Within the Leather/BDSM culture, there is a tradition that dates back to at least 1965. While it took different forms in different parts of the country, there has been some form of documentation found to support the existence of this tradition in almost every major city where a Leather sub-culture existed.
The tradition basically states that, with the exception of boots and belts, you are not permitted to wear leather unless it has been given to you by someone more experienced. The leather is usually given after you have “earned” it through some sort of milestone in your development, such as a particularly challenging scene or the mastery of a particular skill.
In his article “The Guard”, published in The Leather Journal, Dave Rhodes described the memory of observing his first Capping/Covering Ceremony at the International LeatherSir/Leatherboy contest in Florida.
That night, Mike Zuhl presented a cover to Lou Molnar, dubbing him “Master Lou.” Most in the audience saw a leather cap, but did not realize that it was no ordinary cap. Mr. Zuhl explained that the Old Guard term “Master” referred to someone who has become an expert in all the skills of Leather and that the cap was presented to acknowledge this.
When I first came into the public BDSM community, I found the tradition of “earning leather”, as well as most of the Leather culture, to be silly and useless. It is an opinion I have since changed.
It took me a long time to meet, get to know, and understand the type of people that really exemplify the honor and values of the Leather lifestyle. Even then, I wasn’t sure it was for me. For one thing, I had already spent years in the community. By the time I reached the point of really being able to accept it as a possible choice in my life, I was already teaching within the community. So the thought of having to start from the beginning and prove myself wasn’t particularly appealing. And since I had mostly rejected Leather and since most people know that, it would be pretty difficult to reverse that position.
Last month, while at a BDSM conference in Anchorage, I attended two presentations on the subject of Leather, both presented by individuals that I respected. I don’t want to go into details, but suffice to say that they helped me to come to terms with the last few things that were holding me back. Now, with certain conditions, I think I am ready to consider formally identifying as leather and adapting certain traditions into my life.
Thomas Smith of Kentucky says:
The Guard was practiced in different ways in different regional areas and at different times, and that there was never one Guard tradition. There were underlying beliefs and/or practices that seem to have been common no matter where you went. Even if not, why not learn about specific traditions? How will you know what resonates, what is meaningful to you, if you are never exposed to it?
Is the idea of ‘Earned Leathers’ one that still has traction and value in today’s leather community, and how? Earned Leathers will have value to those who have a reason to value it. A made-up ritual does not by itself have value. We cannot replicate the circumstances that created the tradition. Likewise, we should not make up fiction to fill that void.
I really appreciate this perspective because it speaks to what drove me away from Leather in the first place: fake significance; the people who insist that there is a “correct” way to truly exist in this lifestyle, and that everyone else is somehow diluting the purity and sacredness of the traditions. At first, this seemed to be a pattern specifically of those who identified as Leather and so I generalized, applying these observations to the entire sub-culture. And while that was wrong to do, it was a reasonable conclusion based on the limited information I had and it took a long time for me to experience enough contradictory evidence to change that opinion.
But now, I am here. Those times are behind me and I am ready to take on a new level of purpose and intention with my lifestyle and in my work within the community. I want to be able to provide an outlet for people who seek it. I want to provide the structure of honor and integrity to those who crave it, especially those in my close circle. And when possible, I want to serve as an example to others, hopefully a positive one.
As I said before, though, the most difficult of these efforts will be the custom of earning leather. Again, I feel that I have already reached and passed many of the milestones that would normally warrant such things, such as taking on a major responsibility at Thunder or overcoming my fear of needles. So it is a bit of a challenge to determine what I can now do to earn this kind of recognition. What’s more, the tradition itself is not very prevalent in my community, so there are only a select few individuals that I think would be wiling to honor me in that way and even fewer who could afford to do so.
So I am now left with a willingness absent an opportunity.
It will take some time to figure out exactly what my eventual course of action will be, but either way, I know that this is a choice I wish to make and a responsibility that I willingly accept. I would not take on this challenge if I wasn’t willing to be judged. It is a challenge that I look forward to facing; to, in a way, prove myself and earn the station I already occupy, as strange as that may seem.
I have, through a series of choices and accidents, become a sort of a leader in my community. I struggle often with how best to use that role appropriately. I now believe that choosing to hold myself to a higher standard, even if that standard is one that isn’t valued by others, is the right path for me. I know that I have friends as I take this next step in my journey. I look forward to the new ways that they will challenge and push me to be better than I am today.