Editor’s Note: The article below by Guy Baldwin on the Old Guard is the first and only reprint of this piece that Mr. Baldwin has ever authorized. It appeared in Issue 20 of International Leatherman (now extinct) in October, 1998. The essay is copywritten so while you may link to it, reproducing any of it anywhere without Baldwin’s permission would be both illegal and disrespectful.
by Guy Baldwin
I am continually surprised at how frequently conversation in what I’ll call “leather circles” turns to “The Old Guard.” Whether it is on the Internet, at any of the various leather conventions held all around the country nowadays, at contests, in bars, or even over a card game, the Old Guard seems like the topic that will not die. Even more interesting to me is the fact that, except for rank novices, almost everyone seems ready to offer comment on it. When I occasionally turn up at leather events, I am quizzed endlessly and carefully about it. The longish essay I published about it back in the late 80’s remains one of the most frequently quoted things I’ve ever written.
Stranger still is the fact that the Old Guard is usually talked about by people who weren’t part of it as though it were some kind of monolithic, behemoth… homogeneous and static, neither of which was the case… is the case, because yes, the Old Guard is still around and still functioning, although the passage of time pretty much seems to guarantee that it is slowly being transformed into myth and legend as ever fewer and fewer of us are around to offer real descriptions of it. Perhaps the reason it remains a topic of interest is that attempts to describe it as a rigid and dead thing rather than an evolving, living cultural entity will always be doomed to failure. And so, I’ve decided to try to shed a bit more light on the Old Guard, perhaps by trying to talk about it in some different ways.
The Golden Age of Leather
At the risk of annoying bunches of people, I feel safe in saying that the first Golden Age of Leather occurred from about 1972, when the war in Vietnam ended, till about 1982. Depending on where one lived, it began a bit earlier (in the bigger cities) and ended a bit later (in smaller cities). But by 1983 it was clearly in decline as disease began to rear its ugly head, first with reports of rampant intestinal diseases (mostly parasites and something that was called “Gay Bowel Syndrome”), and then with early reports of the “gay cancer,” which gave way to GRID (Gay-Related Immune Disorder), and finally to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). By 1985, the party was over or ending in most places. The wind had been knocked out of the sails of the leather world as we had known it, and we began to hunker down for the long night’s journey toward daylight, which may only now be dawning. The jury is still out on that one, however.