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A Brief History of Leatherbars

(Featuring the DC Eagle)

Posted with the author's permission.

DC Eagle logo.  Leatherman standing in front of huge eagle wings

You want leather history? Let me describe the D.C. Eagle at its original New York Avenue location and how it embodied the leather ethos of Olde. First, the derelict neighborhood…. Nowhere near the well trafficked “gayborhoods” of Dupont Circle so they don’t get a lot of twinks wandering in and wrecking the vibe. We have always favored waterfront docks, industrial zones standing empty after dark, or meatpacking areas where the streets reek of tainted blood. Bad places in bad neighborhoods for bad people. Places where tourists don’t go, where cops don’t bother to patrol, where man to man mischief is unlikely to be interrupted. Places where they wouldn’t 86 you for committing crimes against nature while seated at the bar.

Take note of the Eagle’s all black façade before you duck inside. The windows are boarded up and painted over to prevent prying eyes outside from identifying the guests. That’s standard. And let’s not rush past the name. There used to be at least a hundred different leather bars scattered across the USA all called the Eagle,. It used to be that if you were a lonesome leatherman in a new town you could simply flip open the yellow pages and look to see if there was an “Eagle” somewhere downtown, perhaps with a graphic showing motorcycle imagery.

DC Eagel at it's original location:  A three  story brown brick builing on New York Avenue

Image source: David on Instagram

Step through the door and give your eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness within. Step up to the bar and order a drink. At the DC Eagle your first beer is free. Tip your bartender well, and notice the massive US flag painted on corrugated steel and bolted to the wall. Someone has gotten into the Holiday spirit by hanging a framed drawing of a fetishy Santa, head to toe in gleaming black rubber posing next to a reindeer wearing a bondage collar and a gasmask. Help yourself to a matchbook emblazoned with the club logo, and one of the pens marked “Stolen from the DC Eagle.” It’s chained up in the winter, but there is a rooftop patio where they hold weenie roasts and barbeques come springtime.

Observe the rough and tumble crowd, and don’t forget to notice the standard queer signifiers you do not see. By this I mean, tennis shoes, sweaters, makeup, poofy hair, or any of the queenly affectations of days gone by. There are no bootblacks working tonight but on a busy Saturday night I wouldn’t be surprised to see several going at once. Notice, also, that Leathermen tend to skew older than the guys you might find in a twink bar. Hairier, too. Bear culture emerged from the same hyper-masculine roots as leather. If the DC Eagle were your local spot, you would already know it to be home turf to Sigma, a fraternal organization of SM practicing men, whose private clubhouse is just around the corner. This meant that if you were a Sigma club brother you could cruise the Eagle at your leisure, make a new friend, take them down the street, and continue the evening in a private space stocked to the rafters with rope, paddles, floggers and dungeon equipment. Good times.

Climb the stairwell to the secluded second floor and marvel at the Harley Panhead suspended fifteen feet in the air by heavy industrial chain and the black boot dangling beside it that the bartenders use for a tip jar. Take some time to admire the stunning stained glass windows that show the club emblems for the Spartans, Defenders and other fraternal MCs who have made the DC Eagle their clubhouse. Let your eyes traverse the entire wall of mugs for members of the Highwaymen, the Baltimore Shipmates, Potomac MC, the Lost Angels, and other clubs now living only in memory. Note the club pennants for out-of-town units like the Long Island Ravens, Connecticut Thunderbolts, and Philadelphians who made the Eagle a point of destination on weekend runs and their D.C. home away from home.

Take special note of the banner for Sigma, the most explicitly SM oriented of the local patch clubs, and give an old school nod to recently chartered clubs like Men of Discipline and DC Boys of Leather: new school clubs adhering to the old school ways. When a motorcycle club holds a “club night” at the Eagle, they take a club pennant down from the wall and mount it prominently over the bar so you can see it from the front door. "Hanging the colors" for Shipmates MC lets everyone know that the boys from Baltimore are in town and that the DC Eagle is their clubhouse for the night. Make sure to admire the leathery, lusty homoerotic art by local artists, as well as master prints by Rex, Tom of Finland and Ettienne (more about him in a minute). And notice the annual group photos of the cycling clubs who drank. Look closely, and you may notice the occasional club brother who, for reasons of his own, had to turn and hide his face at the moment of the camera flash.

Check the posted club calendar for holiday events. Most Leatherbars do big business on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The DC Eagle serves up a big Turkey Day feast with all the trimmimgs. A lot of regulars were disowned by their blood families long ago, and one advantage of having a leatherbar nearby is that you don’t have to endure the holidays alone. Look to see if any run nights are scheduled. Some places offer “helmet drinks”, a free first round for biker clubs passing through. Also popular at the Eagle are “blackout nights,” where the upper floors are lit only by candlelight. This is a tradition begun decades ago when a breaker exploded upstairs and plunged the Eagle into total darkness. Instead of closing shop, they put out what few tea candles they had in stock and let the locals grope around as best they could. It was such a hit that they started doing it on a regular basis.

