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Hidden in the Dark

Leather Bars, Disabilities, and the Life and Death of Erotic Photography

By Dusk Peterson

I'd been reading about gay leather for three months when I first visited a leather bar. I didn't expect to be surprised by the obvious.

Following my escorts, I made my way past the entrance to a bathhouse, into an odd sort of covered passageway. (I would later learn that the "passageway" was the box part of a truck.) The passageway was dark. It wasn't clear how the darkness would end, or whether it would. Eventually, though, I saw our goal: a doorway where a man sat on his stool, inspecting us.

I tensed. I had taken care to wear black jeans and a black Master/slave Conference tee-shirt, so that my appearance wouldn't scream, "Leather virgin!" But boots had been a problem. Digging through my closet, I had eventually made my way back twenty years to the boots I had worn occasionally in college. They were black. They were leather. Unfortunately, they were also suede.

My mind filled with visions of the Mineshaft doormen, I wondered whether I would be ordered to strip on the spot. No such luck. Recognizing my escorts – Rick Storer and Jeff Wirsing of the Leather Archives & Museum – the doorman of the Chicago Eagle waved all three of us through.

Indoors, the bar was hardly brighter than the passageway we had emerged from. The brightest object in the room was a television screen showing a military-themed film. Near it was a pool table, unused this early in the evening. In the middle of the room – I saw as I squinted – was an island bar. A barman was serving two leather-vested men who were deep in conversation with each other. Another man entered briskly through the main door and, without pause, began gathering together the empty glasses on the bar counter. I would later learn that this was the owner of the Eagle, Chuck Renslow.

I had no eye, though, for the leatherman who had founded Chicago's SM community back in the 1950s. I was looking at a figure, dim in the shadows. He was young, he was dressed in blue jeans and a white tee-shirt, and he was half-sitting, half-standing on the edge of the room. He was watching the tops talk at the bar counter. He kept watching, without going near them.

It was a scene out of Mr. Benson. A year later, I would have gone up to the young bottom, tried to find out what it was he was seeking, perhaps given him a chance to vent his frustration that he hadn't found it yet. But I was too new at this game to play the daddy. Instead, I accepted Rick Storer's invitation to receive a short tour of the place.

"Short" was the right word; there wasn't much to see. In the far right corner of the bar, only a few steps from the bar counter, was the entrance to the back bar. This small room was somewhat brighter than the main bar, perhaps in order to show off its brick mural with the names of the International Mr. Leather titleholders spray-painted upon it. The room still looked pretty dark, though. Next to its entrance was the doorway to a pitch-black room that I was told was a restroom, though I had my doubts. The main restrooms were clearly marked with neon signs: a pair of breasts for the women's room, a spurting cock for the men's room. The restrooms – I discovered upon paying a visit – were as dark as the main bar. I paused in front of a framed poster next to the men's room. It showed a man in jeans and a harness, with his back to the viewer; his hand pointed in a subtle fashion toward his ass. Written on the poster were the words, "No entry without a rubber."

I had to lean about an inch away to read the large letters in the shadows. The smaller words of the drawing's title, "Virgin Leather," I missed altogether. I straightened up, looking round once more at the dim walls, the dim bar counter, the dim doorway to the dim passageway.

Well, I thought, the leather world obviously isn't designed for the partially sighted.

* * *

The obvious fact that the leather world is designed for able-bodied people rather than disabled people is clear enough from the way that Drummer magazine advertised its issue #93, which was published in 1986.

"MAIMED BEAUTY," shouted the cover. And then, before the reader could draw breath, "Unchartered fetish!"

The assumptions underlying that phrase were stark: All of the readers of Drummer were able-bodied. And the only reason they would want to be interested in disabled men was if they experienced that attraction as a fetish.

Drummer had a tendency to take the low road with its advertising. As was often the case, the contents of this issue were a good deal more nuanced than the advertising suggested. One of the four contributors to the disability section of the issue (Michael Agreve) was disabled himself; the other three (Felice Picano, Mark I. Chester, and George Dureau) treated the topic in a sympathetic manner. All four contributors were able to see the erotic possibilities of disability, and none were apologetic about proclaiming this. Drummer #93 offered a combination that was rare in its day and remains rare in our day: respect for disabled men, combined with steaming awareness of their sexuality.

