own bizarre fantasies, predilections, and yearnings to meet like minded folks. And there were parties, even back then. They were secretive, almost sacred affairs. Many of the attendees were married to spouses with no patience; no interest sometimes no knowledge of their partner’s interests in kink. When lucky, the parties were held in the home of a couple who were both into it, and had tons of friends. More often they took place when a vanilla spouse was away. Sometimes everyone left home in the morning like it was just another workday and met at a rented hotel suite and played together all day til five o’clock, when they would all head home feigning a hard days work..

Being a true sexual omnivore, Nick had no trouble acclimating to kink involving women and accompanied Willie on his recruitment runs to pick up models. They would enter a nice hotel, ever vigalent of the roving hotel detective, lay out a spread of his kinky publications and wait. When a woman noticed them, tarried, and began reading, Willie would sidle up and introduce himself. Biker Nick did some of these runs on his own, even succeeded in seducing a yet undiscovered Bettie Page on one lucky tour. From Willie, Nick learned “the ancient secrets of oriental bondage.” (Even then there was a great bugaboo over things oriental). From Nick, Willy learned belt beatings, erotic knifeplay and hard leather attitude. Nick was surprised that Willie didn’t know that SM was practiced between men, or in the biker community, but it wouldn’t be the last time he saw that even experienced sadists proved oblivious to their own history and heritage.


One night Biker Nick was quietly enjoying a milk shake in a Jersey diner, clad head to toe in gleaming black leather, when a small, bespectacled gentleman approached him. “Pardon me” he began in a self assured tone “ But aren’t you a friend of Dorothy?” He invited Nick to his table for dinner. The diminutive stranger gave him a matchbook from a bar, The “Why Not” in San Francisco, one of the earliest American leatherbars, a phone number and a challenge to head west for a drink. Willie had decided to hang up the gloves on “Bizarre,” and Nick was beginning to pine for the open road. So he headed west, having many adventures along the way, including about a month cavorting in Chuck Renslow’s legendary Gold Coast bar, Chicago’s temple to masculine men. By the time he arrived in Frisco, the “Why Not” had already shuttered its doors, but leathermen and SM cruising grounds were starting to take form in the neighborhood “South of Market” with Folsom Street as its dingy main drag. South of Market, or SOMA was an unfashionable industrial neighborhood of warehouses, alleys, and low rent housing. The cheap real estate attracted fringe dwellers and permitted the opening of bars and bathhouses catering to exotic tastes. The paint was still wet on Chuck Arnett’s legendary mural inside “The Toolbox,” the first of many leatherbars in SOMA and the only one in business at the time. Arnett’s painting covered an entire wall, a larger than lifesize monolith of powerful, brooding leather men (and two leather dykes!) as somber and imposing as the heads on Easter Island. For Biker Nick, the bar and its clientele were as close to heaven as he’d come. Levis leather, scruff, and white T’s were the club uniform. Sneakers, sweaters, makeup or cologne were banned by posted decree. It was also about this time in leatherbar culture of the early sixties that the ritualized, protocol intensive forms of SM began to emerge, although even at that early date they were attributed to the mythical past of biker/knights as a chivalric code. Who knows perhaps it had been for some. But Nicks experience was that the ritualized monastic trappings emerged in Bar culture, and developed overtype into the elaborate, even fey mysticism described in Bill Carney’s deliciously Nasty SM fiction “The Real Thing”. Soon Folsom and surrounding SOMA were attracting a lot of local attention from men who enjoyed a walk on the wild side. It was a hip, intimate, underground scene. That is until “Life Magazine“

In 1964, “Life” became the first major magazine to publish a voyeuristic peek into the lives of “real homosexuals.” And did they feature tax paying, church going gay couples? No, silly. Naturally, they chose to focus on San Francisco SM bar culture. On June 26, gay men all around the world were treated to a grainy black and white two page spread of Biker Nick and his butch Californian brothers, with the faces of Arnett’s mural looming above them and staring into the eyes of straight America. Nick and his friends bought about a hundred copies, to hand out at the club. Happily, “Life’s” homophobic little gambit blew up in their face. When “Life” had referred to San Fran as “the Gay Capitol of America,” they meant it as a slam. But, for the secretly gay men and women across the country, really around the world, that article served as the heroic call to action. Soon small town boys and small town girls across the nation started pulling up their stakes and migrating west for a different sort of gold rush. Biker Nick, seated at the Toolbox bar was thirty-four, silver threads already appearing in his moustache. But his days as a leather daddy were just getting started.

Nicks flair for coincidence didn’t end with the “Life” magazine shoot. On a run back to New York City to visit Mandrake in 1969, they were just leaving a viewing of the “Wizard of Oz” in full leather dress and were heading over to Keller’s for a drink, when they heard on the street about the death of Judy Garland. The two of them ducked into a nearby gay bar, what Biker Nick later called “a vile little snake pit,” called the Stonewall Inn to sit down and gather their wits. It was a terrible moment and people were weeping into their Mai Tai’s. They had just been served two watered down brews when the cops broke in for what would prove to be the world’s most famous raid. It might have been just another bust, but for some reason - maybe it was Garland’s death - something just snapped. Mandrake and Nick, veterans at being arrested, were already going quietly when a cop shoved the drag queen directly in front of them. She turned slowly and knocked him out cold. It was the bitchslap heard round the world. The crowd went wild. The cops ran for their lives. Gay pride was born that night. Ten thousand people marched up Broadway for the first-year anniversary.


After Stonewall the leather universe really expanded. Censorship laws were knocked aside making photos of split beavers and hard cocks legal. Imagery that would have gotten John Willie jailed became standard newsstand fodder. The “Story of O”, long available only in French, became a bestseller in English, and began its infiltration into the minds and libidos of millions. Snappy colored hankies started appearing crammed into left and right jean pockets flagging your kink du jour. Larry Townsend’s "Leatherman’s Handbook," the first ever how-to-do-SM book, hit the stands in 1972. Larry was roundly dissed by his fellow tops (who still outnumbered bottoms seven to one) for having revealed the trade secrets to the outside world . . . dissed until the deluge of bottoms began, each clutching a copy of Larry’s book. There was a “leather guy” in the Village People. Even the hets started pulling it together. Biker Nick was in New York, noshing on a bagel and looking for someone to do in the grimy personals of the December 1971 edition of “Screw Magazine” when he came across this slightly garbled ad.

