tlc: year with
a leather club

a documentary by Randy A. Riddle


Interview Transcripts:
Stuart Norman

Stuart Norman -- photo (c) by Michael Cox

Stuart has a Home Page at 

Stuart N. is a self-described "Leatherfairie Shaman" who is a founding member of TLC. Stuart went through his "coming out" in the Leather clubs of San Francisco and has been involved with many Leather and Gay activist organizations, including the National Leather Association and the now-defunct Gay Academic Union. He is currently working on a book that traces the history of the Leather club subculture in this country and has written for many publications including "RFD" and the book anthology "Leatherfolk". He now lives in rural New Mexico. 

All material (c) 1995, CCD. All rights reserved. 

RAR - Tell me something about the history of leather clubs. Where did they come from? 

SN - Well, we need to go back to the 1950s, and I think there's a lot of influences. John D'Emilio details some of these in "Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, of the rise of the modern Gay community. Simply, that a lot of men got together in only men kind of situations during World War II and found out a lot about themselves and about people from all over the country and all over the world. That was a catalyst for opening minds and finding other ways, new ideas, and when some of these men came back from the War, you also find at this time the organization of the biker clubs and some of the outlaw biker clubs. You find that there were a number of men who certainly thought themselves to be very masculine, but knew that they were interested in sexual relations and emotional relationships with other men. The stereotype for the Gay man at that time, of course, was very effiminate. These men didn't want that. Also, in the early 50s, we have movies like "The Wild Ones" or "Rebel Without A Cause", where the wearing of the leather biker uniform played a prominent part, and these men were also sex symbols of the time. So, that may have had a great influence on creating this image of the modern Leatherman. Of course, God knows how long some kinds of leather/fetish garb has gone back in the playing of SM and erotic sexual practices. Certainly, you can find it before the turn of the century and, of course, most of that is heterosexual, or at least has been documented, as heterosexual. So, we have clubs coming together first modeled on biker clubs, and that masculine image of the biker clubs, and some of these clubs actually were gay male biker clubs. That very masculine lifestyle probably led to a lot more of them practicing SM, certainly some of these people had always practiced that, however they came to find out that they liked a rough, dominant and submissive sexual play. I think a lot of people, once they were exposed to it, found that it was very, very satisfying. It's another way, I think, of looking at a very macho, masculine way of life. Men can be rough, they can be rough with each other, but that roughness can also translate into pleasure and loving ways. But, it's proliferated and grown, and been theorized about in so many different ways since that time that it's not what it was then. 

RAR - Tell me something of the Leather Community today. Have women begun to make their presence known? 

SN - Certainly. 

RAR - Has the so-called "straight community" started to make their way into Leather Clubs? 

SN - Well, the straight community has been there perhaps longer than the Gay community because obviously the Gay community only being a fairly recent phenomenon. SM in one form or another has probably been played as long as the human race has existed. It's this modern image that is associated with leather, particularly the leather biker uniform or the dominatrix in leather corset and very high, spiked heels, or whatever. Those forms, of course are recent, and I don't know how the leather image ever connected with SM. Why was it leather? Why was it these types, except that these types of uniforms seemed to repesent lifestyles that are perhaps a bit threatening, authoritarian and certainly, SM, being a dominant and submissive kind of fantasy, an authoritarian style is very present. One is in control, one is the Top or the Master, the other is a submissive or slave. 

RAR - Getting back to women for a moment, are there quite a few clubs that are just made up of women? 

SN - There are a few clubs that are solely for women, but over the past several years the growth of the Leather community has been much more inclusive than it was and you'll find women in a lot of the leather clubs. It took a long time for Lesbians to get over a certain political correctness that SM was a stereotype of all the poltically incorrect masculine behavior and that it could be satisfying in its own right. We've seen over the past twenty years a lot of women understanding the benefits of SM and becoming that kind of leather people. In a sense, it's all queers playing kinky games together. Sometimes the interest in SM is the more uniting factor than gender. 

RAR - Someone who hasn't heard of or been exposed to this subculture before and heard of dominant/submissive reltionships might not see them as very equal or beneficial to the people involved. 

