The Women of Leather: Bringing a Sub-Subculture to Light

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 15, 2010

Women who are into leather constitute a sub-community within a subculture. For that reason--and more likely, because of its innate macho nature--the contributions of women to the leather community have long been overlooked. For most, images of muscle-bound leathermen dominate the social dialogue and the image of who's into leather--and who's not.

Two women are looking to change that via a new project facilitated through Chicago's Leather Archives & Museum. Sarah Humble and her partner Leigha Fleming have spearheaded an ambitious new venture to collect and preserve the history of women's leather with hopes of expanding the museum's collection of women's memorabilia.

"We are responsible for collecting and honoring our own histories," said Humble of the project, an idea she and Fleming had brewing in their heads for years. "We are the ones who need to do it, and we're ready to do so."

Launching their project with the start of the year, Humble and Fleming have dedicated 2010 to the gathering of materials of all sorts. The are looking for everything-- papers, media, books, pictures, artifacts. They will also be conducting interviews with leatherwomen all over the world.

Their response has already been impressive over the past month. They've already received donations from individuals including prominent names such as Vi Johnson, Kat Sunlove and Jan Lyon. Organizations including the Southwest Leather Conference have also been supportive of their efforts. They hope to unveil the exhibit at the Leather Archives & Museum with the start of the new year, in January 2011.

Humble said an inclusive perspective was essential to the project's success, and she was excited at the prospect of including the contributions of transgender, bisexual, heterosexual and women of color. She hoped participants would range from women who'd only attended one play party up to those names at the forefront of the community.

"We're not just asking for titleholders, stars or owners of clubs to be a part of this," Humble said. "We want everyday women to send us whatever they have."

A timeline exploring the transgender community's kinky past is particularly significant to women's history in leather. Patrick Califia, the activist credited for the emergence the lesbian leather subculture in San Francisco in the 1970s, later transitioned to male.

Califia founded Samois, a lesbian-feminist BDSM organization, in 1978. It was one of the first such organizations for the subculture, and its tradition lived on through such groups as the Outcasts and the Exiles, a group still active today.

Humble and Fleming will be present next at the SouthPlains Leatherfest in Dallas from Feb. 26-28 as they continue to collect stories via oral histories, a particular focus of the project. Humble said they had interviews lined up for the next six months, testament that this history's telling is long overdue.

While gender barriers may previously stood in the way for a project like theirs, Humble feels like the time has never been better for leatherwomen to document and celebrate their history.

"We could have done this five or six years ago, but nobody stepped up and said they would do it, so we did," Humble said. "Every woman in the leather community has made it a little easier for the next woman to come along and we want to focus on all of their stories."

Log-on to their website for more information on the Women's Leather History Project at LA&M.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.