MASOCHIST? HAPPY? Does Psychiatry Help? Is a satisfactory life style possible? There’s women’s lib, black lib., etc. Isn’t it time we put something together? Write PO Box 2783, Grand Central Station, NY, NY 10017.

On a lark, Biker Nick fired off a letter, one of the six the ad received. Only three people showed for the scheduled meeting. Together, they founded The Til Eulenspiegal Society, now the oldest mixed group in the country. They actually had to change a bylaw to allow the first Tops to join (this after realizing that a bunch of lonely masochists might have more fun with a few sadists around). Within months they leapt from obscurity to the headlines when the “Village Voice,” that grand bastion of free speech, refused to run their ad. It was Nick, playing wise old man, who suggested they picket with signs. So they did. The tabloid press had a field day. Nick even made the nightly news. Utterly humiliated, the “Voice” was forced to relent and the rest is SM history.

Back home in San Fran, Biker Nick became a proud and visible figure in the rapidly growing frontier town of SOMA, with Folsom Street as the Main Street of kink. By day he worked bike repair, by night he immersed himself in the Folsom nightlife, as the sexual outlaws continued their exodus to the city by the bay. If leather bars had once seemed like a dream come true, Folsom at the turn of the seventies was something yet undreamed of: An entire leather metropolis, almost a mile of bars, baths, homemade dungeons, and dark industrial alleys. Hordes of Butch leatherclad partiers. Pulsating music everywhere. A Mardi Gras of imprompu backalley orgies and kinky encounters in empty lots, parking garages, or parked cars. Baths and bars on every block. The air was alive with the smell of leather, dope, amyl nitrate and hot sweaty sex, and pre-Bee Gees disco providing a common heartbeat to the leather nation. “All the Young Dudes” Bowie’s anthem to London leathermen, became a huge hit for Mott the Hoople. Green eye shadowed, leather clad Lou Reed crooned “Walk on the wild side” from every jukebox. Gays of the more nelly variety settled into the nearby Castro, but even they came to SOMA to party. Even today you have to squint to imagine it. It was decadent dazzling Weimar Berlin all over again.

And the bars? Every one different but always intimate, intense, dark, and crowded. There was the Ritch Street baths frequented by bodybuilders and models which had dark orgy rooms in the back. At The Caldron, patrons were required to go naked except for their boots. Bathtubs under spotlights served as both urinals and play stations for communal watersports. The bartender kept a riding crop handy for slashing his way through the crowd. The Hothouse with its goofy fantasy rooms was a sort of downrent version of the Madonna Inn., and had a huge play floor downstairs. The Slot was big for fisting and SM activities, featuring SM equipment in almost every room. You could break your neck from all the Crisco on the floor The Club Baths were a single enormous cavern, which could hold seven hundred nude and seminude revelers in its belly. Young tough biker types frequented Off-the-Levee on Bryant. The Ambush on Harrison sported a matchbook designed by Chuck Arnett and even sold its own line of poppers. The Stud had the temerity to have itself ordained a chapel of the Universal Life Church to make things harder for party crashing cops. You could order joints at the bar if you were known. FEBE'S on Folsom attracted a more experienced older crowd, and a pretty happening men’s head. At Boot camp it was always roasting hot, the bartenders occasionally dressed like San Fran’s finest. The Arena, on 9th Street held Slave auctions to kick off the Saturday night parties. The Red Star Saloon, was about psychedelic drugs and opened into the legendary Folsom Barracks, the Taj Mahal of kink. Four stories of play rooms dark, windy hallways, secluded alcoves, dank stairwells, always jammed, always happening.

The more modest scaled Covered Wagon on 11th street (before it earned the nickname Breeders alley) featured an open air pool as part of the play area and even had some decent country on the juke until disco kicked everything else out of memory. Hamburger Mary’s was a regular stop as well before it got hetrified, gentrified and raised its prices to ten bucks a burger. Also on Folsom was the Black and Blue, the No-Name, The Bolt, The Brig, and the Ramrod which showed filthy movies on the wall. The Roundup drew Cowboys and outdoorsy types. The Sutro Baths were one of the only bisexual cruising spots on the strip, and even held occasional women’s nights. Off the beaten path, The Trench was all about uniforms, and had uncut nights. If you were uncut (and the bartender always checked, even if you were a regular) you got a free Schnaps.

That my dear was the golden age of leather. The fruition of the sexual revolution. Biker Nick knew everybody, and everybody knew him. He hung out with Bill Tellman and Arnett. He partied with Rex and Tom of Finland both of whom did his portrait. He enjoyed the debatable pleasure of discovering a lovestruck exgirlfriend had immortalized their not quite ten week affair as a steamy bestseller transforming the gregarious Nick into a brooding, tennis playing, business drone, with a spartan New York apartment and a penchant for women’s cologne. Such were the times. Good times. A photo from the time shows Nick with a trim silver beard, kingly bearing, surrounded by friends, sought out in the court of the early seventies leather.


But it wasn’t all sunshine and lube. Biker Nick was starting to feel lonely and out of step. The scene was larger than ever and teaming with mustached, shade wearing macho men, clones of the leathermen of his youth. Today the scene is so vast that we are used to being surrounded by strangers, but for Nick the experience was new and unsettling. Even women were starting to appear, wearing leather jackets, boots and jeans. Nick was already aware of the passing of an age. He had already been surprised and disappointed to find that none of his new friends had even heard of John Willie or his beautiful art. Biker Nick missed the camaraderie of his pals from the forties and wanted someone who loved him best of all. He started imagining meeting someone mature, cultured, dignified, refined. Instead he met Kit.

