Drummer magazine founder John Embry dies

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Wednesday October 13, 2010
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John H. Embry, a pioneering gay author, Drummer magazine publisher, and activist died in his sleep on the morning of Thursday, September 16 at his home in San Francisco. He was 83.

After a successful career in advertising and marketing, Mr. Embry founded Drummer, the groundbreaking and most successful national publication for gay men in the leather lifestyle. Mr. Embry published the magazine from its inception in 1975 until 1986 when he sold it.

Mr. Embry and founding editor Jeanne Barney shared a vision: To produce a magazine that celebrated the masculine gay male, while embracing the literary values of the Evergreen Review, a publication famous for content that was counter to the culture and sexy. As such, they attracted such talent as Phil Andros (Sam Steward), Scott Masters (Edward Menerth), Fred Halsted, Tom of Finland, Harry Bush, and Robert Opel, among others.

Friends said that it is impossible to overstate the importance of Drummer. For the first time, gay men across the country �" particularly gay men in small-town America �" saw masculine images of themselves and not the stereotypes presented in mainstream media. Through their encounter with Drummer , many gay men realized that there were others like themselves "out there." At the same time, the magazine highlighted gay leather bars and businesses and gave those establishments a national venue.

The impact became even greater when, because of police harassment in Los Angeles, the magazine moved to San Francisco in 1977, generating an influx of gay leathermen to the Bay Area.

Jerry Lasley, Mr. Embry's business partner and husband remembered: "Drummer presented an image of gay men previously unknown to me. When I saw the photos of the hot guys having fun at the Drummer parties in San Francisco, I gave two weeks notice and headed west."

Drummer was a significant contributor to the creation of the international leather community and gave birth to such famous San Francisco social events as the California Motorcycle Club Carnival and the Mr. Drummer contest.

Longtime San Francisco leather community organizer Peter Fisk remembered Mr. Embry.

"John Embry was a pioneer of leather who made gay male leather/SM writing and art available to a whole generation of leathermen," Fiske said. "Those men were inspired and creatively brought out by his Drummer magazine and other magazines over a 35-year period of leather history. His influence is still felt today in gay men's mass media of all kinds, not just porno, but in mainstream gay media of all kinds from movies to art and writing."

Prior to starting Drummer magazine Mr. Embry was active in and served as president of the Homophile Effort for Legal Protection. The membership organization secured access to bail and sympathetic attorneys for gay men who were victims of the Los Angeles Police Department's campaign of entrapment in the early 1970s. At that time entrapment of gay men was a lucrative source of income for the legal juggernaut of attorneys, jails, and courts in LA. Extortionist attorneys would tell clients to cop a plea, a huge fine would be paid, and everybody but the gay victim of this legal abuse would benefit, friends recalled. Because the HELP attorneys would actually fight the charges, entrapment victims began winning cases. Those wins eventually led to the police department discontinuing the raids as they became unprofitable. It also made Mr. Embry an enemy in the eyes of the LAPD and its notorious chief, Ed Davis.

According to friends, for the next few years Davis and the LAPD kept their eye on Mr. Embry, looking for an excuse to pay him back for helping to ruin their entrapment scam. That chance arose in 1975 when Drummer sponsored a benefit for the Leather Fraternity, Gay Community Services Center, and other community organizations. The entertainment included a mock "slave" auction. Part way through the evening the LAPD began a massive raid involving over 105 police officers, helicopters, and dozen of police cars. Mr. Embry, other men, and one woman were charged with an 1874 statute against trafficking in human slaves, a felony.

The police assault was a watershed moment for the LA LGBT community. In the words of event co-organizer and arrestee Barney: "I saw people really come together. Everyone was so incensed at this: We got the West Hollywood sweater queens, the leather queens, the drag queens, the Morris Kight people ... an amazing show of solidarity."

Davis justified the massive assault as compensatory because for years the LAPD had been, in his words "cowed" [into] "being too lenient [by] the most powerful lobby in the city, the homosexual community."

Felony charges were eventually dropped but misdemeanor charges of pimping and pandering were pressed against Mr. Embry and three others. Ultimately the community outrage and organizing sparked by the raid helped immeasurably to advance LGBT rights in Los Angeles.

Mr. Embry was born in 1926 in Winslow, Arizona. At 18 he moved to Los Angeles and attended art school before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1949. After leaving the Army he pursued a career in advertising in LA, Hawaii, and New York City before turning to publishing in the fledgling gay media.

In addition to Lasley, Mr. Embry is survived by the couple's San Francisco family, especially Warner Graves, James Karson, and Eric Ganther; his brother and sister-in-law, Norman and Betty Embry of Pomona; his two beloved Siamese cats, Mason and Phoebe; as well as fans and friends throughout the world.

There will be a memorial celebration of Mr. Embry's life on October 30. For details call (415) 595-4584.