Why is the gay leather scene dying?

Not long ago, many clubs catered to enthusiastic leathermen. But predatory property developers, changing attitudes to gender and the rise of rubber threaten the scene’s existence

This is the Backstreet, London’s only remaining gay leather bar. But after a 33-year run serving London’s kinksters, its days might be numbered. “The developers have been sniffing around us for years,” says Aaron the barman. “They want to build another high-rise.” Opposition from Tower Hamlets council and community activists has granted the club a brief reprieve, according to the staff, who all work under the assumption that any day could be the venue’s last.

A string of closures has caused concern for those interested in a variety of fetishes, but the leather scene seems to have been hardest hit, particularly in London. Bars such as the Coleherne, the Anvil, Bloc, Substation and, most recently, the Hoist, have all disappeared into the annals of gay history, replaced with gastropubs, luxe apartments and identikit offices. Rising rents, competitor fetishes and competition from online dating apps have all been a turn of the screw. Aficionados fear its decline is another milestone in the gay scene’s slow descent into homogeneity.

“If some people want to have their matching knitwear and a cocker spaniel, then I’m happy for them,” says Nigel Whitfield, director of the Breeches and Leather Uniform Fanclub, “but some of us don’t. For lots of kinky people, we knew we were kinky before we knew we were gay. Losing these spaces is a tragedy.”

On today’s gay scene, leather denotes an aesthetic and, sometimes, a set of sexual practices. An entry-level leather fetish might just look like getting your rocks off in a well-cut bomber. But for the more committed, it’s a full look: boots, trousers or chaps, belts, shirts, jackets, overcoats, captain hats, all in premium, black leather. The sex tends towards BDSM, from rough horseplay to sadomasochism.

“For me, it’s all about the sensory experience,” says Eder, a 34-year-old leatherman who moved to London from Mexico nine years ago. “It’s the look, the feel, the smell – combine it with sex and it just feels amazing.” He discovered leather five years ago and estimates he has spent “a few thousand pounds” on the gear to date. Leather matters to Eder: he ended a long-term relationship because his ex was “vanilla” – a term for people not into kink or fetish – and has since explored his tastes more extensively on Recon, the world’s largest fetish app for gay men. “It doesn’t define me, but it makes me feel so much more confident,” he says. “It’s not just the sex, there’s a community, a social element that provides you with a sense of belonging.”

Eder’s story of stumbling upon leather online, exploring in real life, and discovering some form of community was common to the leathermen I spoke to, but it’s only the latest incarnation of a famed subculture that stretches back to the post-war boom of America’s coastal metropoles.

Leather as a gay subculture traces its roots back to the appearance of US biker gangs in the 1940s and 50s. Leathers were practical, but the rugged masculinity of biker culture imbued the material with an allure that spoke to men interested in men. Among gay men, leather was also a rejection of the tropes of effeminacy and passivity that homosexuality had accrued since the mid 19th century, a disavowal of the “sweater queens” – well-to-do, preppy gay men – of the time. “Leather was everything that the self-consciously effeminate homosexuals weren’t. They were some of the first gay men to reclaim masculinity,” says Eric Chaline, author and historian of gay sadomasochism.

International travel – at least for the wealthy – helped the US leather scene percolate across the Atlantic, notably to Amsterdam, Berlin and London.

In the UK, leather subcultures first seem to have taken root in London in the late 50s, though the history of those years has largely been lost. Networks of wealthy and closeted gay leather fans hosted invitation-only private parties to avoid the glare of the authorities.(Homosexuality for those over the age of 21 was not decriminalised in England and Wales until 1967, and some S&M practices remain illegal to this day.) The scene was necessarily limited to the middle classes: hosting orgies isn’t easy when you are crammed into a two-bed terrace with a wife and kids, and leather gear is rarely cheap.

From the 70s onwards, fan clubs for leathermen popped up in London, Brighton, Manchester, Birmingham, Bournemouth and elsewhere under the guise of Motor Sport Clubs, disguising the gay fetish as a passion for biking. Around the same time, permanent venues rose to the fore. The Coleherne, a bohemian pub in Earl’s Court, became a lodestar for the leather scene. The horseshoe-shaped bar separated regular punters and a morass of leathermen. At the same time, Tom of Finland sketches of burly men in leathers and denim spread through nascent fetish communities pushing life to imitate art.

The gay leather scene had reached its peak. Thousands of leathermen congregated in multiple micro scenes across London, while thousands more revelled at club nights and events further afield.

Then came a crisis. In 1981, the New York Times reported a “rare cancer spotted in 40 homosexuals”. In San Francisco, one of the first Aids-related deaths was Tony Tavarossi, founder of the city’s first leather bar. Entire communities were eliminated. Bars closed. Hospitals swelled. The leathermen were some of the first to go.

