Gay leather bars
The best and easiest places for leathermen to meet each other were and are of course the leather bars all around the world. In the mid 1950's the first ones were opened. That was just after the first specifically gay motorcycle clubs were founded. According to Tony DeBlase (former publisher-editor of Drummer magazine and creator of the leather flag in 1989) one of the first bars opened in Los Angeles in the mid-fifties, but by 1957 they also existed in New York and Chicago.
Argos advertisements, left: 1959 for the hotel and
right: 1997 for the bar that finally closed in 2015.
In 1955 Hotel Tiemersma (between mid 1958 and 1959 renamed to Argos) in the Amsterdam Warmoesstraat opened. It did not become famous for its hotel, but for its bar, the first leather bar in Europe according to oral history. It was a very simple place, the bar was actually the living room of the owners. The basement had a passage with a storage room to get to the toilet. This was where the first back room of Amsterdam started. The rooms of the hotel could not be locked very well, so it was really a hotel for easy, heavy and masculine gay sex. Although homosexuality was not punishable in the Netherlands since as early as 1811(!), making public sex possible was, as was making it possible for minors to come into contact with homosexuality. So even in Amsterdam bars had to be careful what they did. The early leather sub culture in Amsterdam is supposed to have been imported from England, Amsterdam being the first city on the continent to have bars like that. Amsterdam already had a thriving gay subculture. Its first gay hotel had opened in 1951. It was a specialized hotel for gay tourists. And there was the famous bar 't Mandje ('the little basket') founded as early as 1927, that had been run by a "leather dyke on bike" for many years at that time. Her bar closed after 55 years in 1982 but it had been kept unchanged by her sister, frozen in time. Until it was reopened in the 21st century.
Left: Amsterdam bar "het Mandje" (1927 to 1982)
Right: Owner Bet van Beeren in leather on her bike.
But the general Dutch public was unaware of those bars in their own country. In an excerpt of a Dutch newspaper of March 21, 1959 there is a small eye witness report of the bars in New York City (see picture and translation below). The excerpt was part of a series in which the Dutch public read in amazement about all the dark secrets of 1950's America.
Article (in Dutch) mentioning Gay Leather bars in New York City in 1959. (Translated below)
The remark "but these men are absolutely no fascists" shows that the writer fears his readers in 1950s Europe (only about a decade after World War II) would think of Nazi's when they read of people wearing a full leather outfit. But in stead of making a judgemental remark, he stands up for the leathermen.
The general public in the United States was also mostly unaware of the leather subculture. That changed when in June 1964 an article in "Life" magazine, with far more prejudice, drew attention to the gay leather community. To be more precise to the leather bar "Tool Box" in San Francisco (although that name is not mentioned once). The 14 page article "Homosexuality in America" also brought the leather subculture to the attention of isolated and closeted gays of which one reported he finally got to understand that the "S" or "M" badges people wore, didn't stand for "single" or "married"...
Life Magazine June 26, 1964 Featured "Homosexuality in America". This two page opening picture shows the famous mural in San Francisco leatherbar "Tool Box".
But bars opened not only in the US and Amsterdam. In London there had been the Bedford Head pub in the Covent Garden area of central London where the EMC bikers used to meet and the Coleherne, in the Earls Court gay area that was a leather bar even before that time. In other European countries like Denmark private clubs had semi-secretive meetings. Slowly the outside world became interested. The Danish gay magazine below, featuring an article called "Besøg i en Læderklub" (Visit to a Leather club), in 1965, describing a private club in Copenhagen, is very clear and very direct!
In the same issue there was a small personal ad so interested guys could also contact this "circle of friends" as the club called itself.
Links to the full text of this article; in Danish (original) or in English (translation). (Open in a new window.)
"Besøg i en Læderklub", Danish for 'visit to a Leather club'; Denmark 1965.
In the nineteen seventies and eighties more and more leather bars opened around the world.
Jason (who's personal leather history can be read elsewhere on this website) remembers: "The first actual gay leather bars in the USA, opened in the early 1950's at the Silver Dollar in New York, The Cinema in Los Angeles and Febes and the Tool Box in San Francisco. They were usually shabby looking on the outside and located in industrial and warehouse areas of the city, which are semi-deserted at night time and on weekends. Since being gay was still a crime in most states, they often had to pay off the local cops to stay in business. But they were still subject to sudden raids by the police to satisfy some politician trying to climb the ladder to fame.
