Old Guard, New Guard

Author: Joseph Stanley © 2000

This article originally appeared in the PEP-Denver Whipping Post Newsletter.
Thanks to Joseph Stanley for permission to reproduce this essay. You can write to him at mrrkymtnlthr2000@aol.com



The idea had been there for a while, hovering in deeper recesses of my mind. I left it alone for a while, waiting for the concept to take on real shape and substance. Then, back at the beginning of February, I attended a workshop in Greenville, South Carolina. Vi Johnson presented an in-depth look at the history of leather. While she spoke, the idea began moving toward the front of my mind, feeding on her energy and growing stronger with each new idea that she presented.

Two things that she said that day retain an amazing clarity. The first was this: "Old Guard will always mean the generation that came before the current one," she said. "And the generation that follows the current one will always be perceived as the New Guard." The second was when she spoke of her own experiences coming out as a leatherdyke in the early 1970's, meeting with a little more than a half-dozen like-minded folks in the New York/New Jersey area: "there were people there of just about every conceivable sexual identification, but we had one thing in common: our orientation was leather."

The history of leather that Vi outlined that day showed three distinct groups traveling, until just a few years ago, on three distinct paths: gay male leather, het BDSM, and the leather-dykes. While the groups still have their identity, in the late 80's and early 90's those distinct paths began to converge significantly. Straight people descended upon the Folsom Street Fair- as participants, not just curious onlookers. Organizations that had previously been wholly het-oriented began to welcome and seek out new members from the gay and lesbian community. Major events like Pantheon, Black Rose, IML, IMsL, and, Thunder in the Mountains, became magnets for leather folk of every possible sexual orientation and gender identity. The printing of leather literature - from erotic stories to how-to manuals - exploded, and the education of a flood of newcomers to the leather/BDSM lifestyle- many led to the scene via the internet- became a paramount issue in the leather community at large.

Then came the inevitable culture clash. There seems to be something in humanity that has a perverse affection for contention and protection of dogma, for the belief in the rightness of a philosophy of a thing because "that's how it's always been," and for the discounting of other philosophies that we do not understand. For some reason we often cling to, "we are right and they are wrong," instead of "we are right and they are right, too." The Old Guard felt that the tradition of the leather community was in danger of being diluted and losing its strength. The New Guard feared that hidebound reliance upon tradition would prevent the dissemination of knowledge and the growth of the Leather Community. Both were right. Both were wrong.

That small corner of the country where Vi made her presentation that day- a town just a stone's throw from north Georgia, western North Carolina, and the southeast corner of Tennessee- is a miniature reproduction of the leather community of the country as a whole. There is a group that is almost exclusively het. There is a group that is high protocol Old Guard, and there is a group that is truly Pansexual. A week and a half after Vi's workshop the following message was posted to a board where many in the region are members: I have a question/topic: how do folks on this list view the possibilities and overall outlook for a cohesive community here and what steps should we take to get there?

The same question has been posed in different forms in various cities and regions around the country- and on a national level- for several years now, and the answer in each case is essentially the same: that cohesive community exists now, and it has existed for years. Not completely, not everywhere, and not for everyone, not yet, but it grows daily. From the Old Guard and the New Guard there is a growing Vanguard of Leather that is the future of our lifestyle and our community. People like Vi Johnson, the late Tony DeBlase, Midori, Frank Strona, Phyllis Darcy, Lolita Wolf, Steve Sampson and thousands of others are part of an evolving, cohesive leather community in this country and, just as importantly, in their home communities.

What are the qualities of this Vanguard of Leather? It is rooted in the tradition and history of this lifestyle and is working to preserve those roots through projects like the Leather Archives and Museum and the Leather Literary Project. It looks also to safeguard the future of the leather community through events like the Leather Leadership Conference and the activism of its members in support of causes ranging from AIDS research and prevention to the protection of civil liberties to caring for the growing number of elderly leather folk whose only family is the leather community.

Those in the Vanguard respect and honor the idea that our kinks are different, our play is different, and that creating space for those differences is not divisive. We respect the fact that the leather lifestyle is many lifestyles, many practices, many kinks and styles of play, yet or similarities outweigh them all. There is an understanding that while we may not always play together, we must work together. The Vanguard transcends age, experience, orientation, gender; the Vanguard is Leather folk, period. It is not a movement but an attitude, a spirit of cooperation, of communication, of respect.

Finally, those in the Vanguard present a common defense of our lifestyle. San Diego, Attleboro, Las Vegas, Dr. Laura: each of those attacks, regardless of the group it was directed at specifically, threatens us all. Yahoo and AOL have begun systematic efforts to weed out and censor what they consider "objectionable." The current Presidential administration- especially through Attorney General John Ashcroft- has begun to push its moral standards on all of us. Hate crimes legislation is undermined at every turn and police powers to violate our rights to privacy are being expanded. The Vanguard of the Leather Community stands against those outside forces that would take away our right to live as we chose.

So, in short, what is the Vanguard? An unofficial, loose confederation of individuals and groups that is diverse, pansexual and inclusive. It is rooted in our common history, protective of our common future and active in the common "now" of the local and national Leather Community. It believes in and teaches the principles of safe/sane/consensual/non-exploitative. It is men, women, androgynies and transsexuals, from every orientation and every walk of life who can say without qualification, "Our orientation is Leather."







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