Without doubt the most important book in gay fetish and the only real MUST READ for every pig that ever entered a dark room, circuit party of leather bar is the one that started it all….The Leatherman’s Handbook. Next year it will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary and therefore we have to go back to the early 70’s to see what our gay fetish world was like then. It was actually published in 1972 and written the year beforehand and of course this was the time of Stonewall, The First Gay Pride, Harvey Milk, The Boys In The Sand movie etc. In most Countries homosexuality was illegal and very much underground or at least not flaunted, gays were not allowed in the military, civil partnerships were a distant dream, queer bashing was rife, all gay men were seen as effeminate, no-one had heard of Bruce Springsteen, Jaws & Star Wars, AIDS was a decade away, Burt Reynolds was the number One gay dream shag and Freddie Mercury & his bandmates Queen were saving up to buy a couple of guitars and try this singing lark.
Our fledgling gay culture which only really existed in big cities like San Francisco, LA, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and London started to gain saunas, queer cinemas and free magazines started replacing the sportswear catalogues which were previously the main source of images for our wank banks. Elsewhere, for most guys porn was just something you found on a fantastically lucky day dumped in a hedgerow and was hidden under beds like The Holy Grail or Sorcerer’s Stone. The Fetish world had a bit of a clear start as we tended to look, dress and act more masculine and with the only fetish gear in town being leather we could easily pass as hard as nail Harley Davidson and biker guys which made us more acceptable to straights and the homophobic authorities (and our employers)…we could merge in somewhat. Basically, at this time the closet was about as crowded as a Texan Superbowl or a Rupaul concert in New York’s Village with Cher and Kylie as support. Into this fascinating era came Larry Townsend who clocked on to the fact that big city gay culture was starting to get organised and he set out to record it in his landmark book. The handbook is a combination of the History (as it was known up until that point) of the largely hidden leather sub-culture from the 50’s and 60’s. From the returning American servicemen of WW2 through the early pioneers like Chuck Renslow/Tony De Blase, the influences like Marlon Brando’s The Wild One and Hell’s Angels, the clandestine hidden bars on to the current early 1970 West Coast scenes of The Castro and Silverlake. The book is a fascinating spotlight on a point in time for example it contains the freshly developed ‘Hanky Code’ where just 10 colours were listed but they all still stand today Worldwide which shows the influence of the book and the tight Californian culture it came from and who took it to their heart. The book was a huge success and there were many reprints through the 80’s and 90’s up until its famous Silver Jubilee Second reprint in ’96 which did have issues.
To modern fetish men who now have immense freedoms and rights huge chunks of the book now seem very dated but that does not diminish its importance at the time in any way if for no more than a record of where we came from. It is a vital historical document of Leather and all its subsequent fetish tribes. The internet and mobile phones amongst other inventions have changed the fetish World out of all comparison resulting in the ‘Old Guard’ V ‘New Guard’ debates today that we have featured elsewhere in AT and now we all want to look as different as possible with rubber, puppies, skinheads, superheroes, sportswear, furries etc diversifying us away from the sole leather tribe. We have a multitude of designs and a carnival of colours and accessories (Leather crowns !!) to pick from to show our individuality whereas in 1972 the object was to look as identical to the Tom Of Finland ‘Kake’ character as possible which was pure masculinity with a queer bent. So, who was Larry Townsend the man more than any who structured our gay fetish scene today?
Larry Townsend (27 October 1930 – 29 July 2008) was the author of dozens of books including Run Little Leather Boy (1970) and The Leatherman’s Handbook (1972) at pioneer erotic presses such as Greenleaf Classics and the Other Traveller imprint of Olympia Press. The Leatherman’s Handbook was the first book to publicize BDSM to the general public unbelievably for the time it was a paperback book widely available on newsstands and at bookstores throughout the United States and further afield.
Growing up as a teenager of Swiss-German extraction (Two kinky nationalities for sure) in Los Angeles a few houses from superstars like Noël Coward (Blithe Spirit). He was stationed as Staff Sergeant in charge of NCOIC Operations of Air Intelligence Squadrons for nearly five years with the US Air Force in Germany where he discovered he was attracted to men. In the early 1950s he entered into the underground of the then small but blossoming LA leather scene where he and Montgomery Clift, the Massive ‘From Here To Eternity’ Hollywood star actually shared a lover (The lucky sub!). He began his pioneering activism in the politics of homophile liberation in the early 1960s. In 1972, as president of the ‘Homophile Effort for Legal Protection’ which had been founded in 1969 to defend gays during and after Police arrest, he led a group in founding the H.E.L.P. Newsletter, the forebear of Drummer Magazine which came a few years later. He lived in the Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles, the centre of the LA leather scene both then and now. As a writer and photographer, he was an essential eyewitness of the burgeoning fetish culture at that time. His signature “Leather Notebook” column appeared in Drummer for twelve years beginning in 1980, and continued in Honcho magazine until Spring 2008. His last novel, TimeMasters, was published April 2008 just 2 years after his partner of 44 years Fred Yerkes died and shortly after its publication, he sadly past too. He was inducted into the Leather Hall of Fame at CLAW in 2016. The Leatherman’s Handbook was Number 46 on Lambda Book at the end-of-the-millennium list of 100 Gay & Lesbian Books that changed our lives over the entire Century.
The importance of the book can be summed up by many of the great and good of our fetish community:
“The Leatherman’s Handbook was an immediate cult classic when it first came out in 1972. Its publication was the first step in bringing leather sex into the open in the gay world. Its instant popularity proved just how interested men were in this previously taboo subject.” – John Preston, 1993
“What Townsend offers in the Handbook are principles learned through years of experience in the SM playing field, and he invites you to agree or disagree with his ideas and conclusions…a pioneering work in gay SM.” – Victor Terry, 1997
“The ground breaking 1972 publication of Larry Townsend’s Leatherman’s Handbook is as remarkable a construct as Stonewall itself, because it was a declaration of independence for ‘anatomically Correct’ homomasculinity.” – Jack Fritscher, 1996
The book now underlying its importance is not easy to purchase – last printed in limited form in the year 2000. We got the AT Office runner who really is just kept on to provide in house staff blow jobs to try and purchase copies off the internet. The cheapest he found was $75 for a 4th edition copy and from the key 1972 First print run and ’96 Silver Jubilee Second print run you will be paying about 200 bucks which is almost 20 times its original store price for the 284 page illustrated book so a true collector’s piece in anyone’s eyes. The first actual printing of the Silver Jubilee Edition in 1997 was “handled very badly” by his publisher and the books were nearly all remaindered.
It is now basically a library piece arguable an archive of its time but a landmark book none the less. Much of its content as would probably be expected does not travel well into the new Millenium after all now we have the proliferation of ideas and writing across diversifying tribes with ever improving gay rights and the internet and a Million other sources. The Leatherpedia.org is a great destination for modern and historical gay fetish as is the LA&M in Chicago and the Leather archive/museums in London and Melbourne, Australia. Nowadays of course you have Alphatribe and we will always endeavour to entertain, educate and turn-on every fetish guy in every tribe that exists out there equally….Your new all encompassing FETISH HANDBOOK. We are very keen to keep alive our fetish history too, its landmarks and the trailblazing groups and individuals that got us to a happy and horny place in 2021 especially with the new Millennial kinksters who may not know their Gold Coast from their Spanner Trust or their Rubberwilli’s from their Argos, Amsterdam’s. Learn our fetish history guys and Townsend’s handbook is as good a place as any to start.
Thanks to the Leatherpedia and other sources for help with this feature.