Kit was a rough trade beauty who materialized on Biker Nick’s private stool at an exclusive men’s club. No one knew who he was or how he had gotten in. He was shaggy and wild looking, and wore a leather jacket. Words were passed and before anyone could blink, Nick and the stranger were brawling. They practically trashed the bar. But once they had exhausted every ounce of strength they had, they were inseparable from then on. Kit was an unschooled biker from the great north woods who had only been in town a few weeks. Some claimed that he had been raised by wolves. He had been crashing at the apartment of a smooth talking Canadian Airlines flight attendant, but after their first night Kit moved into Biker Nick’s lair. Those were the happiest years of Biker Nick’s life. Biker Nick taught his lover about the customs and history and heritage of leather. They went everywhere together. Kit proved as sharp and challenging a pupil as Biker Nick had been to Mandrake. They became regulars at the Catacombs, an opulent SM and fisting club that opened in ‘75. They even looked alike, once the scruff was cleaned away from Kit’s face. They went on runs together and had many adventures. Somehow they even went through lion country safari on their bikes, and are said to have engaged in South of the Border bullfights on their hogs.

But their story was not to end well. After one of their long cross-country bike trips, Kit picked up a mysterious cough. Instead of clearing up, it grew worse. Biker Nick finally brought his lover to the hospital and watched in horror as Kit wasted away to nothing - from pneumonia of all things. He never left the bedside during Kit’s decline. His death was horrible; he cursed the day he came to SF, the truck driver he hitched a ride from, the day he was born. But he stayed loyal and loving to his beloved friend Nick to the very end. When Kit died, Biker Nick stayed at his bedside for three whole days refusing to leave the body or let it to be removed.


Nick wandered, wailing like a banshee through Market, through SOMA, through North Beach, Castro and Mission. He began to see and speak of terrible visions, Old Testament plagues, and apocalyptic doom. And soon the people did start getting sick, and wasting away. The fisters, tops first among them, were the first to go. It would be years before they figured out that the virus entered the bloodstream through tiny nicks in the hands spread through the communal Crisco buckets supplied at every club. As AIDS spread, panic seized the public mind, and City Hall in knee jerk response came down hard on the baths, the bars and all night bookstores of Folsom. Within years the former Mecca of masochismo would be reduced to a skeleton of its former glory.

Perhaps it was the strain of loosing Kit, of watching his community thrive and then collapse, but Biker Nick embarked on a period of almost cosmic mourning. He sold the bike shop, moved out of his house, and gave all the money away to charity. His massive art collection, photos from the fifties and forties, bondage photos and images by Willie, even his Tom of Finland portraits were are lost in the shuffle. Friends were sure Biker Nick had gone around the bend, and urged him to stay with them, but he was inconsolable and refused all offers of help. He tested clean, and that only made it worse. Why had he been spared? For the first time Nick let his trimmed beard and hair go native. Before long he resembled an older version of Kid - wild hair, unkempt appearance, erratic behavior. He wandered the streets of Haight Ashbury as a vagrant, avoiding his old neighborhood, and looking for all the world like an apocalyptic prophet. He collected alms, spent the money on drugs and used books. He got high and read aloud from the Inferno, the Iliad, St John of the Cross, St Theresa of Avilla, Rumi, the Orestia… sometimes for hours on end while a street urchin passed the hat. He performed hair- raising feats like carving Petraglyphs in his chest with broken glass, crawling for miles on bloodied hands and knees, and dragging a large wooden cross through the Embarcadero. He scourged his back into a mass of welts, spun like a draydle for hours on end, rested on improvised beds of nails. Anyone who asked was told he was looking for a man good enough to beat him until he said “Sir”. There were even a few takers, but no one ever succeeded. Until Bryce.


Bryce was a 26 year old professional dominatrix carrying her groceries home in sweats and running shoes when she passed Biker Nick and spied his dog-eared copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh. She took him back to her penthouse, got him bathed, fed him breakfast and then beat him within an inch of his life, extracting the magic word after barely three hours of ministrations. Bryce, who was putting herself through nursing school by administering enemas, and beatdowns to bankers and corporate lawyers, got Biker Nick all patched up afterwards.

He remained in Bryce’s household for the next ten years, as a platonic housemate She worked on her degree, and did sessions. He took care of the house and Bryce’s five year old boy Davon. Slowly he got his weight back up. “Like Lennon” he boasted softly of his new vocation as a family man. Through Bryce, Biker Nick got to see an entirely different side of SM. At the end of her day, after school, homework, a few sessions in her dungeon, and putting her son to bed, she would relax, and while Nick folded laundry, Bryce would tell stories about a history Biker Nick knew little about.

Women, like everybody else, had been fantasizing about lusty, erotic dominance and submission since forever, as often as not from the dominant perspective. And just as men had found, in leather role models, a hard masculine identity, tough dyke women had found similar power in the “butch” persona: Choptop, jeans, boots, no feminine anything. But there were no leatherbars for women, and for women curious about SM, South of Market offered nothing. To Bryce’s eyes, the night life of Folsom that had been a paradise to Nick, was as segregated as Johannesburg.

Through her volunteer work on the San Francisco Sex Information Switchboard, Bryce had already met some of the women who would soon become pioneers of women’s SM. There was Cynthia Slater who had started the fledgling SM discussion group “Janus,” a few years earlier. Pat Califia, a writer/agitator with a straight razor wit who would go on to be the strongest SM writer of her time. Acclaimed novelist Dorothy Allison, and burgeoning scholar Gayle Rubin who would go on to pen “Valley of Kings,” a lovingly detailed history of the leather movement. And of course there were scores of others my feeble old mind can no longer recall. Some had discovered SM through the Van Dykes, a wild group of lesberados who went marauding around in vans, terrorized women’s music festivals, and hosted mini play & pot parties in their vans. And there’s this one whose name I can’t remember who had been a member of “Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media (WAVPM)” before coming out as a very happy shit hot sadist. Young, impassioned and appalled at the thought of women submitting to erotic torture, she was introduced to SM imagery through WAVPM’s hate literature and their over the top slide show, and the more she looked at it, the more it turned her on. Though dykes became the leaders, it was mostly bi girls at first, like Bryce. Why bi? Who knows? Perhaps because like dykes, they had an affinity to gay men but slightly greater access to their dark sanctuaries? Perhaps as a minority within the minority of gay women a few extra steps into the fringe didn’t cost them much. Hard to say. But initially they were just young horny women, looking for action, and facing long odds. Biker Nick had noticed them now and then trying to blend in at men’s leather bars in town. With no leather bars, and with vanilla dykes unnerved by leatherfolk and SM imagery, being a woman into SM meant a lot of skulking around the peripheries of women’s bookstores, Janus Meetings, and the men’s leatherbars of SOMA.


