Veteran Leathermen Speak to League of Gentlemen
Say S/M Is About Paternal Male-Bonding More than Sex
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“Many men have a kind of second coming-out in their middle years,” veteran Leatherman Lonnie Cothron told members of the San Diego League of Gentlemen (SD-LOG) at their regular meeting May 5. “They get bored with ‘vanilla’” — the Leather-S/M world’s term for ordinary, non-S/M sex. Cothron dated his own “second coming-out” from the time he was living in Los Angeles in the late 1980’s, when he put an ad in the Queer publication Frontiers announcing that he had some old magazines he wished to trade for others. The response he got touched him far more deeply than merely changing his taste in reading material.
“I got a call from a man named Joe, and we hit it off because we had the same interests,” Cothron recalled. “I was in my late 40’s and all my friends were dying of AIDS. I told him I’d had a rich, full life and was willing to let go of looking for liaisons and romances. He said, ‘Oh, no. You don’t realize how many younger guys are looking for older men who are reliable, trustworthy and dominant to be mentors.” Cothron had dipped his toe into the Leather community before then — he knew the name of Avatar, L.A.’s premier Leather organization then and now, and had even called their number — but it was Joe who finally got him to take the plunge and go to Avatar’s monthly “Spank Night.”
“The first Spank Night I went to was held in an old warehouse in North Hollywood,” Cothron recalled. “It was relaxed. People sat around on couches and had snacks. All kinds of scenes were going on. They had all kinds of sets, like ‘Uncle Harry’s Den’ and ‘The Principal’s Office,’ which had a desk and a paddle on it. There were sawhorses, an X-cross and various set pieces. At first I just chatted with people. Then there was a tall guy standing next to me, much younger and hunky, and I said, ‘I suppose you’re looking for a guy who wants to get his ass pounded.’ He said, ‘Oh no, sir, I just want a good spanking.’”
Cothron took him to “The Principal’s Office,” asked his young companion what he deserved, “and then I started laying it on him,” Cothron recalled. “I told him, ‘Pull your pants down,’ and since this was my first experience, I got carried away. Afterwards, he put his arms around me and put his head on my shoulder and said, ‘Did I please you, sir?’ This illuminated the scene for me. I realized they wanted the discipline, the dominance and control. A lot of guys in the scene were disappointed because their tops weren’t convincing enough. I had all types of guys, but especially these big hunky, muscular bodybuilder guys, which I tend to go for. Some of them were with me for years.”
Don Kandis, another veteran Leatherman who spoke at the League of Gentlemen meeting, had his own recollections of a spanking club, this being one he organized and ran in San Francisco for five years in the late 1990’s until he relocated to San Diego for work-related reasons. “We’d throw dice, and if you got a 12 you were the top and a 6 you were the bottom,” Kandis said. “The next roll of the dice decided what tool you would use, and the third roll decided how hard you could do it — light, medium or heavy — and God help the bottom if he rolled ‘heavy.’” Later Kandis changed the rule so that you could use any sort of implement you wanted to spank the bottom partner — a cane, flogger, whip or just an open palm — and also that the same person could not be the bottom more than twice in a row.
“Most of the men were over 40,” Kandis said, “but we had one young Marine, built like a brick shithouse, and the more we gave him the more he could take. When it was over we hugged and kissed, and I got most of the hugs and kisses because I was the host. We had one ruling: no sex, unless you wanted it from someone else. I didn’t force myself on anyone.” Indeed, while most people who aren’t involved in S/M think of it as a kind of offbeat foreplay to sexual contact, both Cothron and Kandis stressed that in many cases S/M serves as an alternative to sex — and frequently the emotions it brings forth are more paternal and male-bonding than romantic.
“That first experience of this big, hunky guy who put his arms around me and said, ‘Did I please you, sir?’ was what I wanted,” Cothron recalled. “I met a lot of guys who’d had similar experiences with their own fathers, including one guy whose father was a parole officer. When he went wrong he had to go to his room, strip naked and wait for his dad to come up with the strap. After the father thought the boy had had enough, he’d put him over his knee, talk to him and say, ‘I’m doing this for your own interest. I want the best for you.’ This guy said he felt so close to his father, and those were the warmest times he remembered from their relationship.”
