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Bringing Leather Out of the Closet

Larry Townsend and the Legacy of The Leatherman's Handbook

By Dusk Peterson

"Larry Townsend doesn't have an entry in Wikipedia," my boy announced after he searched for online information to help explain to vanilla friends who the late author of The Leatherman's Handbook had been.

To a large extent, Mr. Townsend was a victim of the nature of the Internet: its tendency to render invisible anyone whose greatest accomplishments occurred before the creation of the World Wide Web. A few articles about Mr. Townsend's work for the Homophile Effort for Legal Protection (H.E.L.P.) in the early 1970s turn up in a search on EBESCOhost; otherwise, all pre-Internet references to him are non-existent.

But Larry Townsend has never been as well known outside the leather world as he ought to be, despite the fact that an entire generation of gay clones owe a great deal to him. At a time when the media invariably depicted gays as effeminate, how many gay men would have worn blue jeans and leather jackets in the late 1970s if Mr. Townsend hadn't blown open the secret of a brotherhood of masculine gay men in 1972? Would the Village People have sung "leather, leather" and extolled the virtues of "Levi's and T's" and included among their icons a leatherman? Would Judas Priest have sung that it was "hell bent for leather" and dazzled its fans with bikes and chains? (Lead singer Rob Halford – a closet leatherman – admitted in later years that he established his group's fashion sense by the simple act of buying the appropriate trappings from a leather store.

Mr. Townsend's accomplishments in 1972 remain largely invisible because he influenced people who in turn influenced the outside world. To this day, The Leatherman's Handbook cannot be found on your average library bookshelf . . . but other books and movies and televisions shows, influenced by the men who learned about leather through Mr. Townsend, are widely visible.

I was one of a later generation that owes something to Larry Townsend's work.

I have a vivid memory of reading The Leatherman's Handbook in June 1994, one month after I began to learn about leather. I'd borrowed the original edition of the book through interlibrary loan at the local university library (the library staff, wonderful professionals, didn't blink an eye) and had glanced at it as I neared the Washington Metro, thinking that such an early work about leather would be a hash, providing little useful information about leather at that time.

Instead, I found a well-rendered description of leather life, including – oh, what a discovery for a budding leather history writer! – a survey of leathermen at that time, lovingly detailing the various types of interests they had.

I ended up reading the entire book on the Metro.

Yet even those who do not deliberately seek out information on leather may feel the faint passing of Mr. Townsend's footsteps.

On July 23, I learnt from Jack Fritscher that Mr. Townsend was dying. Two days before, my mother had died. I remember a conversation between us in 2004 when my mother asked what I was doing these days, and I strove to find a delicate way to tell her about my latest literary research.

"I've been doing a lot of reading about a particular group of gay men," I said. "They're especially interested in masculinity."

"Masculinity?" responded my mother, Mrs. Mainstream America personified. "What do you mean by masculinity?"

"Well," I said, shying away from a discussion of military hazing rites, "they like to wear clothes that are associated with masculinity. You know, jeans, leather jackets--"

"Oh, leathermen," said my mother, and soon was agreeing to give me a ride to the Master/slave Conference.

I cannot say that my mother ever grew comfortable with the topic of leather. But the very fact that she had some sense of what it was gave us a starting point for discussion. Leathermen weren't some strange, foreign creature that she'd never heard of. Leathermen were the men who'd influenced the fashions of the heavy metal bands she listened to.

For conversations like this, the world owes quite a lot to Larry Townsend. When he began researching The Leatherman's Handbook around the time of Stonewall, the leather subculture was still largely unknown. Its practices were handed down from club member to club member, from individual to individual. A handful of fictional books had depicted leather, but no nonfiction guide existed. There was almost no way for anyone to learn how to be a leatherman except by coming into contact with a leatherman.

The Leatherman's Handbook changed that. Not so much because it was read by many people in its earliest years - someone once told me that the only place they could find it back then was in sex shops. The Leatherman's Handbook changed matters because those who read it went on to write openly about what they had learned. Drummer, GMSMA, and other open publications and groups followed the tradition of The Leatherman's Handbook by speaking openly of leather's mysteries.

One of the accusations that Mr. Townsend faced was that his book stripped leather of its mysterious quality by making leather so well known that it came as a shock to no one. Perhaps, then, it would be appropriate for me to end with a conversation an encounter I underwent, very different from the conversation with my mother. It should hearten those who feel that leather is too much in the public eye.

In 1998, I walked into the room of a relative to find him staring, dumbfounded, at the computer screen. Rob Halford had just come out as gay.

"He can't be gay," said my relative in an agonized voice.

"Why can't he?" I replied matter-of-factly.

"He just can't! He's so masculine! He . . . he rides a motorbike onto the stage!"

And then, as I tried to think of what to say, my relative offered his climactic proof of Mr. Halford's heterosexuality:

"He wears a leather jacket!"

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About the Author


True Tales tribute issue to Larry Townsend.

Copyright © 2005 Dusk Peterson. All rights reserved.
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