John Preston (December 11, 1945 - April 28, 1994) was an early gay rights activist and journalist who went on to write a famous gay leather novel, Mr. Benson. Through his anthologies, he helped bring leather fiction out of the ghetto of pornography magazines and into the homes of readers of mainstream literature.
Preston grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts. In the seventies, he worked as a prominent gay activist in Minneapolis and other large cities. In 1975 he was appointed editor of a California gay newspaper, The Advocate, which went on to become a national newsmagazine.
Unknown to his readers, Preston had begun visiting leather bars during his college years in the 1960s. After quitting his job at The Advocate at the end of 1975, he sold his services as a leather top in San Francisco and New York City.
In 1978, the most popular leather magazine, Drummer, began serializing Preston's novel Mr. Benson, about a mediocre young leatherman who attracts the attention of a skilled master. Preston's master/slave romance was a surprise hit, and it resulted in gay men wearing tee-shirts that said "Looking for Mr. Benson" (with an optional question mark). The novel appeared in book form in 1983 and has been reprinted and translated a number of times. Mr. Benson was not the first work of gay slave fiction, but it has often been quoted and imitated.
Although the novel had been serialized under the pseudonym of Jack Prescott, Preston began using his own name for his erotic fiction, his leather journalism articles, and eventually his erotic photography. Some of his leather books were better received than others, but to this day he remains a popular and influential author.
His erotic writings caused greater controversy when he was one of several leather and BDSM writers to have his books confiscated at the border by Canada Customs. Testimony regarding the literary merit of his leather novel I Once Had a Master (1984) helped a Vancouver GLBT bookstore, Little Sister's, to partially win a case against Canada Customs in the Canadian Supreme Court in 2000.
Preston did not stop writing for mainstream readers. After returning to New England in 1979 and settling in Portland, Maine, Preston began writing articles on New England life for regular gay publications. In the nineties, he wrote a column for Lambda Book Report called "Preston on Publishing." His greatest mainstream success came with a series of nonfiction gay anthologies that won him awards and recognition, including the Lambda Literary Award and the American Library Association's Stonewall Book Award. He was especially praised for his regional writings.
This mainstream acceptance allowed him to edit three erotic gay fiction anthologies for a major publishing house, entitled Flesh and the Word (1992-95). Leather stories were prominently featured in the volumes. Many of the stories in these anthologies had originally been published in gay pornography magazines. In a remark quoted by others, Preston said, "Pornography and erotica are the same thing. The only difference is that erotica is the stuff bought by rich people; pornography is what the rest of us buy."
Preston also wrote a number of mainstream men's adventure novels under the pseudonyms of Mike McCray, Preston MacAdam, and Jack Hilt. Taking what he had learned from them, he wrote the Alex Kane adventure novels about gay characters. A prolific author, he penned gay books on classified ads, prostitution, and organizations and resources.
Gay leather was formed in reaction to effeminate homosexuality, yet Preston wrote a novel that sympathetically portrayed the life of an effeminate gay man, Franny, the Queen of Provincetown (1983, 1995). The book was twice turned into a play. In the novel, the main character tells a leatherman, "Now don't go and get upset at an old queen like me when I say this, but what you got on is drag just as sure as my fanciest ball gown. But that's good. That's being creative and that's making your own way in the world and not letting someone else tell you how you should be . . ."
Similarly, although women had received a cold shoulder when they first tried to enter the leather/levi community, Preston encouraged gay BDSM writings by women. He was especially fond of the novels of Anne Rice, who appeared as a fictionalized character in his leather novel Entertainment for a Master (1986). However, he expressed concern that the achievements of leathermen might be torn down by some feminists who were opposed to pornography and to the "rites of masculinity" that leathermen underwent. His concerns were expressed in his 1993 essay collection, My Life as a Pornographer . The title essay of the collection was delivered as a lecture at Harvard University.
Preston was among the first writers to popularize the genre of safe sex stories, editing a safe sex anthology entitled Hot Living (1985). He helped to found the AIDS Project of Southern Maine. In the late eighties, he discovered that he himself was HIV positive. Some of his last essays, found in his nonfiction anthologies and in his posthumous collection Winter's Light (1995), describe his struggle to come emotionally to terms with a disease that had already killed many of his friends and fellow writers.
When John Preston died at home in Portland of AIDS complications, he had written nearly fifty books in the space of sixteen years, as well as countless articles and short stories. Many men and women dressed in leather attended his funeral. A tribute anthology edited by Laura Antoniou, Looking for Mr. Preston, was published after his death, and he was named National Leather Association Man of the Year in 1994. His papers are held in the Preston Archive at Brown University.