earning my leathers, ten years later

my cover
The cover I was given at An Unholy Harvest’s tenth anniversary, October 2017.

Ten years ago, I wrote about the concept of earned leather. I just re-read my post and felt a wave of… nostalgia? A lot has happened in that decade, and to revisit my perspectives from 2007 feels a bit like having tea with an old friend I haven’t seen in a long time.

My thoughts on the idea of earned leather have deepened since then, and so have my experiences. So here are some fresh musings on that tradition. And after I talk about history for a while, I’ll tell you the story of how I was recently given a very special hat.

Myth and meaning-making

Our propensity to mythologize, as Leatherfolk, is remarkable. We elevate each other to statuses that may or may not be deserved, or recognized outside our own small circles. We write about the past as though it were the One True Way, often in the absence of any real evidence about how anything was done. And when we do have evidence, we frequently lack the contextual information that would explain why things happened as they did. These problems remain as present now as they were ten years ago. And my mistrust of the stories we tell ourselves, glowing with righteous truthiness, remains firmly in place.

That said, today I also have a deeper appreciation for the value of Leather traditions. More specifically, on the value of creating new traditions, which can nod to history and incorporate what we know of the past into a vibrant present. As always, we make shit up because it turns us on and/or helps us build communities, connections, relationships, families. As long as we recognize that we’re doing the same thing now as our kinky ancestors did decades ago—inventing language, rituals and symbols to reflect and name our desires, identities and practices—there’s nothing wrong with trying to create ties with the past as we make meaning out of the now.

The politics of tradition

Traditions aren’t born; people make them in specific contexts, when the need or opportunity arises. For an act to become a tradition, it has to happen more than once and take on a ritualized character, which means the people and context both need to stick around for a while. Plenty of people live in places where they have no access to ongoing, local Leather community, or not one that would welcome them in or feel like a good fit. This is especially true the further away you get from being a gay white cis man. And most of us have minimal access to actual Leather history, because very little of it has been written in any kind of formal way. (I don’t necessarily mean scholarly, but I do mean thorough, well-sourced and critical. I have a short list here if you’re interested in reading some of what is available.)

I love the idea of Leather traditions. In their best form, they bind communities together; they help people connect to each other, recognize each other’s accomplishments and celebrate milestones. But rather than looking to traditions and importing them (or what we imagine they were) wholesale from the past in order to feel more legitimate, I would rather advocate that we create traditions in the present, based on history recent enough to be in shared memory. As you build your community, possibly from scratch, make it as amazing as it can be, right now. Tailor it to the people who are there now, who need it and are willing to contribute. Make it as accessible as you can and see who shows up. Then make it even more accessible and reach out to whoever is missing. Working with that pool of people, figure out what your shared values are and how best to honour and represent those values.

(There are no universal Leather values, no matter how much people talk about that idea. The common ground in Leather, I think, is the *talking* about values. Even that is not universal, but a values focus is often part of Leather identity. It’s one of the features that makes this community not solely about sex. Though of course I think discussions about values are a good idea in all communities, particularly sex-focused ones.)

If we want to draw on history in creating traditions, let’s make sure it’s actual history, based what we really know of the past and not on our fantasies. The past is truly fascinating, but the reality of early Leather will largely disappoint those in search of detailed formality and strict protocol. Personally I think that’s just fine. I’ll take unglamorous reality over glossy fiction any day.

While we’re drawing on history in service to today’s Leather traditions, let’s also make sure we don’t let the past overshadow the present. Is a backpatch from a 1970s-era motorcycle club cool? Quite likely. Is it also maybe racist or misogynist or particular to a specific kind of toxic nationalism? Could be. Learn about tradition, examine it, critique it. Take the parts you can hold to, change the rest. History is the past. Tradition may be rooted there, but it’s what we’re doing now. We are allowed to change our practices, to adapt them to our realities and our politics and our communities and our hearts. In fact we must do this, or we’ll only maintain rigidity and uniformity in a community that needs new ideas, better politics, greater diversity, younger leaders, more kindness.

Even better if we document what we invent (and why!) in some robust and lasting way so folks thirty years from now don’t face the same challenges we do today. Print that shit out, man. Save a Word copy of that essay. Send it to some friends. Donate it to an archive. Sure, in theory the Internet is forever, but in truth it’s often even more ephemeral than a Leather contest program from 1987.