SN - For one thing, SM is a fantasy game. It's not real sadomasochism. Real sadomasochism is pathological, a psychological problem. There are those, yes, who are true sadists; there are those who are true masochists - the sadist wants to be cruel, the masochist feels guilt over something that he or she needs to be punished for. We play a game that parodies that. But it is a game, it's consensual, it's mutual, whereas real sadomasochism is not. But, then again, we live in a sadomasochistic society. This goes on everyday, as it has done for thousands of years. Those of us who play SM have a way of working out those problems and being able to clearly see what is real dominance and submission and coersion and what is fantasy. 

RAR - Do you think playing roles provides a kind of release for some people from their everyday problems and routines? 

SN - I think playing out these in a framework where all parties understand what is going on and that it is consensual and mutual, and we do mean voluntary, its a way of seeing inside oneself. Of course, the intensity of the stimulation, not only its somewhat rigid format, the actual practices that push the body with playing with pain to eroticize pain and so forth causes mental changes, altered states of consciousness, endorphins are released, which are the body's natural narcotics, the body's natural response to pain. These things do cause states of consciousness. People come out of SM scenes feeling very exhilarated and calm. Also, there can be many kinds of emotional catharsis in these scenes, a tremendous release, so that in the end there's a wonderful warm glow after its over and a feeling of relief. Also, just being able to go into that fantasy world for a while, which is so different from the everyday world, is a nice escape, and you can always come back to the real world. But, you bring back to the real world something beneficial. 

RAR - Could you compare this physical release of endorphins in SM with a similar process when people play sports? 

SN - Sure, I don't think its any great deal of difference. Look at so many team sports, football for instance. The players are out there butting their heads against one another, tackling each other, how many get tremendous bruises, broken bones. They know that there is risk. SM practice is actually much more controlled than that. Yes, it can also cause bruises. Broken bones? Not unless someone is tremendously incompetent or an accident happens. No, those kinds of things, major injuries, just don't happen. Yes, the kind of intensity, whether its in team sports, whether it's in playing SM, will certainly release endorphins. The difference is that in team sports, they are not focused on the erotic and SM is. I think that's far more beneficial and probably of wider scope both mentally and physically than the playing of very strenuous team sports. 

RAR - Do you find that role playing and fantasy aspects of the Leather/SM/Fetish lifestyle sometimes give people a release from their normal, everyday lives and professions? 

SN - It's a conversation that I think that has been carried on by many Leatherpeople and written about fairly extensively - some kind of alternate lifestyle - the bank president might want to pretend he is the construction worker when he goes out to the bar; the heavy, control-oriented top management executive becomes the most submissive bottom at night. It's a good balance to one's life. 

RAR - Tell me about your own coming out to Leather and how you came to TLC. 

SN - Well, it goes back quite a number of years. I had a rather late coming out, or realization I was gay, and within a year, I was into SM. I went the route of the old-timers - the traditional way was to find a Master or have a Master find you - to start on the bottom. That is, if you want to learn this, you learn as a submissive and you learn a lot about yourself and you learn the techniques from someone who is experienced, and that is what I did, I found a man. I was a member of North Carolina's first leather club, that was the first part of trying to find out more about SM other than reading a fantasy in "Drummer" magazine or whatever porno publications that were around at the time, and there was an older man, Steve, who certainly had lots of experience, and we hit it off and he agreed to be my Master, and so I learned in a very traditional way to be submissive to him, to learn to trust him, implicitly and explicitly. He pushed me - I wanted that - that was my agreement to let him really have the control and be able to read me and push me as far and as fast as he could. And he did. I grew to be president of that club that was located in the Triangle area of North Carolina. It was always just a very small membership. In 1985, I moved to San Francisco and involved myself heavily with the Leather community there. I guess that's when I made the contacts with so many others that are well-known on a national level throughout the Leather community. I learned a lot and probably taught a few things, too. It was a good time. I came back to North Carolina in May, 1989. The next year, I think it was March of 1990, I was involved with the Southeastern Conference for Lesbians and Gay Men in Raleigh - the Conference is generally a yearly thing for the southeastern region - and I was one of the presenters in a Leather 101 kind of workshop. I met Bill Costomiris, who had just won second runner-up in the Mr. Southeast Leather contest, and he and another guy from Greensboro had been talking about a leather club, thought that there might be enough interest. So, I said, "Well, let's try it." And so we did. It was April the first, 1990, that nine of us came together and formed Tarheel Leather Club, and it just grew by leaps and bounds after that up to having over seventy full members. Since that time, the membership has dropped for various reasons, which is no surprise. It was such a new phenomena for this area and got such publicity throughout the Gay and the Leather subculture, and a lot of people were attracted, perhaps some found, for various reasons, that it was just not for them and they have dropped away. That's the history of TLC in a nutshell. In the years that I had been away from Greensboro, where one hardly saw anyone in leather and at that time, say 1985, there could have been no way that I could have interested any three or four people to even attempt forming a leather club, and to come back and find people willing and ready, more people than we ever dreamed of. So, the whole Gay community's attitudes and, I guess, its level of sophistication or education or knowledge about itself through those years had changed dramatically. I came back to a Greensboro to find very active and open Gay organziations who were working for AIDS, a Gay hotline, things like that, which shows that the Gay community had gained a lot of sophistication, a lot more self confidence here, was willing to put itself on the line. Although, it seems they haven't had to put themselves on the line very much, there hasn't been any great deal of discrimination. 

