Hardy Haberman was in his local dungeon a couple years ago, beating a friend at a "play party," when things suddenly got weird. Wielding a soft leather flogger — a thick-handled instrument that resembles a whip, but with a dozen slender tails — he was lashing the slightly younger man's back. Haberman and his friend barely noticed the crowd formed around them; they were focused totally on each other. But Haberman did notice that his friend was enjoying the flogging. He knew it from the way the man moaned, writhed, screamed and cursed under his touch. True to leather-scene etiquette, though, Haberman's plaything remained unfailingly polite. "Motherfucker! Sir!" he yelled, as leather met skin.
As Haberman flogged away, a straight couple kept edging in close — way too close, stepping right into the backswing of Haberman's flogger. When he finally could sense their presence, he stopped to avoid hitting them. He gave them a look that, for most people in the crowd, would have been enough to get them to back off. But they didn't budge.
Dallas' leather scene
Now they were messing with Haberman's rhythm. He ignored their presence as long as he could, but then the man — wearing a billowy white Renaissance Faire-style blouse, for reasons Haberman couldn't quite make out — stepped even closer and started barraging Haberman with questions. "How do you do that?" he asked, staring in fascination as the flogger landed another blow.
Haberman was starting to understand: The couple was clueless, just the latest in a parade of curious amateurs who leather-scene vets swear are destroying Dallas' once happily insular leather community.
"Look," Haberman finally told the guy. "I'm not trying to teach a class here. I'm just trying to have a good time with my friend." He sarcastically offered to flog Ren Faire next, if he really wanted a demonstration of Haberman's "technique."
The guy and his girlfriend stormed off in a huff. Later, they complained to the party's organizer about Haberman's mid-flog display.
Haberman's a big man in his early 60s; he'd be a lot more imposing if not for the long, drooping mustache that makes him look like a friendly walrus. He's been around long enough to remember, wistfully, the way Dallas' leather scene used to be back in the 1970s. To hear him and his friends tell it, a contemporary leatherman can't swing a flogger or clamp a nipple around here without running into some "sexual tourist" poking around the city's dungeon and play-party scene — "looking," Haberman says, "to spice up their love lives."
"For years, we flew under the radar, and we had some fabulous times," he says, reveling in the memory of the scene's powerful "sex magic." "There was an erotic energy that happened that was palpable. Now you just don't see it as much."
For a dom's eye-view of this city's leather community, especially the gay part, there's no better place to start than the Dallas Eagle.
On a recent Saturday night, techno thuds from the speakers of the Maple Avenue bar, while green and purple lights swirl over the dance floor. Bartenders, in leather harnesses and metal-studded jock straps, serve drinks to a clientele that is overwhelmingly male: shirtless in jeans and boots, wearing leather harnesses of their own, or clad, despite the heat, in leather vests, chaps and motorcycle boots. These days, a few women sometimes dot the crowd, some wearing sundresses and flip-flops and looking like they've wandered in from a different movie altogether.
Out on the crowded patio, there's a bootblack chair in a corner, elevated to the height of a throne. Leaning against the fence are a few large wooden X-shaped structures called St. Andrew's crosses, used for whipping or flogging. In the corner, a guy in a harness with ornate sun and moon tattoos on his shoulders sits beneath a tree strung with Christmas lights.
Leather fetishism is a sub-category that falls under the big, spiky umbrella of BDSM — itself a combination of the terms bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. BDSM activities are as varied as the people who perform them, but they're all about the transgressive, sexy fun that can be had with toying with power and control, pleasure and pain. Some of BDSM is physical: flogging, tying up, clamping sensitive body parts. Some of it is mental: giving over trust and control to another person, dominating someone else completely.
Most leather fetishists have a fondness for leather itself — the way it looks, smells, feels. Others love it for its outlaw associations. The first prototype for the leather look, according to Haberman, was Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. "That was an image of power and hyper-masculinity," says Haberman, who's written two books on leather history (as well as a memoir about life as a gay Christian leatherman). "And people don't fuck with you when you wear leather. A lot of the early leathermen did it a little bit out of self-defense. People still think of it as scary."
