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Steve Lenius and the Wonderful, Curious World of Leather and SM

by Hans Hafkamp in Scene , 03 januari 2013

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

If I remember correctly no Dutch gay magazine has ever had a “regular” leather columnist. I can’t think of any other European magazine that had one either. In the United States the offer of regional magazines is so huge that it’s not easy to have an overview, but perhaps Steve Lenius is right when he claims that the column “Leather Life” he writes for the bi-weekly Minneapolis magazine “Lavender” is rather unusual because it doesn’t appear “in a strictly leather-oriented publication, but rather in a general-interest GLBT publication.”

Elsewhere Lenius mentions that Mr. Marcus Hernandez wrote the weekly column “Leather and Dish” for the San Franciscan “Bay Area Reporter” from 1971 till his death in 2009, so there are other examples.

A few years ago Lenius published an ample selection from his columns in a book with the title “Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness” (Minneapolis: Nelson Borhek Press, 2010), a publication I only discovered this year. Lenius writes in the introduction that his columns should not only appeal to those who have already found their spot in the leather scene “but also to people who were not necessarily a part of that community. It also meant that people who might not have identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, but who might identify as kinky, had a reason to pick up a copy of ‘Lavender,’ which is a good way to create allies and build bridges between communities.” I wonder if it’s wise to widen the target audience for such a specialized column, because chances are that nobody will really get what they want. The content of the book sort of proves this point.

Reviewing these columns presented two “problems.” The Twin Cities Minneapolis and St. Paul aren’t main gay metropolises - like New York or San Francisco – about which so much has already been recorded that people can have an idea of the gay scene at any time in those cities, whether they were ever there or not. This makes it harder to define the audience Lenius’ columns were aimed at originally. The other thing is that I’m not familiar with the freely distributed “Lavender,” so I don’t know whether Lenius’ columns were accompanied by other reports from the leather scene, like book and DVD reviews, or obituaries. This would make it possible that Lenius couldn’t write about certain subjects because others were responsible for it. Quite a few pieces in “Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness,” however, are not really columns in which the author mainly ventilates a personal opinion, but more like genuine journalistic articles in which Lenius simply reports from the leather scene. Thus one might conclude that Lenius is not so much “Lavender”’s leather columnist, but its leather reporter.

But, an author collecting magazine contributions for a book publication should be aware that this collection should together appeal to a larger audience than the original intent, which reduces the importance of these two point.

We Have A History...

Steve Lenius came out of the closet when he was nineteen, a happening his mother immediately channeled into the book “My Son Eric.” In 1993, when he was thirty-seven, he experienced a second coming out, this time as “leatherman,” an identity he tackled with gusto. He started to go out to The Men’s Room, at the time the only leather bar in Minneapolis, and attended the Mr. Minnesota Leather award ceremony for the first time. In 1994 he took part in the competition for Mr. Minnesota Drummer and won the title, so he was sent to the International Mr. Drummer 1994 contest in San Francisco. He missed out on that title but a few months later he was asked to write a column about the leather scene for “Lavender,” which was launched in 1995. It makes you wonder why Lenius was asked as a “leather” columnist, because with such a specialized subject you’d expect an author who has a lot of knowledge and experience in the scene and not someone who’d just been introduced to it two years prior.

Unfortunately Lenius says nothing about the period between his coming out and his discovery of leather, other than that he was in an “abusive” relationship for eighteen years. I get the impression that he spent most of these years outside the gay scene altogether. In 2006 he wrote a column about two lectures - by academic Robert Bienvenu and experience expert Chuck Renslow – on the history of SM from the nineteenth century till then. When these presentations were over, Lenius felt overwhelmed: “We have a history - a history that’s fascinating,” he exulted, “but because it has been so hidden over the years, most people don’t know it exists.” From a leather columnist one would expect however, that he’d be very aware of that history, especially the more recent part.

If he had read national gay magazines such as “The Advocate,” “Christopher Street,” “Gay Community News” or the Canadian “The Body Politic” on a semi-regular basis from the time of his coming out in 1974, he would have been aware of at least a part of that history. And I didn’t even mention the impressive row of books (both fiction as well as non-fiction) on the leather and SM scene that have appeared since censorship was de facto lifted in the USA in the sixties.

