On the fourth Friday of each month, the first floor of The Eagle — a gay leather-themed bar in Chelsea — is crawling with puppies.
At any given moment, a handful of puppies will be playing with each other, sleeping on the floor and getting belly rubs, while the rest of them will be standing at the bar drinking.
These are not your Westminster Dog Show pups. These are gay men who enjoy putting on masks and tails and assume the roles of a dog. The fetish evolved from the gay leather scene nearly 40 years ago as a form of punishment, but today it’s something more playful and fun.
It’s also been one of the few ways to keep the gay leather scene growing in cities like New York, where gentrification and cost of living have driven out some of the cultural institutions that many in this community feel have dwindled.
“Gay bars are our safe places from a hostile world and our refuge. It’s just nice to come to a bar — especially a gay leather bar — where I can find people who are like me,” said Vidhra Alexander, 27, one of the more recognized pups in New York.
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Alexander is the winner of Northeast Puppy, a contest of sorts that happens every year within the leather community.
“This is where I get to be unapologetically me, versus when I walk down the street I can’t just start barking at people,” he said.
The puppy fetish began in the late 1970s, when submissive gay men were punished by their more dominant partners. Despite its 40-year history, the puppy scene has only begun to flourish in the past few years with young gay men like Alexander being the primary audience drawn into the fetish.
“This is an opportunity for people to come and really see what being a puppy can be for them, and maybe experience a different fetish they never knew they had,” said Damien Basile, 36, who is a “puppy handler,” the term given to someone who is paired with a puppy. “You’d think New York would have this vast underground leather scene where people can experience different fetishes, but that’s just not the case. We went from 12 leather bars to one.”
Though New York has a highly visible kink population compared to other cities — the city hosts the Folsom Street East Street Festival, the East Coast’s largest kink street fair, every summer — the number of safe spaces for gay kinky men to indulge in their fetishes have decreased significantly. The last place to close down, Rawhide, was around for 33 years before its rent nearly doubled in 2013, forcing the owners to cease operations.
Alexander and the other pups who gathered at The Eagle last week say their culture is at risk without the leather bar.
“Queer space will always will be needed because we're a culture, we really can’t pass our culture down by the typical ‘have a kid’ kind of way,” he said.
And in today’s political climate, where many LGBTQ members view the rights they gained over the past eight years at stake under a Donald Trump presidency, gay bars are their safe spaces from the outside world.
“If you think about it, being queer is still a radical thing this day. The mere fact that we have different love is radical,” said Alexander. “These bars are our refuge and our place to form political organizations the same way that black churches were used to organize people during the civil rights movement. It’s important that we keep this place alive for all of us.”