The tradition of criticism

Lest you think my call for criticism and creativity is too contemporary, I present this excerpt from Justin Spring’s incredible book Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward. Steward was a gay masochist before Leather community existed, and he witnessed its emergence under Chuck Renslow, the man who eventually founded International Mr. Leather. Writing in Chicago in the late 1950s, Steward put down his thoughts on Leather (p. 302):

In the first place, you call it a “movement” only by stretching the term. Granted that it is all ritualized and codified and “organized” right at the moment—but that is the fake part of it. An artificial hierarchy, a ritual, and a practice has been superimposed over a very real need of the human spirit [to locate that which is authentically masculine]… [but] the entire affair has become a ritual, a Fun and Games sort of thing, and in essence there is no difference today between a female impersonator or drag-queen and a leather-boy in full leather-drag. Both are dressing up to represent something they are not…

It is difficult to say at what point in such a “movement” the degeneration sets in, and the elements of parody and caricature make their first appearance. Perhaps the decay began when the first M[asochist] decided that he, too, could wear leather as well as the big butch S[adist] he so much admired. And so he bought himself a leather jacket…

We can learn so much from these two short paragraphs. Early Leather itself was seen, by some, as inauthentic, parodic, silly. Leather (the material) was seen, by some, as only for tops; for a bottom to buy it and wear it was already to break some kind of rule, even for someone who felt rules spoiled things. (Note that part of critically reading primary source historical material is reading against the grain, detecting what wasn’t said or how people self-contradicted; Steward gives us plenty of both.) Ritual was seen as a corrupting influence on the raw purity of rough masculine gay desire, rather than as a reverent encoding of honour and feeling.

Granted, these are one man’s impressions, but Steward wasn’t just any random man. He was sort of the Forrest Gump of gay history bridging the last two centuries. His detailed sexual note-taking informed Kinsey’s research and his fiction writing shaped an early generation of butch gay men. (For someone who hated ritual, he sure did have plenty of his own fetishistic, ritualized sexual habits. You’ll have to read the book yourself to get the full story. Please do, it’s amazing.)

All this to say, Leather culture from its very foundations has always been up for question and critique, even, and perhaps especially, from those whose hearts are kinky and queer as fuck. You might even say it’s a tradition.

A little history of my own

As a fresh-faced pervert in the early aughts, I came out into Montreal’s pansexual kink scene, and found fellow queers sprinkled throughout it. I enjoyed the scene, but it was an uneasy fit; faced with dykes, straight men were sometimes homophobic, sometimes non-consensually lecherous, and sometimes perfectly lovely. I never knew what to expect, so I could never fully relax, which kinda sucks when you’d maybe like to get naked or otherwise vulnerable, or hold someone else in that place.

As well, the local gay Leather community was conflicted about whether or not women belonged. On one memorable summer day, when some friends and I went to the Eagle, one patron got upset and yelled “I don’t want to see tits in my leather bar!” (We were fully dressed.) The bouncer threw him out and made it clear we could stay, but the conflict was intense enough that it wound up the subject of debate in the local alternative weekly paper. It was an emblematic moment: some guys hated women (and plenty still do), some welcomed us in (and plenty still do), but you could never really know which was which until they did or said something to show it. In short, no matter where we went, there was never a guarantee we’d belong.

So in about 2002, Jacqueline St-Urbain—whom I was just getting to know at the time, and who today is one of my best friends—decided to create a group bringing together kinky and Leather-identified dykes. We connected online (Yahoogroups! You can still find their fossils lying around the internet if you dig a bit!) and organized dungeon takeovers, where we’d show up en masse at a pansexual space and play. It seemed that two or three dykes playing would get ogled and groped, whereas five or ten or twenty of us were enough to scare off the letches. Jacqueline called it the Unholy Army of the Night and I set about my quest to be the group’s chief recruiter, beckoning to septum-pierced undergrads at McGill’s Radical Sex Week workshops and sniffing out the queers at local pan events.

Jacqueline and I shared the hope that if we kept expanding our network and holding events, we’d eventually find the local leatherdykes, who so far had been mysteriously elusive. But as the years went by, we realized that there simply weren’t any. Of course older dykes existed, and some of them, potentially, were kinky. But Montreal had no existing network of leatherwomen to draw out of hiding with enticements of fresh young flesh and handcrafted floggers. No sustained subculture. No traditions. No elders. At some point we realized: we were the elders. Jacqueline was barely into her thirties and I wasn’t even 25.

