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Old Guard? If You say so.

This article was previously published in the VASM Scene  newsletter and is reprinted here with the author's permission .

Joseph W. Bean, currently the Executive Director of the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, is the author of Leathersex: A Guide for the Curious Outsider and the Serious Player   and Leathersex Q&A.   He has been writing and lecturing about radical sex for more than ten years in venues all across North America. He has edited Drummer, Mach, FQ, Powerplay, International Leatherman   and about a dozen other magazines, and his writing and illustrations have appeared in many other periodicals. His stories can be read in Rogues of San Francisco, Country Rogues   and Happily Ever After.   Interviews of Mr. Bean were conducted by the authors of Different Loving, Blue Money   and the Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. He is also producing a series of art books and classic gay novels with new illustrations for Brush Creek Media.

Old Guard versus New Guard. It´s all become so much more complicated than it used to be, and so very much more complicated than it ever needed to be. I can´t for a moment claim to "know it all" on this question. I can hope—by sharing what I know to be true and laying out what I believe to be true—to shed some light on the subjects involved.

First, let me point out that there is nothing at all new about this question. The famous Brando movie, The Wild One, is a (presumably all-hetero) version of the conflict. Ten years after the movie swept through the lives of leathermen and bikers, I saw the same us-versus-them model working itself out in the gay leather communities of Southern California. I am not trying to be mysterious.

For those unfamiliar with The Wild One, the plot is something else altogether, but the point that matters to us here is that Johnny, the Brando character, has dropped out of the rough, street club with the loose-morals and unkempt, rebel appearance to join (or form) another group in which, under his leadership, the guys are a touch less rebellious in action, a touch less disrespectful and a great deal neater and more concerned with their appearance. The older way of being a biker is the way of Lee Marvin´s club, the one Johnny left. The new way looks weak by comparison, in the perspective of the bikers. Marvin´s gang could hardly have day jobs, Brando´s may have. Marvin´s men are hard, sex-crazed and fully comfortable with their outsider status. Brando´s men—himself first and foremost, again—are more concerned with the people and institutions around them; still rebels, but not at ease with being disconnected outsiders. The 1954 movie was intended to recreate a real event that took place in 1947 in Holister, California.

I suspect the writers of the movie script found their cues for the internal action that formed and distinguished the two primary characters and their followers in what was happening in the gay community at the time they were writing rather than in what had happened on the open road in 1947. That´s a guess. I didn´t see anything like this until 1965 among people I knew, and I didn´t begin to understand it until some years later.

Here´s my view of the 60s version in gay leather:

The circle I was in worked (meaning we did SM scenes) in planned parties with rules and with a host who was playing what eventually became the role of the dungeon master. We dressed carefully, groomed ourselves neatly, and tried with all our might to follow Social Rule One: Don´t frighten the villagers. This meant not behaving in ways that would attract attention from outsiders, more than anything else. I had to walk across Santa Monica Boulevard to the gate that led to our party space with my hands cuffed behind my back, but my Master was required to see that this was done without being noticed by anyone. He was always successful.

The Wild OneWe were aware—me last of all it seems—of others who worked differently. Their lives are pretty much described in the famous Carney book, The Real Thing. There don´t seem to be rules and there definitely are no dungeon masters. Same world, same time, different approach. In the real world as I knew it, the Real-Thing men could be seen as descendants of the Lee Marvin gang, many of them too rebellious to bear the rules of the world in such a way that they could hold and succeed in jobs or have careers. If we were neat to a pre-Beatles fault, they were studies in slovenliness. I have to admit that they were very sexy to me, but their sexual appeal was mostly in the fact that I was scared to death whenever I saw them. The important thing is that I knew they were not us.

The word choices reflect my leather breeding, I know. An example: Smoking was common if not quite universal in both groups. In my circle, smoking was done in areas provided with ashtrays, and the ashtrays were always used. In the other kind of group, smoking and tricks involving cigarettes were done everywhere, and the ashes went on the floor, on any bottom at hand or, most commonly, were rubbed into the thighs of the smoker´s jeans.

The possibilities of the two groups were obviously very different. The men around me (I do not include myself in this) were generally successful in terms of their jobs and finances, and they were the ones who were beginning to create stable institutions. Among their accomplishments were the in-town bike clubs which had significant social functions and usually allowed buddies as well as bikers, leather tailoring businesses, retail shops with a definite edge, and—fanfare here—leather bars. All of these institutions and the system of manners and etiquette, training and deference we now call Old Guard were, at that point, the New Guard, although no one said it that way. Outsiders called it "sissy shit" or "gay stuff." We called it our life. We called their ways greasy and raunchy, and we meant nothing good by it.

By the late 70s, the founders of both traditions were too old to be its best leaders, but the attitudes and mores had been ingrained in a new generation, which is where I come in. Meantime, the bars and pay-to-play sex clubs needed enough customers to stay open, so they were willing to admit most of the greasy, raunchy outsiders to the carefully constructed institutions of the stay-at-home leather club-men.

An uneasy alliance was struck which was sometimes more volatile than the word uneasy coveys. Soon, of course, the outsiders wanted in, all the way in. They wanted membership in organized clubs and recognition for their ways. By then, their rebellion had taken new forms. They were wearing rubber and spiky hair—sometimes in strange cellophaned colors—whereas before they wore heavy, dirty leathers and combed their hair in Vaselined wings with duck´s-ass backs. It may be that the overwhelming popularity of black leather over brown and the uniformity of the biker model over all others was born, finally, in the tacit dance toward agreement that made the co-existence of the two groups possible. That´s guessing again, but I could argue the point very effectively, I think. Piercing and tattooing, especially if not covered by normal, daytime clothing, are products more of the greasers´ history than the club-men´s. Order and acts of respectful mutual recognition are contributions of the club-men from which we have derived what is conceived today as The Old Guard.

