This keynote was given at the Spirit of Leather awards dinner, hosted by NLA-Houston on October 22, 2016, to recognize people, organizations, and businesses for their service to the Houston community.
Tonight, I’d like to talk a little bit about where we’ve come from – where we are – and where I think we’re going.
I want to clarify – I make a distinction between the leather community – a community that was started by gay men, though it reflects a wider range of members in terms of gender and orientation today – and the BDSM or Fetish community, which initially consisted of people who were primarily heterosexual and bisexual. While there is certainly overlap in how we fuck and play, the two should not be conflated.
When asked to pinpoint the start of the leather community here in the United States, some folks will point to 1954, which is the year that The Satyrs, a gay male motorcycle club, was founded in California. In the following decades, the historical timeline of the leather community saw further growth within men’s and women’s clubs and bars during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, reaching its heyday in the pre-AIDS days of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Books like Larry Townsend’s “The Leathermen’s Handbook”, Geoff Mains’ “Urban Aboriginals” and “Coming to Power”, edited by Samois, and clubs like Hellfire Club, FIST, GMSMA, LSM, and others provided focal points for people who craved the company of likeminded people, and gave education and guidance to their members on how and where to fuck differently.
Leathermen originally came together to find fellowship, family, and yes, sex, with other men who embraced the overtly masculine side of gay male sexuality. In a world where you could be harassed, arrested, and even killed simply for being “gay in public”, the community that was created by these men was both protective and erotic, familial and formal. Leatherwomen, as well, sought out community with each other for the same reasons, with the additional pressure that they faced because of second wave feminism’s conflation of power and patriarchy – being a woman who wanted to engage in consensual power exchange was seen as highly suspect and downright abuse. The community meeting places – bars, Sm and Leather clubs, and the connections that developed as a result – provided a haven for these folks.
Was there one true way of doing things? Not according to the men and women that made up this generation. While some had formalized ways of learning and living (whether within their relationships or within a family or club structure), many others felt that a formalized structure was not compatible with their identities as sexual outlaws. Everything you’ve heard about how things were done “back then”? It’s perhaps both true, and false. Yes, there were formal ways that people asked for, and offered, a collar; there were people that earned their leather by moving up the ranks; there were people who were given a cover by a group of peers as a way to formally acknowledge the status of the newly hatted person. But there were also people who drank beer and got pissed on after they earned their backpatch, or for whom a cover was something that they bought because they felt sexy and powerful when they saw themselves in it. Many of these rituals had deep importance – but only to a small group of people, often within one family or one club. There was no one true way – there was only the ways that felt right for each person.
As the AIDS epidemic hit, many men retreated back into the edges to nurse themselves and their lovers, and many of the women in the community took on the roles of caretakers, as well. Many left behind any connection with their leather clubs and bars, in part because reminders of the brothers and lovers that they lost were too painful. Yet some kept the spaces alive by showing up, and clung to the rest of the community in order to survive. This is the time that spawned leather contests, drag shows and fundraisers in our bars, in an effort to keep people coming out.
The mid to late 90’s saw this community of leathermen beginning to recover from the onslaught of a disease that had no cure; bar attendance and club membership saw a new generation of men (and, yes, some women) who were still drawn to leather as their sexual and spiritual expression. Some of those clubs, of course, didn’t survive. Others threw their doors open to non-traditional members. Still more connected with the pansexual community that had grown from the twin beginnings of Society of Janus and The Eulenspiegel Society and whose numbers were fanned by the nascent internet (which is, by the way, where the term BDSM was coined). These pansexual clubs stepped in and began to offer education and support in different ways, some of which were adopted by the more traditional leather clubs.
This diversity both built a stronger community, as well as drained some of the singleness of purpose from the clubs. What started as sex turned into community service (because, really, there were very few governmental and charitable entities that wanted to dirty their hands with the care and treatment of a generation of gay men with an incurable disease). What became something that happened in darkened back rooms and club spaces turned into something that happened in hotel conference rooms and public dungeons.
Is this a bad thing? It depends on who you ask. Some of us yearn for a sense of community that we imagine existed – chalk that up to our cultural fascination with the “good old days”. For those folks, our current community may never meet up to their hopes. Some of our longer-term community members walked away (or are currently doing so), because what they found meaningful is no longer present in the ways that make it worthwhile.
Yet, for so many of us, our community offers us a place to belong – a family, or a place to cruise, or a place to be celebrated for our sexuality instead of judged based upon it. We’ve seen amazing things happen as a result of that community – we’ve seen the dissolution of laws that limited our sexual expression, we’ve created a vocal and impassioned groundswell of support for institutions that empower the lives of sexual minority groups, and other alternative communities have taken a long list of notes from our successes and failures into their own advocacy work.
We are at a critical cusp in our community, both nationally and locally. What do I mean by this?
We are not balancing the need for inclusivity with the need for sacred space. We are seeing parts of our communities fracture into smaller and smaller separate groups, creating divides without bridges. We are caught up in assimilation and respectability politics, preferring some types of expression over others and attempting to regulate the sexuality of others that does not meet up to standards that are more palatable to the masses. And we are not holding ourselves, our leaders, and our community accountable for their words and actions.
So why are those issues a challenge?
Let’s look at the desire to be inclusive. Our inclusivity has had some amazing positive benefits – we learn from, laugh with, and grow with people that we may never have otherwise connected with, and we can share our strengths to make amazing things happen. However, while laudable – after all, everyone should have a space where they feel that they can be a part of a greater group – the push to create inclusivity in all things often means that the club or event does not meet the needs of any of its members. There is power in both being accepted by and in sharing sacred space with one’s peers, whether those peers are of similar orientation, gender, role, or perspective.