By 2007, I had been helping organize leatherdyke  community events in Montreal for about five years—parties, workshops and other events, both through the Army and independently. That fall, a couple of months before I wrote my post about (my lack of) earned leather, Jacqueline and I co-organized the first-ever Unholy Harvest in Ottawa, a weekend to bring together the leatherdykes from Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and elsewhere in Canada. At the time of that writing, it was a one-off event. We hadn’t even decided to hold the event a second time, let alone nine more.

On covering ceremonies

Let’s take a break from my story and talk about covering for a moment. It’s sort of a subset of the idea of earned leather. While earned leather can be given in a range of contexts and for a range of reasons, covering is usually done with a more restricted set of meanings. Covering is an idea that emerged, it seems, at some point in the mid- to late nineties. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the idea, roughly, is that a Muir cap, or cover—that distinctive peaked leather cap popularized by Tom of Finland drawings—has come, in some circles, to symbolize the status of Master.

It didn’t start that way. It used to be just a sexy hat, according to Guy Baldwin, one of my favourite crotchety old leathermen. Skip Chasey quotes Guy Baldwin talking about his own Muir cap: “I, like every good leatherman of my day, bought it.” But anyway, the idea began to circulate that to wear such a cap implied mastery, and that a person (therefore?) shouldn’t wear one unless it was bestowed by others who felt the wearer deserved that title or status. In short, a Muir cap meant a master, and a master earned that title; they did not self-nominate. Note how this in some ways resembles the “leather is only for tops” position that Samuel Steward held in the 1950s. Plus ça change…

Covering ceremonies are not Old Guard. They’re way too young a tradition for that. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad, just relatively new. Take Hardy Haberman’s point of view, for instance, which is pleasantly skeptical of mythical Old Guard covering ceremonies, though he plays along nicely when asked to participate in one. Thomas Smith’s casual misogyny I don’t love, but his related piss-take about pseudo-Old Guard traditions and covering ceremonies is worth a read.

Covering ceremonies are what Laura Antoniou might perhaps call a Middle-Age Guard tradition, a hilarious term she coined in 2005:

History? I’m not an historian! I’m a pornographer. Besides, my history doesn’t look like the farcical one I mentioned a minute before—no one introduced me to the magic of sadomasochism after a bunch of mysterious initiations. I didn’t stumble into a group just like me; I went looking for them after seeing an ad in the Village Voice. Very radical and transgressive, you betcha. I’m not anything special—I’m a member of what I have decided is the Middle Age Guard—too young for the Olde Guarde and too old for the next generation groups. What could I tell you about? The history of phone sex lines in the 1980s?

But here’s the thing: that covering ceremonies are a relatively recent tradition doesn’t make them any less meaningful. I take issue with pompousness and with mythology passed off as history. I appreciate irreverence as much as I appreciate our very serious practice of making deep meaning together as Leatherfolk, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with finding new ways to confer appreciation or honour on valued community members as long as we don’t rewrite history or otherwise make asses of ourselves along the way.

This is where we come to my new hat.

In the early aughts, leatherdykes in Montreal had no Leather traditions to step into because we had no sustained Leather community to join, at least not one that consistently wanted us around. To find a major annual event that catered to us, we literally had to leave the country. Jacqueline created the Unholy Army, and together we later created An Unholy Harvest, because there was nothing else. We didn’t know we were starting something that would last this long, or become a place where traditions would spring up because of opportunity and need.

This year, we held the tenth anniversary edition of An Unholy Harvest in Ottawa. On closing night, October 9, 2017, to our great surprise, the Harvest community covered Jacqueline and me in a very touching ceremony. They’ve never done anything like it before. They came up with a truly beautiful thing that both referenced a Leather tradition and critiqued it, and—well, I know I’m biased here, but it was amazing. Let me tell you how it went.

A dozen or so people, longstanding participants at Harvest and other leatherdyke community events, came together to create the ceremony from scratch. The night of, they opened it with an Indigenous land acknowledgement. This is particularly important as Harvest takes place on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend—a holiday that we don’t mark, but that outside our walls celebrates colonialism, especially this year because of Canada 150, which was heavily promoted in Ottawa.

