SEX It was their first official slumber party and a late-night run to the grocery store for pink hair dye was in order. Decked out in a combination of pink, pajamas, and leather, the San Francisco girls of Leather shrieked and giggled as they wandered the aisles searching for anything rosy-colored. The girls could easily have been mistaken for a freshman herd of coeds soaked in Malibu and cheap vodka, but as the group’s president, Leland, remembers, they were “just high on girls.”
Until they discovered the store’s collection of pink and white unicorns — on sale.
“We all oohed and ahhed and ended up purchasing six of them, surprising the other girls by returning to the party with an entire unicorn herd,” Leland says. From sleeping bags and hair braiding to dirty storytelling and play piercing, the night teetered between innocent and naughty, sweet and sexy. “So many unicorns, so many needles, and so much blood!” she said.
The SF girls of Leather (the girls prefer a lowercase “g” and uppercase “L” out of respect for the traditions of the leather community) are giddy and flirty: the epitome of seventh-grade girliness, complete with kinky sleepovers, hearts, and cuteness. As this year-old group sees it, maturity is overrated when it comes to BDSM — and a hint of silliness in a dark dungeon can only heighten the sex appeal. Who else is going to giggle or blush after a spank?
The group’s approach to leather is hardly in line with the masculine traditions that have come to be associated with the history of the kink community. But in the year since the girls formed their group, they’ve been working to secure their place in the continuum of leather lovers. And judging from the group’s growing membership — and accolades from the leather community at large — SFgoL is providing a much-needed refuge for marginalized fans of lighthearted play, splashing accents of pink across the traditional wash of black.
Historically, a girl in the leather community has been defined as the female-identified version of a boy — a submissive expected to service a dominant individual in various kinds of BDSM play. But in SFgoL parlance, girl means something way more fun. Top, bottom, submissive, dominant, giver, receiver, experienced, or curious: all roles are welcome in the group, as long as you “girl” identify.
Which means what, exactly?
“Leather doesn’t have to be serious,” says Leland, who is of the mind that people of all ages, bodies, and sexual preferences can find bliss by tapping into their own personalized “girl-space.”
“You’re a leathergirl if you feel like it,” says SFgoL Vice President Kate McKinley. Even boys and bois are allowed in the group — as long as they have a “girl heart.” Coincidentally, McKinley wears one of these around her neck — a silver heart necklace.
“I play girly and therefore this group is where I belong,” she says.
An important tenet of the leather life, service (traditionally, the practice of obediently pleasing a dominant character) is still an integral part of the girl group’s goals — but its definition of the term goes beyond tending to masters and daddies.
In the year since the group’s inception, SFgoL has volunteered at multiple fundraisers and organized charity drives for nonprofits benefiting women in the leather community and beyond. Members are free to service individuals but are required to serve the community by means of philanthropy: grown-up Girl Scouts earning merit badges for kink.
Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed — the San Francisco Bay Area Leather Alliance recognized SFgoL as its best new organization of 2010. “Contributing to the community makes it easier for us to enjoy what we’re doing,” says SFgoL member Anita, who asked that we not use her last name for professional reasons.
Anita moved to San Francisco from Norway on a work visa, but soon found herself lusting for a close encounter with leather. She discovered some BDSM groups for women interested in playing with women, but because she identified as straight when she arrived in the city, the SFgoL’s more inclusive membership requirements felt like a better fit.
She was also attracted to the group because it didn’t require members be in a dominant-submissive relationship. She was free to play with whomever, whenever, and however she pleased. “I’m a girl and I was interested in exploring the leather community in a group where I could just be myself and share my feelings,” she says.
Last month the SFgoL celebrated its one-year anniversary with 18 full members and more than 100 girls on its Listserv. The numbers are a strong indicator of its success, especially since the current version of the SFgoL isn’t the city’s first attempt at a girly collective. In 2004, a leathergirl group was formed, but failed to secure footing in the established leather community. The second time around seems to be the shiny charm — or maybe these girls are just extra-charming?
“We do have a smokin’ hot group of girls,” giggles Leland, looking around the table and raising her eyebrows at Anita and McKinley.
It’s lunch hour on a Tuesday and the three girls flirt like crazy, constantly laughing and finishing each other’s sentences between small bites of spicy Thai food. The three are a prime example of the group’s demeanor and exactly why Leland has enforced a “no cruising” rule during official meetings.
“The meetings are meant to be safe space and for taking care of business. But yes, we can play outside the meetings,” she says, batting her lashes as the other girls smirk, hiding a thousand secrets anyone with a pulse would die to hear.
