During the 1960s and 1970s, gay men carved niches for themselves, separate neighborhoods where they could be free from homophobic harassment, separate social institutions to replace those they were excluded from in the "straight" world. And one of the institutions they devised was Leather, aka S&M.
The look: muscles, hairy chests, and clothing based on the motorcycle gangs of the 1950s: chaps, vests, boots, jackets. Black, sleek, rigid, gleaming. No fluffy sweaters, no chinos, no designer shoes, no perfumes, nothing but raw masculinity
The acts: erotic "scenes" involving dominance and submission, power and pain.
Leathermen were excoriated by the heterosexual press, which kept squealing: "Look! Look! We told you that gays were all perverts!"
In Cruising (1980),
the subculture was savagely derided as a bunch of masochists and murderers.
Even the mainstream gay movement was leery, thinking that they would scare the heterosexuals and forestall the quest for tolerance.
But they survived. During the 1980s, even people not into the culture started experimenting, since S&M activities don't transmit HIV.
It became commonplace for men hitting their mid-30s to shift their allegiance from twink bars to leather bars like the Spike, the Eagle, the Gold Coast, the Faultline, and Bill's Filling Station
There were motorcycle clubs, leather clubs, S&M clubs, bear clubs, fetish fairs like Dore Alley,
contests like International Mr. Leather, magazines like Drummer, Mandate,
and Bound and Gagged.
All illustrated by a cadre of gay artists: Tom of Finland, Etienne, the Hun, Cavello...and their undisputed leader, Sean.
Sean, aka John Klamik (1935-2005), who was a fixture in West Hollywood from the 1950s, painting murals for leather bars, publishing cartoons in leather and mainstream gay magazines, illustrating the novels of leather greats such as Larry Townsend, and publishing his own graphic novels.
He and his partner, Jim Newberry, were also well-known in West Hollywood politics, instrumental in planning each of the Gay Pride Marches and Festivals from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Sean drew his inspiration from the impossibly buffed, impossibly endowed Tom of Finland men, but he put them into much more graphic situations.
So graphic that it's hard to find one to illustrate.
And his themes and situations veer far from the jubilant eroticism of Tom's men. There are acts of torture, punishment, and revenge.
For instance, the famous Biff Bound
(1982), which I found at the adult bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana, is a pantomime comic book about a super-muscular, super-endowed blond who hitch-hikes in search of willing partners. But instead, he is grabbed, tied up, and sexually assaulted by three toughs, who then steal his clothes and his suitcase.
He is rescued by a group of gay leathermen, who give him a new leather outfit, then help him capture the toughs. They tie them up, have sex with them, force them to have sex with each other, and finally retrieve Biff's suitcase.
Heavy stuff. Is it promoting sexual assault?
Certainly not, Sean said in an interview. "It's a fantasy."
It was about empowerment. Gay men in the mainstream press of the day were portrayed as perpetual victims, of homophobic assaults, of discrimination, of AIDS, of their own "uncontrollable urges." But they didn't have to be. They could be strong, powerful, in charge of the situation. They could save the day. They could triumph.
See also: Tom of Finland
; The Mystery of Cavelo
; and The Bear with the Sweeney Todd Fetish.