The popularity of the sadomasochist bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, Rihanna’s vampy S&M video and other corporate-approved pieces of pop-culture might make you think that BDSM (Bondage & Discipline / Domination & Submission / Sadism & Masochism) was invented just a few decades ago. But leather culture and other “alternative sexualities” have a history that long predates BDSM’s new en vogue status.
In fact, it’s a long history that would pretty much disappear from the cultural landscape if it weren’t for places like the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago: a 10,000 square foot archive and museum dedicated to “the compilation, preservation, and maintenance of leather, kink, and fetish lifestyles.”
“People have practiced alternative sexual practices since people started having sex,” says Jakob VanLammeren, an archivist at the facility.
Although leather culture refers to a particular activity, the archives house historical documents and pieces covering a broad umbrella of kink and fetishes over centuries — from a 170-year-old whip to printed leather personal ads from the ’90s era internet.
The facility also provides context that far predates the entrance of BDSM into contemporary pop-culture, revealing its long-standing intersection with queer culture and activism.
For instance, at the opening night of an exhibition entitled “Peter Fiske, 50 Years of Leather”— a celebration of Fiske’s life and as an activist and leatherman — Fiske talked about the role that leathermen played in developing ACT UP, participating in other AIDS activism and raising money to help those afflicted “back when we were still calling [AIDS] GRID.”
Mainstream portrayals of the gay rights movement often leave out leathermen and other kinky people who were integral to social movements throughout queer history. Even today, leathermen and BDSM practitioners continue to promote sex-positive activism, a necessity in a society where poor sex education and slut-shaming contribute to widespread ignorance.
But even histories of marginalized groups like queers and kinksters emphasize the grandiose: the major movements, public actions, and individuals. “[For] Marginalized or oppressed people left out of traditional repositories,” Van Lammeren stresses, “the power of an archive can dictate the history of how (and who) we remember. Having these resources gathered together means that this community, these people, are worth remembering.”
VanLammeren acknowledges the importance of documenting leather culture beyond its roles in early LGBT social movements, and also concedes there are definite gaps in the collection. “The gaps that we have in our collection are the gaps that many [historical] archives have,” VanLammeren notes. “Women, people of color, young people.”
It’s an important omission, especially as people of color, queer trans people of color and trans people all actively participate in and advocate for BDSM and other “alternative” expressions of sexuality. However, VanLammeren emphasizes the archive’s work to represent all practitioners of alternative sexuality via projects like the Women’s Leather History Project.
What emerges from the Archive’s preserved documents and artifacts is a intimate history built on relationships, shared struggle and community. Fiske and others affiliated with the Leather Archives realize its political power. They know that remembering BDSM history and practicing its methods keep alive a vital part of history, one that shows others how to challenge institutional propriety and radically re-shape the world.
Previously published February 21, 2015.