Punk kids are amazing creatures. At any age. On March 4th of this year, a pair of old punks take the top two spots at this year’s Mr SF Leather contest. The sash itself and the first runner-up medal. For the next year, the new title holder will represent San Francisco in the international leather community. He will raise money for charity, rep the city at leather events around the country, and generally use his title year to rally the community as he sees fit. This was my first leather pageant, and it was perfect. To see the leather community embrace such fine examples of grown ass punk rockers makes me feel like I’ve been in exactly the right place since joining this scene two years ago.
The wholesomeness of the pageant itself might be amusing, alienating, or ironic depending on one’s perspective. The respectability of leather in SF is at odds with the outlaw nature of leathersex, but of a piece with the history of insurgent politics in the city. Activists are respected here and are as likely to become local politicians as leathermen. Leatherfolk have long been a visible, positive, force for queers and others on the margins. The contributions of previous generations have made it possible for us to live this incredibly rewarding life in relative safety. Their willingness to live openly demystified BDSM for the whole world, in SF that tradition is still honored.
While a hot and raunchy spectacle, it is also serious fun. Rotarian civic values are sincerely held by many leathermen and leatherwomen — leatherfolk generally. Contestants are community-minded people that lead with examples of service. They are volunteers and fundraisers. To complete the kinky Norman Rockwell image, state senator Scott Weiner and his successor on the local board of supervisors, Jeff Sheehy, gave us the official imprimatur, by honoring the community of service on display. Rotarian, campy, but a touch melancholy, too.
Never forget that this is a community that buried their elders in unthinkable numbers a mere 30 years ago. Newly minted city supervisor Jeff Sheehy knows what that means more than most. He is the first openly HIV+ individual to sit on the SF board. Leatherfolk were hit especially hard by the plague and rose to meet the challenge. That was a defining era for the scene, we still live with the fall out of the epidemic.
Political activism is the nexus that brings together the bloodless world of community service certificates and the more radically queer men who made the up great bulk of the attendees. Mr Sheehy was in good company that night. He has been a years long AIDS activist before his most recent appoint this January. Both men who took the top two spots share his commitment to activism. The winner, Geoff Millard, especially. A combat veteran of the Iraq war, Mr Millard became a fierce activist against the war when he came home. He has experience lobbying for peace at the very highest levels of government. He made no bones about his intent to use whatever public platform he has to politically empower the queer and leather communities in the alt-right era. It was a message the audience was hungry for.
I first noticed the winner, who ran as Mr Daddy’s Barbershop Leather, about a year ago while prowling a local dungeon. Rather, I noticed his big DRI tattoo and full brown leathers. When I first got into the public BDSM scene, I hoped there would be other punks on the spot doing wild stuff. Images of BDSM are ubiquitous in punk rock, so it was a reasonable hope. Sadly, there are far more nerds in public dungeons, so the real wild men sometimes stick out from the crowd, even here. It is a perpetual disappointment to me that kinky punks don’t have more presence in the local dungeons. There is much more to BDSM and Leather than shock value. It isn’t all about freaking out the squares or looking hot, any more than real punk is. It’s a sweet side effect, but not really the point.
If Facebook posts mean anything, I’d say Mr Millard is a pretty decent guy all the way through. A loving family man to his poly triad, and a martial artist dedicated to the safety of marginalized people. I’ve been following him online since we briefly crossed paths at a meeting in October of 2016. I look forward to seeing how he uses his title year.
Personal impressions aside, his 90 second prepared speech was an expression of joy and awe at the present and potential of leatherfolk to be a powerful force for good in the world. The entire room felt backed by his surety; he was glowing with pride and energized. It radiated all the way back to the cheap seats. There isn’t a hint of shade thrown at the other five competitors — who had already won smaller titles to qualify — when I say that he ran away with the sash. The man came to win and did the work to make it happen.
Mr Bay Area Sober in Leather, Al Rahm, took the runner-up spot. While Mr Millard has the appearance of being a gentleman in every sense, Mr Rahm shares my affection for the grimier side of things. A gentleman as well, but of a rough sort who came up in the L.A. punk scene of the 80’s and saw the plague of AIDS from the front lines. As may be inferred from his title “Sober in Leather,” he is in recovery for addiction. He and I have talked about addiction and sobriety, among other things, a number of times over the past few months. I think he and I both got involved with art, punk, leather, booze and politics because we share a similar need for intensity.
The man who took the sash moves smoothly through the more respectable precincts. Mr Rahm serves the community while still being a mohawk-rocking gnarly dude in the latter half of middle age. Getting to know him this year has shown me how an alcoholic, recovering lunatic like myself can become a better kind of punk, still be punk at any age.
I think that need for intensity – to sniff out real life, authentic experience, follow it down whatever rat hole it carries on in, then getting into the mix with all the other dirtbags – is the animating force behind both punk rock and leather. The connection is deeper than a one-line allegory, but I think a lust for extraordinary experiences will be enough to talk about for the moment.
Leather — or BDSM more generally — is baked into the punk aesthetic. Writing about it almost seems too obvious. What I have found, after a couple decades of crawling around the punk and metal scenes, and a couple years immersed in leather, is that the similarities run deeper than a look. It is an outlaw culture that has become a worldwide community made up of smaller found families. It also retains the old school ideal of earning your way in. It’s a familiar process. Discovering real underground punk rock was life-changing for me at 18. Now, a few years from middle age, the leather scene has returned those old feelings of adventure, possibility and outlaw community back to me after I thought they were too faded to get back.