RESIZING THE LEATHER FIT
Since its inception, the leather community has been predominately male. Icons like Marlon Brando, and the work of Tom of Finland and the Satyrs Motorcycle Club, defined modern masculinity in the 1950s, igniting a kinky obsession in the gay community. A badass jacket, muir cap, and related wardrobe of black hide became a symbol of sexual power and masculine independence, eradicating the stereotype that all gay men were effeminate.
Leather rules and traditions grew from military protocol and were diligently enforced by masters and their slaves, daddies and their boys. Women were intrigued, but struggled to find a place among the men; many leather bars turned away women at the door.
Over time, elements of BDSM became associated with leather and the community began to flex. During the ’80s, leatherwomen competitions popped up, and in the ’90s, groups like San Francisco’s Outcasts — now the Exiles —provided the community with strong female-identified role models. In 2006, the Exiles helped open Betty Paige’s Secret, which in subsquent years of the festival became Venus’ Playground. It was the first leatherwomen play space at the Folsom Street Fair.
It’s been six years since the Venus milestone, yet during this April’s International Ms. Leather competition in San Francisco, it was apparent that questions about the role of women in the leather community remain.
In a moment of call and response, “Where are the leatherwomen?” was shouted into the microphone. The answer was loud and proud: “Here we are! We’re here!” followed by a rumble of audience applause. Women may be standing their ground with paddles in hand, but the exchange was telling of their struggle for continued acknowledgment.
Deborah Isadorah, a veteran of kink and current leather momma, has been entranced by the leather community for more than 40 years, and is proud to have watched the roles of women expand. But in Isadorah’s eyes, the progression has been slow going.
“We live in a patriarchal society and that reflects on every part of our society, including leather,” she says, sipping a latte in Oakland and soaking in the spring sun.
“The men outnumber us physically in this community, [but that] doesn’t mean women’s voices are missing,” she continues. Isadorah is pleased with the progress of her generation of leatherwomen and is happy to sit back and nurture the younger crop. “I think we’ve done our job: to educate women about their bodies and the opportunities they have to explore sexuality beyond what society thinks is appropriate.”
Today, nearly half the current directors of the Leather Alliance, the community’s well-respected governing board, are female.
“We’re sitting at the table now,” says Daddy Vick Germany, a female-bodied leather daddy who has been a part of the Bay Area’s leather community for more than 15 years and serves as a director for the Alliance. Overall, Daddy Vick is content with the community’s moves toward inclusivity. “The men are leaving more space for us,” she says.
But traces of segregation can still be found. “Sometimes men just don’t see you — you’re not even in their line of vision,” she says, referring to a recent experience at the Up Your Alley street fair where a man blindly butted in front of her while she stood in a concession line. She recognizes that these incidents can be subconscious, but any female who roams the SoMa leather fairs is bound to encounter this feeling of invisibility. It makes her “mad as hell.”
Elected SF Dyke Daddy in 2002, Vick made substantial efforts to bridge gaps between the sexes. She’s currently running for SF Leather Daddy, a traditional competition built on fundraising for the AIDS crisis. In 2009 a transman won the competition, but if she wins, Daddy Vick would be the first female-bodied daddy to hold the title. Her candidacy alone is sure to shake things up with leathermen who believe in upholding traditional roles — but her motives are pure.
“I’m not doing this to make a statement as a female daddy. I’m running because I think I’m a good daddy for the community,” she says, meaning she cares about being a supportive, reliable father figure for those around her. The “working title” would help her foster change more effectively than her individual efforts.
Besides Folsom’s Venus’ Playground, there are no official social spaces intended for leatherwomen. This makes sharing communal bars and events incredibly important. Change is a slow process, but Daddy Vick says ample motivation is brewing in all corners, and — paired with the diffusion of kink — the space for growth can only flourish. Leather is opening into an umbrella term with the capacity to encompass multiple elements of fetish, and to further accept people of all genders, bodies, and preferences in any role.
In this respect, Daddy Vick thinks the SFgoL could play an important role. “It just takes people like Leland, coming in with a different energy. People who stand up in the crowd, see a need, and start organizing.”
FOLLOW THE PINK BRICK ROAD
While leatherwomen made slow but steady strides in the past decade, those straddling the space between butch and femme — the girl space — began breaking ground for themselves, too. In 2003 an international Leather Girl Network was born, led by the Bay Area’s Cheryl D. The group intended to mirror the already well-established leather boy community. Girls everywhere were giddy with possibilities.