Bryce was also passionately aware of the large socioeconomic picture in a way Nick never had been, and took it upon herself to tutor him in the importance of current events like the political juggernaut gathering steam behind former Miss America and orange juice pitchman, Anita Bryant. Remember Anita Bryant? In 1977, in Dade County Florida (where Jim Morrison was arrested for obscenity, and CDs by Two Live Crews were declared illegal) Miss Bryant unveiled “Save the Children.” It was a publicity campaign which combined Fundamentalist Christianity and two hundred proof gay hatred. Sick of the healthy cheer of the Village People and the joyous lifestyle they represented, Mistress Anita and some of her more reactionary friends decided to purify America of … all liberal excesses frankly… but like Hitler and his brood they chose to start with sexual deviants. So Anita began by beating her drum about porn, weakening moral fiber, and the gay plan to emasculate and deflower all American youth. Her goal was linking closet church going queers with pedophilia, transsexualism, Sadism, those who enjoy their sex al fresco, and porn, especially the jailbait variety. America was feeling beat up over inflation, Vietnam, Watergate, and the energy crises and was ripe for a witch hunt. Anita had called for a Gay one. And it worked. Media ghouls ate it up like Velveeta. Write-in campaigns were initiated to put the heat on politicians. Right wingers who had always linked liberalism with faggotry, sadomasochism, and pederasty, had been pining for the red-bashing days of Joe McCarthy and felt like this was their big moment. And it was. Anti-queer legislation was rammed through massively funded voter initiatives in Dade County Florida, and now anti-gay legislation was headed for the ballot box in the bellwether state of California. No one remembers it today but it was a turning point in US culture. The Briggs Amendment, if passed, would mandate the firing of any gay or lesbian teachers in California schools, or ANY teacher who mentioned homosexuality in school. A win in California would assure look alike legislation to be introduced in all fifty states.

This climate of crackdown had not passed unnoticed in Queersville USA. Vanilla gays were no more naturally comfortable with SM than vanilla hets. “Straight acting” gays of Castro (who had forgotten by now that bitchy drag queens punching out cops were the founding fathers of gay liberation) had always been embarrassed by the bare chests and bare cheeks of the nearby Folsom crowd. The brilliant writer John Rechy who practiced and wrote about edgesex practices like orgies, anonymous encounters, and sex in parks, alleys and all night theaters, was a fanatical SM phobe, and sprinkled caustic jabs at SM and its sicko practitioners throughout his otherwise brilliant prose. The pressure of Anita’s Jihad drove fissures between diverse segments of American gays, hets and bi’s. Leatherfolk in particular found themselves in the spotlight, along with drag queens and anonymous sex buffs who Anita and her minions were painting with the same slimy brush as serial killers, pederasts and pornographers. It was “Life does Folsom” all over again. Even Hollywood stuck its oar in the cesspool with “Cruisin’”, staring a decidedly queasy Al Pacino playing an undercover cop pretending to be queer while hunting a serial killer through the New York SM club scene. Fear prowled the Castro as mainstream gays turned an increasingly angry gaze at their more extravagant brothers and sisters to straighten up their act.


And as if St. Anita and her crusade weren’t enough of a headache, explained Bryce as she paid bills (Nick painting the hallway nodding attentively), the women of SAMOIS faced another foe in the form of Radical feminism. No, not the feminism of equal pay and equal rights, but a authoritarian, puritanical, strain no longer as prevalent as it was then. In some ways it was an extension of the hard line soviet collectivism demanding high individual sacrifice for the good of the movement. Largely the product of feminist theoreticians like Katherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin (Bryce held up a book in her free hand), the tenants of radical feminism went way beyond the traditional battlegrounds of the Suffragettes, Rosie the Riveter, and the working women of today. Among other things, radical feminists had an obsessive fixation on porn, the imagery of violence, and an astonishing indifference to the concept of sexual privacy. It’s as close as the far left ever came to adopting the positions of the far right.

Now, there are a lot of valid questions one can ask about porn. Take “Breaking the silence: Lesbian nuns speak out” for example. When it was published in hardback by a small feminist press, few regarded it as pornographic. When the rights were sold to a mainstream publisher for a paperback edition with worldwide distribution, there was grumbling among the nuns who felt less comfortable with the wide exposure. When the distributor sold the rights to “Penthouse Variations” the emphasis had clearly moved far afield from what the letters had originally been intended to convey.