RAR - You once mentioned to me that you are a "tinkerer" and, of course, you make your own leather toys. How did you get interested in that? 

SN - Well, being a tinkerer, that's for one thing. I like to do things with my hands and I like to do my own toys because that way they are mine, they are unique, and they are serviceable. I have designed and redesigned, torn apart and designed again - they must be functional, they must be safe. So many toys that one finds in a leather shop, some may be very good, some may not be so well designed. I've certainly stolen enough ideas from looking at those, but I've always modified because none of them work exactly how I want them to work. And, again, having good, solid, safe, workable toys can be a very expensive proposition. So, making my own, I can have a lot of toys without having to put out an extreme amount of money. There are a few shops, of course, that make well-designed toys, like Fetters, for instance, and they are extremely expensive. Because we're looking at a market here that is very, very small, and so anything like this is an extreme luxury item. Therefore the price is inflated tremendously over, say, the cost of the leather that goes into it or whatever parts and labor. So, I make my own. It's also the satisfaction that it is my own and it lends part to the scene. When I first started making my own, it was a tremendous turnon just contemplating how they would be used, fantasizing. As I've grown older and perhaps a bit jaded, it's not so much anymore (smiles). But, there's always a deep satisfaction making something that will work well. 

RAR - Could you speak about the spiritual quality of Leather/SM for you? 

SN - Well, it has a spiritual quality for me, and I think it has for a lot of serious practitioners. I think that idea that it has a spiritual dimension has been growing over the past decade. I think there were a number of people who recognized something like that, but didn't put it in the terms of spirituality, didn't associate it. And after all, we're dealing with the potential of altering consciousness, we're talking about very intense psychological and emotional experiences, we're talking about an art itself that is a discipline. SM requires a lot of experience, it requires a lot of practice, just like any discipline, any field of knoledge, there is a lot to know about it. There's a lot to practice and become better at. For a Top, especially, let's say, being able to read what's going on in a bottom's head during a scene, especially if the Top has experienced that before as being on the bottom, being the submissive. Knowing the kinds of emotional experiences that can happen. It's more than just this release of endorphins. The trust that has to be built in an SM scene, the commitment to it, the attention, the extreme attention. We're not talking just sex here, we're talking something that is not a quickie. We're talking about something that has to go on for hours in many cases, keeping an erotic threshold going up and down and up and down, but keeping it at some level above zero. And trying to keep it above a certain threshold for a long period of time isn't the way most people think about sexuality. Sexuality can be thought of as an energy, which can be directed for other purposes. The same kind of discipline applies in any intense spiritual training, whether it be shamanism or many other kinds of rites of passage, a rite of passage, for instance, from adolescence to adulthood that you might find in some primitive tribes. We are doing rites of passage and rituals upon ourselves or with each other and some people are realizing that these have a spiritual dimension because we grow stronger in doing these, we find out things about ourselves that we would not normally do except, perhaps, through a very rigorous therapy. I sometimes think of SM as therapy - it actually can be used in that context as long as it is safe, sane, and consensual. But, we're looking at trust-building - it has to be there before it can work between two people, especially for a bottom when this person who is going to be submissive is helplessly bound by another person, there has to be a trust situation developed there. We're talking about an intensity that generally isn't found in everyday life, or at least a very different kind of intensity, and that intensity changes your mind. It alters your perceptions, it alters the way you think eventually. All of these are characteristics of spiritual experience. And, for some people, this beautiful intensity, this very profound intensity of SM is worship itself. 