My first encounter with real punk came in the late 90’s on St Mark’s in Manhattan’s East Village. The street itself was still alive, bookended by “the cube” at Astor place and the storied Tompkins Square Park at the entrance to Alphabet City. I started out using the cube as a meeting place before shows and wound up doing Food Not Bombs in the park a year or so later. Young crusties spanging, sketchy as fuck piercers handing out fliers, stores with bins of loose spikes and studs, racks of bondage pants and three rows. And of course, Coney Island High. I already knew the name of the venue from corresponding with bands via USPS in high school. Nothing prepares you for the experience of your first solid show, though. Mine was the Subhumans.
It was an ecstatic experience. As lucky as the younger generations are to have the access they do to underground cultures, nothing compares to following your nose and being in situations that you never could have dreamed up. I was caught in a crush of leather jackets and metal studs. The press of bodies squeezed out my lungs, the frantic energy whirled uncontrollably, the sense of falling down a rabbit and finding home for the first time ever was beyond words. Looking down, I was captivated. Stomping boots, the straps of bondage pants whipping about, riots of plaid and cheaply stamped metal studs, amidst all the black clothing created an intoxicating vision. I was in literal ecstasy, it was an altered state of consciousness that changed the course of my life irrevocably. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time but this was my authentic self responding like a plant to sunshine. When I step into my leather, literally or figuratively, I feel that awakening. Milan Kundera described it best when he wrote, “the crew of her soul rushed up to the deck of her body.”
No one is born a punk, you must become it. You must transform. Even if you have an abrupt awakening like I did, there is still work to be done and a community to discover. Integrating one’s self into the scene depends on the particular scene that speaks to you. “Punk” can mean pretty much whatever you want. Anything from Oi! to Crust, plus most metal. The process of “becoming” depends on the values of the community you wish to join. You hit different marks to establish your bonafides within different scenes.
The vast spectrum of taste and belief between Oi! and Crust makes it hard to see what members of the different scenes have in common, sometimes. But they do share kinship, despite how they feel about each other. Even if a crew of skins or some hate-edge kids hit up a squat show just to fuck with people, they still show up. They know the address, they know who is there, they know the scene. Community is who shows up, not who gets along. What makes or breaks community, over time, is how well the individual members deal with the people that show up. One of the things I have been taught by my mentors is how to build community with intention. That is something a lot of punks could stand to learn. All the voluntarism on display at the Mr Leather pageant wasn’t empty virtue signalling — as if that even exists. Volunteering is how community is built, how bonds of fellowship are forged. No volunteers means no ABC No Rio, no Gilman, no Food Not Bombs. No fundraisers means no vital infrastructure for the scene to grow on. Obviously, punks do loads of this stuff, those places do exist. However, the people who volunteer in the punk scene tend to age out and we lose institutional knowledge. That doesn’t happen in leather. My dream is a punk scene that remains vital as a youth culture, yet is able to create institutions that can hold and pass on the lessons of past generations.
For the sake of discussion, I’m going to say that the process of becoming punk involves these two things in some form, and in some variable ratio:
A) Transforming yourself into the person you want to be based on or against a punk rock paradigm that has come before you.
B) Feeling like something woke up inside you and the more “punk” you become the more you feel like yourself.
Skins and crusties don’t hang much as a rule. Or, at least, they rarely go to each other’s shows with sincere intent. Yet, they both went through a process of becoming. Where a skin can probably tell you about his first proper shave, the one that made him a freshcut, a crusty might tell you about his first Greyhound trip to nowhere, with no money, for no reason. You can’t just claim to be something, you must go through the rituals and do the things. In performing these rituals, we become punk. It lets us have an underground community that relies on personal connection, like vouching for new people. As awful as the gossip can be, the judging of what punk is and ought to be is a necessary debate. It keeps punk fresh for each new generation. All we are doing is arguing the validity of the becoming process.
Bottom line: to become punk you have to live it. Physical courage, political courage, respect for tradition, also disrespect for other traditions may be required. Particulars will vary widely across an array of scene options. The example of the leather scene shows us one way of aging well.
The first time a friend gives you a stupid haircut, you felt like one of the crew. When you first worked up the courage to blaze down the street in a big ass blue mohawk, it felt like you could walk through walls. When you finally wore a hole in your favorite pair of jeans and could legit sew a patch on it, it felt like you’d put in some time. You had to live it, or you weren’t a punk. It’s more than hazing, though; these rituals transform you. I was utterly changed by seeing the Subhumans play at Coney Island High. Some months later, I was rolling around the G line with a shaved head and Docs. The crack wave was over by about five years, but if you wanted to get to Bedford and North Sixth at midnight you still took a fucking car to the damn door. It was terrifying and exciting, that’s what made it so magic. I was scared, but felt compelled to keep moving forward. It didn’t even feel like a question, this was the real me coming to life.
Breaking through the fear to become who I wanted to be is what made me the man I am, not just the punk I was. Getting to do that all over again as a much wiser man feels like a gift.
While much of this my own personal narrative, I’m confident that it will ring true for a lot of you out there. What gives me such confidence is that when I meet punks from different generations or locales, we can still chat like friends or distant relations. We were raised by the same culture and have similar values. We are compatriots of a sort. If the leather scene has done this much for me, and speaks to other older punks the same way I know there are others out there.
I am becoming a leatherman the same way that I became a punk kid, the process is as fulfilling now as it was then. I feel like my universe is expanding and I am becoming more myself, the deeper I go with it. Seeing Mr Millard and Mr Rahm win the respect of this community gives so much hope for the future. They represent what is best about punk rock, the fact that they have been so elevated tells me that I have found a new home. The possibility of continuing to live a wild life in the underground, till the very end, brings me a lot of happiness as I sit here contemplating middle age.