For Mike Natale, growing up gay in the 1980s wasn’t easy, especially as part of a conservative Christian family in northern New Jersey. This was compounded, he says, by his interest in the leather scene, a subculture defined by kink, BDSM, and fetish wear.
“It took me some time to come to terms with it and come out as a leather man,” says Natale, adding that his journey to coming out as gay paralleled with his exploration into the leather scene.
When he was in his mid-20s, Natale visited his first leather bar in New York City and felt at home in the community. In the early 2000s, after relocating to Pittsburgh, he discovered the Three Rivers Leather Club, a leather social group that has been around since 1991 and now has about 20 members. He met his husband there and is going on his second year as the club’s president.
But while the leather scene has been around for decades, Natale says it’s still not universally accepted, even among members of the LGBTQ community with which it’s often associated. Even with the progress of LGBTQ acceptance and with the internet making certain scenes more accessible, he says members of the leather scene still face certain stigma.
Emerson Aniceto, the current titleholder for Mr. Pittsburgh Leather Fetish and Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, agrees.
“Inside the gay community they see us differently,” says Aniceto, a photographer who moved to Pittsburgh from Brazil. “There is always some kind of discrimination. But if you look, everybody has a fetish.”
As one of the organizers for Pittsburgh Leather Pride, a weekend pageant-like event taking place from Sept.26-29, he says he has tried to create a safe, welcoming place for anyone interested in the scene, regardless of gender or identity. This year, to be more inclusive, they added the Mr. Pittsburgh Leather Bear title for gay men with hairier, burlier body types. There’s also a Ms. Pittsburgh Leather Fetish title.
However, Aniceto says outsiders only see the party side of the event, which has been around for about 31 years.
“It’s more than just the kink and fetish,” says Aniceto. “We give back to the community. Not so many people see this.”
Aniceto says he has used his title as a platform to raise money for causes related to cancer, which has affected him as a three-time survivor of esophageal cancer, and his father and grandmother, who had pancreatic and breast cancer, respectively.
He also claims that Mr. Pittsburgh Leather and Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather have raised and donated thousands of dollars to help people with cancer and HIV.
Natale cites another misconception about the leather scene as being more susceptible to STDs, as members are seen as engaging in risky, unprotected sex. As a group with many older members who remember the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, he says this could not be further from the truth.
“Our older community members who were young and sexually active in the '80s, they were the ones who watched their friends die on a weekly basis,” says Natale. “We're more likely to remember that than the younger generations of gay folks, especially now that AIDS is so manageable. The consequences aren't the same as what they used to be.”
He believes this comes from a misunderstanding of the leather scene, which he defines as a “spectrum or continuum.” On one end, there are members who are more into the classic Tom of Finland look, which could include leather jackets, pants, chaps, and harnesses, but their sexual tastes tend to be less adventurous. On the other end of the spectrum are members more into the kink aspect of leather, including roleplay, which involves what Natale calls “power exchanges” between a dominant, or daddy, and a submissive.
“We have folks in our club and community who are various points along that spectrum,” says Natale.
He adds that while an element of danger is often what makes the leather scene so attractive, exchanges are based on trust, as participants consent to acts that could include anything from bondage to flogging.
Both Natale and Aniceto see Pittsburgh as having a rich leather culture and have strived to foster environments where anyone interested in the scene can explore it. However, Natale believes that, while the internet and LGBTQ dating apps like Scruff and Grindr have made it easier for the members of the leather community to connect, younger generations often lack the time or money to do so, as quality leather gear could cost hundreds of dollars.
Natale sees his group as having the “wisdom and experience” to help anyone curious about or looking for guidance into the leather scene. He and the rest of the Three Rivers Leather Club have also considered collecting and donating their old leather goods and giving them to prospective members with fewer financial resources.
“If you're this youngster with these fantasies, we want it to be known that you can trust a member of the Three Rivers Leather Club to ask the questions to get the knowledge that you need to get the experience that you want,” says Natale.