The 15 Association

 

On Friday, February 25, 2000, San Francisco City Hall was abuzz with excitement. Mayor Willie Brown had invited representatives of The 15 Association to his second floor office on the occasion of the club’s 20th Anniversary to publicly thank them for all they had done for the City. At 2:00 p.m., over 25 men, dressed in their full leathers, gathered in the Conference Room just to the left of his private office to see “Da Mayor.”

 

Club members didn’t have to wait long before he strode into the room. They introduced themselves, and Mayor Brown shook each of their hands. He then said, “Welcome to City Hall. I want to publicly thank you for the work your association has done for the gay community here in San Francisco. You have been strong leaders, raising money to fight AIDS, making San Francisco a national leader in helping gay men and women live their lives with dignity. The work you’ve done promoting safer sex and safe S&M has saved many lives.”

 

He smiled, clearly relishing the moment. “This is a first for the City. I’m certainly the first mayor in America, and probably in the world, to invite a gay leathermen’s group to his office. I hope none of you will do anything to disappoint me.”

 

“Come with me.” The mayor steered them down a hallway lined with portraits of all the past mayors of San Francisco and back through the reception area, where a dozen lobbyists, dressed in thousand-dollar Brioni suits, sat with their mouths agape as the club members marched past in their black leather attire. The mayor, clearly enjoying the unconventional visit, then ushered them into his private office for a more relaxed dialogue.

 

They all gathered around the centerpiece of the office, President Kennedy’s Oval Office desk on loan from the White House. The mayor turned toward Arturo Salazar, the chairman, and handed him a certificate, signed by him and all the members of the Board of Supervisors. “I’m pleased to present you with this certificate, proclaiming today, February 25, 2000, as The 15 Association Day in honor of your 20th anniversary.” The group then chatted informally, telling the mayor about their organization. They informed him that The 15 had over 125 members, and that their monthly parties often sold out. He generously allowed them to take photos with him before again thanking them for being a positive influence in San Francisco. At the end of the visit, Peter Fiske, a co-author of this biography, said, “We hope to see you at the San Francisco Eagle. We know you’ll be out campaigning, and you have a lot of friends in the leather community.”

 

***

 

Let us take a step back in time. December 1979, San Francisco. A poster called “SM Identity” appears in bars along the Folsom Miracle Mile inviting men to join a new club for men into SM and leather. This was truly revolutionary.

 

“What was revolutionary about this?” you might wonder. After all, there were and had been venues for gay men into SM before The 15: there were leather bars, there were motorcycle clubs. Precisely: The 15 was neither a leather bar nor a motorcycle club. Many SM practitioners were leather fetishists and/or passionate bikers. But others were not. Most importantly, leather and bike were often used as a euphemism to indicate or signal SM (as we said then; or BDSM or kink as we more commonly do nowadays) without saying it in so many words. What was revolutionary about The 15 is that in this club, the “SM identity” was not alluded to or signaled between the lines: it was proclaimed; they were open about it and proud of it!

 

Peter was not among the six founders of The 15 Association. These were David Lewis, Alexis Sorel, Jim Lansdowne, Jerry Jansen, Dick Kaufman, and Roy Richard.

 

But he was the first member to join.

 

In February 1980 Alexis Sorel, one of his best friends, called to tell him that he and five other men were creating a gay leather- men’s club dedicated to BDSM play in San Francisco. “You should join, Peter. It’ll be a leather brotherhood where we’ll support each other and have play parties.” A week later, Peter was first in line when the founders held interviews for new members.

 

Two months later, The 15 held their first play party. It was called Scene 1. It was held on June 16th, 1980. Peter remembers the date distinctly because it was also his 35th birthday. The party was hosted in a dungeon rented from some pro-Domme lesbian friends, in the Mission District. “I was thrilled to see the dungeon packed with men, eager to play. These men, like me, dared to be sexual and kinky with each other in public,” Peter remembers. Over the next few months, these men formed a close-knit brotherhood. Over the next many years, they had a lot of fun together. And they stayed together through thick or thin: the brotherhood would help them survive through the darkest days they didn’t know yet were ahead.

 

In the gay community, the creation of The 15 was received with mixed reactions – and even with hostility, in particular from the biker community. The group’s foes objected to the fact that they were open and unapologetic about their “SM identity”: many members wore leather, and others — or the same — did ride motorcycles; but they didn’t use those as proxies for BDSM; they were an SM group! The LGBT Pride Committee tried to hide them by relegating them to the end of the Gay Pride Parade. That, however, backfired when members appeared en masse and their large contingent at the end of the parade closed it with style — making their presence much more visible than if they had marched in the middle of the parade. We never back down and have always refused to become invisible.

 

A most direct source of inspiration for the 15 Association came from the Chicago Hellfire Club. Formed in 1971, the CHC was the very first gay male organization that proclaimed its SM purpose without using the euphemisms of leather or motorcycle. In September 1976, CHC hosted “Inferno 5,” a long weekend of play at a remote campground, named 5 in reference to the anniversary of CHC this was intended to celebrate. Inferno 5 was in fact the first iteration of what would soon become the world-renowned, notorious and exclusive SM party for gay men. It was upon returning from Inferno that, 5 years later, Alexis Sorrel, David Lewis, and Jim Lansdown (known as “Chump”) decided to form what they initially imagined as a West Coast branch of Hellfire. Leaders in the Chicago group shared their experience and knowledge, offering guidance and support. The condition for success, they said, was that the men who started this project knew and trusted each other. In the end, it was agreed that it was better that the San Francisco group be autonomous.

 

One of the distinct features of The 15 Association — one the group shares with the Chicago Hellfire Club — is that we were then and have always remained a group dedicated to SM play. We have alluded to what distinguished The 15 from leather bars and motorcycle clubs. But, of course, there were other organizations — which emerged in the wake
of the sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s — that were as open and unapologetic about their SM purpose. The Eulenspiegel Society ("TES"), founded by Pat Bond & Terry Kolb in New York City in 1971; the The Society of Janus, started in 1974 by Cynthia Slater  and — to a lesser extent — her partner Larry Olsen, in San Francico; Samois, the first organization for SM lesbians in the world, started in the Bay Area, in 1978, by 3 women, including Patrick (then-Pat) Califia and Gayle Rubin; and just a couple months before The 15, Gay Male S/M Activists, or GMSMA, started in August 1980, in New York City, by Brian O’Dell and David Stein.

 

These organizations existed and they were unequivocal about their SM purpose. But they served that purpose in very different ways than The 15 did. They were all attempts to offer to SM practitioners new modes of interaction – specifically, modes of interaction that were not primarily sexual. They were venues where SM folks were able to socialize, learn from one another, and organize politically. At the 15, no one doubted that these goals were important and worthwhile. Many members had contacts with members of these organizations, and some were also members of Janus.

 

But The 15 Association had a distinct purpose. What these other organizations did through social, educational, and political activities, The 15 did through play: our purpose has always been to promote brotherhood through BDSM play. To be sure, over the years, we did hold educational programs. Nevertheless, sharing information informally at the play parties is our preferred mode: it is what we do. While membership meetings, committee work, or consciousness-raising groups were the backbone of these activist organizations, the backbone of The 15 has always been the play parties.

 

The first “scene,” on June 16, 1980, was a success, and most of the 70 men present who hadn’t already joined, did so. During the next 6 months The 15 held three other dungeon parties before opening our first clubhouse on Ritch Street. That is where club members celebrated New Year’s Eve and welcomed 1981.

 

Roy Richards, one of the founders, rented a house where he and his partner lived upstairs. The 15 Association sublet the ground floor, with its kitchen, bathroom, and lounge. The basement was turned into a play space where crosses and bondage tables were built. An inspection by the Police and Fire Commissioner had been arranged a few days before our party. What they did not expect was to see the inspectors show up with 6 of the 11 San Francisco Supervisors! One of the brothers playfully suggested that the Supervisors were welcome to come to the club’s first play party. Club members were even more surprised when three of the Supervisors (two men and a woman) did show up at the party! For a while, they stayed on the ground floor, casually socializing with members. But there was already activity in the basement, where play had begun. Eventually, one of the two male supervisors asked if it would be ok to go down and watch the play. “Of course, you’re welcome to go down and observe!” someone said.

 

Throughout 1981, The 15 Association held monthly play parties and by the end of the year, the membership had risen to about 150. In those same few months, unfortunately, what was not yet known as the “gay plague” started to make itself felt. The first sign of what was to come appeared when, in July, Tony Tavarossi — an icon of the local leather community who, in 1962, had opened the very first leather bar of the city, the Why Not, in the Tenderloin — died of a mysterious illness.

 

The fraternal brothers of The 15 Association voted to shut down the clubhouse on May 1, 1982. The “gay plague” had begun to devastate the membership. At the same meeting, members also voted to rent dungeon space from the Knights Templar for monthly play parties. They were determined to keep the brotherhood alive and vibrant, both by raising money to fight what was not yet called HIV/AIDS and by continuing their activities as much as possible. At a later meeting, chairman Charles Durham suggested that the club hold a weekend encampment at Abdul’s Chicken Ranch in Petaluma.

 

“I’m pretty kinky, but playing with chickens isn’t my thing,” someone quipped. After the laughter subsided, Charles said, “The chickens are gone, but we can play in the underground bunkers where they were. Abdul is a friend of mine who is willing to rent his ranch to us quite cheaply.” Like for Inferno, the weekend was modeled after the motorcycle runs that were popular in the 1960s and 70s, though BDSM play would now be central. Everyone brought their own camping gear, but the food was included in the attendance fee. There was a barbecue one night and burgers the next. Toast and muffins were offered for breakfast, and sandwiches for lunch.

 

One of the great things about leather runs is that the play is not limited to brief scenes or restricted play spaces, and play outside is possible. Peter remembers being tied by Dick Carlson to a tree and then whipped with a bullwhip, next to a scene where Strap, a popular Top and fraternal brother in The 15 Association, was beating a cute young boy’s ass with a leather tawse.

 

The 15 Association is a club dedicated to SM play. One might think that this makes it a sex club in the conventional sense. But because we are a club in the same sense that “club” has in “motorcycle club” rather than in the sense it has in “dance club,” The 15, as it turns out, is much more than a conventional sex club. Throughout its existence, The 15 has been a cauldron of intense BDSM play that allowed many of us to experience the magics of power exchange so many of us found cathartic in ways that we could never have in other places. We are a brotherhood of gay leathermen who support one another. And this allows us to show ourselves at our most vulnerable in a space that provides intimacy and protection for our safe, sane, consensual — and extreme — play. “I can say that — for me, anyway — this play, this space — this play in this space — purifies me; it even seems to make me a better person,” Peter says.

 

Between 1982 and 1985, AIDS killed half of the club’s membership. It went from 150 to 75, and the leadership was devastated. In 1982, our first Chairman, David Lewis, got sick. The brotherhood raised enough money to send him back to his home, in British Columbia, to be with his family. In late 1983, our second chair, Charles Durham, became ill with Kaposi Sarcoma, the rare form of cancer that usually signaled the onset of AIDS. Knowing that this was a death sentence, he hired a taxi to take him to the Golden Gate Bridge, where he jumped to his death. Charles was the first of three Black men to become chairman of The 15 Association (a position held by 13 men, including also one who was Latino).

 

Although HIV/AIDS devastated the membership, the disease paradoxically gave the brotherhood a renewed sense of purpose. Partners and friends of men dying of AIDS desperately needed each other’s support. As more was learned about the virus, the parties became safer. As for those for whom it was already too late, club members cared for them and helped them in any way they could. They also raised money to fight the epidemic. The leather community was at the forefront of this effort. Leathermen gained a new sense of respect from the broader gay community: they were no longer the weirdoes and the perverts and started being seen instead as the ones leading the fight against a disease that was killing indiscriminately.

 

In 1989, the club started Bootcamp, at Rancho Cicada, in the Gold Country. Peter was the founder of the run. The club had no problem reaching the limit of 40 attendees in the first couple of years and only had to turn away a few men. By the fourth and fifth years, however, too many men had to be turned down. That’s when Bootcamp moved to Saratoga Springs Resort, where we can accommodate a bigger attendance and have better facilities — and where we have remained since.

 

Bootcamp 6 was an instant success, and around 80 men attended. Over time, Bootcamp has grown to the new camp’s limit of 100 to 110 men. Two of our members, Harold Cox and Bob Reite, bought a 20- by 40-foot surplus tent from the Korean War, like the ones in the popular television series MASH, and they set it up as our dungeon — with St. Andrew’s crosses, bondage tables, and a spanking bench. Over the years, members have set up stocks, crosses, and even hoists in other outdoor areas. Now we use the lodge as our main dungeon space.

 

In September 1992, after long-term Chairman Les Farnak left the U.S., the Fraternals met and elected Peter as their chairman. The AIDS epidemic accelerated in the early 90’s. Members only had so much energy and decided to prioritize raising money to help support those suffering in our community. The club had beer busts at the Eagle, manned booths at community fairs, and held bake sales. Bootcamp was kept going and anniversary dinners were held where silent auctions of donated leather jackets, boots, whips, crops, and paddles, raised money for the AIDS Emergency Fund. There was no dungeon party from August 1992 until the beginning of 1995, when the club opened another dungeon on 14th Street. Having been able to keep The 15 Association alive during these dark times was a privilege that Peter treasures and is particularly proud of.

 

Following Peter’s tenure, Bear Dog Hoffman, a heavy bottom player, became chairman. Under his leadership, the club not only restored the monthly play parties, but also made them extremely popular with well over 100 men frequently attending. When, in 1997, Bear Dog and his partner began suffering from health problems, Peter once again agreed to run the club in order to complete Bear Dog’s term. But he also warned that he would not continue beyond that.

 

As The 15 entered its third decade, leadership passed from the first generation of our members to the next. Arturo Salazar took the helm as Chairman in 1999, followed by Don Folkers in 2001. It was during this period that The 15 confronted the trans question — whether or not, for our purposes, transmen were men and as such welcomed as guests and members of the club. Prior to that, the question was never raised and, for that reason, the club never had to address it.

 

Membership Chair (and future Chairman) Steve Gaynes met with a transman interested in joining our parties. Steve had lunch with the man, and then came back to ask the club to endorse his inclusion. There was a vote of the whole club, in 2002, and, to Steve’s delight, the result was unequivocal: 68 to 1 — and the only opposition to the change proposed came, not from someone who was opposed to trans inclusion, but on the contrary someone who thought the club was not going far enough in that direction, particularly with regard to its requirement of name-matching IDs. It is, therefore, not hyperbole to say that there was universal support for trans inclusion. It was then that The 15 Association became one of the first major male SM clubs to explicitly include transmen as our brothers. Elsewhere, these discussions were not always as easy but members of The 15 fought from within various other organizations to make our community trans-inclusive.

 

Later, we would continue to become more welcoming of transmen and gender non-conforming guests as cultural understanding evolved. In 2019, under the chairmanship of Eric See, Christopher Wood, a cowriter of this biography, reopened the debate on name-matching IDs and led a discussion to remove that requirement. Then, in 2021, Fraternal Lyle Swallow suggested we make further changes to our stated policies to be more welcoming considering new understandings of gender presentation. This ongoing attention to create an inviting atmosphere for ALL men is a hallmark of our club.

 

As the club’s membership steadily grew in the 21st century, a solid group of leaders such as JW Rutkowski, Steve Gaynes, Bob Brown, Steve Ward, and Jeff Garner held a steady course navigating changes to playspace locations and a strong annual Boot Camp in Northern California.

 

By 2014, Steve Gaynes, chairman again after his first term in 2006-2007, had moved the parties to a new playspace, then known as Alchemy. It has been our home dungeon since, initially as Alchemy and then as Transform1060, its new name. Transform1060 is a community non-profit that has been managed for the past seven years by Christopher, who is also (in a separate role) the current chairman of The 15.

 

Around 2015, the Fraternal committee made a conscious choice to begin passing leadership to a third generation of members. In 2016, Eric See took the lead. With his masterful, consensus-building style, Eric strengthened the foundation of the Club, ensuring it would thrive for many more years.

 

It was around that time that Christopher joined the club, brought by longtime Fraternal Jon Bumgarner. Christopher had long been turned off by The 15 who projected an image of being unwelcoming of younger players. His view changed when, after serving Jon privately for a summer, he agreed to go to a 15 event where he discovered the brotherhood. “I remember going to my second party during Folsom with my 19-year-old boy. Unsure of how we would be received, I was nervous. But as soon as we entered the social area, a short, kind stranger by the name of Peter Fiske stood up off a couch, hugged us, and said, ‘Welcome brothers.’ That is the moment I knew I had found home,” he says.

 

Christopher became a member and, within a few months, he also became a board member. A firm believer that bringing in the youth and merging their ideas of BDSM with older generations’ traditions is essential to the survival of clubs and, more broadly, of our subcultures, his focus has been on bringing in younger and more diverse players.

 

Thus, in 2017, an amendment to the Bylaws was introduced to allow men as young as 18 to join (instead of 21, which had been the minimum age until then). The Fraternal committee had been able to observe a young individual in that age range who had proven themselves a competent player and hard-working volunteer (and happened to be Christopher’s boy): that made it an easy decision. Whisper became the youngest member of the 15 shortly after. Since then, The 15 have welcomed many young members who will be the leaders of the club tomorrow.

 

In February 2020, barely three weeks before San Francisco went into lock down during the COVID pandemic, The 15 Association celebrated its 40th Anniversary. More than 150 guests and members converged on San Francisco for a weekend of debauchery. In addition to two spectacular play parties, our men came together in brotherhood at events at the SF Eagle, Lone Star Salon, and the newly launched Eagle Plaza.

 

The pandemic quickly put an end to all that and our monthly in-person parties dropped for a while. But that didn’t stop the brotherhood: under Eric See’s leadership, we started meeting online. While many leather clubs, bars, and businesses unfortunately did not survive the restrictions imposed by the lockdown, this allowed us to keep tight during the pandemic and still be there, ready to meet again, at the end, and be here for our 190 members today. In 2021, when celebrating the anniversary of the club the same way we had in the past was impossible, Christopher came up with an alternative: he produced “Anniversary 41: An Oral Celebration,” a video of oral histories by club members. In time, the video will join the 15 Archives hosted at the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco, and it will be accessible to the public.

 

Telling our story, honoring our traditions, preserving our history, transmitting it to others, particularly younger generations, who will use them as they see fit: those are the things we do at our parties, or when we write a biography like this one. Or, apparently, when a pandemic forces us to stay home and find ways to occupy our time. For Peter also took advantage of the pandemic to write (with Thomas Peterson) the second volume of his autobiography, My Leather Life.

 

This seems a fitting place to conclude this biography because, while there are articles in the local media at various moments of the club’s life, and of course for more in-depth researchers the club’s archives hosted at the GLBT-HS, until “Anniversary 41” is made accessible, Peter’s book is about the only place we can indicate for those of you who feel curious and want to know more about The 15.

 

And when knowing about The 15 is no longer enough, and you realize you want to know the thing itself, come meet us. For example at our infamous “Street Dungeon,” the event we have hosted for years now during the Up Your Alley/Dorey Alley Street Fair, in July.

 

Peter Fiske & Christopher Wood

 

 

For inquiring minds:

 

Peter Fiske, My Leather Life. The Later Years, Fair Page Media, 2022.

Race Bannon, “The 15 Association,” B.A.R., Feb. 18, 2015 https://www.ebar.com/story.php?225048 (accessed on Nov. 4, 2022).

 

 

 

 

 

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