They read their own words, and the words of people who could not be there that night, in French and in English, as an acknowledgement of the deeply bilingual nature of our community. They read poetry they had written. They spoke about feminism; they named how Leather traditions are often intertwined with misogyny, and talked about wishing to preserve their honourable intentions and connection to broader Leather community while draining them of that particular poison. They talked about disability, about power, about service, about how wearing leather is about defiance and legacy and integrity.

In short, they invented a ceremony that was perfectly in keeping with the way Harvesters have long distinguished themselves with their overwhelming creative energy. Instead of a cookie-cutter application of someone else’s ritual, they came up with something completely original and perfectly suited to this time, this place, this community, these values.

And then they put hats on our heads. But rather than simply buying a pair of standard-issue Muir caps, they chose hats that reflected us individually. They co-designed a gorgeous, and very femme, leather fascinator and had it custom-made for Jacqueline by artisans in two cities. And they bought me a simple black leather driving cap, an everyday, gender-neutral hat in a style I already wear. As I wrote in my thank-you letter to them, I will wear my hat all the time; it will come with me to school, on the streetcar, to the grocery store, to the movies, as I aim to live by my Leather values always and everywhere, not only in Leather space.

And with the hats, they said, they honoured Jacqueline with the title of Mistress and me with the title of Master.

A moment on mastery

Let’s discuss the idea of mastery for a moment. Even if you restrict it to its kinky usage, “mastery” has many meanings depending on who’s using it and in what context. (Skip Chasey touches on some of this in that 2014 keynote address I linked to earlier. It’s an excellent read.) Here’s how I would break it down based on my observations of community usage:

Erotic. Some people name themselves Master as a way of creating a scene persona or role play character. Not my thing, but it can have great erotic value for some folks; when kept within appropriate boundaries (i.e. you don’t expect perfect strangers to use your title), hey, go for it. Used in a sentence: “Oh, Master Thorn, may I please orgasm now?”

Skill-based. You can master a skill or set of skills. There’s no certification board for BDSM or leather, so this is largely a combination of years of experience doing a thing and clean track record at doing it well, by which I mean, bringing pleasure to the people you do it to and not making too many egregious mistakes in your technique. Used in a sentence: “I’ve asked Lynn, who is a whip master, to teach us her highly refined single-tail technique.”

Relationship-based. You can be the master of a person. This means you’ve entered an agreed-upon power dynamic in which you’re in charge and they follow your direction. I’ve written extensively about this kind of dynamic in the past and will doubtless do so in the future; for now, suffice to say, this is a deeply personal, intimate kind of mastery, and the only people qualified to say you’re doing it are you and the people you’re doing it with. (Note that just because you’re doing a power dynamic relationship doesn’t mean you have to use this title. Plenty of people opt for other words for a long list of reasons, among others because of its association with the word “slave,” which I discuss here.) Used in a sentence: “Master Krystyn and I are trying a new form of service this week; I’m learning how to pour wine without spilling a drop.”

Path-based. You can be on a path of mastery in your journey in Leather or another appropriate framework. This is often intertwined with the practice of being master to a person (or people), but they’re worth separating here because for some folks (myself included), the path of mastery is not one that begins and ends in relationship with others; it’s also, or even primarily, about pursuing deep self-knowledge and developing ethical frameworks for understanding and managing power. For many it features a spiritual or religious dimension intertwined with or in addition to the ethical one. Used in a sentence: “As I pursue my journey in mastery, I have been studying decision-making process models and doing regular silent meditation retreats.”

Community-based. You can be deemed a master by your community. What that means varies widely from one community to the next and is often a combination of several of the above meanings plus community service contributions as a teacher, leader, organizer or mentor. Used in a sentence: “Master Bob founded our local leather group in the eighties, you should ask him what he thinks about IML.”

I’ve never taken a scene name, master or otherwise, because it always felt like an erotic role-play or persona-building practice that was at odds with my value system, which prioritizes stripped-down reality. I’ve acquired plenty of skills, but never identified so strongly with any specific one of them that “master” would feel appropriate. I’ve been called Master by a select few partners, mostly in private; to me, it remains an intimate word, one that names a deeply meaningful truth between me and someone who has chosen to follow my lead in all things, so I am often uncomfortable when people use it who don’t relate to me in that intimate capacity. I do consider myself to be on a path of mastery, but that is an inner journey, not one that requires outside validation or naming (and one that could be led off course if I got invested in such naming). And community—well, my home Leather community, built over some fifteen years of organizing, has never bestowed such titles or their symbols. Until now.