RAR - Tell me about body modifications. 

SN - Well, most of that is either piercing or tattooing. What do you want to know about piercing? It's a very simple procedure. People like to put piercings in many different places. The most common, of course, and that has been acceptable in our society at least for women, is to have the lobe of the ear pierced. What has been very, very popular in the Leather community has been the pierced tit. Some people have their penis pierced in various ways. The scrotum can be pierced in a number of ways. Generally, people either put a little ring through them or a bar. But, its a simple procedure and it needs to be done with sterile procedure by someone trained to use the appropriate kind of needle for it and the appropriate sterile technique and to be able to advise the piercee how to care for it afterward. Tattooing, again, preceeds written history in many incarnations and has had a fair popularity in the Leather community. I think, again, we're looking for a kind of tribal identity and some intense experiences - when you are committing to body alteration, body modification with a piercing that is going to be worn in a prominent place, or especially a tattoo, which is almost impossible to remove except with maybe laser surgery, which is very expensive, you're committing to something for life. Again, these things are images and perhaps symbols of one particular individuality and then, yet, of that individuality as related to a specific group - it sets you apart, but maybe it sets you apart into another smaller group. Piercing is a ritual, it's a rite of passage, I think, and so is getting a tattoo, or at least should be. When I pierce, I want the person to think of it as a special experience. 

RAR - What's the procedure used with a piercing - a nipple piercing, for example? 

SN - The tit is usually cleaned to get it as sterile as possible around it. Hair may be shaved away from the immediate surroundings if it happens to be thick, just to prevent any of that from entering the piercing itself. A sterile needle is readied and the tit is at first marked at the points where the needle should go through and then a special kind of forcep called a Pennington forcep is clamped onto the tit. It has a loop in the end of it so that you can line up the marks on each side of the tit so you can get a good idea of where the needle will pass through, so it will pass through straight. And then it's simply just pushing this very sharp needle through and then removing the forceps. Because the needle is hollow and you use a gauge larger than the ring or bar that is to go in so that the end of the ring literally fits inside the needle, you can simply take the ring, slip the end of it into the hollow of the needle and just push right on through. That way it pushes the needle out and comes on through, and then the ring can be fastened together. It's a very simple procedure. It stings a little bit for most people and it takes a few minutes, that's all. 

RAR - Can piercings be ornamental, symbol, and/or erotic as well? 

SN - Yes, all of the above. I would hope that for more people they would be symbolic of something and, of course, they can be erotic in a play situation. They're something else that are a handle to the body - it can be used for stimulation, but a lot of people simply find the eroticism is seeing whatever jewelry has been put in a piercing. 

RAR - What have you seen in popular culture about SM and how do you feel about what you have seen? 

SN - I think the two most prominent, there's all the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs - the suits and counter-suits and criminal charges and the whole fiasco of limiting the National Endowment for the Arts ability to function because of that. For some people, it's a delight, for others anathema. The whole furor is just, as far as I'm concerned, crazy. The society thinks this kind of thing is perhaps more important than some of the issues that ought to be more important, like saving the planet, for instance. And, of course, Madonna's book has been very popular, although, that hasn't seem to have met with quite the social opprobation that the Mapplethorpe photographs have. Maybe the Mapplethorpe photographs prepared society for it somewhat. But, youth is always interested in anything different. And, again, like I said, the punkers, who were originally pretty young, took up the leather, but not necessarily the behavior nor the ethics or much else of what it really is to be a Leatherman - that's something quite different. I mean, our society is one that is built on looking at image, but not getting much content beneath the image. So, people take on images and they are very, very disposable, unfortunately. 