Early posters for Leather bars around the world.
In Los Angeles, former Police Chief Ed Davies, from time to time ordered busts of gay bars but made sure the media and TV news crews were there to capture the event. One notorious raid on a leather bar fund raising event 'Slave Auction' by 20 cops, from which much publicity and later law suits developed, began the slow process of more tolerance to gays harmlessly enjoying themselves. But occasionally plain clothes vice squad cops would suddenly enter a gay bar and randomly select a few patrons and take them off to jail where they were charged with lewd conduct and sometimes more, just for patronizing a gay establishment. This fear factor successfully kept leather bars as somewhat scary places to visit."
When the US Supreme Court decisions upheld the right to create, own, possess and distribute porno material and then later to decriminalize homosexuality, overnight, police harassment of gay bars ceased and no time was lost in their rapid expansion all over the US. Thus began the Golden Age of leather bars as can be seen by the listing of some of those on the East and West coasts in Drummer magazine in 1977 (below).
Drummer listing of US Leather bars 1977.
In San Francisco, there were more than 20 gay leather bars in the industrial area South of Market Street. After dark on weekends, hundreds of leather clad guys and their hunters, cruised from one bar to another until closing time at 2 am. Then after-hours cafes and back alleys served as further meeting places. Sad to say, in the 1980's the toll from AIDS made a huge impact on leather communities everywhere, so that many leather bars closed from lack of patrons. But later, the creation of The Folsom Street Fair and Dore Alley in San Francisco and similar events in other cities, has stimulated a huge new interest in leather in all its forms.
Leatherbars come and go; the Tool Box in San Francisco was closed in 1971 and demolished. The famous mural was the last thing to survive.
Nowadays most bars can be found in the Western world in the bigger cities of North America, Australia and Northern and central Europe. How openly displayed they are is mostly in accordance with the attitude of a certain country towards homosexuality as such.
Movie showing the inside of the Eagle's Nest in New York before it closed.
In Amsterdam, that called itself the 'gay capital of Europe' at the end of the 20th century, numerous leather flags could be found in the Warmoesstraat area, where the very open leather bars could always be found. In 2004 the flags were almost banned. The inner city council tried to pass regulations to forbid "commercial" flags such as the rainbow flag and the leather flag. But there was such a lot of opposition that after a lot of debate the council decided to not change the rules after all and the flags still fly.
Leather flags in Warmoesstraat, Amsterdam in 2001.
But the era of specific leatherbars seems to be ending. The famous Argos bar had to close its doors in January 2015 after 60 years. One of the reasons, it is assumed, is social media. It would be so easy to meet people on the internet, that gay leatherbars have lost their reason for its existence: picking up like minded guys.
A simple note on the door announced the closing of the legendary Argos bar in Amsterdam.
The now existing big open leather events started many years after the bars. The well known International Mr. Leather event (IML) in Chicago were first held in 1979. Germany's two largest events, the annual Hamburg "Ledertreffen" (or MSC Leather-Party) and the Berlin "Ostertreffen" (Meet at Easter) preceded IML in August 1973 and at Easter 1974 respectively. The Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, self acclaimed biggest leather event in the world, was first held in 1984. Amsterdam's Leatherpride weekend was the more recent of these, it only started in 1996.
Video about the 35th International Mr Leather event in Chicago, 2013
Leather events across the world, left to right:
Hamburg est. 1973, Chicago est. 1979, Amsterdam est. 1996.
New leather events keep popping up all over the world. In 2004 the San Francisco Folsom Street Fair got a European counterpart in Berlin, Germany. In the first weekend of September thousands of leathermen from all over Europe and indeed the rest of the world gather in the German capital to celebrate a weekend together. Highlight of the weekend is a big street party in the heart of the Berlin Leather scene. Below a video of the 2012 event. It was the ninth edition of Folsom Europe.
Video about the 2012 9th Edition of Folsom Europe in Berlin