What's often called "Old Guard" leather was born in the 1950s. They were World War II veterans who realized they still longed for the structure and hierarchy of the military — and the company of other men. "Imagine this," Haberman says. "You're a gay guy, but you don't know it. You're fighting in Europe, surrounded by men. You get back home and realize that something's just missing." So they started motorcycle clubs. "You could hang out with all guys and it didn't look weird."
Soon gay clubs started to splinter off from the main biker groups. "It was clandestine," Haberman says. "These guys were outlaws." At the same time, the gay clubs brought some of the mindset and protocol of military life — order, honor, respect and, of course, a uniform look that was totally hot. "There was pledging, moving up the ranks, discipline," Haberman says. "Almost like a fraternity." A fraternity, that is, with S&M elements that crept in early on and never left. Early clubs, like the Satyrs in Los Angeles and Hellfire in Chicago, all promised this mixture of strict hierarchy and rough sex.
Almost as long as the leather subculture's been around in the United States, there's been a sizable Dallas contingent. The metroplex has around 20 leather groups, including the National Leather Association, the Leather Knights and Discipline Corps. They hang out at the Eagle and the Hidden Door, an older, more run-down club, and the Round-Up, a "cowboy bar" in Oak Lawn. There's also a highly secretive members-only dungeon called the Sanctuary for the Lifestyle Arts and at least 5,000 local members on the fetish website Fetlife, a sort of Facebook for kinky people.
The bar scene is popular less for "playing" — doing whatever BDSM activity you're into — than it is for what everyone else uses bars for: eyeing people, meeting people, showing off significant others to those people. Private play parties, either at Sanctuary or at people's homes, are where the majority of actual leather fun happens. But there's still not a lot of actual sex at these parties, scenesters say. Flogging, sure. Clamping with clothespins. Caning, "impact play" (hitting each other), people being tied up in rope harnesses, "scenes" involving hoods, blindfolds or other forms of sensory deprivation, and any number of other highly erotically charged activities. But not a lot of Tab A going into Slot B.
"How would I describe the leather community here?" asks Jeffrey Payne, a co-owner of the Eagle. "Other than 'incredible?'"
Others are less bullish on the state of the scene, though. In Dallas and all over the country, leather devotees are watching in dismay as some of the things they love best about their community dissolve. It's little things they point to, but they signal a much bigger shift, the Old Guard says. Take the kid with celestial tattoos and the leather harness at the Eagle. He's hunched over his iPhone, staring into Grindr, a mobile app that lets you find other gay and bisexual men nearby. Twenty minutes tick by and he barely glances up from the screen, ignoring the room full of potential playmates whirring around him.
John Boslooper, a leather guy in his late 30s, with bright blue eyes and model-perfect stubble, eyes him sadly from a few feet away.
"Why would you come out to a bar, surrounded by beautiful men, and sit on your phone?" he asks no one in particular. "We don't talk to people anymore."
"You don't have to wear leather to be leather," says Ms. Boots. She's in her late 50s, a motherly woman with short brown hair and a sunny presence, despite a host of medical ailments — spinal-cord issues, metal rods in her neck — that make it hard for her to get around. She lives in a dim, tidy suburban apartment with flowered sofas and dozens of artifacts from a life in the leather community: roses made from leather and duct tape, a size 7 motorcycle cap, a saucy black leather ensemble hanging in the closet beside whips and electrical toys.
Ms. Boots has been in leather so long that what started out as a pseudonymous "scene name" has become the only name most people know her by. "Leather means honor, integrity and trust," she says cheerily. "It's a feeling and a state of place."
When she first got into the scene in the late '70s, though, "All I wanted was the kinky sex." Ms. Boots was in her 20s at the time, newly divorced and with two young children. "I was running around dating bikers," she says. She fell in with a band of them who called themselves the Sundowners, "because there was a party from sundown to sunup."
