has a Home Page at http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/6824.
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.
material (c) 1995, CCD. All rights reserved.
- Tell me something about the history of leather clubs. Where did they
- 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
- Tell me something of the Leather Community today. Have women begun to
make their presence known?
- Has the so-called "straight community" started to make their way into
- 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
- Getting back to women for a moment, are there quite a few clubs that
are just made up of women?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Do you think playing roles provides a kind of release for some people
from their everyday problems and routines?
- 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.
- Could you compare this physical release of endorphins in SM with a similar
process when people play sports?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Tell me about your own coming out to Leather and how you came to TLC.
- 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
- 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?
- 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.
- Could you speak about the spiritual quality of Leather/SM for you?
- 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.
- Tell me about body modifications.
- 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.
- What's the procedure used with a piercing - a nipple piercing, for example?
- 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
- Can piercings be ornamental, symbol, and/or erotic as well?
- 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.
- What have you seen in popular culture about SM and how do you feel about
what you have seen?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- What is a run?
- 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
- What are some of the components of TLC's run? How is it similar or different
from other club's runs?
- 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
- Where do people come from to attend TLC's run?
- 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.
- What are some of the awards given out at the run banquet?
- 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.
- What is a fantasy show?
- 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.
- You give out awards...
- For the Best Fantasy, yes. The audience usually votes the Best Fantasy
in that case - it is not a professionally judged kind of show.
- What do you as a Leatherperson want from the larger society?
- 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.