But no such subtlety of observation was pursued by Dworkin and McKinnon, leftist hatchetwomen for the antiporn crusade. This was their creed: porn equals violence against women. It celebrates degradation, male supremacy, and turns men into rutting jackrabbits and women into objects and victims, and people who kinda liked it were sick, even if they seemed healthy in every other measurable way. Its purest most naked expression was what they called “Violent Porn” SM and bondage porn, which they cannily suggested were nonconsensual. Now for those who don’t remember how awesomely bad SM porn was in those days, these were hardly mementos from the Hannibal Lecter scrapbook. A typical shoot featured a surgically enhanced porn star in cheapo bondage cuffs pouting at the camera being menaced, as often as not, by another big bosomed bimbo wielding a wimpy deerskin flogger. Not even a swing like Navritolova’s could have pinked up an ass with toys like those. Male fantasy true. Tacky to be sure. Disrespectful indeed. But crime scene photographs? The SM savvy eye could see this wasn’t torture. This wasn’t even real SM. But that was the story they stuck to. SM was sexist, and romanticized female degradation. It was foreplay for snuff shoots, murder and rape, and bad voting. It promulgated a host of societal ills. And because it induces insanity in its practitioners, even when SM participants believe it’s consensual, it’s not. Who cared if it was consensual or not? How domestic violence, male chauvinism, genital mutilation, date rape, or the glass ceiling was affected by the sex lives of San Francisco leatherdykes was left unexplained. Never mind that most het men into SM were bottoms and most women tops. Never mind the fact that most SAMOIS women didn’t play with men at all. Never mind that leathermen had been “brutalizing”, “degrading,” and “oppressing” each other in precisely the same manner for decades in their homes, clubs, and the hard rocking back streets of Folsom without even the decency to let curious women watch. Never mind the fact that scapegoating porn and consensual sex diverted effort away from real problems and developing real solutions. Personally, mused Bryce(as Nick folded clothes), I think it just freaked them out. SM is not for everybody after all. And it’s okay to be freaked out. When they saw Dildoes, strap- ons, and soft bondage cuffs, they saw weapons and torture devices. And if THAT was bad, what to make of floggers, hunting knives., and suspension slings. Play Piercings? Scarification? Sticking a fist up where?? Radical feminist doctrine said only MEN did horrible stuff like this. They wanted a very seventies utopian image of the future. A world purified of patrimony and anything that smacked of it. Butches, femmes, sadomasochists kinksters, FTMs all forcibly transformed into hairy legged cuddle bunnies gathering not for sex or spankings, but for consciousness raising and holding hands round the campfire for another rousing chorus of Kumbaya. They found the idea of SM as disgusting as pedophilia and they found the presence of SAMOIS and its members intolerable. Yes, they knew of SAMOIS through their literature and their leathery presence at women’s conferences, music festivals and feminist networks. Yes, literature. Not only did those anarchistic gals basically write the SM handbook for women, they had the audacity to get it published. “What color is your handkerchief?” contained the first writings by and for women involved with SM. The establishment was not amused. Somewhere in the midst of all this, The National Organization for Women decided to help the situation by adopting anti-SM language into their charter. For all the good they do in other areas, NOW had hardly been friendly to sexual minorities in the past. Before they were all hacked off about the” leather menace” they were all a flutter about the “lavender menace”: dykes infiltrating the women’s movement (they don’t like to be reminded of this now). So when a lesbian led contingent of Anti-SM, anti porn crusaders cannily demanded that NOW repudiate the sexual rights of SM practicing women, NOW caved in to atone for their past bigotry. This was the backdrop facing the first generation of organized leatherwomen: lukewarm welcome from leathermen, frantic opposition from the women’s community, fire and brimstone from the Christian right, and growing resentment from the nonleather gay community. The pressure was enormous to stay out of sight, with the drag queens, butch dykes and anyone else who might stand out or who looked like they didn’t fit in. It was the closet door swinging open to let us creep back in.


Write this down somewhere: Never forget your pleasure. Bill Tellman’s Law. Ancient wisdom but so easy to forget when its raining shit by the bucket load. Somehow the women of SAMOIS had clamped down on it like a junkyard dog on a bone. Even with the hostility of the women’s community, the leeriness of mainstream gay culture, and the approaching goose stepping of the Christian right approaching in the form of the Briggs amendment, they still managed to fit partying in. Either as couples in bedrooms, or in SM house parties in private homes, in the backs of large anonymous-looking vans, or when a bath house could be persuaded to hold the occasional women’s night, the women of SAMOIS made the time to indulge in good old fashioned SM. Things really took off when SAMOIS persuaded Steve, owner of the Catacombs, to rent them his dungeon to host women’s parties on Friday nights. This was a huge break. For the next three years, women had a night a week in the finest dungeon space in the world and were really able to learn and grow. On one occasion only, Biker Nick co-hosted a Friday night women’s party with Steve (who attended all parties as music God, bouncer and safety monitor). Biker Nick was in awe at their technical inventiveness and intensity. Anal AND vaginal fisting. Strap-ons, knives. And blood! Controlled cutting and piercing, virtually unknown among gays, was basic in women’s SM. Remember that for most men, blood means injury. Some guys keel over at the sight of it. . And for gay men, blood was an agent of contagion. But for women, blood is a natural part of the life flow and it wasn’t uncommon in women’s play. Bryce, with her access to medical supplies, provided all sorts of medical pervertables: hypodermic needles, scalpels, first aid, hemostats, even a tens unit and urinal sounds, basically inventing what we call medical play today. Biker Nick couldn’t keep the grin off his face. It reminded him of the men’s community in the beginning, a smaller tighter community when everything was still new.

But outside the hostilities increased. When SAMOIS demanded to march in the annual gay pride parade of 1979, they were not received warmly. The organizers connived to keep them out and treated them rudely. The crowd booed them. Because of the leather, some thought they were lesbian Nazis. Because Punk was happening at exactly the same time, some thought they were punk rockers. I was there and I’ll never forget the screaming faces swollen with rage.

“Fascists go home!” a voice screamed.


“Perverts! . . . Faggots!

In the weeks leading up to the election, the polls showed the Briggs initiative passing by a two to one margin. Gay teachers who had been teaching for years were bitterly assembling resumes. We worked night and day to defeat it, door to door campaigning, writing the media, our state senators, cold calling. Nick, who had basically gone missing after Kit passed away, reestablished friendship with his leather bar brothers and could be seen all over town with his butch new activist recruits handing out fact sheets warning about the consequences of Briggs. You’ve probably been wondering where I met Biker Nick. Well this is where. He would entertain all of us with these stories. I can’t even remember half of them, and those I can are weakly told compared to the brio he could give a tale.

And as the clock ticked down to voting day, we all prepared ourselves for life in a harsh new America where sexual identity mattered more than character or job performance. Biker Nick told me that his old friend Mandrake had begun appearing in his dreams. It was always the same: Nick was partying in a crowded unfamiliar city that was part Folsom, part the Weimar Berlin Mandrake used to talk about, part Oz. Thousands of kink clad revelers filled the nighttime streets, and all his friends were there. Kit was there, holding Nicks hand and chatting with John Willie and Chuck Arnett about Art. The guys from his old bike club were guzzling beer with Bryce and her sisters. Only Mandrake hung back from the festivities, watching Nicks face the whole time. The dream always ended with Mandrake touching Nicks shoulder fixing him with his burning blue eyes and whispering “Remember” as the drumbeat rose in the background and huge robotic storm troopers goose stepped into view, a black, high kicking wall. And as the drumbeat grew louder, and louder, they swept everything before them away.

And maybe this is a dream too, but I swear I remember being in Sacramento, in the final days before the vote, when who should walk by but governor Ronald Reagan, flanked by a security detail of suits and sunglasses, when out of nowhere Biker Nick materialized in front of him blocking his way. It was the first time I’d seen him in full leather dress since the old days. He looked like a black leather knight, jacket and boots polished so they gleamed like armor, thrusting his paw into the hand of the future president. Nick has never divulged what he discussed with the great communicator over those three heart-stopping minutes, but it ended with both of them roaring with laughter. Later that night Ronald Reagan, hardly a friend to the deviant and downtrodden, was prompted to say something positive about Briggs, and he silenced the crowd with this immortal line. “I don’t know what this homosexuality is, but I’m sure its not something you catch like the measles.”