Ms. Boots wasn't that interested in motorcycles, though, just sex with the men who rode them. But she soon discovered that she loved both the way leather looked and the strength, edginess and the outsider's code of loyalty. Back then, you had to know where the right bar was to be part of the leather scene in Dallas. You had to know the secret knock or the code word, or, in Ms. Boots' case, you had to be on the phone tree. "If you missed the call, you just didn't know where the party was that night," she says. "That was it."
But even then, the shape of the leather scene had already started shifting.
"AIDS just devastated our community," Haberman says. As the epidemic spread in the 1980s, people banded together to start educating the community about safer sex and safer BDSM. At the same time, broadening awareness of BDSM attracted more straight women to the scene. Many of the women, like Ms. Boots, helped take care of their "brothers in leather" as they were dying of AIDS.
The Internet has created a second wave of change, sparked by influential kink meet-up websites like Fetlife and Recon. Fetlife, the largest, was founded in Canada in 2007. It allows users to create profiles, add friends and interact on walls and message boards. A Fetlife profile also lists its users' kinks; you can choose from a list of hundreds (listed alphabetically: blindfolds, bondage tape, breasts, bullwhips, chaps, clothespins, dacryphilia — being aroused by tears or crying). Or, in the unlikely event that what you're looking for isn't there, you make up your own. One Fetlifer lists "Watching the Dallas Cowboys lose" as her particular turn-on.
The sites can be a godsend for kinky people looking to find each other, and they've blazed a wider trail for people looking to peer over the edges of their sexuality. John Baku, Fetlife's founder, says he gets "a half-dozen emails every day from people telling me they finally don't feel weird or alone. And that is why I started Fetlife."
Even Old Guard leather guys can't deny the sites' power. Mike Gerle, a nationally prominent leatherman who lives in Los Angeles, admits the Internet has helped people gain access to knowledge and sexual satisfaction they never could have found otherwise. "It's never been easier to be informed, both in writing and to find a resource near you," he says. "It's never been easier or better."
But for some scenesters who predate social neworking, the Internet has been a mixed blessing. "I personally think Recon and Fetlife have taken some of the magic, the dance out of cruising," Haberman says. "The seduction aspect's gone. It's just like an electronic booty call. It takes the fun out of it."
Sure, it makes the scene more accessible to outsiders, he says. But some of them belong on the outside. "It makes it much easier for people to be able to find it," he says. "But, you know, it makes it much easier for people to find it, even if they're not really looking for it."
Lillith Grey, a self-described "leather dyke," agrees. She's a delicately built redhead in her 30s, with swallow tattoos adorning the area just below her collarbone. She's a PhD candidate, sign language interpreter and burlesque performer who's been a part of Dallas' leather scene for six years. The issue of who belongs in the leather community, and who may be ruining it, is suddenly a hot topic, she says: "This is the first time I've seen it come to a head the way it has in the past six or eight months."
Fetlife "got really big in 2008 or 2009, and it ushered all these people in," she says. "Then the floodgates opened. That's when the trouble started." At first, Grey says, younger leather people like her were thrilled with the site. "My dating pool is very small," she explains. "I only date butch women. I thought, This is great. There were more play partners, and more people to choose from." But now, she says, she's convinced that Fetlife doesn't add the right kind of people. "What we have now," she says, "is a watered-down community." She deleted her own account earlier this summer.
These Internet newbies are ignorant of leather's long history, veterans complain, and its complex social hierarchy, especially as it relates to masters and slaves, dominants and submissives, boys and sirs. Each relationship is subtly different. "When we came in, we would work our way up," says Robert H, president of National Leather Association International and former president of the National Leather Association's Houston chapter. "You wouldn't just show up and announce yourself as Master of the House of Pancakes or whatever." Master, he says, is a title that has to be earned.
Jeffrey Payne, one of the Eagle's co-owners, sees it at the Eagle and elsewhere: the straight guy who comes in and wants to be addressed as "Master Fruit Loop, or something." "It's not that there are hard and fast rules [about these titles]," he says. "If people are there as visitors, they're welcome, as long as they're not making a mockery of something. But you can't just come in and say, 'Today, I'm a Sir.' Well, how? What was your journey? You can't wake up and just be a Sir. That's not how it works."