In Conversation with Predecessors

In various articles Lenius praises Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum for the conservation of the history of the leather world. He thinks it’s important to hand over the roots of our culture to coming generations of leather boys “by remembering, respecting and honoring our leather traditions and those in leather who have gone before us.” In his own book these predecessors are largely absent however. In his introduction Lenius writes that John Preston (1945-1994) refused to wear leather at the end of his life, because he thought the leather scene had degenerated into a kind of Rotary Club of the gay scene. What he doesn’t mention is that Preston was the author of the controversial novel “Mr. Benson,” which was published as a serial in “Drummer” in 1979 and 1980, and appeared as a book in 1983. “Mr. Benson” is about the history of the young, lonely clone Jamie, who’s looking for Mister Right in the New York discos, but instead meets Mr. Benson, who takes him on a journey full of erotic education, through which he learns to accept cruelty as love, pain as affection and this impressive man as his master. Obviously “Mr. Benson” offers an insight of the leather scene before it was wrecked by AIDS.

However, John Preston is lucky to get mentioned at all because Lenius ignores influential predecessors such as Mark Thompson, who was editor of The Advocate for many years and also edited the groundbreaking essay collection “Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice” (1991); Aaron Travis, editor of “Drummer” and author of a rich body of work, amongst which the SM gay novel “Slaves of the Empire” (1985), or Jack Fritscher, also editor of “Drummer” and author of, for example, the novel “Leather Blues: The Adventures of Denny Sargent” (1984; originally published in 1968 by Lou Thomas of Target Studio in New York with the title “I Am Curious (Leather)”), to mention just a random few.

I realize that a general leather column can’t always have a historical character, but I simply can’t understand that someone writes over three-hundred pages from a gay perspective about leather and SM without mentioning Larry Townsend (1930-2008) once. Townsend was the author of more than two dozen gay pornographic SM novels such as “Run Little Leather Boy” from 1970, but especially the influential “The Leatherman’s Handbook,” of which the first edition appeared in 1971. I realize that this “bible of the leather scene” has fanatic fans as well as adversaries but it was the first book on SM that was available everywhere in the USA, in every bookstore and kiosk. Townsend was an important voice in the gay SM scene for some forty years; even at an advanced age he wrote regular columns for “Bound & Gagged,” a magazine that escaped Lenius’ attention as well.

Writing pioneers are not the only ones being ignored by Lenius, however. Artists don’t seem to interest him either. He does mention Tom of Finland - the most publicly accepted gay erotic artist - and Etienne, but one looks in “Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness” in vain for Cavelo (who illustrated Travis’ “Slaves of the Empire”), The Hun, Nigel Kent or Rex. The latter produced the cover art for Fritscher’s “Leather Blues,” and also for the hundredth issue of “Drummer.” Lenius does mourn over the demise of this magazine.

Shamefully Attractive

His elegy over the end of “Drummer” brings me back to Lenius’ own history. Shortly after he came out of the closet he discovered “Drummer,” which “was unlike any other gay magazine I had ever seen until then [...]. The ‘Drummer’ men [...] were in a class by themselves. [...] Even fully clothed in leather, they exuded more sex than a lot of the naked guys in the other magazines. Of course, the ‘Drummer’ men got naked too, and that was phenomenal. And then they started doing things to each other’s bodies, which was scary. (‘Gosh, doesn’t that hurt.’) Scary, but also strangely, secretly, somewhat shamefully attractive; it repulsed me when I thought about it, but some of what I saw in ‘Drummer’ kept showing up in my fantasies for years.”

How can it be that someone, who discovers when he’s in his early twenties that certain aspects of homosexual life excite him, needs almost twenty years to follow this call of desire? The answer to this can probably be found of course in the words “secret” and “shameful,” but still. Lenius seems to have viewed the leather scene as a closed off world to which it was hard to get access, therefore experiencing it as such a wonderful experience when he did finally make his entrance. This is far from the reality of course.

I don’t know for sure what the situation was in America’s Midwest, but the leather scene in Amsterdam in the eighties was certainly not a closed off bulwark you needed a secret password for to gain access; you were just expected to respect certain rules. And when my husband and I visited the New York Eagle for the first time in 1996, I didn’t get the impression of extremely strict dress codes and such. Of course you didn’t enter in a pink tutu or on heels, but we were perfectly comfortable in blue or black jeans and a black or white T-shirt (maybe for chauvinist reasons from the Amsterdam Eagle) and this was the situation in several big cities in the States.