“I had always identified with the title of ‘girl.’ I was a girl who liked to serve the community, but I was also a switch,” says Mistress Pilar, a longtime leather veteran and member of the original, and now revived, SF girls of Leather. Being a switch — someone who doesn’t commit to top or bottom exclusively — meant her definition of girl didn’t fit with that of the Leather Girl Network, which stated: girl equals submission. She wasn’t alone in her dilemma.
In 2004, San Francisco girls decided to put together their own troop, headed by girl Lori, the 2003 San Francisco Leather Dyke girl (a contest that no longer exists), and girl Hayden, the 2004 title-holder. They intentionally left the definition of girl open to allow for individual interpretation. The leather community shuddered at the loose restraints, confused by the men, boys, and transpeople that joined the girl ranks.
“People in the leather community were not comfortable with this idea at the time. No one even liked talking about it,” says Pilar, referring to the notion that a girl didn’t need to be a biological woman to be in their group. “The attitude that people should ‘get off the fence’ really hurt.”
The initial group grew to about 30 members and its short three years as a successful alliance was packed with fundraising, volunteer work, and super-girly fun. But eventually the negative attitudes, biased expectations, and confusion over the definition of “girls” wore down on moral.
“People would walk up to me and demand, ‘girl, clean my boots’ and I would say, ‘I don’t serve you, I serve the community,'” Pilar says shaking her head.
Even Daddy Vick remembers how the group of strong, independent individuals struggled to prove themselves to the wider leather community. The girls, she says, “took a lot of flak” for contesting tradition. “There was still a belief in place that girls and boys couldn’t be leaders. Some thought girls and boys should be seen and not heard.”
The girls managed to have good times regardless, but Pilar says by early 2007 the group was down to five members who reluctantly agreed the end had come. It wasn’t until the 2010 International Ms. Leather competition — when Pilar decided to donate the leftover SF girls memorabilia and a curious Leland started asking questions — that SFgoL sparked back into life, with a little PR and a lot of ambition.
“Leland is a wonderful leader. She creates a really positive image of a girl,” says Pilar, nostalgically looking over an old stack of meeting notes, scribbled calendars, and photos from the original group. The dissolution of her crew hit hard, and it’s bittersweet for Pilar to hear about the new group’s instant success. But more than anything, she’s proud. “I feel like a proud mom. Those are my girls.”
Coincidentally, just as the girls sprung out of the woodwork and formed an official group, the San Francisco boys of Leather, a longstanding and once very active organization, hung up their chaps and caps due to a decline in membership. The boys generously donated all their remaining funds to the girls.
Steve Gaynes, the 1994 SF Leather Daddy and Alliance director representing the 15 Association, a longstanding sexual fraternity for men interested in BDSM, has been a leatherman since 1978 and has watched all kinds of groups come and go. He says the ebb and flow is just a reflection of the community’s current needs.
“The energy ran of out the boys and ran into the girls. If there’s no driving force behind a group, it will die,” he says, noting the community’s excitement for the new girl group. “They’re enthusiastic, inclusive, and have clear ideas for their future. And they’re doing [it all] with a lot of respect for tradition.”
And the SFgoL’s continued dedication to volunteer work and partnerships with other groups have shown the community at large that it values the path paved by the forefathers — and foremothers — of leather.
Paying tribute to old protocol is simple. Isadorah boils it down to three simple rules: integrity, honesty, and service to the community. Judged by this metric, she says, anyone who thinks the SFgoL is out of line is just being stubborn. “Whenever something happens in the community that brings change, there will always be someone who is offended,” Gaynes says. “You won’t know you’ve created change until you’ve offended those people. Change is good and should be embraced.”
LOOKING OUT FOR THE GIRLS
Leland and McKinley agree that there seems to be a buzz of excitement surrounding the SfgoL lately. The group’s logo is everywhere, and partnerships are being fostered across the community. Leland has even been asked to serve as a director for the SF Leather Alliance.
But her primary concern is making sure the SFgoL remains a safe, welcoming landing pad for girls who are new to the leather community. And these days, the media is providing all sorts of inspiration for curiosity. Rihanna’s song “S&M” speaks directly to sexual play, but even a quick Google search for “girls in leather” retrieves images of celebrities in fetish gear, from Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus in leather leggings to Emma Watson in a full latex suit with collar. In general, our society is opening up to alternative sex and women want in on the action.
But girls who jump in with little research and few friends may not leave with the most positive experiences. The inherent power dynamic associated with BDSM relationships and play can blur the lines between consent and abuse, and Leland says it’s important for newbies to have mentors within reach. “Sometimes the person you’re playing with may not have your best intentions at heart,” she says. “But as an alliance of girls, we can look out for each other.”