on the Old Guard
What is the "Old Guard"?
current Old Guard was the new form of the late 1950s and early 1960s."
"'Old Guard' is really a misnomer - a misapplied name - for the
earliest set of habits that jelled by the mid to late 1950s in the men's leather
community here in the U.S."
"If I'm going to make any point in today's rambling, it's going
to be that there never was, and never will be, an Old Guard."
These statements are as opposing as they are supporting anything which is
written about the history of late 20th century America.
Are the 'Old Guard' gay men in the military uniform of
another era? Are they the people who were the predecessors of the current
leather movement in the United States? Are they the folks in the chat rooms and
at munches telling us their ancestry for "Nth generations" is 'Old
Why can we not get one solid perspective on the history
of the "Old Guard"?
Is it perhaps because (as with so many other things
about leather) we cannot define specifically what it means? Or, is it that
the history of the time and for the people who comprise the "Old
Guard" is not as we might believe it to be today?
Napoleon and the "Old Guard":
"Soldiers of my Old Guard: I bid you farewell."
The term "Old Guard" was first used by
Napoleon Bonaparte as a means of distinguishing the veterans who had served
under him from those who were supporting the new government of 1814. He graced
these veterans with the moniker as the highest praise possible for their
devotion and loyalty to his cause and to France. After being exiled to Elba in
1814, these same veterans came to his aid and released him from his imprisonment
to return him to power until his ultimate defeat at Waterloo.
Since that time, veteran's organizations occasionally
declare themselves to be "Old Guard" as a means of denoting their
perceived deserved honor and fealty towards the government in which they served.
It is also the name since the Civil War for the US Army military area that is
charged with protecting the District of Columbia.(11)
Unlike the above, the 'leather-men' of mid 20th century
(c. 1945 - 1970) America was not self-imposed and applied. The application of
the 'handle' was used to separate them from the people who have composed the
leather community from approximately 1970 to the present. The terms most
commonly used for the modern leather community is "New Leather" or
"New Guard".(8) As with many other 'titles' in organizational human
behavior, it appears to have been originally applied as a cudgel, to demean
those who were senior in the community by denigrating them for the age they were
at and for the time spent in leather. It was used to state that they were passé
and 'out of the loop' as compared with the young Turks of "New
Relative to the awe in which some hold the "Old
Guard" currently, this appears to have backfired. But then, we must keep in
mind: history is one part fact, one part remembrance, and one part legend.
Unfortunately, the legend of the Old Guard has taken on a life of its own,
usurping the facts and despoiling the memory of those who were there.
History in the 'Making' or the 'Making' of History?
One of the advantages of the historian is the ability
to interpret happenings based on his interviews, readings, research and
intuition about the rest.
Some critics of the historical essays and books (in
general) declare that if the writer 'interprets' the history (in any way) he is
'debasing the reality' of it through the addition of a unique perspective and
insight into the people and the happenings under study. Of course, this
generally means that the critic sees the subject of the writing in a different
light or perspective than the writer did.
Many times historians will make their mark on the
community (of historians) through a unique perspective or a revelation that may
not be readily apparent, or spoken of. This brings them the acclaim of the
public for the way things had occurred as different in some manner (especially
if it is titillating). They may not agree with the gist of another writer's
writings and would like to (in turn) correct our interpretation of what the
other said "in the interest of truth" (I never really liked that
However, when people write, no matter how stringent a
purist, they impart some of their own ideals and thoughts onto the things and
the people written about. In doing so, the more that is recorded, archived, or
fantasized about the subject, the more it deviates from whatever the actuality
of it was.
Besides the deviation of whatever is compiled and
written from the 'historical reality' there is the alteration of perspective
coming from the source of the information (the interviewees, other literary or
archival sources, subjective observation).
Luckily, for us, much of this perspective is from the
writing and the interviews of people still living or known when they are living.
But, regardless of the 'live sources', "Bill's" observations in
Seattle will not be what "Craig's" perspectives were in Miami and
"George's" experience in Miami may not mesh with "Craig's".
There is a definitive differentiation in experience and observations that lends
confusion to the 'overall picture' for a societal phenomenon such as this.
Inconsistency and the "Gray Areas":
It doesn't help when the historical basis for the
writings about the 'Old Guard' is muddled.
We are told the individuals and groups comprising the
'Old Guard' were started by gay veterans returning home from World War 2. If you
have read these histories (4, 5, 6, 7) and accounts of the group dynamics, it
may appear as though the "Old Guard" sprang up suddenly with protocol
already entrenched through osmosis and the magic of spontaneous institution.
There is no 'pre-history' of the true organizations mentioned. It is as though
these groups sprang up over night.
Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Bean, and others speak of the mid
fifties for the first known appearance of these groups without attribution
towards what specific group(s) appeared and when, general location of where they
may have been based, or how the information may have been spread to form any
sort of cohesion in behavior or social mannerism. (1, 4, 5)
We can suppose that the communication among men
returning (contact with others coast to coast who may have been in the same
military outfit, etc.) was ardent right after the war. But, it would be a
grotesque misrepresentation to state that they all used specific protocols
(coast to coast and North and South) in a spontaneously cohesive way.