Kellan Farshea, a veteran sadomasochist and campaigner for sexual liberty, recalls the early years of the crisis in the UK. “The Aids crisis was very much based in the leather community because that’s where a lot of the sex clubs were. A lot of the people involved in Earl’s Court were wiped out completely.”

But the virus wasn’t the only threat. “Every single leather S&M club in London was raided by the police at least once, but they couldn’t get any convictions because juries wouldn’t convict us,” says Farshea. The high-profile conviction of gay sadomasochists arrested in Manchester in 1987, known as the Spanner case, drew lurid headlines and stoked public prejudice. A campaign to appeal the conviction, spearheaded by Farshea and others, went through the high court and House of Lords before being referred to the European high court. The ruling on the case holds to this day and it is still not possible to legally consent to a range of “extreme” S&M practices.

Decades of stigma, epidemic and state persecution haven’t killed leather, but the feeling that the scene – or at least its physical spaces – is in decline is widespread.

“The internet changed everything,” says Farshea. Apps such as Grindr and Recon mean getting off doesn’t necessitate going to a club; online hookups don’t come with a £15 cover charge; and they are not limited to a venue’s opening hours.

But the internet has also fractured, and democratised, fetish. Retailers and club owners were often guided by their particular tastes – leather boots, in the case of the Backstreet’s owner – that dictated what people had to be into in order to get access to the kinds of sex they were chasing. “Leather was the dominant practice and discourse of gay BDSM from the 1950s to the 80s,” says Chaline. If you wanted to get tied up of a Saturday afternoon, chances are you had to do so in leather.

According to Farshea, leather’s hegemony in gay BDSM scenes was as much about its commercial saleability as some mysterious gravitation towards processed cow skin. When the full look can cost north of three grand, it’s perhaps not surprising that younger generations are opting for PVC or rubber, a scene that has “exploded” in the past 10 years according to Sandy Pianim, brand director at Recon. “The leather scene hasn’t modernised, it hasn’t evolved,” he says. Many leather nights still exclude women. Lesbian BDSM nights existed separate from the gay men’s scene, but no clubs have lasted. The scene also remains glaringly white, according to Pianim. And in a time when queer cultures are shifting to conversations around gender rather than sex, leather’s celebration of unfettered masculinity feels out of joint, he argues. “Leather is based on this archetype of hyper-masculinity that doesn’t resonate in the way that it once did. Our cultural archetypes have changed.”

For all the speculation on the reasons for the leather scene’s decline, however, there is a much more mundane truth. Venues in London that cater to specialist audiences, from leather fetishes to the queer communities more broadly, have been buffeted by spiralling costs, predatory developers and councils turning a quick buck to survive swingeing budget cuts. People in other cities in the UK, where venues were sparse due to the difficulty of maintaining premises catering to a much smaller scene, now rely on one-off nights or travelling to fetish events abroad.

For the leathermen who spoke to me, old-school bars can’t be replaced with Grindr-fuelled hookups or occasional events such as Folsom Europe, a continent-wide fetish and leather festival held annually in Berlin. Farshea fears the death of physical venues will make it harder for him to meet with fellow campaigners. Whitfield is concerned that the unique atmosphere of a leather bar will be lost to history. And Eder, who has accrued a “leather family” in his five years on the scene, fears that community bonds are weakened when that community has nowhere to meet.

“It’s always been the freaks who have been the canary in the coal mine,” says Whitfield, whether in the fight for basic rights or in the ongoing closures of minority spaces.

For now, the Backstreet lives on, throwing specialist parties for rubberists and occasional gigs to keep afloat. For how long, though, nobody quite knows.

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Woman complains to police over gay men wearing ‘mesh thongs and leather harnesses’. Yes, really

A man refresh himself as he wears a leather harness at the „Mama Leather“ stand during the Harlem Pride parade in New York on June 29, 2019. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP) (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

A woman in Washington DC has complained to local authorities over a gay event because her neighbours saw men wearing “provocative outfits” – including a leather harness and a jockstrap.

The party took place in the city on January 18 at the RedRocks Neapolitan Bistro and was marketed as a “leather weekend”. The event caters mostly to Black men.

But one woman was not impressed at gay men gathering in her local area. The woman, who is called Jessica, sent an email complaining about the event to the DC Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA).

Woman complains to police over gay men wearing ‘mesh thongs and leather harnesses’. Yes, really

Police probe ‚disgraceful‘ footage of builders yelling tirade of homophobic abuse at gay couple in their garden – after they complained about height of building to developer Bales Homes Ltd

Published: 07:58 EDT, 30 March 2021 | Updated: 09:20 EDT, 30 March 2021

A gay couple have captured disturbing footage of a team of builders screaming homophobic abuse at them in their garden.

Chris Copley-Hammond and his husband John, both 49, claim the workmen began shouting slurs at them after they started on the development in May last year. 

But they say the builders, who are working from scaffolding overlooking their garden in Stroud, Gloucestershire, have now left them ‚frightened in their own home.‘

The couple claim the abuse escalated after they complained about the height of the new homes.