RAR - Before we go on to TLC, I wanted to ask if there are some situations where Leather/SM can be a kind of performance art? 

SN - Oh, certainly. After all, terms like "dungeon theater" have been around in the SM community for a long time. For some players, they like to structure a scene which is more than just the physical activities of one doing something to another's body - they want to structure a whole fantasy, a rape scene down to very fine detail or a prisoner of war camp scene or a cop stopping somebody and taking control - it's endless what are the fantasy possibilities and some people like to go to quite elaborate means of building these fantasies. And, of course, down to dress and the locale, the proper terminology, whatever. Yeah, it is theater, even if it's just for two people who are the actors themselves - they are both actor and audience. 

RAR - What is a run? 

SN - The run term is from the biker clubs, and many leather clubs don't really have "runs" per se because biker clubs, they all got on their bikes and they took off and went somewhere and had a big party. There are some leather clubs, leather bike clubs, that do that, yes. But mostly, runs are an annual celebration, often in conjunction with a club's anniversary, but not always. But, it's an event, sometimes nothing more than just a big party weekend and a time for a banquet and awards for the members of that club or for members of other clubs who they think have done service to the community. Some are much more involved that really are mini-conferences, which have workshops for educational purposes and, of course, most of them offer some kind of entertainment. But, there's always a number of cocktail parties and times at the bars, just for people to get together and fraternize. So, a kind of half-party, half-convention, and a lot of clubs use those opportunities to have the banquet and for the installation of the current year's officers, things like that. They're basically celebratory in function. 

RAR - What are some of the components of TLC's run? How is it similar or different from other club's runs? 

SN - Well, we do run something more like a mini-convention. We have workshops, educational workshops and demonstrations on various SM topics or political topics that concern the Leather community. We do have a banquet and awards ceremony, the presentation of colors by the other clubs, this is generally a showing of all of the colors, it's an attendance, showing how many clubs are in attendance. There's generally a speech by the president, and this time we will indeed be having the change of officers and installation of and swearing in of the new ones - that is the formal side of it. There will be a number of cocktail parities and just, in general, times at a bar or two for the night. Most runs these days are held at a hotel and act like any other convention of God knows how many other professional organizations. 

RAR - Where do people come from to attend TLC's run? 

SN - Well, all the way from the West Coast, New England, south Florida, just all over the country. Obviously, being in thesoutheast, we are going to get most people from the southeast - travel restrictions, of course, prevent that. But, nonetheless, some of the VIP's may be from the West Coast or other parts of the country that we fly in. 

RAR - What are some of the awards given out at the run banquet? 

SN - We have a Pink Flamingo Award for, perhaps, the most infamous or notorious member - there's some vague reason that they gain this notoriety during the year (smiles). But, we will never absolutly specifiy just exactly what that is. The Eagle Award, though, is for someone who has given a tremendous amount to the promotion of the Leather community in North Carolina. Last year, B. Z. Jernigan was the recipient of that award, probably the man who first introduced leather into North Carolina and was the founder of the old Dukes Levi/Leather Club. 

RAR - What is a fantasy show? 

SN - That's generally another part of a run. But, it can also be a show that can be held on a bar night. Fantasy shows are simply a little, short theater skit acting out some erotic fantasy that's generally pertinant to the Leather/SM lifestyle, and that will be a part of our run. Generally on the banquet night. 

RAR - You give out awards... 

SN - For the Best Fantasy, yes. The audience usually votes the Best Fantasy in that case - it is not a professionally judged kind of show. 

RAR - What do you as a Leatherperson want from the larger society? 

SN - Just the basic human rights. Just the freedom to do as we please without hurting, really harming, anyone. Just to be left alone. And that if we are interfered with, that we have recourse to justice and that will be served. That's all. It doesn't mean we have to be accepted by the society, but that there are laws in place that will protect us from discrimination. That's all we need. I don't care if anybody else practices SM or not. I'm going to. It is my way of life.