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The Myth of the Old Guard

Copied from Leather Views with the author's permission.

"It wasn't a matter of Leather protocol, it was a matter of manners."

A recent question on one of the newslists had to do with smoking cigarettes at dungeon parties. The writer began her question with a reference to the Old Guard/New Guard dilemma.

Things have changed in fifty years, that's for sure, but I'm not sure that things have changed as much as most "young" Leatherfolk think.

I'll start off by saying that there's a good chance that most of you think that I am "Old Guard." My age and my salt and pepper hair make me look that way and the proliferation of my writing (thank the gods) makes it seem that way.

The truth is that I am a relative late-comer to Leather, having had my first "rough" sex about twenty years ago. Even at that, I'm not sure that I met that many Old Guarders in the early eighties. After all, no one ever walked up to me and said "Hi, I'm a member of the Old Guard."

I know several people now who may be thought of as in the Old Guard, but I bet they don't think of themselves that way. The oral history work I did with the Leather Archives gave me a great opportunity to talk with many men and woman who remember the old days. It is from my experiences and those conversations that I am drawing these reflections.

All that is to say that I don't think of myself as a member of the Old Guard. I do, however, admit to thinking like a member of the Old Guard (whatever that is) when it comes to Leather.

If I'm going to make any point in today's rambling, it's going to be that there never was, and never will be, an Old Guard.

For starters, try and date the time of the Old Guard. Was there an Old Guard in 1949? I doubt it. The rough sex sub-culture was hardly a culture at the time and even though SM had been practiced for millennia, it was hardly noticed by the rest of society and was probably more closely aligned with profession dominatrices than with Gay men.

So shall we date it from 1952? Probably not, as no one is going to say that one movie, "The Wild Ones," created a group called the Old Guard.

So was it the sixties? Maybe. But if there were an Old Guard in the sixties, they were young and new at it and feeling their way through a hell of a lot of issues. Even if they were the men and women who were to become the Old Guard, they certainly weren't the Old Guard then.

By the late seventies Leather was alive and well and filled with newly created traditions and a relatively short history. After all, twenty years in the life of the human race isn't much more than a blink.

Was there an Old Guard then? I doubt it.

And for my doubt I have some very reliable sources. The most reliable is an original copy of Larry Townsend's "The Leatherman's Handbook." First published in 1972, those pages have a memory much better than anyone around to talk about "the good old days."

In this book, there's no mention at all of an Old Guard nor of requirements placed on fellow Leatherfolk by the Old Guard.

A case in point: A recent slave applicant and I had a conversation about "slavese." For those unfamiliar with the term, it is the requirement that a slave always refer to him or herself in the third person, thereby never using the word "I," or any other first person pronoun, for that matter. The result is that you get horribly convoluted sentences such as "Sir, this slave, Sir, requests permission for this slave to use the bathroom, Sir."

Well, there is no way in Hell that such a requirement has anything to do with Old Guard. You can read the Handbook, for instance, all you want and you'll find only few references to slaves and certainly no reference at all to "slavese." You see, a person into Leather in the those days was called an "S" or an "M," which stood for sadist and masochist and had little or nothing to do with dominance or submission.

Even the words top and bottom are rare in the Handbook, as they were rare in the seventies.

Thirty years ago, or even fifty for that matter, the Old Guard wouldn't have had a discussion about cigarette smoke either. Groups may have but the Old Guard wouldn't. The whole notion of smoking being permitted or not, you see, has nothing to do with Leather. That, of course, is the crux of the whole dialogue.

Most of what people want to foist on the topic of Leather has to do with being human, not with being sexual, sadistic, or kinky.

When I was a kid, and here I admit to sounding like my Dad, smokers were considerate of the places where they smoked. They asked their hosts if smoking were permitted. It wasn't a matter of Leather protocol, it was a matter of manners.

It wouldn't have been a matter of using slavese. It would have been a matter of using good grammar. The examples can go on and on.

Do you think, after all, that the "founders" of Leather sat around inventing a hanky code?

Sure someone sat down one day and compiled this long list of colors and meanings, but I bet that by the time that happened, the list was more tongue in cheek than color in the pocket!

Life is never as pre-calculated as "historians" want us to believe. Human culture grows by ebbs and flows, by trial and error, by ideas rejected as well as accepted.

Groups have more or less formality, greater or lesser structure, few or many guidelines. In the long run, life, and hence living groups, are evolutionary, developing style and tradition, manners and mores, by what is seen as necessary, expedient, profitable, or convenient.

That's not to say that one "Master" won't do it one way and another quite differently. One may line up "slave protocols" ad nauseam and the other may quite firmly demand that everything be loose and laid back.

Last week at the Eagle, while the writing of this column was still in its germinal state, I asked Chuck Renslow about the Old Guard.

As our conversation meandered, he reminded me of the terms "S" and "M" and how there were all those difficulties and arguments and human foibles then as there are now. Eventually he reminded me that Leather isn't a lifestyle. "We can only 'do Leather' so many hours a week," he noted, "and then we have the rest of our lives the way everyone else does."

Going to work and doing chores and paying bills, eating and sleeping and studying are all parts of lifestyle.

Most of what Leatherfolk call "Our Lifestyle," after all, has to do with being polite, careful, supportive, with having manners and common sense. There are, certainly, aspects of Leather that differ from other subcultures and those differences are to be cherished, honored, and, most importantly, enjoyed, but when it really comes down to Old and New, Father Alliot's dictum, which I first heard from him in 1966 holds true: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

So if anyone tells you about the "Old Guard," refer them to Larry's paragraph on page 15 of the original Leatherman's Handbook: "All through this Handbook I will be at great pains to point out that much of what I have to say is opinion… Your reaction may be entirely different, and your desires may exceed or fall far short of the action I describe. This is exactly how it should be. No one -- Larry Townsend or anyone else -- can even begin to set the standards for your sexual needs and/or behavior."

That I think is precisely the Old Guard's view of the Old Guard.

© Copyright 1999 by Jack Rinella. This material may not be copied in any manner.
For permission to reproduce this essay, contact mrjackr@leathermail.com

Copied from Leather Views with the author's permission.