Old Guard versus Old Guard

or “Why a few decades and totally different sexuality do matter”

(A German version of this text can be found over at the “Berliner D/s Zirkel“)

Recently I scrolled through some random texts on Fetlife and once again I noticed, that the term “Old Guard” is used very differently by people, something that – at least for me – often leads to a certain twitching in the eyelid, especially, if, on the worst case, different usages are happily mixed in the same writing. Thus, here my 2 Cents on the two distinct “Old Guards”.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert. I wasn’t there. Not back then with the original, not with the other “Old Guard”. Reading some writings on the Internet, a few podcasts and videos do not make anyone an expert, at best, into an interested amateur (and if you know the term “Dunning-Kruger”, you know, that this can be the worst stage of ignorance). I really suggest that anyone who wants to dive deeper into the topic starts listening to the people who were there, for example Guy Baldwin or Hardy Haberman, who to this day holds some quite entertaining and informative talks. When you get the chance of attending, take it. And if you are lucky enough to be in the US, a visit to the Leather Archives & Museum or the Carter/Johnson Leather Library might well be worth your time. And whoever wants to correct me on something, please, feel free.

The “first” Old Guard was the original Gay Leather subculture which was formed around 1950, when (gay) veterans of World War II came back to the United States, switched their cloth uniforms with Leather and mixed with the motorcycle scene to form the first gay motorcycle clubs. Many of the peculiarities of the first Old Guard developed quite automatically: “Gay” was socially stigmatized, BDSM even more so 1 (you still could get institutionalized for it). The development into a more exclusive direction shouldn’t thus surprise anyone. But of course there were also some purely cultural details, for example the strong focus on “butch” homosexuality, as presented by the images of “Tom of Finland”: Hard men had “rough sex” with other hard men, strongly contrasting today’s more diverse queer scene. This happened, of course, also as a (conscious or subconscious) alternative to the prejudices of their society, where gay were often seen as effeminate “fairies” or “sissies”.

Without a doubt many positive things developed from this time, for example the strong solidarity, which lead to the mutual help given to gay men in need during the AIDS crisis, where the lesbian scene also played a strong, positive role.

Of course nowadays, a lot of myths and legends are around about this time. While some of them are probably complete fiction – for example the “Circle of Elders” which allegedly lead the local community from behind the scenes3 – other are probably more the generalization of local and group-specific concepts into a universal “rule”, for example the concept that one has to “earn their leather”2 (something more common in traditional biker clubs) or that everyone had to work their way up from bottom to Top3.

The “other” Old Guard, of which one often hears nowadays, is an aspect of the decidedly newer, heterosexual BDSM scene, probably starting from around 1980 to the beginning of the millennium. Sometimes the term “New Guard” is used here, but this term is also used in other contexts, for example as less formal, later form of the Gay Leather scene4. Without any doubt, much of the Gay Leather scene has influenced this culture, sometimes more direct (esp. in the US), sometimes less direct (here in Europe), but many aspects are also pretty different and there were also quite lot of different influences, for example the “Story of O” (1954), just to name one.
The biggest difference is probably the Leather, which had a lot less significance in the heterosexual scene of that time and was often replaced with formal suits – another type of uniform, but of course a very comparable (but very likely also as a distinction from the “gay” style of BDSM).

In this scene also some common ideas developed and especially in Europe there was a certain exclusivity (while in the US, with the bigger BDSM societies, some things were probably more inclusive), but of course we also have to separate those from group-specific and local ideas. Unfortunately especially in Germany, many member of that group have moved into private life and the non-existence of big organizations unfortunately leads to a distinct lack in presentations and talks of the people who where actually there – sad indeed.

In short, there are – at least – two distinct “Old Guard”, or, to be more precise, people refer to at least two different groups when talking about “Old Guard” and to prevent realizing after half an hour of arguing that you actually talked past each other the whole time, it doesn’t hurt to mention, which group you are talking about before going into specifics.

1 An Essay About “the Old Days” by Jay Wiseman (https://www.evilmonk.org/a/wiseman11.cfm)

2 Beyond Vanilla XXV Keynote by Hardy Haberman (https://leatherati.com/beyond-vanilla-xxv-keynote-e496277e4ce2)

3 The Leatherman’s Protocol Handbook, Guest Editorial Review by Guy Baldwin (https://leatherati.com/the-leathermans-protocol-handbook-guest-editorial-review-by-guy-baldwin-d462183007ff)

4 Old Guard, New Guard by Gayle Rubin (https://www.evilmonk.org/a/grubin.cfm)