In the Company of Men

Can gay leather culture survive the ongoing reckoning of toxic masculinity?

A leather man's lower body, hands on belt.
Don’t be a misogynist, boy. wernerimages/Thinkstock

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I don’t think of myself as macho per se, but being at a gay leather party full of hairy guys with big biceps and guts, the air dripping with man-sweat, does something to me. Cruising under those circumstances brings out my more primitive self, heightening my senses and sexuality in a way that’s uniquely exciting. I wouldn’t be bothered if there were some women there, but to be honest, too many would be a buzzkill. I realize how that sounds, but for me, too much mixed company would interrupt this Tom of Finland fantasy world that I’ve come to appreciate. However, in the current moment where masculinity is being called out as a cult on morning TV and where it has contributed to actual terror in the so-called “incel rebellion” running amok, it feels necessary to examine these temples of manhood with sober eyes. Is there something toxic about my man-fetish, and gay male leather sexuality at large?

At last year’s International Mr. Leather, one of the largest gay male leather events in the world, International Ms. Leather 2014 (who just goes by Patty) was verbally harassed with her wife as they were getting onto an elevator. One of the guys in the car said that she better not “leak” all over him and repeatedly told them to get off. They ultimately complied in the interest of safety, to the notable silence of all the other men present. Ironically, Patty was one of the judges for 2017 competition, so she actually belonged more so than most.

“The leather community is no different than any other community in terms of being affected by these larger social issues,” Patty told me from her Toronto home.

There is an anti-femme sentiment that’s prevalent not just in the leather scene, but in the larger gay community. Francisco J. Sánchez, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, lays out some theories for why this is in a paper titled, “Masculinity Issues Among Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Men.” It could be because some gay men were gender atypical as children and were rejected for it. They “defeminized” as adults to avoid teasing or bullying and to conceal their queer identity. It could also be because some gay men are attracted to masculinity due to conditioning by things like advertising and porn, affecting how they evaluate themselves and others with masculinity being seen as a more positive trait. They may emulate masculine behavior to protect their sexual self-esteem or to attract what they want: Namely other masculine men. Or this anti-femme bias could be internalized homophobia manifesting itself.

The paper doesn’t link anti-femme sentiments of gay men to the sort of outright misogyny that Patty experienced at last year’s IML; Sánchez tells me over an email that misogyny is not necessarily characteristic of these type of guys. However, he also mentions that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to link the two for some gay men, which would seem to be the case with Patty’s experience, as if her presence threatened the masculine vibe of the space.

Though the term “toxic masculinity” is tough to define, this sort of anti-femme behavior is no doubt toxic, as is the blatant misogyny that Patty experienced at IML. But does a love of the masculine always entail a hatred or distaste for femininity and women?

“Inherently there’s nothing wrong with [appreciating masculinity],” says leather and kink columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, Race Bannon. “It’s about being an asshole about it. It’s about judging others, it’s about elevating it as better than, it’s about discouraging others for being their true self, and it’s making sure that your own shit doesn’t fall into other people’s shit and hurt them in some way.”

In the leather scene, Bannon sees a difference between social and erotic/sexual spaces. He claims that few leather guys have a problem with women present in their well-defined social spaces. It gets a little more complicated with erotic and sexual spaces, since one person’s space to get off is another’s place to be social. Leather bars are a good example: It’s a public space, so everybody must be welcome; but if there’s a backroom for sex or guys sucking each other off by the bar, things get a bit grey. That seems to be where the friction lies.

Although Bannon acknowledges that a lot of people think that every play space should be mixed, he believes that anyone, regardless of their sexuality, has the right to a space devoted to their demographic, since that’s what gets them going. “I think that we make a mistake when we try to assert that sexuality is democratic,” he says, “and that individual sexuality follows any kind of political norm or world view. It really doesn’t.”

Patty sometimes opts for play events without men, but she has issue with people who can’t fuck in inclusive ones: “I’ve had some men say to me, ‘Well, I need my separate play space because like if there’s women around or effeminate things or high voices, I can’t get it up.’ And I’m like, ‘If you can’t get it up because I’m standing in a corner you should seek medical attention. Not throw me out of the party.’”

Speaking from experience, I can “get it up” in a mixed space if necessary, but I’m not pansexual—a play space with women just isn’t my preference. I’m not anti-femme or a masc 4 masc jerk. I just like venues where you can taste the testosterone in the air because of the mystical-sexual feeling I get. Though I’m convinced that how I enjoy my fetish isn’t toxic so long as I’m not a jerk about it, is my attraction some brand of internalized homophobia or a neurosis in that vein? Maybe. But maybe not.

“I think our culture forms us … And it forms our sexuality and it forms what we resonate with, and there’s a bit of nature in there but there’s an awful lot of nurture around our sexuality,” Bannon explains. “I’m not talking specifically about our orientation but our sexuality generally and the internal mechanisms of why we like what we like sexually are not understood by anyone.”

It’s true: What we find attractive is determined by a myriad of factors and intricate calculations in the brain. In other words, we don’t fully understand why we like what we like; for somebody to say that what we like isn’t okay and we should like something different in order to be inclusive seems on par with policing sexuality. To me, that’s as problematic as being anti-femme or excluding people because of their gender identity. And the gay leather scene is so deeply rooted in notions of masculinity that it would seem impossible to totally democratize it without castrating its soul.

Patty explains that she doesn’t have a problem with men-only spaces as long as they include all men; sadly, many do exclude trans guys. She claims that most women’s parties include trans women, woman identified people, and people with women’s histories. As identity politics continues to play a crucial role in queer discourse, it’s not unreasonable to think that in the future public spaces exclusively geared towards gay leather sexuality will fade. According to Bannon, the scene is already balkanizing, with gay kinksters splitting off into their own kinky subsets, be it the rubber boys or pups who are doing their own thing, sometimes publicly but privately, too. Perhaps the natural evolution would be for the male-only spaces to go private as well, returning back to the underground. But maybe there’s another way?

“Different gay men find different things erotic,” Bannon says. “That will always be the case, that will never change, and no amount of politics or cohesion will change that. What will change is how they talk about it and hopefully a little bit of empathy for the other side because empathy, you know, it’s the ultimate skill set as far as I’m concerned.”