Before I took my first trip to Ramrod, the legendary local leather club, my boyfriend imparted a warning: “The patrons there are bears with barrel chests,” he said, “and they aren’t much appreciative of skinny, 21 year-old guys like yourself.” The message was clear: Don’t expect to be ogled. Expect to be marginalized, disdained, and openly mocked, if not beaten with rubber hoses.
So it was with understandable trepidation that I went into the Ramrod last Saturday – wearing a cotton shirt and not a shred of leather – accompanied by my 24-year-old friend Travis, a fellow twink. When we walked in the door, we noticed a sort of gift shop to our left, and poked our heads in. It could have doubled as a tackroom: There were neat rows of harnesses, bridles, and every variety of BDSM gear hanging from the walls. The merchandise struck us as a bad omen, a foreshadowing of imminent medieval rape, but we pressed on.
Through a little curtain we arrived in the cramped club space. Instantly the crush of half-naked male bodies carried us off. We were trapped in a logjam on river rapids. Travis grabbed a hold of my hand, his survival instinct activated. There was almost no lighting, so our eyes took minutes to adjust, and the air was filled with a thin haze – a mix of cigarette smoke and sweat evaporating off exposed chests. A small dance floor was packed tight with men and strafed by little laser lights. The music was heavy, electronic and unusual – there was notably no Top 20 crap, and one song was punctuated by a five-minute-long female orgasm. The interior, with its rustic, wood-paneled walls, old-looking lamps, legions of pot-bellied and muscular bearded men, and atmosphere of claustrophobia and drunken reverie, began to feel like a below-decks party on a pirate ship, or perhaps an old frontier saloon overrun by homoeroticism. Whatever the case, there was the thrill of the lawless.
My boyfriend’s warning was partly accurate: Travis and I got few sexual leers, and only one or two light, non-committal gropes from the patrons. But we didn’t feel discriminated against either, and it was safely too dark to tell if we were being glowered at. Before long we were sipping Budweisers, feeling chilled out, if a bit numb from shock, and enjoying a gay-club miracle: We could hear each other over the music.
When we went tepidly onto the narrow back-patio, which I had heard was an anything-goes cruising zone, I expected to see scenes from a 1970s illustrated underground gay smut magazine: men in leather berets holding a barbed whip in one hand, a veiny schlong in the other, hunting for orifices. But we didn’t see a single exposed penis, just a bunch of shirtless guys standing around with drinks, speaking in subdued, friendly tones like they were at a church social. There was hardcore porn playing on a few TVs, but the raunchiest scene I saw unfold in real life was two guys making out vigorously.
Travis and I were only propositioned once. Standing by our cars after closing time, discussing Ramrod’s ambiance and the German-like engineering of fetish gear, a guy in a pick-up truck pulled over next to us and asked whether we knew anyone interested in buying deep-sea fishing rods for $350 each. Is “deep-sea fishing rod” a leather euphemism? We still don’t know.
In an interview the next day, Ramrod’s owners, Zak Enterline and Steve Whitney, explain to me why there was so little lewdness at Ramrod on a Saturday night.
“We have dick patrol now,” Whitney says.
Obscenity laws are tight in Fort Lauderdale – it’s a crime to have an erection in a nightclub – and the laws are being enforced with more frequent police raids, the couple says. So Ramrod has had to crack down. They would prefer to do away with patrols and let dicks roam free, but they can’t until the laws change.
“Fort Lauderdale is a small town and it’s still a conservative police force,” Whitney says.
Enterline hails from Ohio. He studied to be a cartographer, and went up in helicopters to draw maps. But he was outmoded in the 1970s by computers and satellites. So he moved to Florida and became a bartender. That’s where he met Whitney, a fellow bartender from Massachusetts. They’ve been business and romantic partners ever since the late ‘70s, though they can’t remember the exact year.
“We’ve lost count,” Whitney says with a laugh.
Sixteen years ago, they took over a straight biker bar called The Hobbit. They added a cage, but left much else the same. And thus Ramrod was born.
The couple remembers the Wilton Manors area before the great gay influx. The Shoppes of Wilton Manors were a “half-boarded up strip mall,” Enterline says. Gay life was concentrated “south of the tunnel” in downtown Fort Lauderdale. “People asked, ‘Why are you moving up there?’”
But the area soon took off. It entered a leather renaissance, a bygone golden era when there were four local leather bars and at least five shops selling leather gear. The scene has faded, a decline that Whitney attributes to the Internet, which made gatherings in person redundant. These days, he says, the bulk of Ramrod’s patrons aren’t leather fetishists; they just come to take off their shirts, a freedom that Ramrod is one of the few clubs to afford. And the younger ones, Enterline says with a hint of sadness, are “graduating to rubber and neoprene.”
“Everyone’s welcome here,” he says - including twinks. “A lot of leather guys like twinks. They like the boys-daddies thing.”
Whitney says their club’s success has to do with the unchanging vibe that they’ve kept for sixteen years. After all, the Pig Dance, an event going on when I visited, dates back to one of Ramrod’s opening nights.
“Ramrod is the oldest gay club in Fort Lauderdale with the same owners, at the same location,” Enterline says. That contiguity with the past has turned the club into a historic site. It is to the leather scene what the Mai-Kai is to Hukilau: a point of pilgrimage… And, perhaps unlike the Mai-Kai, a place where a lot of porn movies have been shot.
“People come from all over the world to be at the Ramrod,” Whitney says. There are plenty of rich people, and “the doctors and lawyers seem to be the kinkier ones.”
There are even visits by celebrities. The couple claims that Kevin Spacey has stopped by twice. I ask what other big names they’ve come across, but “there’s a couple I can’t tell you,” Enterline says. But he reveals that the closeted celebrities arrive with their managers – so that if they’re photographed, they can say they were tagging along with their gay manager.
In a recent poll on GayCities.com, Ramrod was voted the best leather club in the world. But Whitney says there are many locals who have never visited.
“I don’t know if they’re afraid to come here – afraid they’re gonna get spanked and whipped and beat,” he says.
As I discovered, nothing of the sort takes place. But the couple likes that their club scares outsiders – because it ultimately lures them in.
“It’s the intrigue,” Whitney says.