Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Larry Townsend Speaks to San Diego Leather Pride
“Father of Gay Leather” Makes Rare Public Appearance
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The event was scheduled as a “Titleholder’s Appreciation Dinner” to pay tribute to Lee Butler, Mr. San Diego Leather 2007, two days before he passed on his title — but the star attraction was Larry Townsend, author of The Leatherman’s Handbook and nearly 40 erotic novels over a career spanning nearly five decades. Townsend almost never makes public appearances anymore, but his long-time friend, Mr. San Diego Leather co-producer Graylin Thornton, managed to score him for this event.
Townsend was introduced by local Leatherman John “Roadkill” McConnell, who provided such a detailed account of Townsend’s career that Townsend interrupted him and said McConnell was giving his whole speech and leaving him nothing to say. McConnell joked about how Townsend must have felt when “at a certain point in your life when you were thrust in the role of Ann Landers of Leather,” through the column he’s written for years in magazines like Drummer and Honcho. He also noted that Townsend was active in the Queer community even before the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots that supposedly started the Queer liberation movement, especially through the organization HELP, Inc., which provided legal services for Queer people in need.
“He’s helped many men deal with their Leather issues, and supported and given hope to many men over the years,” McConnell said of Townsend. “His personal story has touched the lives of many men over the years. The mainstream Gay/Lesbian movement likes to ignore that many Leathermen were at the forefront of the Gay movement — before we all became car dealers.”
“Graylin said I was supposed to give a long, boring speech, and everyone else has done it,” Townsend said — so he decided to keep his remarks short and take audience questions. He complimented the organizers of San Diego Leather Pride for making Stepping Stone of San Diego, which runs residential and outpatient programs for Queers with substance abuse problems, one of the two beneficiaries of this year’s events. (The Leather History Project, which documents the lives of past San Diego Leatherpeople, was the other.)
“I look at the community, and what I see with these young guys scares me,” Townsend said. “I hope you let them know, because I’ve watched too many guys die.” Asked later on to elaborate, Townsend said he thought older men in the community have an obligation to “work with [younger men] and try to convince them they’re not immortal. One day they have AIDS or are using crystal, which is almost as bad. People try to pull me into [drug scenes], and I’m afraid of losing control. I don’t use drugs and I don’t drink more than two drinks a night,” he added — offering his own self-control as an example for young people. He boasted that in the 27 years he’s written his Leather column, he’s always had two consistent pieces of advice: “no drugs, and no glass in the dungeon.” (The latter, he explained, is because glass can break and cut open people’s bare feet; if you bring a beer into a Leather dungeon, he said, it should be in a can, not a bottle.)
“In some ways, what I experienced going into the Leather community was a microcosm,” Townsend said. He began his writing career in the early 1960’s, doing porn for the Greenleaf Press here in San Diego. (Ed Wood, the infamously inept film director played b Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie, also wrote for Greenleaf at the time.) “I did 13 books for them, and then Olympia Press asked for me,” Townsend explained. Olympia Press had begun in Paris as a publisher of erotic fiction, including major works by D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov (they were the first firm to print Lolita) and Jean Genêt, who wrote straight porn for them under a woman’s pseudonym as well as the works he’s famous for under his own name.
According to Townsend, by the time he connected with Olympia the firm’s founder had died and left it to his son, Maurice Girodias — “a terrible businessman” — who had responded to a crackdown on porn by conservative French president Charles De Gaulle by moving the operation to New York. Olympia published Townsend’s pioneering novel Run, Little Leatherboy as well as the first edition of The Leatherman’s Handbook — and Townsend proudly displayed copies of that edition and other early printings of his works.
Olympia also published a book by Townsend called The Sexual Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which he combed through the original Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for clues as to Holmes’ sexuality and “just twisted it around,” he said. Townsend said it was the first book of his that got serious reviews from critics — who attacked him for allegedly making up a sex life for Holmes that wasn’t true to the character Conan Doyle created. In fact, Townsend said, he had stuck so closely to the original stories that “they were really attacking what Conan Doyle wrote.”
The experience gave Townsend a negative view of critics, which he still has. “I used to go to the Santa Fe Opera, and I’d think the performances were wonderful,” he said. “Then I’d read the critics and they’d say how awful it was.”
Asked what he thought the future of the Leather community in 10 years would be, he said, “It’s already changed a great deal” — largely due, he said, to younger people who aren’t acquainted with Leather traditions and wear clothes, chains and hankies just as a fashion statement, with no idea what those garments mean to old-line Leathermen. He called the people at the event “a tight-knit group … for whom Leather means S/M, but a lot of people wear it and have no idea what it means.”
Asked to comment on the Internet and its effect on the Leather community, Townsend said, “It’s pretty hard to do the hanky codes on the Internet. I don’t play much on the Net. I’ve never been in a chat room and I don’t think I’ve ever had to. But we’re going to evolve more towards that.” Townsend warned that “you have to be really careful” while cruising online. “The government has discovered it and is making trouble, and criminals have discovered it and are trying to rip you off. But you also have to be careful picking up guys in bars.”
One positive change Townsend identified is the greater interest among younger Leathermen in “switching” — playing the dominant role in some scenes and the submissive role in others. “When I wrote the stories [in The Leatherman’s Handbook] I identified with masochists because 90 percent of my readers identified with masochists. A lot of tops want to be masochists but don’t dare admit it. My experience from talking to people and reading is 90 percent of us are bottoms at heart, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of guys who play macho don’t want to admit it. That’s changing, and I think switching is here to stay.”
Townsend said the Leather community has “always been kind of underground. We’ve been ridiculed by a lot of people, including Gay people who don’t understand what we’re doing. Gay comedians make fun of us, and a lot of people are afraid of it.” Asked if the mainstream Queer community has become more or less supportive of Leather over time, Townsend said, “Most Gay people don’t care.” He said that younger people tend to be less judgmental about sexuality in general, pointing to the fact that the younger people are, the more likely they are to support marriage equality for same-sex couples. “Most young people are more tolerant, and things are going to change,” said Townsend — “as soon as we get that moron out of the White House.”
After Townsend spoke, the audience heard from veteran community activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who defended the Leather community and brought up an issue he’d mentioned in his Gay & Lesbian Times column, criticizing a board member from a local nonprofit organization (neither the person nor the group were named, though Murray-Ramirez said she was a woman) for questioning whether her organization should take money from “those people” in the Leather community. Murray-Ramirez apologized that he wouldn’t be able to attend the Mr. San Diego Leather pageant on March 15, but said he’d be up in Canada as part of a major challenge to the U.S. law flatly banning all people who test “HIV-positive” from entering the country. Following Murray-Ramirez’s dramatic appearance, outgoing Mr. San Diego Leather Lee Butler — whom the event was intended to honor — gave a poetic, eloquent farewell speech.