Leather Protocols…Then and Now

-Article written by Slave robin and Sheri /Leather Heart Clan (www.leatherheartclan.org)

When I was five, back when the earth was cooling, I knew I was a Junior G-Man because I had a secret decoder ring and a secret handshake known only to other Junior G-Men (yes, it was pretty sexist back then…).  That was then.  Now, I wear my leather boots, vest and cover.  Does that make me Leather? I would say no: we wear our leathers proudly, but others prefer furs, or pup masks, or latex, or….  So that can’t be it.  I believe you know members of the leather subculture by how you see them enact their leather values.  

A great deal has been written about leather values, but after considerable debate here’s what our leather family settled on:

Honesty

Integrity

Loyalty

Community

Radical Sexuality

With our leather values agreed on, the debate turned to protocols.  Not the personal protocols participants in a D/s relationship may choose to use, not the ones our leather family observes among our family, but the public ones we enact and observe when we are in a group of leather folk.  While the details of these behaviors evolve constantly, we believe the purpose of these protocols is to affirm our commitment to the shared values of the leather community.  By observing someone’s enactment of leather protocols, you can get an initial read on how well the person intends to exemplify the community’s shared values, and thus, whether they “are one of us.”  Until you know the person better, these observations are a place to start.

A historical perspective:  the protocols we observe are evolutionary descendants of some of protocols observed by various gay leather communities as they came together after the military experience of World War II.  To understand where the current protocols originated, have a look at Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook II – Updated 2nd edition.  It includes a synthesis of protocols he observed in the gay leather communities he knew.  Writing it was a very gutsy thing to do!  Remember that at the time it was written, the gay community, and especially the gay leather community, was underground.  Protocols of dress and behavior had the important purpose of protecting the community from interlopers.  As the community “came out,” it grew to be more inclusive of gender and sexual identities, as well as race and ethnicity.  The process of evolution by natural selection added new protocols and adapted others. Some fell into disuse.  This is a continuous process that leads to different results in each local leather community.

Given this constant evolution, all I can do is take a snapshot of some of the “public” protocols our leather family observes in leather community contexts.  Space does not permit a complete list, but here are some examples:

  • Introductions:  the first time you meet, inquire about the person’s scene name, pronouns, and how they are affiliated with the leather community (independent, in a leather family with…, in a D/s relationship with…, etc.).  Until you know these things, use Sir (remember that Ma’am or Boy could be an insult).  Do not make assumptions about a person; ask, “should I assume that you…”  As an aid to introductions, we wear bar vests with patches and pins to symbolize our leather identity and experience.  Read those symbols before you talk.  [Pro tip: the pins serve as great conversation starters!]
  • Subs: the community is very protective of subs.  Maintain a respectful distance.  Do not talk to or touch a sub until you have inquired, may I?  or are you in service?  If you wish to communicate with a sub, first try to find their Dominant and ask permission (this can be easy: the sub may be standing to the side or behind their dominant, often with hands behind their back, unless they are performing a service for their dominant).  If you can’t find their Dominant, ask the sub if they have permission to talk, shake hands, hug, etc. If the sub initiates conversation or contact with you, then it’s OK to assume they have permission (agency) to do so, and you can reciprocate using the same terms, touches, distance, etc.
  • Dominants:  If you’re not sure of a person’s status, treat them as a Dom until you know otherwise.  Approach the Dom, but maintain a respectful distance and do not initiate or interrupt a conversation until recognized verbally or non-verbally.  Do not touch the Dom or anyone in the group without asking first, may I? — until you know their wishes.  For anyone new to you, follow the protocol for introductions, above.  
  • Surroundings:  Be aware of your surroundings.  Be prepared to help:  open doors for people; offer to carry things.  Don’t barge through, or cut someone off, or invade their space.  Notice if a person looks confused or lost, and offer to help.  Notice the conversation groups that have formed, and observe them until it becomes obvious who is the senior member and what their hierarchy is.  If you need to approach that group, treat the senior member as the Dominant until you know otherwise.  Always stay within visual contact of your D/s partner, so you can assist if needed.  Know where the other members of your group are, so you can help if needed.  Listen and smile more than you talk.

What do these protocols have to do with leather values?  By following them, we demonstrate loyalty to the community.  When we converse or touch using these protocols, we demonstrate integrity and honesty.  And, of course, part of radical sexuality is consent.  

In conclusion, these protocols are our ways of showing respect for our peers in the leather community.  Are any of these protocols specific to leather?  Of course not!  When we were debating what protocols to follow, JlubeJack, our family Elder, gave us all copies of Fulgham’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  At base, leather protocols are just applications of the Golden Rule your mother taught you!