No one was prepared for the news that the Briggs initiative had failed. We were weeping with joy in the streets, hugging total strangers. Nick hadn’t been so elated since before Kit took ill. It was a crystalline moment; we felt like we’d changed history. But the euphoria didn’t last. Dan White, upstanding citizen, former fireman, devout Christian, quit his post on the San Francisco board of supervisors in protest over Briggs. On November 27, he returned to City Hall, walked into the office of Mayor George Moscone, pointed a revolver at his former boss and executed him at his desk. He then marched down the hall to the office of fellow supervisor Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay official, and shot him dead too. For the premeditated murder of two public officials, White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received seven years, thanks to the now infamous “Twinky defense.” It’s been speculated since, that had White only killed the mayor, he would have gotten life.

But a tide had turned. Briggs had been defeated, the reactionary right humiliated, and their momentum thrown for a loop, a blow they’ve really never recovered from. Good ole fashioned Anita has since divorced her dear hubby. The televangelist/politicos of the eighties met international humiliation when a host of scandals revealed them as randy, thieving, or mad as march hares. The reactionary right with their zeal for digging into the grubby secrets of President Clinton, got their heads collectively caved in by Larry Flynt of all people, who found many of the conservative hoard to have indulged in all kinds of Clintonesque, extramarital friskiness. Ken Stars name has joined those of Joe Mcarthy, Quissling and Benadict Arnold, as embodiments of institutionalized evil. But people who hate us will never be denied. They merely refocused on more attainable goals. Like attacking porn. Within twelve months of the Briggs debacle, America would be treated to the surreal spectacle of radical feminist anti porn crusader Catherine McKinnon and medieval troglodyte Pat Robertson arm in arm on a lecture tour, looking for all the world like a happy old married couple. This jihad was very carefully presented as a defense of all things clean and decent and good in American life.

In the states, we were able to hold back the tide; in Canada where there is no 1st amendment, their anti porn message succeeded beautifully. Legal precedents were established making SM toys count as porn, and thus illegal. Anti porn crusades passed in Canada, supported by gays and lesbians of more conservative bent, and drove many gay and lesbian bookstores out of business and into bankruptcy. I met a man just last year who owned a gay bookstore in a large Canadian city, who had refused to stock SM lit, only to be driven out of business when McKinnon’s anti porn laws went into effect. Even Andrea Dworkin’s own anti pornography screeds got banned due to her frequent attempts to shock her readers into revulsion (Later the same thing happened to Jerry Fallwell, whose compulsive on the air obsession with Bill Clintons sex life got his radio show cancelled at the request of his own listeners). It’s a battle that continues to this day.

And it was here that Biker Nick’s yellow brick road must come to an end. Oh there’s more I could tell you, believe me. About Nick’s heroic bravery during the mysterious fire that tore through SOMA in July ‘81, the most violent since the quake of 1906. About the imbecilic coverage that predicted charred bodies chained to beds would be found in the rubble, and his impassioned letter published in the chronicle that began his career as a sometime writer. I could tell about Nick’s AND Bryce’s behind the scenes mentorships of the people who began the fledgling groups and organizations now thriving today. Or how his lifetime of practice in radical sex got him tapped early on to help craft the safe sex guidelines of the early eighties. I could tell of the chagrin of his straight medical colleagues as he demanded that fisting, rimming, and piss and blood play be documented in print in Safe Sex literature. And I would be remiss not to mention his work over the past twenty years working in AIDS clinics, where he practices the nursing skills he was taught by Bryce. Like Walt Whitman (whom Nick has come to resemble with his Santa size girth and his great white beard) ministering to the civil war wounded, Biker Nick spends most of his time tending to those afflicted by the plague: reading aloud, talking, listening, doing portraits in his scrapbook of doodlings and great leather inspired art. He’s watched a lot of leathermen go. We all have. He’s moved back to Folsom, but within walking distance of his family of Bryce, her partner Ashley, and their now grown up son Davon, who lives with his girlfriend and works with computers. Nick has reassembled an exquisite collection of erotic art and banned books (“My desert island library for when Hitler returns,” he chuckles). In fact just recently the Tom of Finland portrait that vanished after he took to the streets turned up, framed and cherished, in the home of a new friend who had bought it in a gallery show years before. Nick didn’t want it back; he was just glad to know that it had survived. I already know what your thinking, When will you get to meet Biker Nick? Well that’s not an easy question to answer. Nick is a tough guy to nail down to dates and places, but he has a tendency to pop up where and when you least expect him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you stumble across him in a coffeeshop someday reading some scandalous magazines and giving you a wink when he sees you know who he is.

And after many years of solitude he has regained love in his life: a charming retired professor he met volunteering in the clinic, who rides and loves adventure as much as Nick. From ‘85 on they’ve been inseparable, terrorizing the highways, working with the needy, seeing friends, tending to the delicate rainbow colored fabric of our many communities. And they have many adventures.

THE AGE OF ACCESS (The Nineties and Afterwards)

Which brings us back to the present era of expansion, access and commerce represented perfectly by the black leather circus in the hotel below. It’s the same story everywhere. Groups growing bigger and more numerous each year, with bylaws, boards of directors, and electioneering politics. Magazines, toy vendors, booksellers, fetish clothiers, thousands of newbies and the all ubiquitous web. Gone is the vocabulary of the artisan … “tools”, “work” supplanted by the preschool vernacular of “ toys”, “parties”, and “play”. You have thirty year olds calling themselves “old guard” and wearing leather not as an testament to their humanity, but because everyone else is doing it. We have fledgling national associations, like the Leather Archives, Leather Leadership, and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom issuing edicts of rules and regulations and dreaming of a day when we will see SM treated with fairness and compassion on prime time TV sitcoms. Today the Folsom Street Fair, formerly a humble kinky craft show, is visited by 300,000 annually, California’s largest annual event after the Rose Bowl and San Francisco Pride. We have bumper stickers, keychains, and other assorted chochkis emblazoned with the red white black and blue of the “leather flag” . We have D&S;, B&D;, C&P;, tops and bottoms, masters and slaves…One whole lotta lingo if you ask me. And then there’s this online thing - Cyber slaves, Ascii Masters, keyboard doms and typing tops. It’s certainly fascinating, but clearly the beginning of an entirely new tradition (interactive porn perhaps?) and not with what we’ve been calling SM for the last forty years. We have national conferences like this one in big dumb hotels. I still can’t believe that part… Conferences and workshops? And “munches”?? At the IHOP???

