The Eagle LA, a gay leather bar on Santa Monica in Silverlake, has two gender-neutral restrooms: one is single-occupancy with a locking door, and one is open-format with a toilet in the back, no stall door, and a trough for communal pissing. And for watching people piss. And getting pissed on, if that’s your thing. Piss play is part of leather bar culture. So why do queer women have such a problem with it?
The Eagle is usually patronized by men — hairy bears, chubby cubs, Leather Daddies and their boys — and hosts testosterone-fueled monthly parties with names like Lumberjacked and Meat Rack. But it also occasionally hosts queer women’s nights, as many of our bars have been shuttered and we now turn to roaming monthly events promoted on Instagram and attended by those in the know. And the bathroom politics that come with queer women taking over leather bars give me pause. At one such party a few weeks ago — a fundraiser for Dyke Day LA, the city’s free alternative to increasingly corporate Pride — attendees barricaded the door to the communal restroom, allowing only one person in at a time. When I asked why, they cited privacy. If you’re not into communal pissing, the desire for privacy may sound perfectly reasonable, and there is a single-occupant restroom to provide it. But the communal piss trough in the leather bar is central to leather culture, and in patronizing these spaces, their culture should be respected.
The leather bar is a darker, seedier alternative to the mainstream gay club. They’re populated mostly by men, they’re a place to cruise for sex, and they’re explicitly anti-mainstream, struggling to keep their connections to BDSM cultures and traditions alive. One such tradition is the hanky code. Developed as a sly way to connect for sex in the 1970s, when many in the community remained closeted, the hanky code provides a way to know what someone is into based on the color and position of the handkerchief tucked into their back pocket. A yellow hanky, for instance, indicates that the wearer is interested in pissing on others (left pocket), or wants to be pissed on (right pocket). The leather bar is a place to forge community around these shared fetishes and sexual subcultures, and to free oneself from shame about it.
While the range of men’s bodies you will find in a leather bar is more diverse than the mainstream gay club — gay “bear” culture celebrates big bellies and body hair — leather bars also bring to life Tom of Finland’s fantasies of chiseled butts and biceps. These ideals have a tendency to incubate misogyny and stringent forms of body policing. Hyper-masculine gay leather culture developed in the mid-twentieth century as a reaction to accusations that gay men were naturally effeminate, and there are still men in the scene who feel that these spaces only belong to manly men. This history explains, but doesn’t justify, the ways that queer women, femmes of all genders, and trans people have had to work hard to carve out spaces for themselves in the queer leather community.
Barricading the door of a communal restroom exemplifies a clash between one form of queer culture that prioritizes privacy and sensitivity around bodies and bathrooms, and another that centralizes radical acts of public exhibition. An understanding of the leather community can help us co-exist, share spaces, and celebrate all of the different ways to live queer lives. Just like straight, cis people often need guidelines to help them navigate queer spaces in a respectful manner, queers too can be outsiders to certain subcultures, and need to educate ourselves in order to respectfully inhabit those spaces without trying to alter them to fit personal politics and preferences.
Here are five guidelines that queers who are new to the leather scene can follow, in order to have a conscious, respectful convergence with leather culture and leather bars.
- Don’t gawk at the kinky people doing kinky things. Voyeurism is active participation in a scene, so if you’re going to play the part of the voyeur, you need to ask for consent — without interrupting to do so. Remember that not everyone is doing a scene as an exhibition, even if they’re in a public space. If you’re casually catching glimpses of the hot bondage scene in the corner, that’s perfectly fine: it’s the benefit of being in a space that allows for play. Most people can intuit the difference between casual observation and active voyeurism, but err on the side of caution and keep your distance.
If you see things that shock you, step outside to collect yourself. Not everyone has seen a hook suspension, and not everyone wants to see a hook suspension. If you absolutely cannot be in a space where BDSM play might happen without getting squeamish or grabbing all your friends to gather around and audibly wonder, “WTF?,” maybe the leather bar isn’t the space for you. Know your own comfort levels. Don’t yuck someone else’s yum. And above all, don’t try to change the rules of the space to suit your personal comfort. Don’t go into a gay leather space and complain about the gay male porn. There are plenty of bars you can patronize that don’t show hardcore fucking: don’t ruin the sex radicalism of the leather bar for those who do enjoy it.
You have to ask for consent, even if a person is wearing fetish clothing or is kinky. Working lesbian events as a professional dominatrix, I’ve had women approach and grope me, even go in for a spontaneous, unwanted make-out session, all without consent. When I called out their bad behavior, they claimed they thought I was perverted so it was okay. I am a proud pervert, and I also have boundaries. When you ask for consent, be prepared to graciously accept “no” for an answer. “No” is not a rejection of you: it’s an opportunity for you to find someone else who wants to say “yes.”
Don’t photograph the kinksters. Even if you don’t intend to post the photos on social media, you don’t get to take home someone else’s expression of sexuality as a souvenir. Being photographed when you’re trying to get your kink on makes you feel like a zoo animal on display for someone else’s pleasure, which really puts a damper on your own. If you do have permission to take a photo of leather folks engaging in a scene, you must still ask for consent to post that photo online.
If you are still unsure how to conduct yourself in the leather bar, ask someone who looks like they do. The leather crowd is the faction of the gay community that often adorns assless leather chaps, haunting fundamentalist Christian imaginings of everything that is dangerous about gay pride parades. They’re heroes who are easy to spot. If you see someone who looks like they are part of the scene, ask them questions. Some events, such as Cruise in LA, are parties specifically designed for leather queers and more “vanilla” types to mix and mingle. If you’re curious about the scene, try to attend these kinds of low-stakes events in your city and ask questions. It all comes down to keeping an open mind.
In his book Public Sex, kinky queer writer Pat Califia asks that we queers “shelter one another’s desires, even those that are strange or degrading.” I second Califia. The bathroom issue that prevented leather queers from pursuing their desires for sex radicalism in the leather bar is different — in type and in scale — than the bathroom issues that conservative politicians have used to terrorize trans people. But in these times, we must all shelter one another. We must understand and appreciate the diversity of our communities, and protect them, from outsiders and from ourselves.