2014 Leather Hall of Fame Inductee

John Embry (1926-2010)

John Embry1926 – September 16, 2010

John Embry was a businessman who created, funded and grew a publishing business targeting a demographic of gay men who craved masculine representations of themselves and their erotic fantasies. Drummer magazine emerged as a foundational publication that featured the hypermasculine and homomasculine male with kinky proclivities. The magazine and the business operations that supported it created a community of men who at the time often did not have a sense of belonging to the mainstream gay men's community. Drummer created a forum for isolated individuals and allowed for existing institutions to be more easily identified and accessed. It generated a common culture and shared language that helped integrate local communities into a more national conversation. It gave these men images to masturbate to, to relate to, to identify with, and that served to further empower and grow a fledgling community. Perhaps the original intent of Drummer was to sup port a mail order business of cock rings and poppers, but the happy accident was its critical role in the creation of an international leather and S/M community. Drummer experienced rapid growth as it moved beyond just a porn magazine into a defining publication for an entire lifestyle of gay men who wanted to express a certain style of masculinity in their homosexuality as well as practice BDSM and other edgier forms of sexuality. The maga zine became an adjective as it influenced gay leather culture. Looks and styles were described as “Drummer-like” or “Drummer-esque” as the magazine published photos, articles, advice, person als ads and advertisements for places where gay men who identified with leather, BDSM and kink could meet for sex and social connection. Fantasies were published that became “lived experiences” among men who wanted to live the life that Drummer showed them was possible.

Drummer is a record of what transpired in the leather and BDSM community. It was the go-to fuel for fantasies while also providing commentary on the community that supported it. There was no other publication in the gay community that provided all of these aspects, and no magazine since has been able to combine porn, commentary and literature to such a large reading audience.

Collections of Drummer are prized today. The magazine is collected by those who want: documentation and remembrances of their youth; a piece of history that spawned the formation of the modern leather, kink and BDSM communities; or who want to read firsthand the material that the initial leather trailblazers read during the early scene covering the 1970s to well into the 1990s.

The magazine published voices that could be heard without censorship. It was porn, education and culture all wrapped up in one publication. Writers explored their own fantasies and fetishes, sharing them with a hungry and receptive readership. The magazine had an established base of subscribers who passed it along to others and increased the publication's overall influence and circulation.

The magazine was one of the first publications to print material centered around leather and gay masculinity. The images the magazine published were counter to the historically disempowered gay male, the “sissy.” Drummer published images of masculine, muscular men in jeans and leather.

When John Embry passed away in 2010, the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter published an obituary that reflected the power and influence 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 high-lighted gay leather bars and businesses and gave those establishments a national venue."

Within that Bay Area Reporter article, Peter Fiske was quoted. “John Embry was a pioneer of leather who made gay male leather S/M 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.”

John Embry

John Embry was born in Winslow, Arizona in 1926. He moved to Los Angeles at the age of 18 to attend art school. He served in the army, joining the armed services in 1949. Following his stint in the service he began a career in marketing and advertising. Drummer magazine was an extension of his marketing and advertising career.

As with any magazine publication, Drummer relied on advertising revenue as well as subscriptions. Embry also used Drummer as a means to promote his mail order business which distributed the paraphernalia associated with gay and leather culture during the 1970s and '80s. Although his primary interests were commercial, Embry became one of the most influential forces in gay media with the establishment of Drummer. As with any magazine publication, Drummer relied on advertising revenue as well as subscriptions.

Drummer began life as the newsletter of the Homophile Effort for Legal Protection (H.E.L.P.), a Los Angeles organization formed to counter the harassment of gay men by the Los Angeles Police Department. In the early 1970s, the L.A.P D. regularly conducted raids of gay bars, arresting the patrons and charging them with morals offenses. Names of those arrested were often published in local newspapers. Such publicity could destroy careers and lives. Victims of this harassment were often intimidated into settling the charges through payments of fines within a corrupt system of police, lawyers and the court system. H.E.L.P obtained sympathetic legal counsel for the men who had been arrested in the raids and gave gay men legal resources to contest these arrests. Both Embry and Larry Townsend, who would later write for Drummer magazine, were active in H.E.L.P., and Embry edited the organization’s newsletter called Drummer. In 1975, Embry and Jeanne C. Barney co-founded Drummer magazine. Barney was a professional journalist who wrote for many publications including The Advocate, another Los Angeles gay paper. In the change from Drummer, the H.E.L.P. newsletter, to Drummer, the leather magazine, Embry became publisher, and Barney became the first editor.

