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"Looking at this more broadly, these traits help answer the question "What is happening to leather community today?" Not only is our community intact, it's maturing. It is growing along these same lines."

What is a Leatherman or Leather Woman?
by Jack Rinella

The Third Place Essay in the "What Makes a Leatherman or Leatherwoman"
is Steve Elliott for this essay "What is a Leatherman or woman? Boots!

What Is a Leatherman or Leatherwoman?
Steve Elliot

Leather people are a diverse lot, having four essentials that make us who and what we are. While we differ widely in geography, ideology, bodies, and beliefs, a little introspection finds that we all share four traits in varying degrees: attire, sexuality, community, and spirit.

Leather attire is the narrowest, most basic attribute of who we are, and by far the easiest to obtain (even non-leather people can wear a harness and chaps). When these are worn by a leather person - a person possessing the other 3 traits - attire becomes more than a covering from the elements; it becomes a symbol of the power that is within the wearer.

Leather sexuality is a broader trait. Leathersex is about the mind, about an exchange of power, about using the senses. We leatherfolk use all five of our senses to their fullest: the feel of cold restraints, the smell of sweat, the taste of another's armpit, the sound of a flogger, the look of the leather harness framing a torso. We focus both inwardly and outwardly, in pleasing oneself and one's partner(s). Truly good leathersex requires a level of maturity not required simply to buy attire; it requires a person in touch with themselves and with the others in their playgroup.

Leather community defines us even more broadly than sexuality. We socialize with other leather people, in groups, clubs, and at play parties. We focus on larger numbers of people, interacting with one another. Doing this successfully requires a great deal of maturity, hard work, and compromise, and a two-way sharing of power (as opposed to sexuality, which often involves the taking and giving of power in a one-way transaction). Socializing and non-sexual friendships are an important part of how we mature as leather people.

Leather spirit is by far the broadest trait. This transcends attire, sexuality, and community to allow us to become a part of a larger whole which we feel within. It is transparent, and is next to impossible to explain to outsiders or to those in the community who have not reached this point in their growth. Our spirit as leather people nearly always develops later in leather growth, as it takes years to achieve a deep understanding of leather attire, leathersex, and most importantly, leather people.

The degree to which each trait is present varies from person to person and moment to moment. In the most general terms, as we grow in leather we often begin with attire and move in order to spirit. Each one is a little harder to achieve and requires more time and work than the one before it. Each is a phase of growth for the individual. Each is more rewarding.

Looking at this more broadly, these traits help answer the question "What is happening to leather community today?" Not only is our community intact, it's maturing. It is growing along these same lines.

In the 1950's and early 60's, the first focus of our community had to be locating one another through leather attire. There were few gathering places and there was no Internet, so there were a limited number of practical ways for people to identify each other. That's where leather attire came in: it gave us identity. When people did not wear leather, other signals (hanky code, hair styles, facial hair, etc.) were symbols which helped one leather person find another. To this day, these non-leather signals are still a valuable part of our community.

From the late 1960's through about 1980, finding each other became much less of a chore, as there were plenty of bars, organized groups and clubs, and people with little black books brimming with names. This communal longing for freedom was represented in the abundance and variety of carefree sex; this longing for freedom is also why many feel the 70's were the Golden Years - the time when we freely moved into defining ourselves on our own terms.

Our freewheeling adolescence as a community abruptly ended in the 1980's and 90's with the advent of AIDS. It took a high toll on our leather family, because we had gone to unprecedented levels in getting to know ourselves and each other through sexual expression, sexual intimacy. This incredible physical intimacy made it easy for a disease to pass among us. Our community was forced to grow up again - much like a young person drafted to go to war. The early days in our battle with AIDS were like the boot camp of our enlistment: rough, trying, and building character in a hell of a hurry. Our community came together like never before. We were less individualistic, and more community-minded.

That brings us to today. Each of the first three phases of our growth took roughly 10-20 years to complete, and we're about due for another one. There are some telltale signs demonstrating that we are undergoing change. Like all growth, it's natural, it's change, it's uncomfortable. Every one of us felt the shock of coming out of our adolescence and having to pay rent and insurance for the first time. Each of us has lost a parent, a grandparent, a relative, lover, a friend. None of these experiences were pleasant, but with each one, we grew. We matured a little. As individuals and as a community, have we not matured through our experiences with leather attire, leather sexuality, and leather community?

And most importantly, are we not ready to grow again?

If I'm right, the next phase of our growth as a community will be an awakening of our leather spirit. I say this not so much in a religious sense; it will be more an awareness of the connections we all share within our whole community. We will be connected in a way not directly related to attire, sexuality, or community groups - although all of these will continue to exist and grow in importance. We will feel a part of something larger than ourselves. It will be too large to be defined within the compartments of "gay/straight/bi" or "male/female/trans". It will grow larger than the well-known "Top/bottom/Daddy/boy/Master/slave/Dom/sub/etc." typing we use to describe ourselves. The reason these labels - which once seemed so tidy - now fail to fully describe us is because we've grown. There was a time when defining a Master was straightforward. Now we have Masters who have slaves and boys, and the boys sometimes have a boyfriend or a Top.

We must be growing when we see loving families like this becoming more visible.

I don't know whether we're ready to reach for our leather sprit, but I am certain that the common elements that make us leathermen and leatherwomen - leather attire, sexuality, community, and spirit - are present in every one of us today. I take tremendous pride in knowing that each of us is growing as an individual; and when individuals grow, their community cannot be far behind.

* * * * *

Steve Elliott ( resides in Cincinnati, Ohio where he is a founder and current president of the Tri-State Wolf Pack, has been active in the leather community since 1989, and has helped with behind-the-scenes production work on many leather events in the Midwest.

Copyright 2001 by Jack Rinella. This material may not be copied in any manner. For permission to reproduce this essay, contact

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