The Sexy, Liberating History of the Gay Leather Bar on 'AHS: NYC'
The new 'American Horror Story' season makes the leather bars murderous, but in reality they've been a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community.
The walls are painted black; the lighting dimmed to the point you can only see what's in front of you. Masculine faces and bodies take up the perimeter; many are shirtless, wearing harnesses or leather gear; some try to lock eyes with you. But, of course, if you're only experiencing a gay leather bar via fiction on a screen, such flamboyant promiscuity must mean that danger is near.
The mystique and allure of gay leather bars make them such a convincing setting for trouble. For over 40 years since 1980's Cruising, New York’s gay leather bars have been the stomping grounds for partying, drugs, and sex, but never without violence or death. Their reputation has been branded by heteronormative Hollywood producers aiming to entertain, not educate. Yet, historically, gay leather bars have stood at the forefront of sexual liberation, serving as a breeding ground for community values, a torch for resilience, and often the only available way gay men could safely experience freedom.
In American Horror Story: NYC, watching Patrick (Russell Tovey) and Gino (Joe Mantello) venture into a gay leather bar looks like the fun nights you'd spend at places like the Eagle NYC or the Cock (sans trying to find a serial killer targeting gay men). In real life, the seconds pass with less dread, and there's no film score of doom. Instead, there's more likely dance-worthy beats, laughing, kissing, or losing your shirt, and bartenders who can easily identify what patrons aren't regulars.
Derek Danton says when he moved to New York in 1980, that atmosphere is precisely what he found inside The Eagle’s Nest. It was a gay leather/Levi bar founded by Jack Modica, but to Danton, it was just a place for gay men to hang out and be a part of a community, despite homophobic police raids. The Stonewall Riots made gay owners and patrons bolder and more empowered to create, label, and fight for safe spaces for themselves.
At the Eagle’s Nest, you could find guys in construction boots, Levi jeans, and white T-shirts; there were men in western gear, not to mention sports fans like Danton. This is not to say there wasn't a leather culture or patrons there to pick up other men; the bar meant various things to various people.
In 2001, Danton and his partner Robert Berk purchased the Eagle brand from Modica, and they reopened as Eagle NYC at its current 28th Street location in Chelsea. "We've tried really hard to keep those [community] sentiments alive," says Danton. "The Eagle has always sponsored softball teams. That's not a leather scene—it was a community thing. They had brunches. They had a kitchen, so they had lunches. Jack was adamant about keeping the Eagle open during the holidays because he said not everybody has a family to go home to, so we want to be that family."
Queer historian and author Hugh Ryan tells Thrillist that gay leather culture is derived from a much larger movement of rebels and the idealization of masculinity that arose following World War II. He says to think about the macho motorcycle-riding outlaw who doesn't care about society's rules. Throughout the existence of gay leather bars, they’ve been criticized for misogyny, controversial views on consent, and a culture of drug use.
“The presence of any policing, whether 'official' or in unofficial ways, was often seen as onerous and dangerous to gay people,” says Ryan. "But we get more of a focus on these bars because they are so sexual, because they appear disreputable, and they're easy to already look down upon in many ways."
Eagle NYC’s owner doesn’t deny aspects of the brand’s complicated history, but he has made sure it evolves with the times and continues to make the table bigger for all LGBTQ+ people. Danton adds that if a gay leather bar looks familiar on this season’s AHS, it’s because they filmed at yours truly.
AHS: NYC’s assistant set decorator Christopher Kelley says it was non-negotiable for them to achieve authenticity when portraying gay leather and kink settings and not to use them as a punchline. In the series, death is never glamorized or fetishized. Violence seems to take place off-camera, and the audience is left focusing on the outcome of death—or how it directly impacts the characters.
"That's one thing I'm profoundly grateful for this season of AHS: It is lovingly crafted by and for the community," says Kelley. "We have to think about the impact media has on marginalized bodies. If someone sees themselves on television or in a movie—perhaps a young college kid sees Cruising for the first time and sees that being into leather is likened to being 'dangerous' or into 'violence'—what kind of harm is inflicted upon them?”
Mainstream society might be "woke" regarding casual sex or dildos, but sexual deviancy is still associated with maleficence. Kelley says that if the audience reads the characters as promiscuous and therefore deserving of punishment, then the audience is just as bad as the monsters shown on the screen.
