THE LEATHER BOYS directed by Sidney J. Furie (UK, 1964)
The sixties might have swung for many but cinema’s representation of sexuality in this era was often anything but liberated.
The notion that sexual intercourse necessitates the removal of clothing is just one of the taboos filmmakers were reluctant to challenge.
An honest visual display of carnal lust and desire is controversial enough in straight relationships and is still more taboo when it comes to homosexuality.
Even in our supposedly more enlightened 21st century, coming to terms with being gay can be unnecessarily traumatic. Ellen Page’s emotionally charged coming out speech is proof that this is still too often the “love that dare not speak its name”.
Mainstream cinema perpetuates negative attitudes by rarely treating same-sex relationships in an open or mature fashion.
The Leather Boys is regarded as an early example of ‘Queer Cinema’ and is unusual in that it tentatively tries to ‘normalise’ homosexuality instead of showing it as a threat to the moral wellbeing of society.
It’s a significant movie for Morrissey with clips featuring in the video to The Smiths’ Girlfriend In A Coma and a still from it being used as the cover image of William It Was Really Nothing.
In the movie, two men form a close friendship and even share the same bed although this seems for the most part as an example of male bonding in the safe macho world of a motorcycle club in the South London suburbs. Only when the wife of one of them says “You look like a couple of queers” does Reggie (Colin Campbell), the not so bright husband, begin to suspect that his ‘friend’ might have a hidden agenda.
Pete (Dudley Sutton) is a gay biker, who up to this point is regarded as merely eccentric. His rebelliousness is signified by his head-to-toe leather gear and the approximation of American beatnik slang he uses (“happening”, “scene”, “leather strides”). He has no interest in pulling birds and we gradually suspect he has ulterior motives for wanting Reggie to stay estranged from his wife.
However, nothing in the first half hour of the film gives any hint that this might turn into a Romeo and Romeo story. It begins with Dot (Rita Tushingham) becoming a teenage bride and follows the newly married couple on their honeymoon at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Bognor Regis.
At this point Reggie is a red-blooded hetero guy whose sole interest is romping in the chalet. Dot is a willing partner but also wants to go dancing, play bingo, drink and socialize with the other campers. Without telling Reggie she gets her hair dyed blonde and gives the impression of flowering as a married woman. At the same time, she can’t cook, doesn’t clean and has no inclination to conform to the role of submissive housewife and homemaker. The more empowered she becomes, the more Reggie falls out of lust with her. In a reversal of the roles, it is she who demands sex and he who complains of a headache or of not being in the mood.
The initial themes of the movie are therefore more sympathetic towards feminist interests than gay pride. Gillian Freeman wrote the screenplay from her own novel, written under the alias of Eliot George. Although it keeps its vaguely transgressive sounding title, the plot was radically neutered for the big screen. In the book the two men not only have sex but are engaged in criminal activities while the wife plays only a minor role. This act of self censorship is an indication that cinema has to play by different rules.
In the final scene of The Leather Boys, Reggie goes into a gay bar and this is how he learns the truth of his friend’s sexuality. The men in the bar are made to look sinister and predatory in a way that Pete is not.
The narrow un-permissive boundaries of popular culture serve to neutralise healthy sexual desire and stigmatize gay love.
The Leather Boys is a movie that wants to address social taboos but is cognizant of the risks involved in explicitly challenging conventional attitudes. Unfortunately, that which is hidden is all too easily interpreted as being something to be ashamed of. This explains why Ellen Page’s coming out is still a big deal and why Morrissey alludes to his gayness from the safety of the closet.