Sexual Freedom as an Essential Human Right

In his book Lenius presents the SM world many times as a community of “forbidden” desires, suffering from “leather phobia” existing even in the gay world, and where the fans of kinky sex feel like outsiders who are being discriminated against and feel the need to fight for sexual freedom as an essential human right. Perhaps he has a point when he claims that for the American public opinion there is no difference between leather, SM and fetish sexuality and “prostitution and other scandalous things”; a point of view prevalent amongst the influential Christian-fundamentalists.

While reading Lenius’ book I sometimes made comparisons with the situation in The Netherlands. Perhaps indeed, the Dutch fans of kinky sex have had it easier over the past decades. In the early eighties radical feminists in America were on the barricades to protest against pornography and sado-masochism. The loudest of these shrill voices, obsessed by negativity around sexuality, were those of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, which were also heard in the Dutch movement and media. In Holland however, the anti-SM sentiments were balanced out by proponent views. These came from for example the VSSM (Association Study Group Sado-Masochism), which had been founded in 1970 and is thus the eldest SM association in the world (it still exists).

But there were also individuals who spoke out about their kinky preferences. I remember Jim Holmes (1924-1986), an award-winning translator working at the University of Amsterdam and a leatherman in his daily life and appearance, got invited to discuss the broadcasting of the controversial gay movie “Taxi zum Klo” (1980) by Frank Riploh on Sonja Barend’s then very popular TV talk show. And then there was Betty Paërl, a male-to-female transsexual who also worked at the University of Amsterdam (as a teacher of mathematics), manifesting herself through many columns, essays and interviews as a protagonist of sado-masochism and other “deviant” sexual preferences. Although these reports in the popular media were often shrouded in an ooh-la-la atmosphere, the overall attitude towards it was usually positive.

Fun, Hot, and Exciting

Lenius thinks this struggle for acceptance is still needed. So he keeps hammering home his mantra of Safe, Sane & Consensual (SSC), that should be the foundation of the BDSM world. Well, I think these things should go for any relationship, whether it’s a long-term BDSM relationship or a quick vanilla affair (who’d want the nice guy from the disco to all of a sudden start misbehaving?) At one point Lenius states that “leather” “proudly and joyfully celebrates sex” and that sex is “a fun, enjoyable activity” but that’s about the only time he declares it fun, hot and exciting. His constant repetition of the SSC mantra is in contrast with the fact that in a wishful fantasy, in which leather and SM have conquered the world and millions of people would be watching the broadcast of the election of International Mister Leather in Chicago, he names “Las Vegas’ newest and kinkiest showplace, [...] a hotel where every one of the 5,000 rooms is a fully equipped dungeon,” The Charenton. A reference to the lunatic asylum where Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade spent the final years of his life. In Sade’s works the sex is anything but safe and sane, and definitely not consensual.

“Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness” consists of two parts. The first, “Leather,” comprises some fifty pages only and has articles on “the things that have drawn the community together.” It doesn’t start with a celebration of the sensual aspects of leather clothes, but rather specialized with a column on the manufacture of leather as a material. After that a column on rubber.

But Lenius hasn’t been to a rubber party clad in rubber himself and talking to the participant, no he interviews one rubber man, who says that rubber sex offers the intimacy and security of the womb... After rubber Lenius pays attention to uniforms, a fetish he thinks is “natural” to excite many gays because the leather scene “was initiated in large part by servicemen and servicewomen returning from World War Two.” It’s not preposterous to say that American gay culture has gained from the demographic changes that were brought about by the Second World War, but to say that that’s the source for a genetic gay uniform fetish... I think that’s nonsense. In the same way one could claim that the gay preference for uniforms stems from the middle of the nineteenth century when soldiers, sailors and other uniformed boys were more than willing to bestow sexual favors in exchange for some cash. The other columns in this part seems rather arbitrary: he writes about how to let the bullwhip crack but not about basic spanking, about bondage but not a word on fistfucking (or is that considered to be too vanilla?) just to mention a few examples.

The second part, “Life,” divided over fourteen chapters, is about life within the leather and SM community and the people in it. So many subjects pass by it’s impossible to give you any kind of overview. Although some of the texts are very American “Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness” is definitely interesting reading for who’s interested in the views and experiences of a very active participant in the leather and BDSM world of the past twenty years.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 328, December 2018

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