Or the focus on acceptability. The push for people to behave (whether in terms of dress, action, or sex) in ways that are more acceptable for the lowest common denominator strips the passion and heart that are the reasons that we all came to leather and kink. We came here to be sexual outlaws in a world of conservatism, not to subsume our pervertedness under a veneer of generic sex. Our brothers and sisters who are taking PreP and celebrating their choices to engage in unbarriered sex are a perfect example of this – the hue and cry about their “unsafe” behavior is based in the same shame and guilt that people who are not kinky use to criticize those of us who are. Likewise, some kinds of play and relationship structures may feel challenging to others – piss play, fisting, owner/property relationships, for instance. Yet to cut ourselves off from the rawness of who we are and what we do is to deny ourselves the passion that inspires us.
Our community culture also struggles with the same problematic understanding of power and entitlement that our wider national culture deals with. The sense that some people are entitled to more power, a louder voice, or a wider range of actions – regardless of the outcomes and the people affected – is something that we’re seeing playing out in our political and corporate structures. As some of you might have noticed in our current election cycle, we have people in positions of power who believe that they are entitled to have whatever they want, and to hell with consent or cost. And just as in those structures, the people and organizations in power often do not change their behavior because the greater community doesn’t require them to do so.
So, as we move into the next decade, what do we all – both as individuals, and as collective members of the community – need to do in order to address these issues?
First, we must hold ourselves and our community members accountable for our words and actions. If we believe that part of being a leather person is having a sense of honor and integrity we have to make sure that our words do not have unintended negative consequences, and that they reflect our intent in an authentic way. Our words have weight, and power – and as many of us that have been bullied know, words can hurt and even kill. It is incumbent upon us to think about the repercussions of our words, and make compassionate decisions about how to use them. Likewise, we have to be willing to speak clearly our dissent, to not run from hard conversations, and to work towards mutual understanding with others. We were all given voices; maturity is in the right use of those voices to create a better world.
We also need to hold ourselves accountable for doing better instead of simply doing what we have done in the past, and encourage each other to keep doing better. A great example of this is our changing concept of consent. When I came into the community back in the late 1990’s, if a possible consent violation came up, the conversation circled back onto the bottom: did they use their safeword, or make a safe call? If they didn’t safeword, then some of the blame rested upon them. Of course, now we can understand consent as a more nuanced concept – we know that not everyone is capable of or willing to use a safeword, and that the responsibility of the top is to continually ensure that authentic, enthusiastic, ongoing consent is present (even if that consent is to something that does not look consensual). We are doing better by our members, today, because of those conversations and those re-conceptualizations of consent; we are doing better by ourselves.
We need to move towards deeper understandings of diversity and inclusivity. Our community is, by definition, exclusive – however, we can work to eliminate some of the barriers that exist for people to join in our organizations, clubs, and events. It’s not just making sure that the physical barriers are eliminated – it’s making sure that the things that keep us from reaching out to – and being included by – the community are minimized or mitigated. We can develop stronger relationships with other organizations, clubs, and events that serve different parts of our community, so that when we meet someone who is new, we can provide them with a range of social outreach in hopes that they will find a group that they fit perfectly into. We can be mindful of the financial stresses that many of our community live with, and look for ways to connect that don’t require money. We can be aware that many people in our community deal with disabilities, both visible and invisible, and work to ensure that those disabilities are not met with barriers that prevent them from partaking fully in the joy of leather.
We need to make sure that we balance separate space with inclusive space. True inclusivity for us, as a community, means that we celebrate the rights for everyone to have space that feels safe for them. I find it arrogant for any group of people to insist that everyone must play the way that they do, in the places that they play; I know gay men that prefer to connect erotically with each other without the presence of women, and I don’t see that as being divisive. Rather, I believe that it’s an extension of our sexual freedom to celebrate our differences. Sacred, separate space does not take away from others unless they are prevented from having a similar sacred space available to them. As long as we can all come together for fellowship, for community service, and to help ALL of our next generation find their bearings, we are doing inclusivity right.
We must re-find our mission, both as people and organizations. The amazing Dolly Parton has a quote that I dearly love: “Find out who you are, and do it on purpose”. One of the first things that many coaches (including myself) do when working with a new client or a new company is to ask them to create a mission statement – a concise sentence or two that contains the core beliefs and direction for the person or organization. And the value in that mission statement isn’t just putting it up on a website or having it written in our journal – a mission statement can create a touchstone for our growth, and a way that we can hold our actions and words up to the light of our highest intention. Too often, we become so bogged down in our reactions to the world around us that we forget our real goals, our real direction. We let social media flame wars take over, and we let egos drive our direction, when really, it is our inner voice that should be our guide. Our organizations have an inner voice, too – it’s the consensus of the group, as expressed in our votes and our suggestions, and through the leaders that we select to help guide us in that direction.
And we must remember that our value is measured by our character, and our works – not by our name, or our title, or our ego. The person who is attending his first meeting of the club is as important as the person presiding. The newly minted title holder does not become more valid upon the donning of the sash. The puppy who snuggles against the trainer’s leg is as valuable as the heavily-leathered Master who guides their family with a firm hand. Leather is the thing that brings us together, that is the great equalizer. It is our protection, it is our sensuality, it is our second skin, and it is that skin that we share with our family, our community, and the world around us. And if we wear that skin well, we will continue to make our community a home for our hearts and souls.
Sarah Sloane is Illinois Ms. Leather Pride and a personal coach and sex educator based in Chicago.by