“I escaped Ohio when I was 19," said Dale Vargas. He had to squat down on his stilts to talk to me. He was wearing a black leather jockstrap, red bolero jacket with epaulettes, leather mask and top hat—last Sunday on West 28th Street in Manhattan.
In Ohio, he said, "you had to be white and have 2.3 kids to fit in. I found in the gay community people who tended to lean toward leather and kink were people that didn’t box themselves into where they grew up and stay there. They explore. I found that the leather community was more honest, more worldly, more in touch, and that’s where I gravitated to.”
That day, Mr. Vargas and 7,000 others had turned the far west Chelsea block into a little slice of their own personal paradise, far over the rainbow from Ohio, Kansas, or any other place where the sight of men in leather jockstraps would hoist the eyebrows of the town matrons. They were there to celebrate “Folsom Street East,” also known as Leather Pride Day, the annual street fair put on by the Gay Male SM Association.
It's where I met 72-year-old Joe Regan, a resident of the neighborhood, as he was pulling on a pair of yellow rubber boots and getting things properly situated in his jockstrap. “I’m wearing a yellow rubber jock that the guy down there makes," he said, gesturing down the street. “He makes the best. This is all one piece of rubber, no seams.”
I asked him what Folsom Street East—the tag pays homage to the original, much larger Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco—meant to him.
“I’m basically a top," he said, " though I will play man-to-man with a lot of guys, and I really enjoy it. This one of those days where you can let it all hang out. I wouldn’t wear this anywhere except at a sex club normally.”
Of the dozen or so attendees I spoke to—from Frank Parker, a 45-year-old Ohioan who works in construction in leather suspenders; to men in leather kilts selling cigars; to “Nipple Dad,” a mainstay of Chelsea—the consensus was this: In an increasingly conformist gay world, the socially frowned-upon displays of sexuality taking place here represented a rare opportunity to openly experience homosexuality as the illicit, wanton, fringe subculture it once was.
Because when NYC Pride Day, the main event of Gay Pride Week, takes over the city this weekend with over a million attendees, it will look very different from this Leather Pride bacchanal. NYC Pride Day, like many other pride parades across the country, has become more and more respectable with each passing year. Bud Light, Skyy vodka, Delta, Continental, Kiehl’s, Whole Foods, and JP Morgan Chase all have floats in this year’s parade. A representative of NYC Pride recently boasted that if one were to categorize the more than 300 groups participating, church groups would have the largest presence.
Here at Leather Pride, on the other hand, you’d be hard pressed to find an investment bank or airline in corporate sponsorship. At the Men of ONYX booth, I decided to give the Butt Plug Toss a whirl. One plug for a dollar, three for two. That’s always a no-brainer. Richard, 54, a Manhattan physician (he declined to elaborate), handed me three black rubber plugs, and told me about Men of ONYX as he held two of my plugs so I could toss.
“It’s a leather club for men of color and people who like to be associated with men of color," he said. "We have chapters in Chicago, Atlanta, DC, LA—all over the country." The target was a poster board of an anatomically correct gentleman bending over. I took note that butt plugs are kind of shaped like darts; it looked pretty easy to slip one past the goalie.
Richard was saying the leather scene can be tricky for black men. Words like master and slave are obviously loaded. ONYX, which was founded 15 years ago, creates a comfort zone, he said, where “men of color can explore it with other men of color, and talk about our particular interests and our particular concerns and how we can enjoy our fetishes and have a good time.”
Bull's-eye! Richard gave me my prize, a butt plug, which I graciously handed over to the guy in line behind me (journalistic integrity!), who told me it was just his size—he takes a medium.