Apart from his involvement with H.E.L.P., Embry was increasingly a public figure in Los Angeles. He appeared at all kinds of activist events, often with bar owners, Reverend Troy Perry and others to raise funds and awareness regarding the previously almost unimagined possibility of not living with and dodging bias, harassment, legal corruption, blackmail, and so much worse.

As the publisher, John Embry was blessed with several brilliant editors who each contributed to the character of Drummer. However, Embry often took over the editorial duties under the pseudonym of Robert Payne, particularly when, as was often the case, the editorial succession was uneven or delayed, or, apparently, because he wanted to. Because the publication schedule was sketchy at best, the masthead all too occasional, and the months of publication often absent, it is difficult to get a complete sequence of who was supposed to be running the magazine at any given moment. Barney stayed through the first 11 issues, until the end of 1976. Robert Payne became the editor by issue 12, the first in 1977. With Drummer 19, later in 1977, Jack Fritscher began his tenure as editor. Fritscher edited 11 issues, Drummer 19-30. But by Drummer 31, in 1978, the ubiquitous Robert Payne had returned and John Rowberry was listed as “assignments editor.” Rowberry had an unusually lengthy association with the magazine, although in several capacities. He became the editor in 1981 but was promoted to associate publisher in 1982 when Robert Payne once again assumed editorial duties. Rowberry was associate publisher until 1985 and Payne continued as editor after Rowberry’s departure. Although others left their imprints on the magazine, Rowberry seems to have been, apart from Payne/Embry, the most durable editorial presence until the sale of the magazine in 1986.

The name Drummer is a reference to a quote from Walden by Henry David Thoreau, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away." This theme of breaking away is announced in the introduction to the magazine in Drummer Volume 1, Issue 1, with a statement to the readership about masculinity and muscle:


Ever search the newsstands or book stores for a magazine on the Leather Life? If so, you learned finally not to bother, there isn’t any.
There are plenty of Gay magazines, differing in viewpoint and illustration, and occasionally you will discover one with a lonely article of a model that turns you on. Such events are few and far between. Of course, at one time, the only thing available for a gay guy to turn on to were the weight lifter magazines.

Those times have changed and now so have the situations that limit coverage of our lifestyle to our giddier brothers.

On April 10, 1976, Drummer sponsored a charity event at the Mark IV Baths in Los Angeles that included a mock slave auction with Val Martin as the auctioneer. The L.A.P.D. conducted a theatrical, mediacentered raid that included a swarm of policemen, police cars, and helicopters. Embry and others were charged under an 1899 statute against trafficking in human slaves, a felony. The charges were eventually dropped. However, the continuing conflict with the L.A.P.D. lead Embry to move to San Francisco and relocate the magazine in 1977.

Embry’s interests in publishing extended beyond Drummer magazine. As President of Alternate Publishing, Inc. he also published Foreskin Quarterly, Alternate and Mach magazines. In addition to a mail order company, Alternate Publishing owned a short-lived bar named the Drummer Club located in San Francisco’s South of Market district. Embry also owned a few leather shops at various times.

Drummer was a dynamic force in leather culture, publishing the work of established and emerging artists, writers, and editors of the time. The magazine provided visibility to the careers of Bill Ward, Chuck Arnett, Etienne (Dom Orejudos), Rob Opel, Tom of Finland, Rex, Larry Townsend, Phil Andros (Samuel Steward), Harry Bush, Scott Masters (Edward Mernerth), Steve Masters (Mike Mischke), Fred Halsted, Ed Franklin, John Rowberry, Jack Fritscher, The Hun, and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others. Embry published under the name Robert Payne.