That is, the current Old Guard was the new form of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The (now so-conceived) conflict between the values of the two groups came to a head any number of times, with the businessmen usually deciding the compromise. In the late 70s, the (now so-called) New Guard went too far for the (now so-called) Old Guard to tolerate without resistance in terms of "frightening the villagers." They were on the street in their gear—biker leathers without bikes, for instance—and such behaviors as wearing handcuffs out to be seen or leading boys down the street in bondage or on a leash.

An important part of what was seen as "going too far" was the parodying of by-then traditional values by behaving "within" the forms without having learned the meaning of the gestures and modes involved. Example: When I hear someone in the new form try to use the word "Sir," my skin sometimes crawls. The word is not a name or a noun and, in my world, cannot be used as if it were. It is a title, a deference, a display of respect, and can only replace a name in direct conversation with the respected party. The new form likes the word, feels the charge in it and, apparently, mistakes the charge for the substance. "You´ll call me ‘sir,´" results today in the boy speaking of "my Sir" and doing things because "Sir said to." It´s bad English and a broken descendant of the original use of the word. I could give a dozen similar examples, but they will only insult and irritate people. Why would I want to do that?

I don´t really know if I have made anything clear at all yet. My point, at least in part, is that all varieties of leathermen existing today have existed all along if we are talking about how the men are being. What they are doing changes with time, but it is always informed from being, and that seems to come in as many flavors as there are people, but in only two broad forms. You can have the flavor of your choice, but all flavors are either sweet or savory—if you know what I mean. On the one, side you have your institution-builders, community leaders, men who balance their interactions with the larger world against their relationships in the leather world. On the other side, you have your rebels, your pioneers, your "bad boys" who take a fuck-em attitude toward the world when it is troubled by them. The institution-building types were the New Guard of 1960, and their habits are the traditions called Old Guard today. The bad boys of 1960, with shifts due to nothing more than the changes in the social world, are still with us, and we call them New Guard in the 90s.

So where do we go with this in 1999 and beyond? First, we can accept that almost all young people will always think that what they are discovering is new and that, therefore, their version of anything must be called New. Witness Bossa Nova, la Nouvelle Vague, and New Age, as well as New Guard. Second, we can accept that youth matures, and we can let it do that at its own pace and in its own way. Third, once we are over the brashness of youth and the newness of every (re)invention, we can recognize that the history of leather, like the history of the world, is made of great forces diverging and recombining. In the case of the world of leathersex, the great forces are order (which supports Master/slave realities best) and rebellion (which supports the most extreme forms of physical sexuality best). I wouldn´t and couldn´t give up either for the other, but I know many people in each camp who—two to five decades after they started doing SM—still can not accept the tenets of the "opposing" camp.

I want to be able to work a bottom out to the very edge of his capacity and mine without negotiating the plan to death, but I also want to be shown deference and respect once I´ve earned it. So, at 51, it might be said that I want to be both New Guard (big tattoo that I show off on the streets in good weather, piercings that straight resort dwellers have to put up with, leather gear including whips carried through malls if it suits me) and Old Guard (careful manners and order, etiquette and respect, reflected in some level of care that my New leanings don´t disturb others overmuch). If I were 25 years younger, I´d probably have had blue-green hair by now and piercings in my face as well, but I´m not. If I were 25 years older (and I know these men very well), I´d probably be unable to tolerate the in-your-face "freshness" of the young men and novices who are called New Guard today.

Personally, I can be very nostalgic for the rigid simplicity of the small, tightly networked circles of SM men I first knew. I liked the freedom that came from everyone knowing all he needed to know about everyone by observing their manners and the forms of respect by and around them. I liked the signs and displays of submission and the easy acceptance of superior place. But these are all part of the now nearly lost side of the traditional club-men, the "Old Guard."

In the privacy of my own life (at home and in leather-public as well as full-public at times) I have been able to strike a nice balance: everything, all the time, 100% my way. And, my way is usually exactly the way I was raised: Respect required in all directions, deference in one, training in the other. That´s what is called Old Guard today, but it was new to the leather world, in a sense, when it was new to me.

The truth is that the Old Guard as is it conceived and spoken of today is mostly myth. Some of the forms are genuine and have history, but they never had the kind of universal acceptance and weight they are given in "memory." That is not a problem! If inventing a way of life that is loosely (and sometimes comically so) based on the behaviors of the "Old Guard" results in a myth that can breathe and have value in the lives of leathermen today, so be it. If Sy Lechter and Jim Kane and Bill Swenning and Val Martin are to be made (usually nameless) gods in a pantheon they would not recognize, so be it. Better to become giants and myths than to be ignored and forgotten. And much of what is being invented in the name of the Old Guard is genuinely useful, regardless of how it is rooted in the past.

Is there really a New Guard/Old Guard conflict? Yes, absolutely! What´s more, there will always be a conflict between the two forces driving us down the leathersex and leather-social road. Paint-by-number safety and Picasso-like risk/madness can never enjoy each other (except in private and secret moments of wild passion), but each is undefinable without the other, maybe even pointless.

More on the "Old Guard"


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