The Importance Of Leather To Queer Communities

Have you ever seen a leather coat in a thrift store with a hand-done design in the back? Have you wondered what the leather trend was all about? Or maybe you are wondering how leather relates to the LGBTQ community. We explore these questions further. 

     Leather was more than a form of self-expression for members of the LGBTQ/queer community, it was a form of protest, a way to strengthen relationships, and community.  By the 1960s clothier Alan Selby who saw young gay men in motorcycle wear. He was inspired and went on to find Mr. S Leather, this helped solidify the style and role of leather in the queer community. The style involved leather chaps, uniforms, harnesses, motorcycle jackets, and peaked hats. Although there was kink involved, kink being individuals preferred sexual practices, fantasies, or non-conventional sex practices. To the leather community, it was about so much more than sexual relationships. It was about mentorship between an older queer person and a younger one. It was about having someone help you navigate the struggles of being a gay man in a time when lots of hate and social unrest were happening. 

     Leather provided an outlet for mentorship and community for many members of the LGBTQ community. The ties of Leather date back as far as the 1950s with gay-focused motorcycle clubs appearing. During the 1950s censorship laws were strict about male nudity in public. Multiple people worked against this narrative of censorship, one of them being Tom of Finland,  a Finnish artist in the 1970s. Tom Finland featured muscled men that were influenced largely by the leather scene. Afterward, leather bars started appearing, and these outlets of social and sexual expression became a connection to others who faced the same harsh realities and judgments and became a place to make new social practices.

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"Pin Collection," dated from 1978-1996. From GLBT Historical Society, https://www.glbthistory.org/objects-artwork-selections

The Pin collection depicts numerous pins, a couple are from International Mr. Leather competitions, these competitions originated in some of the first gay bars, specifically a gay bar made in 1958 by Chuck Renslow and Dom Orejudos. Through events like the Mr. Leather competition and the Mrs. Leather competition, queers could hone their passion for leather and creative expression, adding individuality to the leather scene. These pins act as a catalyst for deeper community connections, they are an invitation, a story, and they show the community instead of hiding it. It was also a promotional avenue for gay bars, allowing more revenue and keeping the lifeblood of the community operating.

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The Leather Journal 

Not Attributed 

"America's S&M/Levi-leather/bike club news magazine." White text on black background. The center of the poster contains a black and white drawing of two leathermen; a motorcycle in the background. The upper left quadrant of the poster contains a black sketch of a man's facial profile.

https://doi.org/10.25549/one-c4-46947

The copyright status for this work is undetermined. For more information, see https://rightsstatements.org/page/UND/1.0/?language=en

The Leather Journal cover is a testament to the expanding rich community of leather enthusiasts. The cover depicts two men, one is looking down at the other and both have warm expressions on their faces. Leather was more than straps and harnesses, it was a cry against harmful notions of masculinity and an avenue for exploration in sexual relationships. A study done by Mosher, Levitt, and Manley indicate that "Leathermen develop a unique form of masculinity, integrating care and vulnerability with an aesthetic of heightened masculine appearance". 




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The Leather Game Button, 1970s. From the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, https://doi.org/10.25549/one-oUC12260011

 The Leather Game was one of the first gay bars for the leather community in the late 1970s, the bar encouraged the queer community to join the scene. Bars such as this one provided a critical stitch to the social fabric of gay communities, queer people went to these bars to meet friends, engage in sexual relationships, and be around their people.  The queer club scene was not always inclusive or supportive of all queer identities but as a majority, it was a beacon of hope. 

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The Leather Game, 1979 From ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, https://doi.org/10.25549/one-oUC111335571

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Leather Game Matchbook Cover, 1970s. From ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, https://doi.org/10.25549/one-oUC12262362

The LGBTQIA community has a rich and fruitful history, full of victories, full of love and self-discovery. They have to fight and are still fighting every day for their right to exist and be in a world that is consistently trying to undermine their very existence. These forces of opposition to the queer community whether in the form of legislation, policies, societal attitudes, restrictions in health care, or interpersonal hardships do not stop the queer community from existing and fighting for modern queer rights.