My community had a blend of many meanings in mind when they covered Jacqueline and me. They spoke about those meanings with great eloquence that night. Realistically most of them probably aren’t going to start calling me Master Andrea in casual leatherspace, and that’s fine by me; it still feels like an intimate word. While I wouldn’t take offense at being called Master by someone with whom I’m not in an M/s relationship, I would never expect it. For me, every time I wear my hat, I remember the feeling of being appreciated and acknowledged for the work I’ve done, and that means more to me than any title. My head must not get too big for this very modest, simple hat.

A second covering

There’s a second chapter to this covering ceremony. One that’s both more private and more public.

When we got home the night of the ceremony, in the wee hours of the morning, my partner handed me the hat box, the same one that was used in the covering, and told me to open it. Puzzled, and expecting an empty box, I lifted the lid. To my surprise I saw nestled in tissue paper a genuine Muir cap, made by the Muir company right here in Toronto. (Did you know that’s where they were made? I didn’t either!) It was just the right fit.

As I stared at her in astonishment, she explained that she had wanted to make sure I had a cap that would be understood for its symbolism by the wider Leather community in a way that perhaps the more personally and locally meaningful driving cap might not. She had been looking for a genuine Muir cap in a small size for months, and had eventually come across a listing on Kijiji, of all things. When she reached out to the seller, she discovered that it was a long-time local leatherdyke whom we both respect quite a lot. When the seller learned the cap was for me, she insisted it be a gift and not a sale; it was just the kind of quiet generosity she is known for. So I am now the proud owner of two leather hats serving different facets of the same purpose.

I understand that the more traditional symbol says something to some people that my everyday cap cannot convey at a glance. This two-hat business reminds me that while I thrive in small grassroots community and intimate connections, my journey in mastery is also to some extent a public thing since I am a teacher and writer. I am not totally comfortable with this, but I accept this as true regardless. I’m also surprised at how much I like how the Muir cap looks. It imparts a kind of gravitas that works for me more than I would have expected. And I’m grateful to my partner for her deep thoughtfulness about and support of my work in the Leather world, which I’ll also carry with me whenever I wear it.

Gratitude above all

I am writing this post to mark the ten-year anniversary of An Unholy Harvest; to express my thanks publicly to my community, my amazing co-organizer Jacqueline, and my partner; and to take my own advice and try to document Leather history, even just my own small corner of it.

I’m grateful that thanks to the sustained presence and participation of leatherdykes and leatherqueers from all over Canada, and particular in Ontario and Quebec, I was able to earn leather in 2017 that I couldn’t earn in 2007 because the community infrastructure simply didn’t exist yet. The people and the context stuck around, and I hope that remains true for many years to come. Jacqueline and I hit a milestone in 2011 when we first awarded earned leather to Harvest volunteers who had gone above and beyond for five years. There is a kind of beautiful parallel to see our community hit its own milestone at the ten-year mark by taking up the initiative and leadership required to award earned leather to us in turn. I’m both very proud of them and very humbled by the honour.

To An Unholy Harvest, in leather and with love, I doff my cap.


6 thoughts on “earning my leathers, ten years later

  1. Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
    Andrea writes about earned leather and its history and mythology. As a religious studies geek with a focus on new religious movements, what she says about building traditions in the here and now, and recognizing that just because your Mythic History is *made up* that doesn’t make it wrong or invalid… that applies to more than just Leather culture. I see it among witches and pagans and not-nearly-so-reconstructionist heathens who build ritual and story in ways that let their faiths serve the needs of their communities today, rather than those that might (or might not) have served in some thousands-years-gone Matriarchy or iron-age Viking settlement. I love what she says about making deep meaning, and how its such a part of our culture (particularly, I think, the D/s part, though the S/M part is no slouch, what with ordeal rituals and the meaning and connection that are built into and born out of them). On a way more personal note – which I’ll have to expand on if/when I take Andrea’s advice and write this stuff down where people can find it – I’m beyond grateful to have been part of this. ❤

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