Then there are those pesky women. Social media, paired with general sexual adventurousness, has attracted more and more women to the scene, many of whom want to hang out at once gay-male-only spaces like the Eagle. "I somewhat resent the het community coming in and wanting to take over everything and make it hetero," says one older leatherman. "We're the ones who built this damn community. These days, it seems like we're pressured to have the women present all the time."
It all sounds familiar, old-timers complaining about the effects of the Internet, about annoying newcomers. Every subculture has them, the ones who swear their scene was better in some vaguely defined "before." But leather scenesters say it's deeper than just nostalgia. It's about their desire to protect a community they've worked so long to build.
"Really, is there no other place for straight people to hang out?" asks Mike Gerle, the L.A. leatherman. He defends the Internet to a point, as a way to get better educated about one's kinks. But he harbors serious concerns about the type of people it's attracted. Some of the draw to leather, he thinks, is that curious outsiders "want access to that intense sexual energy that is created by men's-only spaces. When it's only men, trust me, the sexual energy is through the roof."
The desire to protect that energy creates even more tension, not just between the men and the women, but between the men and their own understanding of themselves as sexual pioneers. "Us being nice good liberals, most of us feel guilty for the fact that these people feel somehow reduced," Gerle says. "We've made them unwelcome. And we don't like to make people unwelcome, because we've felt so unwelcome for so much of our lives."
Despite the range of theories about just who these amateurs are, or what to do about them, everyone's pretty sure about one thing: It might not be long before leather, especially gay leather, looks to escape hordes of imitators and amateurs and vanishes back underground.
"A lot of guys have pulled away from the public scene completely and have gone back to playing in private," Haberman says. "When you put it all out there in daylight, you lose some of that mystique. It was more fun when it was dirty and clandestine."
"In 10 years," adds Ms. Boots, "I don't know that we'll even have a leather scene here."
It's hard to imagine a less dirty or clandestine gathering than the monthly meeting of the National Leather Association's local chapter, which is held in the cafeteria of the John Thomas Center. The crowd is pale — verging on pasty — mostly middle-aged, and pretty evenly split between women and men. At the front of the room, a woman with dark red hair is trying to get everyone's attention.
"Hey y'all, how's it going?"
"Hot!" someone calls out
"I am, thank you very much!" she snaps back, vamping a little bit for the crowd.
She starts to run down the list of NLA members who have August birthdays. "We're a family, and it's just nice to say happy birthday," she reminds the crowd. Next, she announces next month's ice cream social. "This has gone on for years and years," she says. "Also, I've just been informed [the host] will be putting down plastic tarps, so nudity will be allowed. And bring your own meat ." Everyone giggles. "No, not that kind," she says tartly. "And a covered dish to share."
It goes on like this for a while, a parade of announcements that blend the community-minded and the X-rated at dizzying speed. Then there's a break while everyone gets ready for the evening's "demo," in which a woman named "Lady Shivers" will show the crowd how to safely brand someone. She'll do it with a cautery pen, a disposable plastic implement that emergency room techs use to close up wounds. Fetishists call the practice "cell popping" or "the Devil's fire."
It's dangerous — a lot of leather play can be — but it's much less so in the hands of Lady Shivers, who works at a piercing shop. It's in the darker corners of the scene, where serious leather play and amateurism collide, that things can turn messy.
One leatherman describes an upsetting scene he saw at a party a few years ago. "There was this male dominant and a female submissive," he says, "and they decided they would do a spanking scene. Her understanding was that it was just going to be on her butt. But he moved to her thighs, her back, and her chest. He was really hitting her. She called out her safe word, to get him to stop. But he refused to accept it. He said he was 'pushing her limits.' But this was just some guy off the street. No one knew who he was or if he knew what he was doing." Eventually, a "dungeon monitor" — there's almost always at least one at parties — had to step in.
