In the early 1980’s when AIDS first attacked the initial organized response did not come from government, nor some well meaning charity, but from the Leather and the Drag communities. The very simple reason for this was that they were the two main organized communities within the gay subculture. Some of the major cities had political groups or “Pride organizations”, such as the MCC and political clubs in Washington DC, but the leather and drag communities did much of the early grunt work.
The rapid response of the Leather and Drag communities was in my opinion, the result of the frequent bar settings or their events. News of the spreading epidemic traveled quickly through the bars. It was not until July 1981 that the Washington Blade carried their first article on what later became known as Gay Related Immune Problems (GRIP), later called AIDS. The infamous “Gay Cancer” article appeared in December of that year.
In January 1982, after 1300 reported cases and 317 reported deaths, the Whitman Walker clinic in DC began organizing a response to the growing pandemic. To help provide care to those effected by the disease the clinic incorporated and formalized the AIDS Buddies Program. This was a program modeled after what the leather club members were already doing on a less formal level. The program was dedicated to bringing food and home care to people with AIDS. The Buddies Program brought much needed help to people who were ill and ostracized by even the medical care providers.
The Aids Buddies Program was to assign two buddies to assist each patient. When I got involved the Whitman Walker Clinic was training people as quickly as possible to meet the exploding need. The reality was that many of the volunteers rapidly had two, or more, individuals to assist with little true preparation for the challenges we faced. We watched as young, healthy men quickly deteriorated and died without any prospect for hope. I would routinely go to deceased friends homes, per their request, and remove any evidence of their homosexuality so the families would not discover their true life. Funerals quickly became a common part of my weekly routine.
It was a surreal time.
It seems to me that this time of crisis was the last time the “leather community” specifically, or the gay community in general, really operated as a “community”. We faced a common challenge and shared experience with love, compassion and determination. The leather community has since fragmented into a network of individuals with different desires and fetishes who cannot agree on an umbrella name. In my experience as past chair of St. Pete Pride, I see a similar deterioration within the general gay community.
The women have splintered into disparate factions. Many in the drag community and the trans community have abandoned their activist roots and actively complain without taking action to influence change. Gay men have similarly splintered into many, many, factions. The twinks hate the bears and the leather and, well, just about anything that isn’t cute and tweeking.
I remember the gay community in DC when it became the “gay and lesbian community”. Then there was the ongoing war of calling it the “Gay and Lesbian” community or the “Lesbian and Gay” community. (See Why Lesbians Aren’t Gay a 1994 article in the National Review.) – I also remember these very same women screaming because more money was spent on AIDS research and care for men then women. This despite that fact that lesbian HIV rate was one-tenth of one percent of the rate in men these women wanted equal funding! It just never ended and today our community has become an alphabit soup of acronyms that I cannot recognize.
Once the community was created, it quickly began splintering and digressing. A community is usually based on a common experience or common goals. What made us a community in the 1970’s was the shared experience of being considered criminals and unnatural. We wanted to decriminalize homosexuality and work toward common acceptance. That movement was put on hold in the 1980’s as we responded to the AIDS crisis. This was a period that took away our best and brightest activists. Today the panic and despair of the early AIDS days has been replaced with complacency. Political activism regained its’ footing and the process of equal rights has since gained steamed. Maybe the fact that there is not a shared experience between the generations is leading to this fragmentation of the community. The older generations who faced arrest and the death bought on by AIDS feel totally detached from those who are upset because they cannot bring a same sex date to the home coming dance. I do not know the reason for this demise of community. But I think we need a discussion on how to proceed from here.
Having had a leather bar in Tampa in the 1990’s I have seen the changes in the leather community first hand and up close. Leather was once a community with a proud heritage, first decimated by AIDS, and then destroyed by stereotypes. Today it is been become a network of people involved in kink. Different fetishes represented by different hook-up sites on the Internet. They often come out for generic leather events but then disappear back into their comfort zones.
Circuit boys looking pretty have usurped leather as a fashion statement. Safe SM play is now learned by the J Crew set on the Internet. There was a leather contest recently in St. Pete. I was anxious to see how often the word community is used and then test to see if it was ever defined. The word was tossed around and used often but no one ever really explained what they meant by community.
I think the bigger question about community is whether we should be ok with this splintering. When it comes to the goals of the gay community, the larger the coalition the louder the voice. I think there is a need for real; grass roots leadership in the Gay movement in America. The corporate fundraising machine and self aggrandizing entity that is the Human Rights Campaign Fund has proven useless. Although quite a large part of the gay community is comfortable with their status in society as a whole, there are many of us who want and demand total equality. The more we splinter the less of a political force we are. Further, our community extends beyond the borders of industrialized nations and should also focus on countries where homosexuality is met with the Death Penalty.
As a past chair of Pride, the various people who complained that Pride ignored women or the drag community or the transgendered always frustrated me. When I said they might be correct, come work with us to correct this, they would disappear. It seemed that people loved to complain that they were not being treated as equals within the Alphabet umbrella, but when ask to volunteer to help change things that was asking too much. To take that to a wider level, When the GLBT community as a whole is asked to help change the larger political status quo, there is a stunning silence. Passing along an interesting article or adding a word to your profile name on facebook is not enough. In my opinion, if you are not willing to get out and make calls or knock on doors or meet with legislators then you do not deserve to call yourself part of the community. Any community.
As to the leather community, I think it needs to adapt. What made it a community; actually, what makes any community is shared experience. In this day of electronic communication and instant hook up, the leather club may be a relic. But I think a network, created of the like minded, should flourish. Occasional public meet-ups with the purpose of meeting new people, and private play parties are the way to go with local people you know and trust. Maybe the regional events and national events like Chicago Hellfires’ Inferno and the ilk still provide a great service. But people need to ask, what purpose does a leather club serve today?
In either case each person needs to decide if they want to be a part of a community and how best to help that community achieve it’s goals. These are just my thoughts on the uses of the word community.