Drummer #93 was a product of its time. Except for a hint at the end of Michael Agreve's story, none of the issue was aimed directly at disabled gay men. No leather magazine today dare imply that all of its readers are able-bodied. Today, we live in a world where contests are held for deaf leathermen and deaf bears and cubs, and where leather bars post their accessibility information on the Web. Although many barriers remain to the disabled – as I learned on that first visit into the darkness of a leather bar – it is now impossible for any thinking leatherman to hold the illusion that disabled men have no place in the leather community except as an object of fetish.

This issue of True Tales reunites all four of the original contributors to the "Maimed Beauty" issue of Drummer. Extra features have been added to this reunion. Michael Agreve and Felice Picano describe how their contributions came to be written and published. Mark I. Chester presents, not the version of his article that appeared in Drummer, but an updated version that includes previously unpublished passages. And, along with Mark I. Chester's original Drummer introduction to George Dureau's work, links are provided to the many George Dureau photographs and artwork that are available on the Web.

New voices appear in this issue also. Jack Fritscher, editor of Drummer in the late 1970s and lover to Robert Mapplethorpe, offers his interview with George Dureau in which they discuss Mr. Dureau's depiction of disabled men, and how Mapplethorpe may have been influenced by it. Aubrey Hart Sparks, former host of a popular Internet talk show for leatherfolk, Aubrey's Playroom, draws upon his own experiences as a disabled man in order to create the fictional tale of a leatherman with a prospective lover who just doesn't get it. Bob Guter, a disabled gay man, joins with psychotherapist Alan Sable to ask the pointed question that Drummer readers weren't asked in 1986: Should disabled men be offended when they're treated as objects of fetish? Rob Ridinger, leather historian, looks at how the deaf leather community has developed over the years. Meredith Peruzzi provides an outsider's perspective of what it's like to interpret for the hearing at the International Deaf Leather and International Deaf Bear contests. Links are provided to over fifty Websites that provide information related to leather and disabilities. And at the Master/slave Conference in D.C., a heterosexual male master and a gay master describe how their lives were transformed by the disability and mortal illness of their slaves.

In publishing these new voices, True Tales expands the topic of disabilities beyond sexuality to other matters that affect the lives of disabled leathermen: art, relationships, socializing, and service. Yet the primary reason why Drummer chose to focus on disabled men's sexuality should not be forgotten. There is a lesson to be learned from the long silence that preceded Drummer's groundbreaking presentation of eroticism in disabled men's lives. Unfortunately, we are about to relearn that lesson.

It is impossible, of course, to recreate exactly the "Maimed Beauty" issue of Drummer. Nothing can fully bring back to life an issue that included the first published passages from John Preston's Entertainment for a Master (accompanied by a photo Preston had taken for Drummer under a pseudonym), photographs of the Chicago Hellfire Club's Inferno by Tony DeBlase, comments about the recent closing of the Mineshaft bar in New York City, and a review of a new instructional video on how to hold a jack-off party (this was 1986; no more need be said). Among the staff members at Drummer that year were Larry Townsend, Robert Pruzan, Olaf, Bill Ward, The Hun, and Cavelo. John H. Embry held the helm, serving as both publisher and editor-in-chief, though Mark I. Chester edited the disabilities section of the magazine. One may argue whether or not the 1970s were the Golden Age of leather, but the late 1970s and early 1980s were certainly the Golden Age of leather publishing.

Nearly twenty years later, the oldest American leather magazine in existence has just died, killed by a United States government regulation which threatens to shut down the majority of commercial magazines and Websites that publish erotic photography. Bound & Gagged had survived eighteen years of rising print costs and declining readers for printed publications. It could not survive the ravages of government bureaucracy.

George Dureau's photography in Drummer would pass the test of today's government regulations, but it's possible that the photographs by Mark I. Chester which appeared in the "Maimed Beauty" issue (including an SM photo of an able-bodied man that was cropped to make him look like an amputee) could not be published in a leather magazine if they were taken today. Government officials, in their well-meant effort to protect underaged models, may well succeed in doing exactly what Drummer sought to prevent in 1986: stripping disabled men of any public presentation of their sexuality, thrusting them back into the erotic closet.

