How Fumble blogger Alex Chenery-Howes discovered the relationship between leather and queerness
“Alexander, you look like a bloody p**f.’
Shortly after my 15th birthday, I bought my first leather jacket. I had wanted it for quite a while – worn by role models the likes of James Dean and Roger from Doug. When my Dad walked into my room, I was wearing it – and next to nothing else.
I had barely come out to myself when I was 15. The male ideal I was trying to replicate straddled the line of pre-pubescent aspirations of ‘cool’, and early subjects of homosexual fantasy. For the first time in my life I was trying to feel ‘sexy’.
I’m thankful that I did not offer this as a defence to my concerned father. That would have begun something awkward. It was, however, the first time I learnt about the relationship between leather and queerness.
At that time, I’d never really met any gay people. My points of reference were Stephen Gately, a guy in my high school with hair like Nicky Clarke, and a legion of Big Brother contestants. In denial, I exacerbated the differences between them and myself.
Body confidence was an issue, too. Long before I came to terms with my sexuality, I was insecure about my weight. I wasn’t athletic like the majority of boys in my school. While several of my friends had lost their virginity, I didn’t consider myself attractive. I wouldn’t dream of approaching someone I worried was out of my league.
Then Tom of Finland happened. I was 17, and reading the Battle Royale manga. I was out to myself, albeit reluctantly, and came across a compilation of the legendary erotic artist in the Graphic Novel section. Men so virile and robust they look like they’ve been bred selectively (no pun intended). Policemen and bikers and daddies in pairs, three-ways or more. Base submission and gleeful dominance. And leather. Lots of leather.
For one of the first times, gay sex was something I allowed myself to unashamedly crave. I had also seen how queer culture could appropriate hyper-masculinity.
This idea would remain latent, even while I was caught up in the process of coming out. People who know me now would probably laugh at the idea that I was ever ‘straight passing’. But in the first few years I lived as openly gay, acquaintances or strangers would tell me I didn’t ‘look’ gay, or act like other gay men – the kind of things I used to tell myself, to reaffirm my denial. Now I was willingly hearing it from others; pandering to straight people, in a time when I was unsure I would be accepted.
Queer culture saved me. I began my twenties with friends who were like-minded enough to form great bonds, and different enough to expose me to wonderful new things. Gay clubs and bear cubs. Pansy Division and the Stonewall Riots. Robert Mapplethorpe and RuPaul’s Drag Race. All of a sudden there was a legacy to uphold and a struggle to be part of. My queerness was no longer my shame. It became my resistance. I felt empowered by the idea that expressing myself how I wanted, I was fighting back against anyone who wanted to suppress it.
Sex was a big part of that. It was listening to someone say that gay sex was dirty and perverse, and responding with ‘yes, if that’s what I want it to be.’ With that in mind, kink felt like the kind of sex I deserved to have.
Homosexuality is represented in normative ideals as the opposite to masculinity, but in my new mindset, I rejected the idea that being ‘effeminate’ was wrong. I revelled in ‘campness.’ This took a new turn when I started to really explore kink. I would put on the chest harness, the boots, and the arseless chaps. Honestly, I felt like a stud.
The problematic values in the homosexual community are best described by its own members: ‘Masc4masc’ and ‘no femmes’ – and I do sometimes worry that by equating hyper-masculinity with sexual potency and confidence, I am complicit in these values. But today, attitudes are changing in the leather community. 2015’s San Francisco Mr Leather was won by a drag queen known as Jem Jehova. It doesn’t entirely mitigate the issue of femme-shaming, but I’m excited at the prospect of a new queer future.
When it comes to gender expression, people are learning they can have it all. The act of moving between multiple presentations can empower queer people in the face of ascribed gender norms. When I am in leather, I know that I am stepping into my most masculine self. And I know I can do this, whilst remaining unashamedly queer. And just as I can put it on, I can take it off. I don’t feel pressured to constantly inhabit a hyper-masculine body. Unfortunately many straight men don’t get this same relief.
So thank you leather. Thank you for liberating my body and mind. For making me feel like I’m part of something challenging. And of course, for some pretty unforgettable sex.