The Satyrs enjoy one of their camping trips. Photo courtesy of Garry Bowie.
Perhaps it is due to the odd correlation between the birth of Fascism in Europe and Fascist style--the leather boots, the clean lines, the regimented behavior, the rampant masculinity of it all--that most people assume the origin of the gay leather culture lies within European boundaries.
However, the two places which play the most pivotal role in having created what is quite possibly LGBTQ history’s most visibly, openly gay subculture are Los Angeles and Long Beach--not shocking considering the history of California, whose embedded gay scene before the 1950s plays a pivotal role in the development of gay culture, including leathermen. Even further, gay leather culture is one of the largest contributors to what we can currently call “LGBT culture.”
“The role that Long Beach and L.A. played in the creation of leather culture is strangely misunderstood,” said local activist Garry Bowie, director of the documentary The Long Road Forward. “And so is the larger role California played in helping shape that culture which in turn became an essential facet of the larger LGBT community.”
The circa 1500CE myth of Califa, queen of the Island of California--a space west of the Indies “inhabited by black women without a single man among them” as ancient Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo described the island he created in the novel Las sergas de Esplandián- -showcased not only a sapphic-like exotic island inhabited by only women, but her inversion of traditional sex roles. Califa’s women were, after all, warriors.
This popular Spanish myth is credited by some as the origin of the Spanish Empire’s naming of California. When Spanish imperialists arrived on the shore of the then-unnamed California, they noticed the Native American tradition of supporting alternative gender and sexual identities. The Chumash, for example, a group that lined the Southern California coasts, acknowledged a “Two Spirit” identity of those who fulfill multiple gender roles, or commonly known as the berdaches throughout native North American communities.
The wild west-like nature of California is not just a colloquialism--that is precisely what it was and with it came a diverse amount people.
In the 1880s, following a major land boom in L.A., the Downtown area--particularly along what is now known as Skid Row--became a haven for cheap hotels and single-room occupancies. With its railroads and business centers came a disproportionate male population. This was then paired with L.A.’s removal from the social norms of other cities since it lacked structure and a stable population. In other words, the city offered an almost Dionysian-like atmosphere without the restriction of behavioral expectations--and all with a gaggle of males.
Soon, cultural celebrations--most popularly La Fiesta, whose attendees actually superseded the actual population of Los Angeles itself sometimes, and the highend masquerade balls that were popular in Long Beach--as well as the rising popularity of cross-dressing acts like Julian Etrange began to deeply contradict the Puritan-like values of those moving in from the center of the country. This heightened population that fostered midwestern values eventually gave birth to Long Beach’s moniker of “Iowa by the Sea.”
As the wild west nature of California began to die, there soon began an association of gender and sexual expression with one’s character: these people were deviants. This prompted, among other things, the 1914 Long Beach Police undercover raids that targeted homosexuals.
This, as well as the “psychiatrization” of homosexuality that attached a Christian moral perception of behavior to a pseudoscientific explanation, ultimately drove the growing gay culture of Long Beach and L.A. back to an entirely underground space--at least physically.
Photo: The first Satyrs Motorcycle Club in 1954, with Belmont Shore resident and co-founder Don Gath (bottom left) and co-founder Raul Vargas (top right). Photo courtesy of Garry Bowie.
Leather culture has many associations surrounding it--kink, bondage, S&M--but it is deeply rooted in the masculinity that was engrained in the post-WWII military members as well as the roots of gay California. Upon coming home, those who has served--particularly naval officers--were shown to three ports: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles/Long Beach.
“New York was bitterly cold,” explained Bowie. “And even though San Francisco had the Barbary Coast for their gambling pleasure, Los Angeles and Long Beach provided them with insatiably beautiful weather and beaches. It brought with it, this large influx of gay men that essentially created an explosion of gay activity.”
Part of that activity included the creation of homophile social clubs, most notably the Mattachine Society created in 1950 and the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) created in 1955. These groups--the former of which is noted as one of the earliest LGBT organizations in the U.S.--operated under extreme secrecy and mimicked communist “cell structure,” that is, cells of people who were detached from other cells of people in order to avoid an organization-wide fall should the authorities discover their activity. In this sense, they were assimilationists: sporting garbs that reflected the everyday WASP, they had an ultimate fear of being discovered.
