Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
August 19, 2003

Heathers in leathers
By Bruce Vilanch
From The Advocate, August 19, 2003

The flight attendant winked as he handed me the seat-belt extension. “Going in for the big convention?” he asked. We were about to take off for Chicago, home to a lot of big conventions, but I wasn’t going in for any of them, so I asked which one was the big one. “You know—the leather boys,” he smiled. No, I explained, I wasn’t going in for that, and I hadn’t asked for the seat-belt extension to satisfy my lust for straps and restraints either. Forget for a minute why this guy thought I was hell-bound for leather. The fact that he would mention such a gathering at all was more interesting. It’s not exactly “Chicken or fish?”

When I got to the baggage claim at O’Hare, I realized that the question had not come out of thin turbulent air after all. A small cadre of men wearing a large cache of chains, pierces, cuffs, and assorted sterling silver bling-bling were waiting for their no-doubt-distressed calfskin duffel bags. No wonder the line at the metal detector had been so slow.

They were all headed for the Big Convention, probably in a specially rented squad car with luggage rack. The thing I admire about leather queens is that, next to Star Trek fans, they are the most prop-happy people in the world, cheerfully lugging pounds of gear wherever they go. This is why we see so few of the bikers actually on bikes. Where would they put the wardrobe trunks?

Turns out we were all staying at the same hotel, even though I was there for another event altogether, a tribute to a local show business personality with a history of Jewish philanthropy. Not quite the same crowd, at least not until members of one recognized members of the other late one night in the crowded hotel bar.

The hotel, a massive old warhorse recently decked out with data ports and porno movies and all the hallmarks of the modern business center, was headquarters for the entire leather weekend. The Jews had taken over the grand ballroom, although it’s fair to say that almost every room in the hotel was a ballroom that weekend.

Since I seemed to know some of the leatherettes, I was a magnet for fellow Jews wanting to know what was going on. Most assumed it was a Hell’s Angels gathering and there would be violence. I assured them that a low-wattage slap fight was about the best they could hope for.

The leather boys were too busy noticing each other and the spring season accoutrements to pay attention to anyone else. And there were thousands of them to check out.

The entire exhibition hall of the hotel had been taken over by makers of cock rings, nipple clamps, dog collars for unusually large breeds, industrial-strength leashes, and more. The agenda was jam-packed, but a lot of people spent a lot of time just posing threateningly. This illusion was instantly shattered every few seconds by squeals of delight at seeing some other poser from some other conclave. I don’t think so many men in so many terrifying looks had ever been so warm and sweet to each other at any time in recorded history.

The hotel staff, which you might expect to be frozen in attitude or fright, was neither. “There were three other big hotels in the bidding for this,” the club floor concierge told me. “We really wanted it. They drink and they tip, and, well, there are no children. You can’t ask for better.”

There’s always debate in the gay community about mainstreaming—becoming indistinguishable from straights. Nothing could be more distinguishable than this group of conventioneers, yet the entire enterprise has been embraced by every branch of commercial America. If nothing else, it sure is economic mainstreaming. Big-time.

But I couldn’t help wondering what it all means when a subculture built on Being an Outlaw suddenly discovers it’s A Good Citizen. Are there hard-core leather boys swaggering around out there in John Rechy World, refusing to run their credit cards for approval at the registration desk? Or are they all waiting for Martha Stewart Leather Living?