Coincidently, Kelley credits the leather community with saving his life and was recently crowned Mr. Eagle 2023. It’s a leather pageant that was part of the traditions Danton and his now-husband carried over from Modica. Dantons says that they had 13 former Mr. Eagles present this year to show support. The Mr. Eagles are often the faces hosting kinky events and supporting causes for every marginalized letter, while still championing their own. According to a bartender who has worked at the Eagle NYC since 1993, when it was the New York Eagle at its former location, the contest has been held since Modica opened the bar in 1970.
The communities at gay leather bars have an unwavering sense of duty and loyalty that you likely won't get from the anonymous gay hookups on the show. But they’re not mutually exclusive of each other, and gay men shouldn't need to choose between pleasure or their humanity.
Gay bar owners have followed in Danton’s footsteps, and the "Eagle" name has been adopted by gay bars in cities across the country, choosing to honor the history of queer liberation and continuing the celebration of leather and kink. But, unfortunately, what the Eagle stands for is at risk of becoming only a memory.
Greggor Mattson, Professor of Sociology at Oberlin College and Conservatory, visited 250 LGBTQ+ bars in the United States and interviewed their owners to write his upcoming book, Who Needs Gay Bars?. He tells Thrillist that when he did a census of gay bars with his students, they only found about 40 "cruisy" men's bars, which included bear bars, strip clubs, leather bars, and kink bars. They are the fastest-closing type of LGBTQ+ bar in the United States; however, Lesbian bars are the most endangered, with a mere 21 locations, perhaps now less. For reference, according to Mattson’s count using the Damron Guide, in 1987, there were 300 ‘cruisy’ bars; in 2007, there were 141; 74 in 2019; that brings us to 2021, 40. Owners speculate that the rise of geo-locating dating apps gave the internet a monopoly on gay hookup culture.
What's at stake in being lost is vulnerability and a sense of belonging that cannot be replicated in the apps. When you’re surrounded by men who unabashedly have sex with men, a titillating sensation takes over your body and transforms you into your boldest, purist form. "In environments where there's a lot of people cruising, other researchers, including Jay Orne, have found that people are more willing to have frank conversations with strangers," says Mattson. "Whether that be negotiating serostatus or just talking about trauma from growing up—hese are not necessarily the conversations that happen at sports bars, or even at your everyday gay bar."
Zachary Zane, a sex expert for the queer cruising app Sniffies, wrote a piece for the Advocate announcing he wasn't queer until he found leather. It was a starter set gifted to him by a gay uncle, including leather harnesses, suspenders, assless chaps, vests, collars, bracelets, a cock ring, a book called Leatherman's Handbook II, and reusable medical gloves. He says, "I know that when I came out as bisexual while living in Boston, I wasn't welcomed into the gay world with open arms. I felt many of the gays were cliquey and homonormative. But I eventually did find acceptance in the leather scene at leather bars. These daddies welcomed me with open arms. I felt part of a community for the first time since coming out."
Luis Diaz, a regular at the Eagle NYC, says he likes the look of it. Nothing makes him feel more confident than putting on a pair of tall boots and a leather jacket. But he says it's not just about getting in gear and being naughty at bars; leather culture is a brotherhood of like-minded people who aren't sexually inhibited.
"I had heard of the Eagle since I came out in 2005, but never thought I would go to such a bar. I grew up in a conservative Christian family, so there were just some things I would shy away from, like ‘extreme’ types of sex and S&M culture."
The fact gay leather bars are unwilling to dispel the fiber of what makes them unique will continue to inspire hesitation and criticism among folks watching behind the bars of heteronormativity. A safe space is something no marginalized group who knows their history will ever take for granted. Regardless, the undefinable bonds that exist among gay men will always pose a threat to the structures of society.
For those worried about the future of Eagle NYC, owner Danton says to relax and come enjoy a drink. Newcomers might be surprised it’s not underground but has multiple floors, a trendy merch store, and a lovely patio roof deck. The bar is newly renovated, and he just signed a lease to ensure every queer person in New York, daring for a good time, has a place to congregate, express themselves, and be free for the next fifteen years—and in gay years, that’s basically forever.