On May 28, 1989, at the International Mister Leather contest in Chicago, Tony DeBlase presented his design for a Leather Pride Flag. In an editorial in his Off The Top column in Drummer 131, written before DeBlase's trip to Chicago, but not on the newsstands until afterwards, he explained something of how the idea and design for the flag came about.
"The rainbow flag has become the symbol of Gay and Lesbian pride, and I have been proud to wear it on my clothing, march behind it in parades, and hang it from my balcony. I was thrilled by the rainbow-colored balloons used in the opening and closing ceremonies of Gay Games II and the spectacular rainbow of balloons that arched over the main stage at the G&L pride rally here in San Francisco a couple of years ago."
"For the 20th anniversary of Stonewall, I felt that the time was right for the Leather men and women, who have been participating in these same parades and events more and more visibly in recent years, to have a similar, simple, elegant banner that would serve as a symbol of their own identity and interests. I decided that calling a committee meeting to design it would be counterproductive, so I just did it. I consulted with most of the staff here at Drummer, and some of their suggestions were incorporated. I do not expect this design to be the final form, but [rather] the basis from which a widely accepted banner will evolve."
"A prototype was constructed and displayed at the International Mr. Leather Contest in Chicago on May 28. It seemed to be enthusiastically welcomed. I am having a few more flags manufactured. Drummer will be presenting one each to the Leather men and women of New York City and of San Francisco. I have asked GMSMA to be the custodian of the former and The Society of Janus and The Outcasts to be custodians
of the latter. With luck, both flags will be ready in time to be carried by the Leather contingents in each of theses two major pride parades. Drummer will also donate flags to the National Leather Association and to Chicago Hellfire Club. Both of these are groups with which I have been intimately involved for quite some time, and both host major events for the Leather and/or SM community."
"The flag is composed of nine horizontal stripes of equal width. From the top and from the bottom, the stripes alternate black and royal blue. The central stripe is white. In the upper left quadrant of the flag is a large red heart. I will leave it to the viewer to interpret the colors and symbols."
"Desmodus Inc. [DeBlase's company, at the time, publisher of Drummer] has a copyright on the design and anyone wishing to use it for purely commercial purposes must receive our written approval. However, we welcome members of the Leather/SM community to use the design for flags, banners, pins, printed material, etc. to be distributed free or sold at cost, or to be used for fund raising for not-for-profit causes that benefit Leather men and women. No permission is required for these uses, but we do ask that you inform us of the use and, where possible, send us samples."
"We have had cloisonné pins made. These are about 1" wide and are available for $5. Photos of the flag at IML and, hopefully, in the parades as well, will be in Drummer 132."
There was some debate about DeBlase's audacity. How dare he design a flag without convening a committee of important leather men and women? Did he think he would get away with this? Well, no, he didn't intend to "get away with" anything. As he said in the editorial, "I do not expect this design to be the final form," but indignity requires no excuse.
Nonetheless, the enthusiastic welcome the design received at IML was barely the beginning. Before anyone really had a chance to think whether the design should or shouldn't be changed, it was everywhere. In fact, perhaps strangely, Drummer magazine, did not work for the adoption of the flag with anything like the fervor you might expect. The process took on a life of its own and, in effect, ignored the fact that the designer was waiting for feedback and expecting to make changes. The promised pictures in the next issue of Drummer were hardly a push for acceptance.
In the IML coverage, Mister Marcus mentioned the presentation of the flag and that it had already appeared in "gay parades across the country." Marcus also said, "The flag obviously represents the leather/SM fraternity and their caring, loving brotherhood." No pictures of the flag or its presentation at IML were published. What's more, the nine parade pictures published, five of them showing the new flag, were in black and white. The [parade] coverage [also] mentioned that the flag was flown over the Society of Janus booth in San Francisco and that several Portland, OR, leather women had "sewed their own leather pride flag."
The Portland flag followed the DeBlase design exactly. On the back cover of that issue of Drummer, the new IML, Guy Baldwin, and his runners up were pictured in front of the flag. The next Drummer- designer-related appearance of the leather pride flag was in September, on stage at the Mr. Drummer finals, and the flag that graced the stage (along with gay pride flags) appeared on the cover of Drummer 135—just in the background.
The following September, at the next Mr. Drummer contest, one of the most interesting events was the arrival of Clive Platman, a New Zealander in San Francisco to represent Australia in the Mr. Drummer finals. He brought with him a new version of the flag, its first major variant. Over the now-established stripes, Laurie Lane of Laurie Lane's Leather World, had appliquéd the stars that also appear on Australia's national flag.
By this time there were authorized and unauthorized version of the flag for sale in endless forms: pins, bumper stickers, patches and even Christmas ornaments, but the Aussie flag set off a stir. Everyone began working at variants, some of them great extensions of the flag and its purpose (titleholders' sashes), others downright funny (a Thanksgiving card on which the red heart is replaced by a roast turkey in red). But there was definitely no doubt by the time of the 1991 Drummer contest that the flag was, as DeBlase had hoped, "a widely accepted banner." And, even at this time, Drummer was not pushing the leather pride design. In fact, the only ad for the leather pride design was a small classified ad offering the original pins at $6, 2 for $10.
Now, in 1997, the leather pride flag design is just eight years old—its ninth birthday being at the IML contest in May, 1998 — and it is solidly accepted around the world. Used and reused everywhere, twisted and warped into every shape, wrapped around every kind of product and made of every material from leather to crochet yarn. It has even been worked into the permanent colors of some leather clubs, a use that DeBlase sees as particularly significant, a special level of acceptance.
The original prototype of the flag and many, many examples of the design's application are on exhibit at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. Among the examples, you could see there are: window stickers, run pins, key chains, beaded safety pins, business cards, jewelry, the logo of Bandanna magazine, the cover of a cookbook, letterhead and a hand-crocheted *censored* and ball cover (a cozy?). We have also seen the colors and design elements of the leather pride flag used as whip handles and whole whips, worked into clothing designs, done as tattoos and hair dye jobs, and many, many times as cake decoration.
Of course, the leather pride flag has flown as an arch of balloons at any number of events, perhaps completing the circle from the inspiration DeBlase started with to the fully realized emblem we have today.
(Read this along with other flag history on the web at http://www.bearmfg.com/history/history.html)
Mr. DeBlase invented the flag entirely on his own, and left the symbolism purposefully vague, though I have heard “revisionist” meanings in the community that the red heart stands for love, and the white stripe for safety.
Steve Kramer, 10 Mar 2000 and 07 Jul 2000
DeBlase’s wish was that there are diverse interpretations of the symbolics of the flag. One of the most familiar ones is from Stacey, Ms. National Leather Association International 1996:
The red heart is for love, the white stripe for purity in an open, honest and understanding relationship, the black stripes for leather and the blue ones for denim (Jeans fabric) - both materials that are frequently worn in the scene.
Black: the colour of S/M followers; blue: for the followers of Jeans fetish; white: solidarity with the novices of the S/M-scene; the heart: S/M has nothing to do with raw violence, but is practised with mutual respect, consent and understanding.
Marcus Schmöger, 24 Aug 2001.