What Does it Mean to be Leather?

Identity is ever-changing, it may be difficult to understand where you stand and that is totally okay! Sexuality and identity are fluid, the most important part is letting yourself explore and learn what you feel the most comfortable with. 

In this article, we’ll tackle what it means to be leather and what it entails to be a part of this community. 

What does being leather mean?

Queer communities have a long history of subcultures. From bears to otters to butches, there are a variety of ways in which community members have created spaces to feel more like themselves. These subcultures are just another way in which queer folks can feel better represented and seen. 

The leather community is a subculture that involves wearing leather erotic fashion such as chaps, harnesses, and vests to signal their association with their unconventional approach to sex. Leather subculture is often related to BDSM practices and interest in sexual activities that involve wearing leather apparel and accessories. The demographic that is most commonly related to leather culture are gay men. Although this is the most visible demographic, there are also “leatherwomen,” you don’t need to be a certain gender to be considered a leather. 

Learning that you might be a part of the leather community might be scary at first, but there are many ways to plug yourself into the community and learn to be comfortable with yourself.

if you’re curious about how you might identify, here’s what you should know about what being leather means:

History of leather culture 

The leather community first came into play in the 1940s. The leather culture is a derivative of the post-World War II motorcycle clubs that were appearing during that time. Cities such Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago began to see a high increase of gay male communities when the army started handing out Blue Discharges (used to remove homosexuals from the army.) At the time leather was largely associated with masculinity and thus gay men who felt more “butch” began to coin the leather style and subculture. 

There was often a stereotype during this time period that gay men liked solely feminine things, but many gay men did not feel like the “camp” style or musical theater culture fit their aesthetic. It was from this pushback that leather culture was born. The leather scene awoke a masculine gay subculture and it also initiated the exploration of kink and S&M within these communities. 

The first leather bar opened in 1958 in Chicago. It was called the Gold Coast and was founded by Chuck Renslow and Dom Orejudos. A couple years later the Tool Box, another gay leather bar, opened up in San Francisco and became the catalyst for San Francisco becoming the hub of leather culture. 

In the 1970s, a Finnish artist by the name of Tom of Finland began making highly masculinized homoerotic art that promoted the leather community. The men depicted had mustaches and intense muscles, this drove the leather aesthetic and many members of the community mimicked these drawings in real life. 

The lesbian community also has roots in the leather subculture. In 1979 the motorcycle club Dykes on Bikes was created in San Francisco. Since then the lesbian leather community has grown and the International Ms. Leather competition began taking place in 1987. 

What makes someone leather?

The one thing all leather community members have in common is love of leather itself. Other than that the way one approaches being leather is completely up to them. For example some members of the leather community are heavily involved in the BDSM community as well, it is an opportunity for them to explore sexual pleasure and kinks. On the other hand some members of the leather community simply enjoy wearing leather and the idea of butch queerness. Both and any other approaches are perfectly fine and valid. 

Truly the main thing that makes someone leather is being an active community member. The leather subculture can be seen represented at pride weeks and in safe spaces such as leather gay bars. For example the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco is the biggest leather event, every year the leather culture is celebrated on Folsom street. 

That being said, the idea of leather sometimes is seen as “overly masculine.” The idea that to be leather you need to be super muscular or manly has since begun to dissolve. The leather subculture is not exclusive to people who look a certain way, you don’t have to look like a Tom of Finland drawing to consider yourself a leather. You can read more about inclusivity within the leather community here

It’s also always a great idea to trust that members of the community know more about their identity than you do. Listen to leather people when they speak about their identity and don’t doubt or assume anything.  

Perspectives on being leather

Being leather should be a source of pride. Being able to be a part of these subcultures can mean a variety of things including finding yourself and where you stand in terms of your sexuality and identity. It is important to remember that communities such as the leather community face a great deal of oppression and unwarranted hate. 

There are a variety of myths and misconceptions regarding the leather community that we are working on debunking. Because the leather subculture is closely related to the BDSM community and explores a very sex-positive part of oneself this leads to unnecessarily negative connotations. The idea that leathers are “all about sex” or that the community is “abusive” are lies and myths. Consensual sex is the only kind f sex accepted within these communities, non-consensual acts are NOT condoned in any shape or form. Sex positivity changes the cultural attitude we have that sex is “taboo” when in fact it is just another way we express ourselves. 

It is also important to note the intersectionality between the leather community and the LGBTQ+ community, Although the leather community is accepting of everyone we should always acknowledge those who pioneered the movement and who at first were marginalized and oppressed for expressing themselves. It is because of these brave individuals who marched and opened safe spaces that we can have things such as leather pride week. 

A great way to better understand the leather perspective is to keep up to date with leather news and follow individuals who are advocating for rights and policies that benefit the community. Reading about what it means to be leather and be a part of this vast community is a great way to better understand the leather viewpoint. 

The leather flag

The leather pride flag (link to leather pride flag article) was designed in 1989 by Tony DeBlase and has since represented the leather community. It has nine stripes—four black, four blue, one white—with a red heart in the upper left corner. The flag is seen in LGBTQ+ pride weeks as well as events that support the BDSM community. DeBlase did not include specific meanings for the colors and the heart but since its creation, members have made up their own meaning, the colors and symbol represent as follows: 

  • Black: Represents black leather.
  • Blue: Represents blue denim. 
  • White: Represents integrity.
  • Red Heart: Represents love. 

Bottom Line 

Being leather can mean a lot of things, it can mean your love for the kink world, for being a butch gay, or even for loving leather accessories. There is not just one way to approach being a part of the leather community. Although there are many who don’t understand the nuances and layers that come with this multifaceted identity, there is nothing wrong with being leather. You are the only person who can determine your identity.

If some of the ideas above resonate with you and you’re thinking of coming out, make sure the conditions are safe and have a plan of action regarding housing and food if things don’t go as planned. 

In addition, be sure to learn about the other identities that make up the LGBTQ+ community subscribe to the INTO newsletter to learn more.

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