Equal Opportunity Bootlicking

The BDSM leather community has long been dominated by cis gay men. But in L.A., a new, gender-inclusive scene is emerging.

A "leatherdyke" couple and a back piercing in progress.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus, S. Lee Robinson, and Molly Adams.

You’ve probably heard of the idea of a queer “scene,” perhaps most often from people who don’t care for it. But what, exactly, is this scene? Who’s a part of it? Who isn’t? Who decides? Is there more than one? What happens when a scene evolves—or when it doesn’t? These are the questions we’ve gathered a group of writers to consider for an Outward special issue on “the Scene” in LGBTQ life today. You can read all of the stories in the issue here, and you can listen to a full episode of the Outward podcast covering more of the queer scene by subscribing on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your audio.

It’s around five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon at the Eagle LA in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Outside, the sun is bright and people are swigging beer on the patio, and in a way the ambiance is similar to that at any day drinking event—noisy but also relaxed. The space is filled with an unusually diverse group of queers: trans men, butch lesbians, genderqueer folks, femmes, and a scattering of cis men, one or two of whom are straight and overwhelmed. The unifying theme is leather; people wear leather harnesses that fall loosely around their clothing, leather jackets, leather skirts. Eagle LA is, after all, a leather bar, and this is the first ever Saturday iteration of Cruise—the monthly event when Eagle LA opens itself specifically to women and people who aren’t cis men.

Inside, things are a little more intense. Onstage, Bettie Bondage, a self-described “Kinkucator” and “sadist,” is piercing whiskers into a person’s face with needles. I watched, mesmerized, wondering if and when the piercee would bleed. Bettie eventually began to remove the needles one at a time from the inside of her subject’s mouth, and blood did run down their face, but, a model of efficiency, Bettie licked all of it off.*

Pony Lee, one of the founders of Cruise, says the mixture of atmospheres is intentional. He says that the leather scene was “like a natural calling,” for him but that he was intimidated by most of the spaces he found in L.A. when he first started looking for community in the ’90s—most of them dominated by cis gay men. Pony identifies as a “trans POC leathermxn” from East L.A., an unincorporated city that’s primarily Latino. But Lee says that back then “as a lesbian- or dyke-looking person in there, you know, I was mainly invisible.” Play parties and dungeon parties were also an intimidating point of entry into the leather world, but Lee, along with his business partner Vanessa Craig, have created a space in Cruise where people can dip their toe in the kink scene without any pressure to get whipped or spanked or really do anything besides hang out.

The leather kink aesthetic was encapsulated in the 1940s erotic drawings of Tom of Finland, which featured white queer men sporting over-the-top muscles and crotch bulges. Since that time, the leather scene for cis queer men has become widespread and well-known, and it imitates that aesthetic in a less exaggerated form—very white, very masculine. There are leather bars all over the country, and there are leather pride parades in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but these spaces are not especially diverse.

A few years back, Lee approached Craig, a butch lesbian with a knack for throwing parties (including You Don’t Know Dick: Lesbian Trivia Night and the Grind ’90s Dance Party) about starting a monthly night geared toward women at the Eagle LA. Craig made a few changes to the ambiance—for example, finding ’70s lesbian porn to play, replacing the usual selection of gay porn running over the bar. Cruise launched in 2016, and for more than two years, primarily lesbians and queer women would take over Eagle LA on the second Wednesday of every month. Cruise is now on Saturdays, because, according to Lee, it became too difficult to run an event after a workday (he also runs Folklore Salon in Echo Park to make money). Neither Lee nor Craig makes much off of Cruise: The event is free, and the drinks are cheap. They split whatever small profits they get among the dancers and DJs.

Sunday Service DJs and a "leatherdyke" couple.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by THPStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Molly Adams, and KP.

