Leather Life: Leather in a Time of Crisis (Again)

Image courtesy of BigStock/grebeshkovmaxim

A new virus has emerged. It can be deadly. People are dying in horrifying numbers. The fact that it’s new means that no human being anywhere on earth has any kind of natural immunity to infection with it. There currently is no cure and no vaccine.

The rapid spread of the virus has drastically changed the lives of individuals and the lives of communities in ways that were previously unimaginable. Many community and social activities have been curtailed, and many beloved community gathering places have been closed by government order in an effort to stem, or at least slow, the tide of infections. Wearing personal protective gear as a shield against the virus is being strongly encouraged, and there is a renewed emphasis on ways to stay healthy and avoid infection.

Members of the leather, BDSM, fetish, and kink communities have had to adapt to the new realities of the COVID-19 era, the same as everyone else and as every other community. The need for social distancing means the cancellation of community events large and small including International Ms Leather/International Ms Bootblack (IMsLBB), Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend (CLAW), International Mr. Leather/International Mr. Bootblack (IML/IMBB), the Knights of Leather Tournament 32 run, and many more. BDSM groups are holding virtual munches, leather clubs are holding virtual meetings, and online chats and hangouts are replacing in-person gatherings.

I was fortunate enough recently to be invited to a virtual leather happy hour. One of the attendees, commenting on Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, said, “I don’t mind restraint, but this is ridiculous!” Another person asked, “Can I yellow out of this?” No, unfortunately you can’t. None of us can.

This is what life is like for members of the leather, BDSM, fetish and kink communities in early 2020. But the first two paragraphs above also exactly describe life for gay men and leathermen in the 1980s and 1990s during the AIDS crisis. The part being played today by the novel coronavirus was played then by HIV. Social distancing in the AIDS era meant exchanging back-room sex for phone sex—or, for many men, celibacy.

In much the same way that today’s leather community gathering places like eagleBOLTbar, The Saloon, and LUSH are closed now, back then gay bathhouses were closed in an effort (some would say a questionable effort) to stem the transmission of HIV. Today we are encouraged to wear a face mask; back then we were encouraged to wear a condom. Today we wash our hands for 20 seconds ten times a day; back then we practiced safe, or at least safer, sex.

Life in the COVID-19 era has turned, in surreal fashion, into a disaster movie made real. But some of us have seen a version of this movie before, with the virus being HIV. Some of us have lived this movie before. Some of us survived this movie, but too many of us did not. Almost an entire generation of gay men and gay leathermen died before their time, disrupting the formal and informal mentoring and educational processes on which the survival and perpetuation of leather culture depends. Some leather clubs had to disband because too many of their members had died.

The gay and leather communities of today are still living with the legacy of the AIDS crisis. And people are still being infected with HIV, and there still is no vaccine against it.

In confronting the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, comparisons are unavoidable as a way of trying to understand what is happening and what can be done. Besides comparisons to the AIDS crisis, I have seen the medical, social and financial dislocations of the COVID-19 pandemic compared recently to those of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918; the Great Depression of the 1930s; World War II; and the financial crashes of 1987 and 2008.

Speaking of the financial crash of 2008, I wrote a column back then called “Leather in Lean Times” about the quite substantial impact of that year’s financial crisis on our community. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has also become a financial crisis caused by the medical crisis, much of what I said in that 2008 column bears repeating today.

In that column I also recalled the AIDS crisis and how the community had come together to take care of each other and do what needed to be done to get through that terrible time. Then I wrote what I hoped we would do in dealing with the 2008 financial crisis, which is pretty much the way I hope the leather, BDSM, fetish and kink communities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic:

We acknowledge the reality of the changed circumstances for ourselves, and for our community and society at large. Then, we do what’s necessary to deal with those changed circumstances as intelligently and sensitively as possible.

Some things will have to be scaled back. Some things just won’t happen, at least for a while. We just will have to do the best we can. We decide what’s most important, and we support it. Conversely, we defer other things, or let them go altogether.

We all will have to make hard choices, although some choices effectively will be made for us. If it’s a choice between spending limited funds on travel to a leather event or buying groceries, there’s not much to argue about. Perhaps we won’t be able to do everything we’ve been doing, or do it to the same extent. Eventually, when things settle down and straighten out, we can revisit the things we let go or scaled back, and, if we think it’s appropriate, either resurrect or expand them again.

We try not to become either mercenary or hardened. The Leather Pride flag has a heart on it for a reason. Even in the face of current circumstances, we mustn’t allow that heart to become hardened.

If we stop caring about others because we’re in trouble ourselves, we as a community will sacrifice our heritage and lose our soul. Even as we worry about our own circumstances, I hope we’ll continue to help those who are worse off than we are.

Nothing in our community—not bars, businesses, contests, other events, clubs, community institutions (like NCSF, LA&M, and Woodhull), or other community nonprofits—will be immune.

It’s a storm we all will have to weather, together. I believe we will. And I hope when the storm is over, we will come out stronger, with our priorities in sharper focus, and our conviction renewed.

That was my hope in 2008. It is my hope in 2020.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. And wash your hands.

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