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Seattle Gay And Lesbian Pride Parade by Garvey Kent, June 30, 1991. From ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, https://doi.org/10.25549/one-oUC111335571

The National Leather Association made many appearances during protests and parades. They would show up to help promote protests for equality or show up in the spirit of showing off their pride. They showed up for the Seattle Gay and Lesbian pride parade of 1991, holding a banner all decked out in leather. Both women and men showing their pride. They are still around in 2023 and have their own website.

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Leather Jackets At Pete Wilson Protest, October 6, 1991. From ONE National Gay And Lesbian Archives, https://doi.org/10.25549/one-oUC12248002

   The “Fuck Wilson” Leather Jackets were worn during the AB101 riot that read “Fuck Wilson” and “Gay Rights Now”. The AB101 protest took place after California governor Pete Wilson vetoed a gay rights bill that would help eliminate job discrimination in the workplace for the queer community. In lieu of this veto, protests started soon after, the community had been angered because Pete Wilson had originally said he supported LGBTQ rights. Leather was notoriously a sign of rebellion and with the already looming presence of leather in the community, the leather jackets pulled their protest together to make it more prominent.

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"Gender Outlaw" by Bruce Eakin, 1990. From Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/ws859f85j 

  The Gender Outlaw Pin depicts a trans woman in a leather jacket. The term Gender Outlaw refers to a person who refuses to be defined by the traditional meanings of what male and female gender roles and norms are. As the author, Kate Bornstein of Gender Outlaw states “I know I’m not a man …. and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably not a woman, either ….. The trouble is, we’re living in a world that insists we be one or the other.”

Without the stories of queer perspectives and lived experiences we would not know about so many acts of power, courage, and individuality that have fueled both small and big change for the queer community. Leather was dedicated to the unique power that queer people held within themselves and the ability to create community. By reading queer history and exploring their stories we are honoring their struggle and their existence. To further honor them we can share their history with others. 

Sources Cited for Artifacts: 

“Primary Source Set: Leather.” GLBT Historical Society, https://www.glbthistory.org/primary-source-set-leather.

Abe, Fraser. “A Brief History of Leather and the Gays.” IN Magazine, 9 Sept. 2022, https://inmagazine.ca/2020/03/a-brief-history-of-leather-and-the-gays/.

Chad M. Mosher MCoun, Heidi M. Levitt PhD & Eric Manley MEd (2006) Layers of Leather, Journal of Homosexuality, 51:3, 93-123, DOI: 10.1300/J082v51n03_06

"The Gay Nineties." Social History of the United States, edited by Daniel J. Walkowitz and Daniel E. Bender, vol. 10: The 1990s, ABC-CLIO, 2009, pp. 113-118. Gale eBooks, Accessed 16 Feb. 2023.

About The Authors

Amalia Curtis-Milner is a student at UW Bothell and is a senior with one more quarter until receiving her Bachelors in Arts with a Major in Society Ethics and Human Behaivor. She is really excited to share her findings on the leather scene. Em McLaughlin is a freshman at UW Bothell, and plans to get a bachelors in Biology while minoring in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. They hope to one day do more in the science community that relates to gender and sexuality and diversity in the science community.

Further Resources 

Bornstein, Kate. “Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein: 9781101973240: Penguinrandomhouse.com: Books.” PenguinRandomhouse.com, Knopf, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/16246/gender-outlaw-by-kate-bornstein/.

National Leather Association, NLA-I Web. NLA International, https://www.nla-international.com/.

Acknowledgments: 

Without the countless hours and hard work of librarians and historians we would not of been able to access and find these incredible sources that paint a broader picture of a rich and diverse community. 

Also without the help of Dr.Shayne, Penelope Wood, Denise Hattwig, and Tessa Denton this exhibit would not be possible. Thank you for your support! 

The Importance Of Leather To Queer Communities