Slate Magazine recently published a six-part series of insightful and well-researched pieces by June Thomas, “The Gay Bar: Is It Dying?” (http://www.slate.com/id/2297608). The summation statement in part V, entitled “The New Competition,” intrigued me, “so maybe gay bars aren't doomed; instead they're moving into our phones.” I do wonder how that “netherworld” of gay culture, the leather/BDSM/fetish community, long a leader in on-line networking technology (starting with the beginnings of the Internet, before today's complex cellphones with Internet capabilities) because of its very specific and unusual content and audience, has been affected by this trend.
One leatherman, who identifies himself as “Middle Guard,” having been trained by the “Old Guard” leather of the late 60s and 70s, made this observation:
“Yeah, the younger generations socialize w/o the bars etc. The consequence of going mainstream w/c was our stated goal all along; not realizing the consequence of that, and the Internet Age. Specialty bookstores have long not been needed, that was the herald of things to come: now one can go to any Barnes and Noble or Borders Books, etc. All have large LGBT sections. “
And one can, if one doesn't even “do” hard physical copies of text (Borders is now closed, like many large bookstore chains), one can of course use one's computer and one's phone to essentially shop for a variety of like-minded partners and thus not be restricted to entrance into the backroom of a specifically leather bar or undergo initiation into a traditional leather club. Even those who still interact in a traditional leather or leather club setting assume one has a World Leathermen Recon profile.
Yet, despite the supposed diversity and seemingly endless flexibility in this new way of hooking up, what's interesting about this observation is the emphasis on homogeneity, which Mark Stoner, owner of Pony's in Seattle, quoted in the Slate article, claims is a growing trend in gay bars. Everyone mixed together. No separate backrooms with dress codes. Straights are welcome. Even ostensibly straight bars, like urban hipster ones, supposedly embrace sexual differentiation or “alternative” identities. Diversity is a virtue. But, also, could one argue that possibly the diversity is taking away some of the uniqueness of the BDSM presence in gay culture? Pluralism does not necessarily imply diffusiveness. According to the article in Slate, Part IV, “Can Gay Bars Make Money?”:
“[Pony's manager,] Marcus Wilson, explained why Pony has chosen to so clearly ward off uptight straights. He noted that 'gays and lesbians have gained politically in the last 20 years. The majority feel that the key is to be as inoffensive as possible. They want to trim off the edges, look or sound inoffensive. When gays were outsiders, gay bars could have more color and characters—the leather daddy, transpeople. Gay bars have discouraged that. Now they're going for homogeneity in the look of the place and in the music. They want to be innocuous. Some gay bars look and feel like airport lounges, with nothing to offend—or to stimulate. Pony wants to challenge that.'”
Pony is not a leather bar, per se, but what Pony is trying to do made me think of what happened to the Cellblock in Chicago. (By the way, according to Yelp, Pony is now closed.) In the Cellblock, now the décor is “light” leather, but the sensibility, the activity, is far from leather/BDSM in the traditional sense. The place even auctioned off the BDSM equipment (such as a cross) in its once notorious backroom! In essence, the place essentially gentrified in line with its surrounding “gayborhood,” now populated by strollers pushed by both gay and straight couples.
But is the gay leather bar (and club) uniformly doomed? Jesse Monteagudo argues in his column celebrating International Mr. Leather (http://www.gaytoday.com/penpoints/050304pp.asp) that leather bars and clubs are far from dead, again, because of the very specific interests of its clientele, but he also argues that the what he calls “traditional patch” clubs that date as far back as the 1960s motorcycle clubs are in trouble, because “young leathermen” find their rules and admission criteria restrictive and outdated. Given the diversity of leather culture (and I would also argue diffusiveness), that may be true, but, as he does claim, some have evolved with the time, some provide unique services, and some may be the only outlet in areas far removed from the traditional gay urban centers.
The above is true, to some extent, but what seems to be lacking in the “new” culture is a sense of having to “earn one's leather,” and by undergoing what it takes to earn, one grows, into the leather life. It's easy to be leather-curious these days, and I applaud that fact, but doesn't the leather/fetish/BDSM embody elements of pain, fear, taboo, self-scouring, psychological submission to another, in fact, many of the components of a religious journey that requires a life-changing commitment? And what about the value learning from the past clubs and their own individual historical journeys, not just judging a club on how it has evolved with the times (which, in most cases, seems to be technological advancement?
Monteagudo mentions the passing of “leather elders,” which has created some difficulties for bars and clubs to continue, but doesn't seem to be aware that the techniques and philosophy of these elders are the foundation of what many leathermen today practice. I'm concerned that in the new diffusiveness of interactions that is occurring in the leather community this foundation, with its rough and ready, on the edge, unique personalism, will be lost.
But that dangerous edge in leather/BDSM/fetish still scares many (well, it's supposed to be scary!). Though many younger people, both gay and straight, subscribe to the new openness about sexual diversity where cable channels can air shows like “Strange Sex,” some still tend to view BDSM activity physically and psychologically harmful and dangerous, and the confuse it with situations like domestic abuse and slavery. Even that extremely open-minded nurse Sue on her show “Talk Sex with Sue” seemed ambivalent about BDSM practices; she, in one case, advocated the use of a flogger on the skin for a blind person, was clear that no pain should be involved. I do wonder if this attitude has affected the social interactions of gay leathermen and thus the leather bar/club as well, in addition to the other factors above, and will continue to do so.