The demise of SOMA leather bars

  • by David Dehner
  • Wednesday May 4, 2011
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Virtual is never real. Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary describes virtual as very close to being something without actually being it. It is an escape into a different world where the image represents something that ignites a spark of the real without the rest of the fire. And that is really the key; the rest of the fire.

A group of us huddle on a regular basis in front of the Castro Starbucks (location, location, location) and it has become what I call the Castro-Algonquin Roundtable where current events blend with our histories with an acerbic punch reminiscent of Dorothy Parker's entourage. One of the current topics centers on the downturn of fate for leather bars South of Market. Of recurring interest is the role of the Internet as it relates to their demise. Yes, there are locations with the same addresses of historic note but the music is gone. A leather bar scene as described in so many aspects of gay repute may remain only as an echo. The question is how come and why.

Now that we're well into the 21st century, communication is nothing like it used to be when furtive glances and "would he?" were part of our everyday lives. But virtual reality is not real human contact where eyes and hands and breath meet together. Over 30 years ago when I pulled up my tree by the roots and transplanted it here in San Francisco (wide-eyed and in awe), there was a hypersexual aura and blending aromas of leather, smoke, and stale beer that aroused and awakened desires that words fail to reach adequately. But it was close encounters of that leather-kind that were to draw a virtual community from all over the world into a real one where, boots-to-boots, we met in celebration: male celebration. Few can recall all of the names of our watering holes but the Brig, the Black and Blue, and the Arena should certainly help. These were times before political correctness was even in the vernacular and no woman would dare trespass and violate the enclaves reserved for this different class of gay manhood. You would find full leather support up close and personal at every coronation event but the understanding was deeply respected that drag queens would never invade the South of Market sanctum unless dressed for it, and many an empress was also a knock-out in full leather even as many of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are today. But that was then.

I am part of the online leather websites and have even met my HuzBear of some six years through I knew the dangers of letting my imagination get the run of the house as beautiful men in fantastic gear flashed into view but I also have a history that included Drummer magazine as an awakening to the scene. Almost from day one my catch-phrase became automatic when the online dialogue would become too much of infatuation and less of honesty: "It is all bullshit until we're boots-to-boots." With just that in mind, after almost half a year of Internet, telephone, and mail contact with Jorge, we agreed to risk reality and spent three entire weeks together in his home in Lisbon, Portugal and a weekend in Sardinia. We agreed that we had gone as far as we could but would never be really in love until the wonder, awe, and surprise of being together were allowed to leave imagination behind for the reality of hand-in-hand and eye-to-eye. And here we are after six years on different shores still enjoying that less than physical contact but working toward a real life as a married couple here in San Francisco, not a virtual one.

Somehow over the course of time Internet window shopping has supplanted a public glance and chance close encounters in the main. And as for the leather side of our community, there is such a finite set of parameters in the search engines we engage that our opportunity for surprise and amazement has all but disappeared entirely when not too long ago it sufficed to note what side your keys were hanging from. Still, humanity has not changed but the power tools to do the job definitely have. My question is: do you honestly know how to use them to build relationships or are you satisfied with your avatars alone?

I don't live in the past century and it is prudent to learn that any viable business won't last that does. Even the political parties that remain too grounded in traditions and lies of the past do so at their peril, and they know it. You can only resole a pair of boots a few times and likewise redesign a leather bar before it wears out. In an age of Twitter and Facebook, every gay bar now lives and dies on the whim of a virtual community if it expects to survive at all. And if you desire to build a community that meets and greets at your watering hole, you'd damned well best recognize them when they walk in the door and offer them their identity, something we in hospitality call service (what a novel concept). And as for the South of Market community, one in fact that never lives in the hovels that can be found in the local neighborhood, you'd better stake your bar claim on the fetish community from the inside out and not expect a label or location to be your reputation and means to an end. After making the rounds of four of these on a recent Friday night, I can tell you honestly that I have no need to return again. Oh, I am not alone in this you can be sure.