Leather/Bear Flag gay pride Leather in the Archives

by Gordon Richardson, with assistance from Alan Miller and Michael Holmes (photography)

Leather subculture

The leather subculture denotes practices and styles of dress organized around sexual activities. Leather culture is most visible in gay communities and most often associated with gay men (“leathermen”), but it is also reflected in various ways in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight worlds. Many people associate leather culture with BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sado/Masochism) practices and its many subcultures.
Gay male BDSM leather culture grew out of post-WWII biker culture. Some men returning from the war received surplus motorcycles, leather jackets, and other military gear. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a leather jacket and cap riding a motorcycle created an iconic image that was adopted by the first gay leather people. The first gay leather bars were the club houses of early biker clubs that opened later to the public. Pioneering gay motorcycle clubs included the Satyrs, established in Los Angeles in 1954; Oedipus also in Los Angeles in 1958, and the New York Motorbike Club. Early San Francisco clubs included the Warlock and the California Motor Club.
In recent decades the leather community has been considered a subset of BDSM culture rather than a descendant of gay culture. The most visibly organized SM community is evidenced by the American competition known as ‘International Mr. Leather’ (established 1979) and ‘SM Guy’ in the UK (established 1981).

Leather Pride flag

The Leather Pride flag (pictured at top) is a symbol used by the leather subculture since the 1990s. It was designed by Tony DeBlase who presented his design at the International Mister Leather event in Chicago, IL, on May 28, 1989.

Leather Archives and Museum, Chicago

The Leather Archives and Museum (LA&M) is based in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, IL. It is a library, museum and archives pertaining to the leather, fetishism, sadomasochism, and alternate sexual practices. Notable museum artifacts include original works by Tom of Finland, the largest collection of Etienne works in the world, historic sadomasochism and sexual devices, and colours (patches worn on the back of leather vests) from hundreds of existing and former Gay and Lesbian motorcycle clubs, leather clubs and sex clubs. Their extensive online video library includes the below footage of leather and kink people at Toronto Gay Pride 1996.

Leather as a gay fetish

Sight, smell, feel, creak, and even taste. People use these words to describe the appeal of leather. All five senses seem to be used to “register” the arousing effect of leather. Combined they make leather stand for masculinity, sexiness, and male bonding. To some the word “leather” even describes a whole lifestyle that involves SM. Leather (the material) arouses people in very different ways.

Leather gear

The leather outfit consists of a cap, usually with a pin or other insignia denoting the particular club, a vest, often studded or stuck with pin buttons, gloves, and a white T-shirt or black military style shirt. Other regalia might include body harness, either chain or leather, a jock strap and on occasion, a sash denoting an event or competition. The ArQuives has several pieces of gear in our collection (some pictured below), including nipple clamps.


leather items found in The ArQuives archives

Leather clubs

The Spearhead Brotherhood, founded in 1970, has been many things: a source of charitable giving, a producer of social events, a leader in community based political action, and a publisher of an unparalleled continuous record of gay history. Early members of Spearhead included members of a New York City motorcycle club, all of whom shared an interest in leather. A club magazine called Phalia began  publication early in the club’s existence and exists to this day.

 close up of pins and leather jacket of Phalia logo
The Heart of the Flag Federation is a Toronto membership club that produces Toronto Leather Pride, Toronto Bound events, Mr. and Ms. Leather competitions, workshops, fundraisers, and other community events.
Notable among motorcycle clubs across Canada were The Sod-o-mee Motorcycle Club for men and The Fallen Idols Motorcycle Club for women, both in Toronto. Current Pride parades are often lead by Dykes On Bikes, founded in 1976, with chapters across Canada and the United States.

The Sod-o-mee Motorcycle Club poster The Fallen Idols Motorcycle Club for women

Leather bars

The Black Eagle leather cruise bar opened on Church Street in December 1994.

poster and matchbook from the Black Eagle, Toronto bar
The Toolbox was originally known in 1981 as 18 East, located at 18 Eastern Avenue. In 1984 it moved to the Simcoe Hotel at 508 Eastern Avenue, eventually becoming the Toolbox and Mother’s Guest House. One of Toronto’s oldest gay bars, it was an out of the way club that provided a home to leathermen and later bears for more than three decades. It closed in August 2004.
The ToolBox Toronto, ON

Leather events

                The LEATHERSIR/LEATHERboy contests grew out of the now defunct International Mr. Drummer and International Drummerboy contests (founded in San Francisco around 1979). Both the contest and titles are about representing the sexual side of gay leathermen.

leather posters
Posters have long been a means of advertising events and competitions.

Leather Posters

Billy dolls

Billy is a doll introduced in 1997, marketed as “the first out and proud gay doll” although that distinction actually belongs to Gay Bob, introduced in 1977. Billy was introduced in a number of versions based on stereotypical gay characters, including Sailor Billy, Cowboy Billy, Master Billy (pictured) and San Francisco Billy. Other dolls in the Billy line include Carlos Billy, Billy’s Puerto Rican boyfriend, and Tyson, their African American friend. Billy is “anatomically complete”.

Billy Dolls
The ArQuives also holds many books by Larry Townsend, art books by Tom of Finland, and other books and ephemera related to leather and fetish cultures. Due to space limitations, the complete leather collection held by The ArQuives is not represented here.
leather gear and leather club pins
Buds matchbook covers
Priap cover, 2012; Mr Leahter Toronto booklet 2005, The Black Leather jacket book by Mick Farrer