Certainly we can believe that these "norms"
slowly developed through talk and interaction of the regions and groups over the
years that passed, and relative conformity for "high protocols" became
more standardized. But, there would always be dissenters, people who will never
conform to a set of standards demanded of them by others. There would always be
those (as well) who thought specific rules were 'silly' and would not care to
partake in them. So a homogenous set of rules for all gay men in leather would
be a practical impossibility.
Organizations (unless there is a 'downside' or
'penalty' - and, sometimes even then) will never get members to follow specific
rules that are outside of that person's experiential and social desires. So,
claims that someone knows the "true" or "real" way of
'Old Guard' behavior or mannerisms may be 'simple fraud' or a misunderstanding
about what they read, what they were told, or what they observed. Certainly
someone might get 'turned out' of the social circle in which they desire to
belong for non-conformity, but some of these are the people who would then go
and start their own group (12), altering any historical "certainty"
through which we might definitively state was the "one true way" or
"protocol" that they used.
History is fraught with writings on cultures that have
formed sets of rules and culturally accepted behavior. They did not come to
these through a conscious effort (necessarily) but, through trial and error
experiential expertise about what works, what does not work, what is
'fashionable' and the region of that culture's development (which often plays a
key role in the developments realized). The core group of these men who might
have formed societies had a lot in common. They had the country, the experience
of military regimen, the experience of active warfare (some more, some less, but
commonly), the feeling of dissociation due to their (socially described as
deviant) sexuality and separation from a life (the military) that had been their
total experience for several years.
This provides key elements for a potential generic
grouping (in later years by our leather historians/detractors) as "Old
Guard". The term is not incorrectly applied, no matter the reason for it's
initial application or the protestations of the people it describes.
The Internet and
But what have we, in the
internet age, done to develop this deviational dynamic of "drift" in
the historical renditions of what they were and what they did (way back when)?
Quite a bit, actually.
Recent writing by senior and 'revered' leather folks
shows their disgust at the misapplication of this term and fantastical claims
lodged about them (the time and the people).
The internet is a great outlet for groups desiring
something more in their lives than what is present in their 'reality' and
day-to-day life. But, in seeking out "leather on line", many of the
electronic dominants and submissives are reading and (either) misinterpreting
what it meant by the term "Old Guard" or (blatantly) developing their
own fantastical histories to support some quirk or need they have. In doing
this, (unfortunately) many people have been mislead about what the "Old
Guard" were and what they meant to leather communities that were to come.
I have heard everything on line and in real life from
"I am Old Guard" (from a 22 year old heterosexual male) to "I was
raised in an Old Guard family" from someone who was openly wondering (a few
sentences before) if "…leather would be in fashion this fall".
These statements really show more about the ignorance
of the person speaking than they could ever possibly say about what the history
of our culture (is and was).
But, what this does is feed additional misinformation to people who really do
not know about any of this and they (in turn) tell others of their
"knowledge" of the 'Old Guard' based upon this.
We are re-creating a culture's history through the
legend and myth of 'oft told tales' on the web.
The 'Old Guard' are the folks who pioneered the leather
They were mostly comprised of gay men recently out of uniform looking for
something that they would never have found had they not made it their reality.
They were not heroic visages that the web has created,
but people who (for the most part) held jobs, shopped for groceries and found
the time to make a life. They did this amidst a culture that abandoned them for
their sexuality and a community embarrassed by their aspired proclivities.
Tendencies that would come to be known as BDSM in the decades to come.
The name was applied to them first in derision and
later in awe for something they never were, myths.
The 'Old Guard' was a time in American leather history.
They were a group of men outcast from their communities (through their own needs
and preferences). In being so, they found meaning through the
implementation of a loose social order, which they created (not necessarily by
means of popular vote). Through tried and true behaviors this social order became
the traditions and customs of an insular culture.
They were something we have made into legend through
our own perceptions and expectations of what we "Think" it should have been, not
necessarily what it was.
"BDSM -- Old Guard? If You say so."
Myth of the Old Guard"
Interview with Tony DeBlase by Jack Rinella
Old Guard (The History of Leather Traditions)" by Guy Baldwin
Leather Restoration: Sacred Cows Make the best Hamburger"
by Guy Baldwin MS Speech; Leather Leadership Conf 6 / 04-14-2002
Essay About 'the Old Days'" By Jay Weisman
7. "Leatherfolk - radical sex, people,
politics, and practice" edited by Mark Thompson, Alyson Books
8. "Leatherman's Handbook"
by Larry Townsend, silver jubilee edition, 1997 LT Productions
de le Garde Imperiale"
10. http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/napoleon.htm Napoleon's
speech to his men
11. http://www.mdw.army.mil/fs-g11.htm The
US Army, District of Columbia Military District
12. "The Wild One" 1954,
movie, screenplay by John Paxton, based on the story by Frank Rooney, starring
Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, Stanley Kramer/Columbia Production