Another woman, who came to the leather scene through Fetlife and other sites, says she had no idea there was risk of injury when she first entered the scene."You can seriously hurt somebody, or yourself," says the 22-year-old newbie. "With needle play, you can nick veins. You can stick things where things aren't supposed to be stuck. With canes, you can be hit in places along the tailbone. If you hit too high up on the rear, it can injure the tailbone or the spine, if you get hit hard enough. Floggers can do damage, too. If you hit too hard or you hit the wrong spot, you can do damage to your kidneys." A friend of hers was horribly burned on her back and chest, she says, by an inexperienced dom who was literally playing with fire.
There are less physical dangers, too: The same 22-year-old had her heart broken in her first master/slave relationship, when the master secretly took on another slave without telling her. He'd wanted to "collar" her (make her his slave) way too soon, something she didn't know was unusual. "For him to want to collar me a month into our relationship — at first, being brand new to the scene, it didn't come off as strange," she says. "Now, I view it on the level with marriage."
These aren't things that happened often in the old days, say nostalgic leatherfolk. "The vetting process just doesn't happen as much as it used to," says Robert from NLA-Houston, especially among the new crop of straight people in the scene. "The leather community started out of the gay community. The protocols here are very clear. But the straight community just hasn't accepted them."
It's a case, it seems, of too many people claiming to know something they've only seen on YouTube. Mistress Zaria, a veteran dominatrix in Arlington, says she recently dealt with a run of clients who complained that they went first to people they found online, and who falsely advertised themselves as pro doms. "It seems like there are a lot more people claiming to be into leather than before," she says. "My clients come in and they say, 'She didn't know what she was doing at all!'"
Ms. Boots has heard stories too, like the one about the woman who let her date, a guy she'd just met, tie her up in an isolated hotel — another no-no. The man shaved her head and told her, "Consider that the least I could have done." Then he left her tied up in the room. It's gotten bad enough that Ms. Boots started a group called the Bound Rose Society, to mentor newbies.
The NLA meeting is another way to showcase safe BDSM skills, although the room is half empty when Lady Shivers begins her demonstration. "Branding's not my thing," says Ms. Boots, on her way out the door.
But Lady Shivers presses on, bringing forward her helpers: a tall, slender black woman named Tyesha, and Sue Tattoo, a heavily tattooed redhead with dramatic eye makeup and ripped jeans. Lady Shivers is a piercer at FN Classy Tattoo Studio in Huntsville, she tells the crowd. "We're a lifestyle-friendly shop. If you want to bring your slave or submissive in to do a tattoo or a piercing ritual, I can open the shop in off hours. I've been around since you had to go to the bar to meet people to do this with." Everyone laughs knowingly.
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Branding really does hurt, Lady Shivers says, and it is really dangerous. She warns the group sternly to stay away from the "orbital socket," directly around the eye. "The eyeballs will pop just like grapes in the microwave," she says. Almost as an afterthought, she adds, "Be careful in the scrotal area too."
She also says that burns can cause necrosis and gangrene if they're not cleaned properly. "And please," she adds, "just remember that a burn takes 36 hours to flower." After that, though, it's game on for anything you want to do with the brand. "Playing with it, that's the best part of all if you're a top or a sadist," she says. "The tip of a knife is all it takes sometimes for it to be excruciating. That's big fun. It's a really good endorphin rush, like a lot of needles are." Someone in the audience lets out a dreamy groan.
Tyesha lifts her shirt over her head and offers her right shoulder blade to Lady Shivers. "All right sweetie," she tells Tyesha. "Just breathe. Just relax." Tyesha smiles and closes her eyes. Lady Shivers snaps on a black rubber glove and brings the tip of the cautery pen to Tyehsha's skin. Everyone leans forward. Wisps of smoke start to rise from the girl's shoulder. "That's burning flesh," Lady Shivers says cheerily. "I'll have that smell in my sinuses for three days." She's painstakingly drawing a curlicued heart with a delicate border around it. Tyesha digs her fingertips hard against the table and breathes through her mouth in short bursts.
Finally, after 15 long minutes, the brand is done. Tyesha exhales and opens her eyes, smiling triumphantly. Everyone applauds and thanks her and Lady Shivers as she hops off the table. Then everyone heads for the door. The John Thomas Center wants them out of the room at 9. By 8:55, the room is empty, the chairs stacked, the lights off. These are people who respect rules.