However, there was a different group of military men which entirely opted to distinguish themselves from assimilation or secrecy on any level. Instead, they exchanged the cell structure for what Bowie called “corporate culture”: eschewing middle-classe three-pieces, they wore uniforms that exemplified an almost greaserlike aura without the women while following a code that mimicked military behavior.
And in 1954, Raul Vargas and Belmont Shore resident Don Gath created what would become the longest-operating gay organization in the world, the Satyrs.
Gregory Mattson, an adjunct professor of anthropology at East Los Angeles College and self-described kinkster, described these military men as those who deeply wished to escape the feminization of their sexuality, a public perception that plagued homosexuals.
“When you look back at the men coming back from World War II,” Mattson explained, “these men basically fled to large urban centers. They fled to Los Angeles and Long Beach, to San Francisco, to New York to develop what are now and continue to be major gay urban centers. And these men wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from this public perception of gay men as fairies, as nancies, as ersatz women, as sissies.”
Their involvement in the military clearly contradicted that public perception- -and it furthered their desire to rid themselves of it. This intense desire to maintain the hyper-masculine ideals of the military did not get abandoned at shore, as men- -particularly in L.A. and Long Beach--continued to sport their military regalia on their brought-from-war motorcycles to remind those of where they were from and simultaneously create a concrete image of masculinity.
“Like the chicken-or-the-egg question, there is the same thing for the leather culture: which came first--motorcycle or leather?” said Bowie, also a Satyr member. “And the truth is, neither. Military came first--and with them came the motorcycle, then the leather--which was a protective aspect of motorcycling that was eventually fetishized.”
For example, the visor caps popularized in WWII military regalia typically had a chain or leather strap running across the top of the bill. Motorcycle culture replicated that hat but moved the leather chain below the chin, acting as a strap to hold the hat in place. Then the bill became white and to emphasize the bill, the strap came back up on top. Then the bill then became black and to this day represents what is known as the “Master Cap.”
The image the Satyrs portrayed was a deeply sexualized one. As Mattson put it: “They made sure the ‘sex’ was never removed from ‘homosexual’”--a contradiction to the “homophile” or same-sex loving characterization that was associated with the Mattachine Society.
These social clubs that so deeply espoused masculinity slowly began to grow. Don Gath himself, following an unknown disappearance from the Satyrs, returned to his membership with the addition of another motorcycle club he created in 1957, Oedipus.
Soon after the 1959 Cooper’s Donut Riot, gay men began expressing themselves more openly--much like the Satyrs had been doing all along.
“Most Americans think the Stonewall riots are the only gay riots that occurred and there were actually two [the Cooper’s Donut Riot and the Compton’s Cafeteria riots],” Bowie said. “And after this, with McCarthyism gone finally, gay men were able to really breathe for the first time since the 1800s. And this brought on what I call the ‘Golden Years.’”
Those “Golden Years,” or the 1960s, brought about an entire surge of motorcycle and uniform clubs that is--to this day- -unparalleled. Throughout the Long Beach and L.A. region alone, 19 clubs sprouted. And all thanks to the creation of the Satyrs.
The influence of the Satyrs reached across the country, with the Empire Motorcycle Club in New York began forming in 1964. Unable to have a proper sense of formation, they flew out Satyr members to borrow from their constitution in order to create its own bylaws.
However, the late 60s put an end to those golden years--particularly following the 1968 Black Cat Riots in Silverlake as well as the Wilmington Patch, where the owner of the former organized a march to the Harbor Division station of the LAPD to grace officers with flowers. Then, in 1969, the Stonewall Riots erupted into what largely became known as the Gay Movement.
“Post-Stonewall was what I would call the ‘keep on truckin’ period,” said Bowie. “Our Harleys moved to choppers and the only thing that kept us going were the large camping excursions we would create.”
