This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I came from, and how our community feels so very different now to me than it did then. I’ve spent some time watching and participating in hard conversations with people, both new and established. And what I realize is that my perspective is framed by the people that were my elders when I was fortunate enough to find this community.
No, I wasn’t excitedly learning from them at the time; at that point in my life, I tended to think that I had already learned a lot about myself and the world around me. In fact, I was probably bitching quietly about why I had to do something in a certain way, or why I had to go talk to people and show up for bar nights (and as a woman in an almost-exclusively mens club, there wasn’t the lure of rough sex tucked down into the crotch of a pair of Levi’s 501’s to get my engine revved up about going up to the Eagle). But I could see something there, underneath the layer of Kiwi polish, that I resonated with.
For those of you that haven’t heard my story before, I found the leather community through my involvement with the (one!) pansexual BDSM organization in Charlottesville, VA; some of the members of RLC were there to introduce themselves, and I immediately saw an energy (one that I couldn’t immediately describe) that they shared with each other. And whatever that nameless “thing” was that they had, I was curious. Intrigued, even. I’d made my home with the freaks & fags when I was in my late teens, and so perhaps some of the attraction was to the memory of the pain & joy from those days. But there was, behind that, something more – a sense of family that these men felt with each other. They treated each other like brothers. And when they mentioned that maybe I should join them for a bar night, I was astounded that they’d want me there. I went. I kept going. I eventually became a member of the club; I wish I could say that I gave them my best, but I can truly say that I gave them my heart.
They taught me that love was not conditional, and it wasn’t always pretty and sweet, but it was as real as the blood in my veins (and just as vital). They taught me that when your ass is in jail, your leather family would be there to bail you out (and then promptly and decisively kicked your ass if you’d been a jerk). They taught me that it was possible to survive the loss of the majority of the people you call family, and that eventually, you could thrive again. They taught me that, because very few people fought for us out in the rest of the world, it was critical for us to fight for each other. They taught me that tears that are shared, whether in love or in pain, are priceless and not a thing to be ashamed of.
(And before you think it was all halcyon days full of deep emotional significance, they also taught me not to put my fingers on the mylar brim of a hat because the fingerprints are a bitch to get back off, that if I’m going to spank a club brother’s ass while he’s wearing a regulation motorcycle cop uniform I’d bruise my hand if I didn’t wear a glove, that no matter what else I did in the next month I had to learn to lip sync all the lyrics to “I’m Tired” so that our number at the Drummer contest wouldn’t stuck, that a woman can put her club colors on a pink vest without being any less of a leather woman, and that I suck at home décor and accessorizing).
The leatherfolk that I “came up” learning from were brave, bitchy, vibrant, and occasionally harsh in their criticism. My pledge process was one that was hard for me; in retrospect, it was because I was learning qualities that I was lacking that it would take me over a decade to change. I carried a lot of rough edges when I found them (or was it that they found me?). The knocked some of the worst ones down to a manageable size, and helped me polish up the center so that I could see that it was worth doing the rest of the work to uncover. And they celebrated all the joys and shouldered all the sorrows. Because that was what we do, as a leather family.
Becoming a leather person, for me, was not easy. It required me to challenge my own assumptions. It required me to understand that I could disagree with someone and yet still respect their decisions. It taught me that I can either trust that my value comes from how I walk my walk, alongside the people who I’ve grown to trust and love, or I can allow my worry over whether other people think I’m doing it “right” to hobble my attempts to move forward through life. It required me to walk into some tough situations, knowing that I might have to prove myself through my actions and my presence. It required me to consistently move back into a space of learning, rather than live with the idea that I know everything. It also taught me that, as grumpy and annoying as they could be sometimes, the folks that have been doing this for decades have experiences that I never will have, and their experiences can provide me perspective on why things are where they are right now, as well as ways to move forward.
While I don’t have a club membership now (and haven’t since leaving central Virginia), I still have that sense of community as extended family, and while some of it is online, it’s primarily a thing that I feel from my in-person interactions with other leatherfolk. Sometimes it sneaks up on me, like when I run into someone and they tell me their great news and we celebrate the positive changes, or when I’m at the bar and I get the “nod” that tells me that my presence is pleasantly noted and welcomed. Sometimes, it’s dramatic, like when I see a community pull together to collect funds for victims of a shooting within days of the event, or when everyone surrounds and supports the loved ones after a loss, or even the times that, within one day of being alerted to a problems, we’re able to provide help to a single person that needs help in order to remain safe. Sometimes, it’s sublime – it’s just the knowledge that even though the leather community is not what it was when I found it, it’s still here, still changing, still filled with love, and still a place where each of us can be our best, bravest, strongest selves, even when we’re filled with fear and pain. But it’s still family. And it’s still here. And so, I am still here, too.
© Sarah Sloane, 2017by