Today, the photographic depictions of thousands of able-bodied men are also in danger of being lost. Publishing an adult magazine is never easy; since the time that preparations for this issue began, another leather magazine, Joseph W. Bean's Mach21, has died after its first issue. Now, in order to survive under government scrutiny, leather magazines and Websites must present a photographic world where sexuality is not portrayed, except under the cost of regulations that threaten the privacy of both publishers and models, some of these models nearly as young as the minors that the government seeks to protect.

It gives the able-bodied a moment of kinship with the disabled. It has been a long time since erotic photography in the U.S. has been so strictly regulated; those of us who grew up after the American pornography laws were liberalized have never known what it was like to live in a world where gay sexuality could only be depicted through discreet physique photos. Yet that is the world that many disabled men live in all the time: a world where their sexuality is a shameful secret to be hidden.

With the help of organizations such as the Free Speech Coalition and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the worst burden of the regulations may be lifted. But if that happens, we should not forget that, for some members of the leather community, the veil hiding their sexuality from the world has never been lifted.

* * *

This issue – which I had originally planned to consist of no more than four or five contributions – ended up being on such a scale that I could not have hoped to put it together without assistance. My greatest debt is to the contributors, especially the original Drummer contributors, who have travelled on separate paths since 1986 but were willing to return to a common space for this reunion.

Other people provided assistance. Bob Guter helped me to comb through his immensely helpful e-zine, BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices. Dan McGlothlen, Aubrey Hart Spark's original editor, answered my questions concerning a last-minute copyedit of Mr. Spark's piece. A handout by Master Guardian at his "Serving with Disabilities" panel at the Master/slave Conference helped me to locate some online resources. Rick Storer checked his memories for this editorial, while various staff members of the Master/slave Conference assisted me in acquiring material for the three articles on that event which appear in this issue.

It is easy to publish a magazine issue devoted to a minority. The true test of a publication's commitment to present the world in all its variety is whether it will publish such contributions when the minority is not the focus of a special issue. In a small way, Drummer showed its willingness to make such a commitment by later publishing Michael Agreve's story about a disabled top, "Chester." True Tales likewise has no intention of making disabled men – or any other minority – a once-off topic. The editor welcomes leather-related submissions that feature gay men of any background, at any time of the year.

In the meantime, this magazine's breaking news of a proposed Master/slave and Dom/sub Flag that was unveiled at July's Master/slave Conference excited a small flurry of interest on e-mail lists and community blogs earlier this month. Likewise, True Tales has done its best to provide information on the ongoing situation for leatherfolk who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina. Readers are reminded that Letters to the Editor are welcome on any topic that is published here; feel free to send in your opinions on the flag, on the hurricane, on leather and disabilities, or on other contributions that stir your thoughts.

Post comments about this article at the truetales blog.

This page is part of the disabilities issue of True Tales, which includes articles, stories, photography, and links related to leather and disabilities.

About the Author


Leather and Disabilities: A Links Directory. Links related to this issue, including links on Drummer's "Maimed Beauty" issue.

Chicago Eagle.

Leather Archives & Museum. The Posters section of the online gift shop includes the drawing by Jeffries, "Virgin Leather," that hangs in the Chicago Eagle. The Books section includes Mach21.

Bound & Gagged. Includes publisher Bob Wingate's final Letter from the Editor, and readers' reactions to the closing of the magazine.

B&G R.I.P. The June 6 blog entry that alerted the leather world to the news.

Bound & Gagged Victim of 2257. A news item from BG Wire.

"Venerable kink studio Bound & Gagged is closing up shop". From the Adams Report column.

Naked Censorship? A news article from Forbes.com on the effect of Regulation 2257 on the adult entertainment industry, including Bound & Gagged.

Mr S Dungeon. The "Buddy Talk" section of the message boards of this leather Website includes a number of discussions about 2257, from June onwards.

Free Speech Coalition. Includes information on 2257.

National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

Copyright © 2005 Dusk Peterson. All rights reserved.
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