DC Eagel Christmas Flyer

You don’t see a lot of leatherdykes at the Eagle but there are usually a few, often in the shadows of the second floor, since the gay male vibe around the bar downstairs is pretty darn thick. Some leatherbars refuse women at the door, but not the DC Eagle. Not since Mistress Diane, made a big kerfuffle at the front door some years ago. Yelled at the bouncer when he denied her entry. Came back again and again. Threatened legal action. Finally became a regular. Sure the Eagle is principally a men’s bar but leather is a tribe that transcends gender. Oh Look, there’s Glenda Rider and Sarah Humble catching up with a clutch of other women, dressed like they are in jeans, boots, leather run vests and hardly any makeup. Glenda and Sarah are owners of Playhouse Studios, a combination SM club and fetish art gallery in Baltimore. Check it out if you find yourself in the City of Brotherly Love.

Since I am writing from the shady interior of a vintage old school leatherbar, let’s discuss how leatherbars came about. Just as the black leather jacket emerged from cycling, leather bars grew from the biker bar tradition. The classic biker bar was a no frills joint. Truck stop cuisine. No fancy drinks: beer and shots only. And a wait staff that wouldn’t blink if twenty mud caked riders all rolled in together for a bite. It’s décor might include neon beer signs, old pool table, a loud jukebox. Down and dirty cyclists made up a lot of the clientele, many of them veterans, so the US flag was often on display (down south some fly the Stars and Bars too).

Brick wall in the Eagle with American Flag displayed.

Image source: Washington Citypaper

In short, a biker bar was a frontier saloon right out of a John Ford western: a cowboy hangout for the machine age where riders rode motorbikes, and cycling clubs held their pit stops for beer busts and pub crawls. The only problem with biker bars was the fact that a lot of them were openly hostile to gay men. Like Barney’s Original Beanery in West Hollywood, with its wooden sign behind the bar reading “FAGGOTS STAY OUT.”

Bartender standing in front of a sign reading "Faggots stay out"
Barney Anthony with sign he put up his bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. This photo appeared in a report about "Homosexuality in America" in Life magazine (the June 26, 1964 issue.)
Closer look at the infamous "Stay Out" sign behind the bar at Barney’s Beanery

This brings us to the second major influence on leatherbar development: the queer friendly drinking spot. Bars have always played a central role in gay public life. But you couldn’t just look up “Gay bars” in the yellow pages. If you wanted to find one, you had to know where to go, and on what nights. And publicity usually got around by word of mouth alone. This low-profile secrecy was for practical reasons. If a bar picked up a reputation for gay clientele, the authorities would show up, with a warning to shape up, or close down. Eighteen months was a good long run for a gay bar in those days, and even that was impossible without payoffs to the cops, the mob, or both. The places that tolerated gay visitors weren’t often really gay bars like we have now, just dens of iniquity where all the dregs of society found themselves corralled together far from the scolding eyes of more respectable folks. This could include crossdressers, pickpockets, prostitutes, dykes, dealers, hustlers, johns junkies, pimps, and the ever-present heterosexual looky-loos who came to gawk at the freak show. Most of those places were mafia owned. As far as the mob was concerned, hang outs for sexual outlaws and other riff raff were good business. The booze was usually stolen from hijacked trucks and drinks were served at double the price they would fetch in a straight establishment. Plus the mafia enjoyed longstanding relationships with law enforcement who, for the right price, could occasionally be moved to stay out of their way. And the mob owned all the jukeboxes, cigarette machines, and towel service. They even took a cut of the action from any hustlers, dealers, or pickpockets working the room.

But even in a mafia joint, there were no guarantees. Raids and shakedowns happened anyway. Sometimes the cops just showed up with clubs drawn, and started cracking heads until someone handed them a nice wad of cash. Sometimes they would just back the paddy wagon up against the front door, load it to capacity, then lock it down, letting the rest go free. Vice cops routinely ran the plates of cars parked out in front, so you always parked a few blocks away, even when it was raining. It sucked, but with more "respectable" social venues denied us, what could we do?

Men who identified as Leather didn’t have dedicated spaces if their own. Instead, we met in what we used to call “men’s bars” or “Rough trade” joints. Rough trade was a hustling term describing straight guys who will trick for men, for cash. But it had other meanings too. It meant ungroomed, sweaty, working class masculinity. Rough trade meant tattoos when tattoos implied criminality, rather than hipster cache. It meant someone who was good with his hands and at home in his body. It often held transgressive racial undertones: Latin lovers, swarthy Mediteraneans, and men of color at a time when they never appeared in magazine ads. Rough trade encompassed a wide range of fantasy archetypes: Lorry drivers; Construction workers; Security guards; Dockers. And it held a monetary connotation as well: the power dynamic of one man buying another for his own pleasure. In short rough trade joints were exactly the kinds of places that leatherclub patchmen like the Satyrs or Oedipus might feel most at home. They were nothing to brag about; just working class dumps too mangy to care what their clients did in the dark. But if you got lucky in one, you’d probably return for more on some other night. And in time, a place could earn a rep for rough and ready action.

DC Eagle at a different location in May 2016

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More about the DC Eagle

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About Other Leather Bars Named "the Eagle"

"The Original Eagle's Nest NYC - the long gone Gay Leather Mecca!" (VIDEO 11:36)
by Timmmy k
Video of the Original Gay Leather Mecca prior to its closing

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