Different, yes. But better? What have we gained? Easy access to be sure. Gone is yesterdays gauntlet testing the resolve of hungry leather pilgrim seeking admittance to the kink universe. As recently as ten years ago you still had to brave grimy adult bookstores, peeling hermetic wrappers from sleazy, overpriced magazines, hunting through the in-your-face personal ads, before finding a gateway into SM’s shadow world. It was a hard, narrow road, and it often hurt. But was SM ever intended to be easy and pleasant?

Today, any imbecile with a search engine can find gobs of writings, imagery, and contact information from the comfy privacy of their home workstation. The SM meetings of today are held in respectable hotels and restaurants. They sit in rows of folding chairs as though in church, listening to sermons on bondage knots, dom/sub relationships, and the proper handling of hot wax. Entrance is granted to all with the five dollar door fee. Membership is open to all who pay the modest annual dues. A whole literature has developed, books supplementing our art form with the words of skilled and articulate practitioners. There are scores of them, some of them perfectly fine, hundreds of magazines, thousands of videotapes, websites ad nauseum catering to every conceivable taste. We have dungeon monitors, safety guides, and handy maxims like “safe sane and consensual.” We have greater interaction between SM’s various, formerly estranged camps. Thanks to SAMOIS and all they inspired, the leather universe is at last open to women, Thanks to professional dominants like Bryce we have beautiful places for SM types to meet, greet, and beat. They’ve also given leather a distinctly female voice, one both feared and envied by the radical feminist left. Even the transgendered have won their place on the dungeon floor, with publications, support groups, and spokespersons. Pat Califia is now Patrick. And because of all these resources, the learning curve is faster than it was. Though it pains me to say it, there are more technically gifted people today than ever before.

We have met surprising acceptance by the outside world. Mall bookstores routinely stock Mapplethorpe’s photography, and Tom of Finland calendars, and without even having the decnecy to sequester them behind a swinging door marked “MATURE ONLY”. The black leather bandwagon includes doms, dykes, daddies, drag queens, boys, bitches, femmes, fetishists and fashion plates who don’t even engage in SM. Today, as often as not, SM means Stand and Model. There is even, ironically, greater access to the past than before. In 1995 the entire eleven year edition of “Bizarre,” out of print for decades, was published as an inexpensive two volume set. Even personal narratives like the one you are reading didn’t exist in print ten years ago. It’s all so nice and easy, I could just puke. Leather has become convenient. But something crucial has been left behind as well.

We’ve lost people, for one thing. Hundreds of Thousands of them. Leaders, elders, mentors, rebels scamps, and cads who lived it, fought for it, went to jail because of it, brought it into being, kept it alive. Had the plague not taken them our family would be stronger. Their absence has severed the link to the past, leaving today’s young players uprooted and unmoored in a way even they can’t comprehend. You have young people who’ve never heard of Willie, Arnett, the Toolbox or SAMOIS boasting of being “old school.” You have manhating leatherdykes whose dress and deportment owes everything to the fallen leather warriormen of days gone by. You have horny playboys, who don’t know BDSM from BBQ, bluffing their way into people’s jeans using the leather flag for a fig leaf.

Yesterdays standards of excellence have been swept away as well. All of these innovations that make today’s community accessible (websites, chat rooms, open admittance clubs, local munches, massive national conferences attended by thousands, and cultural mainstreaming), have also reduced the challenge and commitment required of those who seek to join our ranks. By opening the gate to all, we are overrun by dabblers, phonies, tourists, lookie-lews, wannabee pseudodoms who couldn’t dominate a can opener, and self proclaimed experts who may or may not have been “trained in Japan.” We’ve lost the sense of being outside it all, the time we spent together not just as sex partners but as friends. We’ve lost the modest sense of pride, the pride in handmade tools, even crude ones.

The rookie invasion has lowered the standards of SM to where wild ass, shit hot play, even when its consensual, is widely viewed as a community threat. And “Play” (See? They’ve even got me using that damn word!) has been watered down as it transitioned from an outlaw lifestyle of urban fringe dwellers to a weekend pastime practiced by het, white suburbanites, folk who ARE mainstream America in every other way. And as SM has crept from raunchy underground clubs into pristine suburban dungeons, the preposterous ABC laws against mixing sex and alcohol have tagged along, contributing little beyond a feeling of prissy over regulation. I recently had dinner with longtime friends before accompanying them to their first SM party in a private home. One couple were swingers who had been to about a thousand sex parties. The other couple were about to attend their first. At coffee later on they all had the same question: ”Where was the damn sex?” Today you rarely find booze OR people getting it on, at a scene party. To say nothing of a doob. And as middle class mores replace those of edge dwellers, even SM performed in private has been tidied up and sanitized, rendering much of the old hankie code obsolete in het-dominated spaces. We’ve also picked up an obsession with dogma undreamt of in the old days, elevating catch phrases like “safe sane and consensual” to the level of Biblical law. But for those self righteous greenhorns who proclaim “no responsible SM without SSC” consider this: The entire old guard era, the duration of the SAMOIS collective, the first 16 years of TES, and the first 7 year years of GMSMA all happened before SSC became the buzzword it is today. The Leatherman’s Handbook our first “how to text”, both version one and two, makes no mention of SSC. The much ballyhooed chant that there is no safe SM without SSC is clearly laughable once you know the historical record.

You know what its really like? Country music. Even the time tables match. In the forties, fifties, even the sixties it was edgy, passionate, from the heart. Its practitioners were raw, unschooled visionaries. Today the music is soulless, and generic.. This blonde pinup-with-a-Stetson, Faith Hill, will never sing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Its bland, boring and numbingly alike. Only the boots and cowboy hats remain.