Property developers Bales Homes Ltd apologised for the ‚regrettable‘ incident and confirmed the individuals involved were subcontractors, and have since been removed from the site.

Gloucestershire Police has also launched an investigation after the couple – who have two primary-school aged sons and founded the local Pride group – reported the incident.

John (left) and Chris Copley-Hammond have been subject to homophobic abuse from contractors working on the building development beside their home

John Copley-Hammond filmed in his back garden as builders sang homophobic lyrics. Right, the workers – though it is unclear who was behind the abuse

Comments have included homophobic slurs such as ‚f**s‘ and ‚fudge‘ – short for the derogatory term ‚fudge-packer‘. 

On Monday, when John went outdoors to ask the builders about some cement that had been thrown on to their patio, the builders began to hurl abuse at him.

They deny the accusations but in the video can be heard calling John a ‚f***ing idiot‘, a ‚dirty little pervert‘ and a ‚paedophile.‘

One then tells him: ‚Come out the front then‘ and while holding a brick adds: ‚I’ll smash one of these through your window you c**t. F***ing p***k.

‚F***ing filming me you dirty little paedophile. You pervert.‘

John then tells the group he is going to press charges but is targeted with further abuse, as one of the builders labels him a ‚f***ing b***er.‘

The victim then films the cement covering his garden furniture and table and labels them a ‚disgrace‘ while vowing to get them all fired.

He adds: ‚This is a homophobic hate crime and you are going to go down.‘ 

John said: ‚We’ve been left really frightened. I wasn’t sure whether to report it to the police, but it is a hate crime. We can’t live like this in our own home.‘ 

Chris added: ‚To have to put up with this in our own garden is just not on. It’s really quite upsetting – we’re both 49 years old now, but we were both bullied at school, and it does bring up those feelings again.

‚A lot of the comments they have made are ridiculous homophobic things that were said as slurs in the 70s. To hear stuff like that in this day and age is just unbelievable. It’s quite pathetic, really.‘

The couple believe the intimidation built up as a result of them opposing a proposed change by Bales Homes to increase the height of the new houses.

John said: ‚Us and all the neighbours got together and challenged it at a meeting in February this year.

Police probe 'disgraceful' footage of builders yelling tirade of homophobic abuse at gay couple in their garden - after they complained about height of building to developer Bales Homes Ltd

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‚And ever since then, it’s all just really escalated in terms of the intimidation, and has obviously reached a crescendo in the last week.

‚We’re just annoyed that nothing has been done about any of this intimidation, or to stop the comments.‘

Chris added: ‚We founded the first Stroud Pride group three years ago, and it was fantastic. We got a great reception. So for something like this to now happen is quite upsetting.‘

The contractors at work on the development in Stroud. It is not clear whether the comments were made by more than one of the builders

Siobhan Baillie, Conservative MP for Stroud, said: ‚In the 21st century it is unacceptable that this sort of homophobic abuse is still in our society.

‚No one should have to put up with it, particularly not in their own home. The law protects gay people from such abuse.

‚I hope the police will thoroughly investigate what has happened, and if they find sufficient evidence an offence has been committed they should ensure charges are brought.‘

Gloucestershire Police said: ‚We have spoken to the victims and are currently investigating. We take all incidents of hate crime seriously and will investigate to ensure offenders are dealt with appropriately and victims are given a voice.‘

Lee Bales, managing director of Bales Homes, said: ‚Bales Homes are very sorry this has happened. It’s a regrettable situation and we feel sorry that the situation arose in the first place. Unfortunately the individuals involved were subcontractors.

‚As soon as we were informed as to what was happening, we complained to the Director of the subcontracting company and had the individuals removed from the site.

‚Bales Homes have taken this complaint very seriously as the views expressed are not our own, and we will make sure it doesn’t happen again.‘

Bales Homes declined to reveal the name of the subcontractors.

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The woman claimed that neighbours had seen gay men walking around in ‘mesh thongs and leather harness’.

In the email – details of which were reported by the Washington Blade – Jessica said people in the neighbourhood had seen “multiple men in very provocative outfits including mesh thongs and leather harnesses walking throughout various residential streets in the neighbourhood during and after the event”.

She continued: “Several of my neighbours also witnessed various attendees of this event engaged in sexual acts inside the venue and outside the venue.”

The woman also reportedly complained to police about the event. Brett Parson of DC police told the Blade that there were no allegations of criminal activity in the email so no police action is required.

Jessica also complained directly to the venue. ABRA are now investigating the matter.

Lead organiser Micah Roseboro hit back at Jessica’s complaint, telling the news outlet that the club night provides a place for queer people of colour to gather “safely and freely”.

“We flirt and dance and dress scandalously. We wear harnesses and thongs and jockstraps and lace just to defy and redefine masculinity,” Roseboro added.

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