Kandis remembered one time when his spanking ad was answered by a young man who’d been a student of his when he’d taught in high school. “I spanked him with a ruler, and he was shocked because in the classroom I’d been a really nasty teacher. Deep down, I don’t like teenagers, and that’s why I never got in trouble. I only had the hots for one student, a colored man from Fiji who asked me to pass him and practically threw his cock in my face. But I didn’t. I gave him the failing grade he deserved and stayed out of trouble.”
After describing his three long-term relationships — he said all his partners died young from “cancer and drink” — Kandis mentioned that he now lives with a younger man he’s legally adopted as his son, an approach a number of Gay men of his generation took to give their partners legal rights without having to chase the will-o’-the-wisp of same-sex marriage. “We don’t have sex,” Kandis explained, “but we love each other as a dad and a son, and he cooks for me, waits on me, pours my drinks and spoils me rotten.”
Cothron devoted a lot of his presentation to the early years of the Queer movement in L.A. and mentioned one particularly unsung heroine: Jean Barney, who wasn’t Queer (though she described herself to her Queer friends as a “Gay heterosexual”) but was a key part of the movement in its formative years in the late 1960’s. Barney was a close associate of Larry Townsend and Fred Halstead, who were largely responsible for organizing the Gay Leather community, including setting up clubs and publishing books specifically on Gay S/M; and also of W. Dorr Legg of the ONE Institute, which published the first Queer magazine to be openly distributed on newsstands in the U.S., and Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church.
“I met her at ONE when Fred Halstead was giving a talk with his boy, joey, about the S/M experience,” Cothron recalled. “joey was totally naked and Jean was the only woman in the room. She was very gracious and knowledgeable.” According to Cothron, Barney was a co-founder of Drummer magazine and wrote an advice column for the Advocate for years. “You could ask her any kind of question about any aspect of sexuality, but she seemed especially interested in the Leather community.”
According to Cothron, Barney also worked at a Gay bar in L.A. called Helen’s and served an important function in those days when homosexual sex was still illegal in California. If a new person or someone not well known to the regular patrons entered the bar, Cothron said, Barney would insist on waiting on him herself. She would size them up to see if they were genuine Gay men or undercover police officers, and if she got “cop” vibes from a man she’d say something like, “Our friends are with us tonight,” code words which the “regulars” would understand so they could avoid the undercover man and thereby not be entrapped and arrested.
In the early 1970’s, when the notoriously racist and anti-Gay William Parker was chief of police in L.A. (he’s dead but the current headquarters of the L.A. Police Department is named “Parker Center” after him), Barney participated in a “slave auction” to raise money for the newly organized L.A. Gay Community Center. Though the event was innocuous — Cothron compared it to the “slave auctions” high schools have held for years as student fundraisers — “Parker sent a squad of uniformed policemen and a helicopter to stop this ‘illegal’ sale of slaves.” The backlash helped the Queer community; Parker looked ridiculous and a number of people wrote letters to the editor denouncing him and the LAPD for wasting money and personnel hassling a Queer fundraiser when there was so much real crime elsewhere in the city.
What finally broke the police department’s control over the Queer community in California, Cothron said, was not only the 1975 repeal of the state’s sodomy law — pushed mostly by then-Assemblymember Willie Brown from San Francisco and signed into law by then-Governor Jerry Brown — but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from two years earlier, Miller v. California, that clarified the legal definition of what constituted obscenity. While this 1973 decision didn’t entirely overrule the ability of state and local governments to prosecute people for making and distributing sexually explicit entertainment, it said that material should be judged “obscene” or not according to local community standards — thereby making it possible that, at least in relatively liberal areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles, sexually explicit materials and writings about homosexuality could be readily distributed without fear of prosecution.
While Cothron talked extensively about the political and social evolution of the Queer community in L.A., Kandis’s recollections of his Queer life in San Francisco was more personal. “The Leather community actually saved my life,” Kandis said, explaining that because so much of his physical contact with other Gay men was through S/M play instead of actual sex, he wasn’t exposed to AIDS. “In San Francisco, all people had was the baths,” he explained. “I got the crabs twice and knew something was wrong. To me, Leather was a clean game.”
Kandis also described the notorious “boot camp” in San Francisco where many local Gay men received their introduction into Leather and S/M. “It was a rented building on Folsom Street, like a bathhouse but strictly S/M,” he said. “You were protected and safe. You had to be naked inside, except that if you had boots you could wear them. Eventually they tore the building down. Now the site is a Chinese restaurant.”
For more information on the San Diego League of Gentlemen, please visit http://www.sdlog.org