Dreaming of the Old Guard
It’s said that the modern gay male Leather community in the U.S. had its origins with servicemen returning from World War II in the 1940s. Missing the camaraderie of the military, they formed fraternal civilian groups that had strict rules and codes of conduct. The groups were usually framed around motorcycles and riding them, but the purpose of the groups was to create families of men with a common cause. These groups gave birth to both modern motorcycle gang culture (which was mostly straight) and gay male Leather culture.
The period of the first few decades of Leather culture began to be known in the modern era as “The Old Guard.”
Pre-Internet, pre-cell phone, pre-personal computer, even for a time pre-Stonewall, the Old Guard was to some degree a secret society. If mere homosexuality was viewed as a perverse aberration by mainstream society, homosexual men engaging in BDSM was something whose perceived transgression could not be underestimated. So it was done in secret. One could only become a member of an Old Guard group by being sponsored by a current group member and being (what we now call) vetted by the group. You had to earn your way. There were very strict rules and protocols both for Dominants and submissives. Honorifics were mandatory. Only Dominants could wear covers (motorcycle caps.) A submissive could only wear a collar if they had been given it by a Dominant that they served. You couldn’t go to a store and buy leather gear or clothing for yourself, it was gifted to you by the group when you were deemed worthy. When you had earned it. Every piece of leather attire had a specific meaning, purpose, and manner in which to be worn. You could not give yourself a title (Master, slave, pup) you had to earn it.
In this pre-digital age, anything you learned was done through in-person mentoring. An expert in something (rope bondage, flogging, fisting) would train you how to master that skill – or how to experience someone else exercising that skill upon you. The Old Guard groups were strong brotherhoods that taught, nurtured, and protected their own.
They were families.
Fast forward to now.
The Old Guard is gone. The mainstreaming of LGBTQ+ people and culture has made the need to be invisible obsolete. Computers, the Internet, and cell phones have made secret groups meeting in person unnecessary. You can watch a YouTube video on how to tie someone up or flog them or fist them. If you want to have a kinky scene you just pull up an app on your phone and find someone to do it with.
Many things are great now for the Kink/Leather/Fetish/BDSM community. LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. have made remarkable progress in the time since World War II in terms of visibility, representation, protections, rights, and political advocacy. (Although Republicans are trying to reverse that progress.) Those of us who share what used to be called “the love that dare not speak its name” now have representatives in government, our own celebrities and TV shows, and a whole month where our collective pride is celebrated by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. What we’ve gained is tremendously important and worthy of gratitude every day of our lives.
The current Kink/Leather/Fetish/BDSM community is nothing like the Old Guard. Some would argue it’s better because it’s more far-reaching, inclusive, and available than it’s ever been. The modern community is worldwide. You can chat with someone on the other side of the world about your mutual kinky interests. I’m not trying to diminish that.
But I think we’ve lost some things too.
When I’m in a kink space and I see someone wearing a nice collar, ask them who put it on them, and am told no one, they just like how it looks, I feel a loss. When I meet someone who says they’re a Master and then I hear about consent violations on their part, I feel a loss. When I see people dress up like slaves or pups but don’t act in ways that are slave-like or pup-like, I feel a loss.
Please understand I haven’t declared myself the authority or arbiter of True Kink. I simply feel like we’ve lost something. This is something I struggle with a lot. If anyone can be or do or say anything they want with no knowledge or training or consequences, and then be and do and say something totally different tomorrow, does what they are and do and say really mean anything? Is status you don’t earn actually status?
I’ve been told that every new generation finds their way into kink and redefines it for themselves and that that’s a good thing. I wonder if that’s true though. Other communities don’t let new members come in and redefine what they are. Part of what makes a community what it is is that there are certain standards and traditions to be upheld. If you’re not willing to honor those standards and traditions, you can’t be part of that community. Yet how can communities evolve if they are stuck in rigid feedback loops of unchangeable rules? Communities must evolve in order to stay relevant and attract new members. I simply feel our particular community has evolved so much that it’s unrecognizable from where it started, and that much has been discarded that was valuable.
Leather bars are nearly extinct. Serious groups that teach and mentor are scarce and short-lived. Standards are gone. Anyone can be anything, just because they say they are, without vetting or training. That’s why I dream of the Old Guard and wish it had survived long enough for me to be a part of. And of course, there are some who say the Old Guard never existed, or that it wasn’t anything like what it’s been mythologized into.
All that may be true.
But to paraphrase a line from the movie L.A. Story, “The Old Guard may not be the truth, but it is what I wish were true.”
Have thoughts, questions, or comments about this column or anything to do with Kink? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll print them and answer them in an upcoming column. Be safe and have fun out there! Alpha Mercury has been an out and proud member of the Kink/Leather/Fetish/BDSM community his entire adult life. He has a degree in Film Production from the University of Southern California and is a published author of erotic fiction. Alpha Mercury lives with his Leather Family in Salt Lake City.