When it came to sex, I used to be a closed book. This was due in part to my innate shyness, though growing up in Minnesota probably didn’t help. “Are you having a good time?” was a question I’d heard a dozen times in bed by various men, usually following a bout of what I thought were obvious noises of my approval. I went through life speaking, and groaning, at volume level 9, while the world heard me at 2.
A few twisted fantasies percolated in my head but I lacked the guts to ever talk about them until the ripe old age of 35, when I went straight from a sex life of pure vanilla to dating an International Mr. Leather.
Low volume was never a problem for Joe Gallagher. Even with his mouth shut he was communicating, like the first time I saw him, wearing a t-shirt that read: “I Make Boys Cry.” The T-shirt scared the crap out of me. My fantasies did not involve tears. But still I found him compelling. Some of us are just cursed with a need for bad boys.
We liked each other for more than just the physical. Still, we both harbored doubts about our sexual compatibility. I didn’t know what to make of leather, which seemed to me a world governed by a million mysterious rules, where stuffing a red hanky in the wrong pocket could lead to trouble. Membership in this world seemed to depend upon the right boots, the right chaps, and knowledge of rigid protocols.
As a kid I’d dropped out of private school because I hated the uniforms, and I found these rules stifling. I liked Joe for his irreverent streak – he’d carved out his own place in leather. He wore what he liked, when he liked, and made no apologies.
He showed me some essays written by Robert Davolt, a leatherman who’d died of melanoma in 2005. Davolt loved the leather community, but like all good writers he was a bit cantankerous. Leather, he argued, was a relatively young world, which began as a group of “outcasts, leftovers, the dark secret of the gay community.” He advised its members to question its “traditions,” and to distrust anyone who claimed to be a leather “authority.” He wrote often of leather as a group of people on individual journeys, with no two paths the same.
Like most of us, I looked for role models in all areas of my life, and here in leather I’d found two. Joe and Robert gave me the permission I’d always thought I’d needed, permission it turned out I had only to give myself.
I began my little journey by learning what I didn’t want. A Leathermen’s discussion group taught me that I didn’t want, for example, to walk one pace behind and to the left of Joe at all times, nor did I want to be in charge of his frickin’ Outlook Express. Fortunately, on these matters, Joe and I agreed.
At Joe’s side, I went to a lot of leather events and met a lot of kinky folk, most of whom I liked. Sometimes, though, I’d meet a boy who’d talk my ear off about protocols, questioning whether or not half the people at the event were “real” leather folk, or a titleholder who seemed to have gotten lost in the intricate local leather politics. I had no stomach for politics, and was wary of protocols, but I’d learned that leather was big enough to fit us all.
Prodded by Joe, I began to speak up in bed, to set in motion my fantasies, and to claim the kind of sex I’d always wanted. And though I’d long feared it, the first time he made me cry (during sex, that is) it came as a catharsis. In leather scenes, I watched others challenge their fears and their limits and come out exhausted, exalted, and content.
I felt this sense of liberation spreading into other areas of my life. I was less fearful, less shy, less concerned with what others thought. Still, I considered myself a fringe member at best until I heard an acquaintance dismissing leather as “just another form of drag.” My reaction surprised me with its strength: anger, yeah, but also a sort of protectiveness, for the people I’d met and the experiences I’d had. And pity, too, since the acquaintance was cutting himself off from trying something new. My reaction told me that maybe, in my own way, I did belong.