And in this new pansexual world there is a spirit which is simply absent among these newcomers. For all the numeric weight of hets, bi’s and dykes, even after the ravages of the plague, gay leathermen still out organize, outbusiness, out toy drive and out party the rest of the leather nation combined. What’s missing from this new generation? An absence of brotherhood? Of conviction?? Is it because gay men and women into leather have already been through the transformative process of ”coming out” before discovering leather, thus gaining perspective and maturity hets never attain? Is it because sexual identity doesn’t require hets to make the real world sacrifices required by gay men and women? It probably stings to hear this but no matter what they’re into, het couples who are kinky can still bring their mate to the company picnic. Or could it be that the submissive female and dominant het male are the only sexual kink with the seal of approval of mainstream values, the media, the political machine and most world religions. For het male dominants the great leap to selfhood is tiny, practically nonexistent compared to the voyage made by submissive males, crossdressers, female dominants or the transgendered. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful soulful het male doms. But their path is easier, and the hardships that once burnished character neither ravage their esteem nor produce the growth such ravages ultimately produce.


Is it possible for it to mean what it once did? Without the purifying years of loneliness and need, before finding it? Without the challenge and gauntlet of hunting for and winning the acceptance of the like minded. Without the crucible of adversity that breeds strength, resilience and compassion? I just don’t know. I was going to close this letter with a warning to stay away from events like these. But something extraordinary just occurred and I have to write it down.

I was taking a break from this letter, trudging despondently through the freak show downstairs, and stopped to watch some pale old guy getting flogged. He was lashed to a cross wearing a frock, a fright wig and spiky heels, and was getting singletailed by some young thing in a miniskirt, gogo boots and a well coifed fro.. I could almost hear my old biker buddies -most of them dead now - laughing in my ears, at this vaudevillian spoof of what we once held sacred. I was already turning to walk away in disgust when I caught a glimpse of his face.

He was old. Older even than me. And as I searched his eyes, I noticed his concentration; his deep labored breathing the intensity of expression, the emotions chasing each other around his face. When she hit him, he smiled, the big stupid grin look of a dog having its belly rubbed by its master, and whispered “oh yes jesus…oh Yes Jesus.” I noticed the girl and how exquisitely focused she was, on her target, on her pleasure on his movements. And suddenly I felt overwhelmed with love for this man, this old freaky, lucky, happy man. How many years had he played dress up in his attic, feeling like a freak totally alone. Driving to work berating himself for the millionth time, for being sick, being weak, being such a freak. I saw him shopping for frillies, far from his usual haunts with a pounding heart, smuggling them home, donning them in isolated locked rooms, feeling his pleasure, only to burn them later, his eyes stinging with tears of shame. How many times had he repeated that lonely merry go round? How many decades had he lived like that in solitude? How many castigating sermons, exhorbant counseling sessions, black lonely nights, had their been before he sounded his barbaric “Fuck this guilt!!” and started his journey out of the closet. Peeping, creeping, finally high stepping, “out of the dark and into the light” of his true life’s calling.

And after that epiphany I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene. There was so much beauty right there I had a lump in my throat. That plump faced girl, still practically a baby, wailing the living tar out of him, her eyes gleaming with hot, feral joy, as he squawked, and moaned and prayed. Where else in the world do young and old meet with that degree of genuine connection? Where else in the world!! The times have changed. I know they have. But when havn’t they been changing. And when has jumping into a time machine and zooming off to another epoch been the answer? Hasn’t SM has always been about “right now! …right here! …uhmmmmm...up a bit…”?

After that scene ended I shook both their hands, then wandered through the dungeon for another two hours, marveling at all the rainbow flavors of bliss. Promises made good, dreams come true, simply because someone had dared to dream them. And before long I realized that I was really glad I’d come down from of out my room.

I even ran into my friend Andrew from New York who was looking about ten years younger than the last time I saw him. We talked about the new treatments that have breathed life into a whole generation of men infected by the plague. Tens of thousands of men like Andrew are being raised, like Lazarus, from their deathbeds by these new drugs which work miracles on the symptoms of HIV. Around the world they are returning them to health, strength, and the capability of making a contribution. Is this time of rebirth the reason people today are discussing SM in spiritual terms? I went to bed feeling better than I have in years.

A long digression kicked started by your question of about the jacket. No I haven’t forgotten that this was where we started. Today everyone wears it, men and women, straight and queer, leather and vanilla. James Dean wore it. The early Beatles wore it. Madonna wears it, so do thousands of lesser imitators. And in any leather bar today you will see it, harkening back to my youth and your ancestors, the pins from our runs, symposiums and leather associations worn where military insignia used to be. Do you need one? Course not. But if you feel pull towards it… well perhaps its right for you. A used one is best … already has someone’s major on it And for god’s sake don’t do it just because others do. Sometimes a jackets just a jacket. When it’s a pose, or a costume it can be even less than that. But if your asking if a leather jacket mean something important? Well, it can. And the secret is easy. Just live your life like you believe it does. Be responsible, and kind, and strong, and never forget your pleasure. If Nick were here, I believe that’s what he’d say.

Which brings us, at last, to the package. A small token of my pride in how much you’ve learned so far. Please don’t think me extravagant. I hope you like it and I think it ought to fit you fine. It belonged to Cliff, a beautiful young man who until recently was a patient under my care. He was a leatherman from Austin, and that jacket kept him warm on many a desert night. During the last months of his life I told him some of Biker Nicks stories to raise his spirits, and we had a lot of good laughs. We also talked a good bit about you and much you’ve been learning. If you check the pocket over the heart you’ll find his three foot singletail and a note he wrote to you himself. Congratulations, dear child. You’ve earned it and we are very proud of you.

About Cliff… He was thirty five, had a crazy crooked smile, and hair the color of sunlight. He loved ZZ Top, Lyle Loved, Nancy Griffith, dirty books, old movies, and a hard beating every blue moon. When I see you in March I’ll tell you all about him so when people complement your new duds you can tell a few of his stories. You will in fact have become part of them, as we are all interconnecting parts of each others stories from the future back to the ever receding past. It won’t be long until you too, are the magician, til its your turn to be the man behind the curtain. And when the time comes when no other voice but yours remains, it will fall to you to tell of bygone days, making sure that Cliff, Nick, Mandrake and Bryce are be rescued from time’s quicksand and the oblivion of fading memory. May they all, through your life, loves and deeds, live on.

In Leather Pride,