According to Alex Warner, a historian who has devoted years to recovering and documenting the history of the “leatherdyke” community, lesbians have historically made their own spaces within Eagle leather bars, sometimes in secret. “There’s obviously a lot of division between gay men and lesbians, I think in the broader community,” she says. “But in the leather community, there’s much more interaction, and I think the dirty little secret of the leather community is that lots of dykes and gay men have sex and play together.” Warner says that in the early years, “Dykes would sneak into men’s leather bars and pass as men. That’s how they would get involved. And they would have sex with the men and just never speak. So the men never knew that they were getting fisted by women.” Warner added that this didn’t change anyone’s sexuality, but for some leatherpeople, BDSM was more core to their sexuality than gender.

At Cruise, of course, the barrier to entry is much lower. I knew about Cruise for a while before I ever went—the kink aspect intimidated me a bit. But the first time I was there, I loved it and realized that nothing was expected of me. I could just enjoy the spectacle when I wasn’t kissing my girlfriend.

One of the regular go-go dancers at Cruise, Kristin Vallacher, had a similar experience. At first she didn’t think Cruise was for her: “I don’t wanna be in a back room, I don’t want to be paddled or whatever,” she said, but after finally attending, “I was like, Oh, my God, this is basically a dance party. If you want to engage in other activities, you can, but it’s not a requirement.” Go-go dancing had been a dream for Vallacher (her day job is running and co-owning a gym in Hollywood called the Phoenix Effect with her wife), and Cruise was a comfortable environment for her compared with “the Abbey or one of those places that can be spatially aggressive for people who are my size, which is like 5-foot-1.” She says now she sees kink as something that she can engage in; she hadn’t understood it as well before.

And then there are people like Chingy—a tall femme with a blog called the Bottom’s Line—for whom Cruise is an oasis because the city just isn’t kinky enough the rest of the time. Chingy moved back to her native L.A., a city she complains is so conformist that “the butches shave their armpits,” after being priced out of San Francisco. She sorely misses the Bay Area leather community but also found that Cruise was a space where she could expand her horizons. She began bootblacking in public for the first time there: “It’s very much about like the fetishization of leather,” she says. “Someone sits on your stand, and they give you their boots. You clean them, you shine them, you can if you want to, like get frisky with it, you can lick them, you can put their boots on your chest on your face while you do it. It’s about the intimacy and the exchange that comes from a thing that seems so mundane.” Chingy says she considers this a service to her leather community.

Since Cruise has transformed into a daytime party, Chingy has come together with other femmes who worked the event to form another Wednesday night kink and dance party. “Mommy Issues” will launch on Wednesday and, according to Chingy, will be open to all queers but primarily for “femmes of all genders and dykes of all assignments.” Similar to Cruise, Mommy Issues will be kinky but in a low-key way (Chingy describes her ideal ration as “65 percent dance, 35 percent kink”). One of the goals of the party will be to recreate the nighttime vibe of Cruise but at a time when it was more lesbian and “femme centric.” (According to Pony, Cruise has always been open in terms of who it’s for, but sometimes it draws different crowds, possibly partly because of which bootblacks, dancers, and DJs are scheduled for a given night.)

Mommy Issues will be unusual in the kink space not only because it’s welcoming to queer women but also because it will take place at a bar owned by a women of color—the Faultline—and was founded by a group of femmes, some of whom are also POC. “We wanted something of ours,” says Chingy, noting that many of the founders of Mommy Issues were dancers and bootblacks who haven’t had the chance to create a space of their own. Chingy says she’ll be happy if they break even running the new event. Like Cruise, it’s a labor of love.

While I was reporting this story, I talked to a few people who worried the nature of Cruise might change because it was a daytime party. But on Saturday, though there wasn’t much dancing and a slightly more mixed crowd, the Eagle was still packed with queer women. At one point, two femmes fall to the ground while attempting to demonstrate scissoring with their clothes on. On the other side of the table where I was sitting, a trans man gets on his knees and uses a lint roller to service a thick femme’s sandals, which are decorated with sequin marijuana leaves. His action mirrored what’s happening on the bootblack stand in the corner. But mostly, people are just standing around and drinking, taking it in. It was a territory meant for exploring, and a territory, that will continue to expand with each new space that lets a new person know this scene could also be for them.

Correction, April 24, 2019: This post originally misstated the gender pronouns of the person being pierced.

Read more from Outward’s special issue on “the Scene,” and listen to the podcast.