The Satyrs and Oedipus--and soon to join them, the Lobocs, created in 1976 by Bob Hunt and Rick Mees--had long discovered federal parks as safe havens for them to have a free space of their own. Throughout the 50s and 60s, federal parks lacked rangers but provided plenty of room; this, in turn, permitted these military men, equipped with WWII portable ovens, showers and amenities, to create massively complex, city-like camping grounds that cohesively connected members of clubs--and all with that wild westness that had been lost long ago.
“These were men with a deep set of skills,” explained Bowie. “And come AIDS... It was just a devastating blow to not just the leather community but the community as a whole--and I don’t mean on just a health level. It has created a chasm that exists to this day. The men today who would have been in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s- -most of them were wiped out in the first wave of AIDS in 1981, ‘82, and ‘83.”
The tragic loss of an entire generation caused the folding of many clubs, almost including the Satyrs. By the height of the crisis, that large group of 19 clubs dwindled to a mere seven. And more importantly, these men and clubs lost would have been the connection to the later generations-- from Gen X to the Millenials to the Digital Natives.
Following AIDS, many LGBT communities were fearful of creating directly sexual social clubs such as leather clubs since, as Bowie put it, “sex meant AIDS.” According to Bowie, a boom of asexual clubs--bowling leagues, softball teams, Sierra clubs--popped up during the late 80s and early 90s.
“We often don’t ask how AIDS wiped out a culture, wiped a legacy, how it related to continuity, to mentorship,” he says. “We think of it on a disease and number level. We continually underestimate the impact of AIDS.
Many within the leather community--both young and seasoned--believe there is a deep disconnect between the older and younger generations. And both currently provide entirely alternative perspectives in regard to this schism.
Long time Satyr member Bert Simon continually speaks of the so-called “Old Guard,” a somewhat mythological aspect of the leather community that, before the “New Guard” of the post-AIDS generation, harkened back to strict roles, strict rules, and a deeply militaristic style that created cohesion.
“The LGBT community is very splintered--people stand up for sectors but not for the whole,” Simon said. “But Old Guard... We stood up for everyone in our group, not just one of us. It was a tradition, not an entity. And the New Guard... The New Guard is a circus.”
Simon’s rapid-paced speech that spanned definitive ideals such as masters, boys and slaves, rules, norms and dominance is precisely what the younger kinksters-- what Simon and Old Guarders refer to as the “New Guard”--are against.
28-year-old Long Beach resident Zachary Geyer, also 2012’s Southern California Leather Boy, is--on the larger scale of leather history--still relatively new to it all. However, like his fellow kinksters, he feels there is a challenge of generations.
“Those who are trying to piece history together [because of the loss of leathermen during the AIDS crisis] are fearful of change and fearful it will become popular,” Geyer said. “Since tradition is key--y’know, leather culture ‘survived’--the idea of change is hard for them... But I want growth. It’s frustrating for someone like me who wants to bring leather back. They tell me tales of the leather bars being packed on Friday night and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool, let’s do that!’ I don’t see a lotta guys doing it.”
Simon counters this with the fact that “Old Guard doesn’t necessarily need to practiced, but it should be learned.”
Geyer and fellow kinksters don’t necessarily disagree. Their longing for growth--the hope to see leathermen walk into the Falcon or Mary’s amongst the twinks and hipsters, to see Pistons become more popular--is not due to an apathy towards history, but rather a distaste with being told who they are.
“The Old Guard is a fallacy of those who want to go by their own desires rather history,” said Bowie, “a trick for some to control others. And the fact is that the kinksters are different: they’re more open, they like multiple roles, they don’t like definitions or boxes. And that is something that the older generation has to accept at one point.”
The Satyrs is celebrating its 59th anniversary this year. For the 60th anniversary, Bowie plans on releasing his documentary, The Long Road Forward, to honor that achievement.
To donate funding for The Long Road Forward, click here. Funding helps obtain remaining licenses, color correction and audio sweetening and preparing for the film festival circuit. Also, people’s names will be included in the screen credits on certain funding levels.
Read more about Long Beach's LGBTQ history: