From its start in 1980 to its demise in 2009, Gay Male S/M Activists (GMSMA) was the most influential organization for gay male S/M practitioners in the Metro-New York City area. GMSMA was the 4th organization of the SM Liberation movement and, like its predecessors, it was not primarily about sex; instead, it was meant to provide alternative modes of interaction among SM people and to that effect, it adopted from The Eulenspiegel Society (TES, founded in 1971 (LHOF 2011), and the Society of Janus, founded in 1974 (LHOF 2018), the triple purpose: social-educational- political. Also, unlike these two, but like Samois, the first lesbian SM organization in the world, started in 1978 (LHOF 2019), GMSMA sought to cater, not to a pan-SM community, but to the distinct needs of specific segments of the community: in this case, gay men.
But the truly distinctive feature of GMSMA was its openness: its founder, unlike those of TES and Janus, but like those of Samois, used his real name: Brian O’Dell. In addition, GMSMA was the first organization for which members were not screened: meetings were public, newcomers were able to attend and later join if they so wished. Finally, and most importantly, whereas the previous organizations had all felt a need for discretion and secrecy — with names cryptic and legible only by those in the know — GMSMA was the first organization to proclaim its SM purpose in its name.
Here, Brian O’Dell tells the story of the founding of the organization for the first time.
I grew up in suburban northern New Jersey. I’d known I “liked boys” since 3rd grade, though I kept it a secret because I knew my parents, friends and society wouldn’t accept that. In my Junior year in H.S. (1974) I came out to a few close friends, my parents and my pastor. I was a young homosexual who had no idea what it was to be a gay man; I had no LGBT friends to talk to.
It wouldn’t be till 1976 that – with boldness and daring – I’d move to NYC at age 19. Living in 1976 New York City was a heady, exhilarating experience – partying in a different gay bar almost every night (with a drinking age of 18 then!), at the height of the sexual freedom era. Unfortunately, I knew of only THREE organizations for gay men. They were Identity House (a peer-support counseling group), Mattachine Society (the homophile group that was so important in the 1950s but had by then become mostly a discussion group for discreet, older men of the pre-Gay Liberation era), and finally, the Gay Activists Alliance of New York (GAA/NY). I was immediately attracted to these older 20-something GAA/NY guys who lived to fight gay oppression with their “in-your-face” tactics of embarrassing zaps of bigots where they lived and worked. These were handsome, committed and fearless men who I learned to emulate quickly, thinking “Activism Is Sexy.”
When I first visited The Spike and The Eagle (on a weekday night, to just get a feeling for the scene), I must have stood out amongst the men present. (Surely, I was oblivious to weird looks or chuckling, being completely wide-eyed and awed looking at all these handsome, bearded, 30+ men in studded black leather, showing off their hairy chests and asses.) Only when I visited the Mineshaft the next Saturday night did I find out that my sneakers, flared corduroy pants and a striped, button-down shirt wouldn’t allow me admission to the “Dante’s Inferno” of men’s sex clubs. (I was given the option to check every offending piece of clothing, leaving me standing bare- foot in my “tighty-whities.”) But being so young, I just “knew” that would lead to being gang-raped on the pool-table!) Instead, I left, dejected. The next day I bought the (cheapest) black-leather jacket, construction boots, studded belt, straight-leg, button-fly Levis, flannel shirts, black baseball cap, and paisley handkerchiefs (dark blue, grey, and yellow).
THAT night the Mineshaft doorman didn’t “blink an eye” as I passed through the door!
I’d been going to The Spike and The Eagle for four years, yet the closest I had ever gotten to experiencing kink, S/M or bondage, was servicing tops at the Mineshaft or in the shadows of the trucks around the corner. I had read Larry Townsend’s Leatherman’s Handbook, cover-to-cover, but being shy – at that time – I knew of no one to “teach me the ropes.” Convinced that if I went home with the wrong Leather Top, I could be hurt mentally and/or physically, or – worse yet – left gagged, tied-up, stabbed, and for dead.
The late 1970s was a time long before personal laptops, the world-wide web (including online dating sites) and smart phones. If you were a leatherman interested in S/M, bondage, kink or fetishes, the only way to meet other similarly-inclined partners were: (1) in the leather bars or sex clubs, or (2) through placing/answering “snail-mail” personal ads in publications like The Village Voice, The Advocate or Drummer Magazine.
A 3rd way to meet an experienced, knowledgeable S/M top (or bottom) was through a ‘personal referral’ given by another (hopefully!) experienced, knowledgeable S/M top (or bottom). I quickly learned through the gay grapevine that there were at least 5 bottoms for every 1 top, so – supposedly – anyone who wasn’t muscled, hung, handsome or boyish had a lot of competition. Being “chosen” to be played was even more difficult for S/M novices – like me – who were shy.
Leathermen had been a discrete component of the gay subculture since the end of World War II when the subculture was born in major metropolitan areas at the intersection of those veterans who, often after being dishonorably discharged for homosexual conduct, decided not to go home, and the subcultures of bikers. The 1953 movie The Wild One, featuring Marlon Brando, popularized the rugged and rebellious biker as a sexual icon and quickly became a cultural symbol. GMSMA board member Ted Heaney recalls that “I started looking for the leather scene as early as 1968. In 1972, I went on a 3-week tour of the ‘Leather Capitals of Europe’ where I first learned about S/M play. Moving to NYC in 1979, it wasn’t any easier for novice tops to find experienced S/M Masters or bondage experts to learn the ‘how-to’ from.” S/M groups were difficult to find and gain access to: members were on their guard as they feared the heavy social stigma and disastrous repercussions, legal and otherwise, of being outed. A shy, novice top could have as much difficulty striking up a conversation with another – experienced(?) – man in a leather bar.
When I wrote the letter to Gay Community News, I intended it primarily for men politically-aware and active in the “gay movement”: these were the audience of the newspaper. Not so surprisingly, the only written response was a letter from David Stein, a fellow New Yorker, who self-identified as an S/M bottom and slave.
In the presentation he gave on himself in the “About Me” section of his now-defunct website boybear.us, Stein wrote about his interest in bondage at a young age:
“Perhaps because I was granted too much freedom as a child and was largely ignored by both parents until I was off to school – I made an unconscious association between bondage (or any kind of restraint/constraint) and love. (It was only a few years ago that I realized this.) For me, to be bound is to be loved; to be confined is to be wanted.”
Coming out in his late 20s, David moved to NYC in 1977. He came out, in the words of Anne O. Nomis, desiring to live in the “era of Old School Code of the leathermen, [where] leather-wearing was ‘earned’, and David sought to honor this by wearing denim when he attended the Spike.”
His ideas, enthusiasm, some experience in S/M, and energy, were more than I could ask for, from a co-founder, with me, of Gay Male S/M Activists. (Having never done S/M or bondage, at that time, I identified as a kinky bottom into fetishes and roleplaying.) David and I spoke many times and he sent me articles on S/M practices and Master/slave relationships which he felt extremely attracted to. He became the chairman of the steering committee and, over the years, served in many roles in GMSMA, including President and Program Chairman.
Looking back, it was important for David and me that this new organization be explicitly about S/M (the pleasure-pain connection), bondage, Master-slave relationships, and forms of kink which were misunderstood. Stein understood that since the 1950s, gay male S/M and leather had been fused because most guys into S/M fetishized leather, and leather provided a way of signaling interest in, and practice of, SM without explicitly saying so. However, with the 1970s “clone” subculture, leather was adopted by many gay men as a symbol of masculinity, without any interest in S/M necessarily. It wasn’t clear whether the person wearing leather meant S/M or was just seeking a masculine partner. GMSMA’s President Geoff Ferguson added that at best, meeting a potential partner in a leather bar could result in an “enduring trial and error with people who usually knew little about good S/M play. One risked meeting an ‘experimenter’ and learning unsafe and unhealthy practices.” While many GMSMA members did wear leather, it wasn’t essential; an interest in S/M etc. was what bound us together. “GMSMA aimed to be more about SM and less about leather. . . As David Stein put it: “there was leather, leather everywhere, but hardly any S/M in sight.”
The first months of GMSMA’s meetings were small enough for David Stein’s apartment, and then we moved them to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force office on Fifth Avenue. Ferguson remembered, “The initial meetings were lengthy and heated discussions involving defining S/M, the needs of S/M men and prioritizing goals . . . The text-book definitions [of S/M] lacked the personal intimacy present in S/M sex play. The labels of Sadist and Masochist carried a lot of psychological baggage which [were] negative and hostile. Discussion turned toward soliciting personal feelings among participants . . . Everyone had their [own] ideas on what was ‘real’ S/M, that being ‘in the eye of the beholder/participant.’”
Our first meetings attracted mostly submissive guys: many were novices, but there were also bottom men well-experienced in S/M practices. While it might seem counterintuitive, on the rare occasion that an S/M Top would come to a GMSMA meeting, he would often feel intimidated by the abundance of eager bottoms and would never come back. This all changed when S/M Top by the name of Ray Matienzo joined our group. An experienced high school teacher, he was immediately drawn to GMSMA’s mission of educating men in the art of S/M practices. Matienzo convinced all his Top friends to attend our programs en masse, be on discussion panels, and show their S/M expertise and bondage handiwork at our Dungeon Demos. He did much to lessen the belief — held by many “Old- Guard” tops who came out into the leather-S/M-biker scene of the 1950s and 1960s — that public S/M education would ruin the dark, dangerous mystique of the scene. As well, Ferguson remembers that GMSMA “[had previously] risked turning off numbers of experienced practicing S/M men who would feel insulted by being ‘taught’ their own craft.”
Other S/M-Bondage groups across the country had screening systems for new members: one had to be ‘sponsored’ by 1-2 current members to be admitted to their events. But GMSMA was different – we felt it necessary that we be open, and that admission not be based on who you already knew. As long as you were a male , at least 21 years old, you could attend our programs and other events. In an article he wrote about GMSMA for The Advocate, writer Arnie Kantrowitz best described the men who came to our programs:
“Leathermen have gathered together primarily in sexual situations, usually in darkened bars or parties, sometimes on motorcycle runs. It might be that the fluorescent lights of a meeting hall would shatter the frail mystique of the sexual image, which seemed to depend on darkness, alcohol, drugs and desperation for its believability. But the men at these meetings look good, not at all like a collection of social misfits. Some of them are self-assured, some of them shy, some in full leather, most in flannel and denim with some touch of the super-butch, like a leather vest or dangling keys, and a few wear neckties or sport shirts. (Not all leathersex involves actual leather. It’s the attitude that counts.) There are men of all ages. . . A GMSMA meeting is a good place for cruising, for getting to know yourself and others like you. But most of all it is a good place to learn about S/M.” To become a member, one only had to attend 3 out of past 4 program meetings and pay a low membership fee, which gave a discounted admittance to events.”
The GMSMA Board of Directors codified Gay Male S/M Activists Statement of Purpose:
“GMSMA is a not-for-profit organization of gay men in the New York City area who are seriously interested in safe, sane and consensual S/M. Our purpose is to help create a more supportive S/M community for gay men, whether they desire a total lifestyle or an occa- sional adventure, whether they are just coming out into S/M or are long experienced.
Our activities attempt to build a sense of community by exploring common feelings and concerns. We aim to raise awareness about issues of safety and responsibility, to recover elements of our tradition, and to disseminate the best available medical and technical information about S/M practices. We seek to establish a recognized political presence in the wider gay community in order to combat the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about S/M while working with others for the common goals of gay liberation.”
Gay Male S/M Activists was the first S/M organization – definitely in the USA, perhaps in the world – that included the phrase S/M in its name. Ferguson wrote: “Each element of the name had significance. The group declared it is gay, for males only, deals with S/M, and composed of [those] who are forthright in their preference and affiliation as S/M-ers.” Even those who weren’t political, “liked the name. For them, the ‘personal is political.’” GMSMA board member Thor Stockman adds “[Our] programs and events helped remove a lot of the guilt and shame that society, the gay community, and even our- selves associated with [S/M].
Within the first 1-2 years, GMSMA’s emphasis was three-fold: educational, social and political (the latter being that we’d find ways our members – voluntarily – could work with other leather groups, locally and nationally, as well as be a visible and accepted presence and voice in the wider LGBT community.)
The mainstay of GMSMA’s scheduling were our twice-monthly Wednesday evening Programs – attracting 150 men on average – first held in a member’s warehouse, which we outgrew, then the gay-affirming Church of the Beloved Disciple that had long hosted the meetings of The Eulenspiegel Society, and finally the auditoriums of the New York City LGBT Community Services Center. There were panel discussions and guest speakers (sometimes with S/M-friendly doctors, psychologists and lawyers), with a Q&A following. Programs were proceeded by a half- hour of alcohol-free Socializing. Stockman notes “that once a year, in the spirit of learning and camaraderie, GMSMA held a joint program with the lesbian Sex Mafia (LSM) which was open to all men and women.” Programs, in the hundreds, well-planned and executed, include this small sampling:
Our Board Members were very opinionated and adamant about presenting an honest, balanced, and perhaps too safe image of S/M. Concerns about HIV were high and we were extremely cautious in our approach to S/M sex. In an attempt to come up with safe strategies to have S/M sex in the early days of the HIV epidemic, verbal fantasy roles were promoted as an alternative to sex involving exchanges of fluids. When, at some point in the 1980s, a proposal arose to have a program on “Sleaze” – featuring a panel of participants talking about the joys of playing with bodily fluids, safely of course, as well as a doctor – there was strong opposition from some on the board who said: “We can’t be 100% sure how AIDS is transmitted, so sweat, spit, blood, watersports and especially rimming are probably UNsafe practices not to be promoted, especially at the LGBT Community Center.” A heated argument ensued, and in the end the program was approved. But this anecdote is telling, as I remember the 300 men sweating profusely who packed the Center with no air-conditioning that night and made “Sleaze” the largest-attended program in the entire history of GMSMA.
Other GMSMA activities were alternating monthly Dungeon Demonstrations (opportunity to see ‘experts’ in their field practicing their craft) and Socials (ample time to cruise, meet and talk to each other). The demos, especially, drew on the skills of men outside of the Metro-NYC area. I remember that many GMSMA members were also part of the nationwide network of ‘associate members’ of the Chicago HELLFIRE club, considered the premier national men’s S/M organization.
Many programs were held in the privacy and intimacy of a member’s home. There were monthly Workshops on rope bondage or steel restraints, for example. Affinity Groups ran for 4-8 weeks for Novice Bottoms/Tops “Coming Out” into S/M, and “The Next Generation” (limited to S/M practitioners in their 20s and 30s). When visited by out-of-town men with known expertise in an S/M area, we scheduled a “Master Class” program (i.e. hands-on training for a limited number of Tops for an entire day).
Special Events included our annual October “Leatherfest” social; a colorful “Bondage Fashion Show”; a “Better Homes & Dungeons Walking Tour”; and a “Masters Auction” fundraiser, where masochists, slaves and boys bid ‘big bucks’ on the top man of their dreams.
Stockman adds, “GMSMA created the phrase “Leather Pride Night”(LPN) a fundraiser for Heritage of Pride, the new organizer of June’s PRIDE March, years before corporate sponsorship and city funds grew their budget immensely. LPN later included other NYC-based leather groups, with tens of thousands of dollars raised not only for the March, but also for national leather-S/M groups, and local health-related charities.” In addition, our “Leather County Fair”  held in the depths and roof of the Mineshaft, was the first time that straights and lesbians into S/M could visit New York’s most infamous men’s sex club. The following year, the fair would change its name to “Folsom Street East”(in reference to the San Francisco event), get a city permit, take over a public NYC street, and become the largest, best-attended leather event on the East coast. It is still going – 25 years strong!
GMSMA published Newslink, our quarterly magazine (with a mailing list of over 500 people), as well as a variety a pamphlets and chapbooks to accompany many of our programs.
GMSMA established our Hocutt-Ferguson Fund – named after GMSMA’s first two presidents, Geoff Ferguson and Richard Hocutt, who died from AIDS. The fund made one-time $500 disbursements to leathermen in our community who needed assistance in paying their rent, utilities or medical expenses. The generosity of our NYC leather community allowed us to distribute tens of thousands of dollars. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, GMSMA established a Speakers’ Bureau staffed by trained members. Stockman notes that “This came about after a college professor asked us for knowledgeable men to speak to his Human Sexuality class. We also did well-received presentations for other gay groups that helped educate and demystify what S/M was all about.”
Safe, Sane, Consensual: “Hundreds of thousands of kinky men and women all around the world, many of whom have no idea what ‘GMSMA’ stands for, know ‘Safe, Sane, Consensual’ (SSC)” remarked David Stein. It was GMSMA which popularized the combination of these three words, in that order. After long-discussions in committee and the Executive Board, Stein remembered,
“These words were the best sound bite to distinguish the kind of sexual expression we were in support of from the typical association of S/M with harmful, antisocial, predatory behavior” and to articulate the view that “we weren’t serial killers, spouse beaters, and child abusers” — without assuming that “it would be the last word on the subject” or that it “defined S/M,” or that it devalued ‘edge-play.’ For GMS- MA, Safe – Sane – Consensual S/M is “the kind of S/M we stand for and support.”
Of course, SSC was partly influenced, as Stein put it, by the media’s exhortation, “Have a safe and sane Fourth of July.” Stein remembers also reading an unsigned essay by Tony DeBlase that included this sentence, “Responsible S&M has become more popular and less feared in the gay community and Chicago Hellfire Club continues to serve its community – striving always to educate and promote safe and sane enjoyment of men by men” (emphasis added) 
GMSMA influenced LSM (Lesbian Sex Mafia) in joining the Eulenspiegel Society (Straight/Bi practitioners of S/M), as well other fraternal leather clubs to march as a unified S/M-Leather-Fetish contingent in the annual NYC Pride March , two different Marches on Washington for LGBTQ rights (1987 and 1993), and the March on the United Nations for LGBT Rights (1994 on the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion). The “Safe, Sane, Consensual” slogan was solidified into BDSM history when it was emblazoned on banners and t-shirts for all these marches. . . and these were later taken back to local Leather communities world-wide.
Looking back to the first 15 years of my involvement, there remains no other group which had such a critical mass of well-educated and street-savvy men, both creative and artistic, and extremely knowledgeable as both S/M tops and/or bottoms, as businessmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors, or their craft in leatherwork and dungeon construction. Our members were dedicated and extremely open to teaching those individuals who showed seriousness in learning. I’m convinced that had the AIDS crisis not taken at least a third of our members in their 20s to 40s, GMSMA would still exist today.
GMSMA was a strong supporter of the New York City LGBT Community Center (through helping to ‘rehab’ the original rundown but historic Food and Maritime Trades High School (c.1861) as well as our donation of hundreds of folding chairs). We were recognized as one of many contributors to the Center on a plaque in their building’s lobby.
Our group has received the PANTHEON OF LEATHER (Los Angeles) Large Club of the Year Award in 1990 and 1995, and the Large Event of the Year Award in 1993, produced by GMSMA, Excelsior MC, LSM, NLA: Metro NY and the Eulenspiegel Society.
Largely existing before the internet, little of GMSMA’s history and accomplishments can be found on the web, though some of GMSMA’s archives can be found in the Leather Archives & Museum (Chicago) as well as The LGBT Community Center National History Archive (New York City). Ted and I fully agree with Stockman’s assessment that, “In our 30-year history, GMSMA made S/M safer in so many ways from the closed bar scene that preceded it. We helped remove the stigma of interest in kinky activities that many people had viewed with shame and guilt. GMSMA may no longer exist, but in large part it’s because it achieved everything it set out to do. GMSMA made history, and along with many others – some of them already inducted in the Leather Hall of Fame and others who will join them soon – we changed the world.
with contributions of Ted Heaney & Thor Stockman
 Gay Power, Gay Politics was a documentary about the gay voting influence in San Francisco, but which also stigmatized the entire LGBTQ+ population by showing inflammatory images of SM. It aired on April 26, 1980.
 i.e. said you were a “male,” as there was no genitals checking! (This being a time before FtMs were open in large numbers.)
 featuring a traditional – if not especially macho – bake-off for the best cakes and pies, and contests, like ‘Best Pig in Show (two-legged, of course), and Best Homemade S/M Equipment’” (Arnie Kantrowitz, The Advocate, May 29, 1984.) Also the first – and last! – “Pie Your ‘Favorite’ GMSMA Boardmember” Auction which was extremely popular, for obvious reasons!
 Chicago Hellfire Club’s Inferno 10 (1981) run book.
 When wearing leather in the June heat is a sign of true dedication to the cause.” Arnie Kantrowitz, The Advocate, May 29, 1984
For inquiring minds:
Geoff Ferguson: “Gay Male S/M Activists: A Short History,” GMSMA Collection at the LA&M, 1982.
Arnie Kantrowitz: “Minority’s Minority Steps. From the Shadows. Gay Male S/M Activists,” The Advocate, May 29, 1984.
Anne O. Nomis: “RIP David Stein. One of the Original NY Gay Activists Who Helped Develop SSC (Safe, Sane & Consensual),” accessed on July 17, 2023.