I spoke to John Weis, who founded the Folsom Street East festival in 1997. “The combination of the Internet and zoning and real estate has really thrown the leather community for a loop,” he said. “There really aren’t any places to congregate as a community. There used to be a whole bunch of leather bars—and you know the Meatpacking District as a whole was a comfortable neighborhood for the leather community.” He noted that imagery of leather boys has often used to demonize gay men. “So I can fully appreciate why some members of our community are reluctant to have us out there in the front, but at the same time, if we’re not out there pushing boundaries and pushing social mores, I think that we’re always going to remain where we are. It’s only when people are willing to come out, stand up and say, 'I’m not takin’ this anymore,' that you can push a little bit and move a little bit forward.
“The gay movement was a sexual-revolution movement," he continued, "and to shun the sex part of the sexual politics of a sexual revolution is a little short-sighted and naïve. I fully understand why it's important to do both: Sex positive and the married and living in Maplewood with a couple of kids. Both of them can help, but I don’t think one should be sacrificed for the other.”
Next up: men in chaps. On a stage. But all was not going well for famed adult-film director and drag queen Chi Chi LaRue, who was playing game-show hostess: None of the contestants were able to match the cheek prints to the cowboys on display.
Brian Mitchell, 28, was watching. He'd come down from Boston, where he does financial reporting for mutual funds. He was wearing a blue rubber jockstrap, a leather harness, a collar, boots, and a Red Sox baseball cap. (Which gave me pause to wonder: What would my seventh-grade gym teacher do if he knew that his gruff insistence on jockstraps was so in sync with a fashion fetish popular among gay men?) “It’s an opportunity to get out of the backrooms of the bars and get out in the daylight more than anything else,” said Mitchell. “It’s an opportunity to walk the streets of New York in your leather harness or whatever, and be like, ‘This is what I’m into, why should I be ashamed of that?’”
Yes, he admitted, the Internet had made finding friends in the leather community a lot easier, but, he said, “Whatever connections you make on the Internet tend to be really shallow. I live in Boston, so I’m not likely to see most of the people I meet here ever again. But it’s still nice to come out for a day and just be friendly with people and have a good time.” He said he would not be returning for the more squeaky-clean NYC Pride parade this Sunday.
“The Pride Parade tries to act more mainstream,” he said. “I think there’s an idea within the mainstream gay movement of saying, 'OK, we need to get mainstream society’s acceptance.’ They’re saying, ‘Oh, you know, we don’t want crazy people walking around in jockstraps and harnesses. We want people talking about how they’re in love and want to get married.’ And that’s fine. There’s a place for that. But there’s also a lot of people who don’t want to get married, who want to walk around in jockstraps and harnesses.”
Next I met Master Lucas, a 32-year-old S&M professional who was doing a bondage demonstration on Scotty, a grizzly bear with a platinum mohawk. Scotty was suspended on a cross, shirtless, in a pair of black tights. He got the full treatment: flogging, paddling, spanking, caning, rubber flogging, as well as “some dragon tail work.”
“He’s got some tolerance,” Master Lucas said, breathing heavily, as an assistant brought him some water and began massaging his thighs. “He’s definitely got some serious tolerance.”
Master Lucas has been in the leather community for 10 years. “It’s evolved tremendously,” he said. “There’s a lot more young people involved now. I think years ago, it took people until they were 30 or 40 years old to say, ‘Fuck it, I’m a kinky person, I’m gonna go do what I want with my life regardless of what the church and society think.'”
I asked Scotty about his time on the cross.
“It’s painful,” he gasped, “but it’s trying to become it. I believe that there’s kind of a long line between pain and pleasure, and it’s manipulating that line… It sounds weird, but after a while and the many sensations, it’s like a massive backrub.”
Scotty had come to New York from Idaho, where there is no leather scene. “Folsom Street is a chance for me to experience all the things that I locked up all year,” he said, adding that the thing about the leather community is that it’s the most “in-touch and sweet and tender-hearted of any, because it’s very much into how the other person is feeling, and they’re very concerned about how you’re doing. I mean, while we were doing that, [Master Lucas] came up to me about four or five times and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’”
Spencer Morgan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. His column Men of Manhattan appears in The New York Observer. He is a contributing editor at Playboy magazine.