The Story of Q by Robert Payne was published in October 1975. It was a gay S/M counterpart to the heterosexual S/M novel The Story of O (published in 1954). In The Story of O, the woman is taken by her lover to a strange retreat were she undergoes an S/M initiation. In The Story of Q, a man undergoes a gay male S/M initiation.

Robert Payne is the credited Director of S/M porn movies including Slaves for Sale 1 (1984), Slaves for Sale 2 (1984), Care and Training of the Male Slave (1986), Joys of Self Abuse (1985), Master Barber (1986), and The Great Slave Video Adventure (1990). The promotional material for The Great Slave Video Adventure read: Hey Guys! Let's make our own leather video. We'll use slaves, rent models, build a dungeon and everything! And when the pizza delivery guy comes, let's use him. It'll be fun! – Many of us have, at one time or another, envisioned being involved in the making of this sort of a video.

To those of us in the leather mode, the prospect of putting it together as a director, a producer, a cameraman or maybe especially a performer in a leather production is the stuff of which daydreams are made.
Robert Payne explores such a dream, then turns his cast loose on the making of such a project. The cameras rolled through ten hours’ worth of tape. As per his story in MANIFEST READER, the hardest part was keeping the performers physically away from one another until it was show time. Don't look for slickness in THE GREAT SLAVE VIDEO ADVENTURE. As you watch the hot, horny, red blooded all American boys go at one another in their leather male bonding, look for yourself. You have to be there somewhere.”

As part of a developing leather community, Drummer magazine created the Leather Fraternity. Upon getting a subscription to the magazine one became a member of the “fraternity,” the perks of which included a free personal ad in Drummer. The personal ads enabled leather men to connect with very specific partner and fantasy requests, requests that might not be made in a bar or bathhouse.

Embry believed that the personal ads were among the most important elements of the magazine. The personal ads quickly became a popular aspect of the magazine because of the blind mailbox and forwarding system, the steadfast trust people placed in the magazine and its staff, and the facts and language readers learned in the magazine that they were then able to use in their personal ads to describe desires for which they would not otherwise have had words. Peter Fiske has noted that he engaged in a twelve year relationship that started with an ad placed in Drummer magazine.

Drummer magazine’s Club section played an important part within the leather community in creating visibility of organizations available to those seeking like-minded individuals. The club listings, which Embry and his editors actively tried to make as comprehensive as possible, ranged from the earliest “motorcycle clubs” of Southern California, DC, and New York City, to the newest clubs formed that they were able to discover. In addition, the magazine published ads for leather bars and baths, informing subscribers in small towns and rural areas where they could find like-minded men when they arrived in the larger cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York.

What would become the leather contest circuit was inaugurated with the founding of International Mr. Leather, in Chicago in 1979. Drummer quickly established its own contest in 1980. Val Martin, a well-known porn star at the time, was the first Mr. Drummer.

In 1986, Embry sold Drummer magazine to Desmodus, Inc., owned by Tony DeBlase and Andrew Charles. Embry and Alternate Publishing continued to publish after selling Drummer. Publications included Manifest Reader, Manhood Rituals and other special issues. Manifest Reader and Manhood Rituals were combined to create SuperMR magazine in 1999 with the last issue released in 2001. Tony DeBlase sold Drummer magazine to Martijn Bakker of Amsterdam in 1991.

Drummer magazine ceased publication with Issue 214 in April 1999. Issues of Drummer are still in circulation among collectors as well as treasured in private and public Archives. The Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago, Illinois has the entire collection of Drummer bound in its library. Issues of Drummer can still be purchased from collectors and dealers of rare and out of print periodicals.

Despite his increasing fame as a publisher and leatherman, Embry became a much less public figure until the 1990s when, to some extent, he re-emerged, still a hard-headed activist, but more fun-loving and funny than ever before.

John Embry died in his sleep at home on September 16, 2010 in San Francisco, CA after battling illness. He was survived by his husband Jerry Lasley. John Embry died on September 16, 2010.

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