Is leather culture dead — a victim of rising property values and a broader acceptance of fetish? The Village Voice’s Steve Weinstein thinks so — at least in NY. The city that once hosted dozens of leather bars recently ended its main leather fair, Folsom Street East, after complaints from neighbors about lewd contact. There are many causes for the decline, Weinstein says, but the biggest is the internet.
“More than the changes wrought by AIDS, fashion, or real estate, however, the Internet has rendered leather bars and organizations all but obsolete,” writes Weinstein, “From Fetish to Fabric.”
For a culture where oral history has always played an important role in passing down tradition, losing public spaces has meant an empty space in the community. Having lost a generation of leathermen, younger leatherati have been left without mentors, causing a gap in the passing of knowlege, and leaving leather less a way of being than a way of dressing.
Over a dozen s/m groups once flourished in the city; now there are two motorcycle enthusiast clubs. In 2009, Gay Male S/M Activists, formerly one of the largest such groups in the country, held its last meeting. Only 45 people bothered to attend. Similarly, leather contests have either consolidated or folded; the few remaining have trouble finding anyone interested in competing.
Today, leather has become just another sexually charged fabric alongside rubber, latex neoprene, spandex, sports uniforms, pantyhose, business attire, or gladiator getups. “It’s not the traditional Tom of Finland leather daddy anymore,” Hughes observes. “There are a lot of things people fetishize, like athletic-wear and socks. Leather has blurred into slick—not leather, but a fetish. Wrestling singlets have nothing to do with wrestling. The new look is rubber, puppy play. You can go into your closet and dig out your old sports gear without doling out $700 for gear.”
Perhaps that’s why earlier this year the leather-heavy fetish event Folsom Street East was cancelled, just as New York’s Leather Weekend was in 2009. The brotherhood of the Leather Community that once flourished in New York is now without a common home.
But while leather is less prominent, he writes, fetish has exploded. Events like Black Party, theme nights at bars, and networks like Recon have made the community less visible on the streets, but possibly more vibrant. Fil Vocasek, a co-producer of Folsom Street East, says all is not lost. He hopes the Fair’s cancellation will be “a wake-up call for the community.”
“I didn’t move here so I live in a suburb of the Midwest,” he tells the Voice, “It’s important to keep New York kinky.”
Photo from Tom of Finland Organization