rand's ramblings on this and that
Set Up for the Fall?
Over seven years ago, I found myself in an elaborate hall -- a Federal building in the heart of Washington, DC. Before me were hundreds of Leatherfolk from all over the country attending a day of workshops and events as part of the 1993 March on Washington. I was shooting a documentary about the Tarheel Leather Club, a Greensboro, North Carolina group formed just a few years earlier.
It was certainly inspiring. Here in the heart of an alive democracy were decidedly different and kinky folks using a rented facility -- a facility paid for with our tax dollars -- to converge and convene, to discuss and debate, to take part in a larger event that would promote and advance the cause of a larger minority of which we were a part. I'm one of those traditional Jeffersonian democrats that gets a bit teary eyed seeing the monuments, historic documents and sites in DC. After documenting weeks of activity by the club's members as they raised funds for the March, took part in meetings to shape the event, and engaged the community in a demonstration of grassroots democracy, I found myself right in the middle of it all, wondering what Jesse Helms would make of this gathering. He'd probably refer to us as Cow-Clad Communists, I thought.
Among the speakers I videotaped for the documentary that day was that grand old man of the Leather community, Guy Baldwin. He stood at the microphone in front of the assembled crowd, his shaved head forming a strange visual symmetry with the rounded pecs that poked through the olive drab tee-shirt, complementing the camouflage pants and black army boots that were the heart of radical activist style in the early 90's. (This was still the Reagan-Bush years, afterall.) I don't recall exactly what Guy said that day -- the memory of it has been obscured by the years and the tapes have remained on the shelf unwatched because of the embarrassment I feel watching my first attempts at a feature-length documentary. But, I do remember the general jist of his little talk. In a strong voice, he looked the crowd straight in the eyes and told them to behave.
"Everyone will be watching," I believe he said, "and it's up to us to present the movement in the most responsible manner." Yes, we may tout our floggers, handcuffs, and jock straps in private gatherings, but this was different. This was the big time. This was television. I felt a sudden sinking feeling as I heard Guy talk. In a sense, he was right. But, I couldn't help that something wasn't quite right. In hindsight, I see it as the beginning of the end.
Just a couple of years before Guy's speech, I had listened to our esteemed and prune-faced elected North Carolina prude, Senator Jesse Helms, denouncing the artwork of Robert Mapplethorpe on a shortwave BBC broadcast. In this early round of the Culture War, Helms and his cronies attacked the National Endowment for the Arts in an attempt to remove Federal funding for art they deemed "pornographic". By the time of Guy's speech at the 1993 March, those in the Religious Reich had extended their attacks towards any forms of art they deemed offensive -- primarily works by Gay and Lesbian artists, no matter how mundane. No, these troops in the War for the American Mind weren't placated when the NEA and arts organizations all over the country began removing the likes of Mapplethorpe from gallery walls. These sharks smelled blood and went for the kill.
How "out" those in the Tarheel Leather Club should be was a constant debate, from the very beginnings of the organization. At the time I joined, there was a balance between the two sides in the debate and the argument stayed at an impasse. Some members of the club remained anonymous, contributing to the club, but keeping their kinky life private. Others became involved in outreach not only to other LGBT groups, but also in education to members of these organizations to help our vanilla-inclined brothers and sisters to understand that we played Safe, Sane, and Consensual. They demonstrated that Leatherfolk needed -- and had a right to -- a place at the table in the larger LGBT community. With Guy's speech at the 1993 March on Washington, I knew that the debate wasn't about the visibility of Leatherfolk in local organizations anymore. LGBT's were moving into the national radar screen, both politically and economically.
I took a break away from TLC and the LGBT community for a couple of years as I edited the documentary and got the finished work out in the larger community. I returned to the club to pick up where I left off, to continue my own path of learning about Leather/SM and to continue my contribution to the LGBT community. But, things were a bit different. TLC was still there, raising funds and assisting many local LGBT groups. However, the relationship was a bit one sided -- many of the same LGBT groups that had welcomed Leatherfolk on their boards or as part of their educational programs uninvited kinky people from the party, but still expected money and volunteers in capacities that were less visible.
TLC was not alone in this paradigm shift that occurred during the Clinton years. Slowly -- almost imperceptibly -- Leatherfolk have emerged as the Gay community's biggest open secret. The aversion to Leatherfolk (and anyone else a little different in the community) by HRC is well known. But, more subtle types of closeting goes on elsewhere in the LGBT movement.
There are many Leatherfolk involved with NGLTF and the organization has a reputation for inclusion of kinky folks in its larger agenda. However, if you examine NGLTF's web site or publications, issues pertaining to Leather/SM are nonexistent and one would get the impression that Leatherfolk have no involvement in the organization at all. While the organization's web site includes areas for various constituencies -- youth, women, African Americans, older LGBT's -- Leatherfolk as a distinct entity are very obviously missing. The organization's recent annual conference, Creating Change, included workshops specifically targeted to Leatherfolk, but one has to dig deep to see them.
When I inquired of a member of NGLTF's permanent staff about this, I was told that my concerns would be taken into consideration, but (and I'm quoting here) she "received an email the other day from a man who was very put off at any presence of Leather people/issues at Creating Change. Ah, it's all a matter of perspective!" (I heard that some Republicans were put off by the presence of Gays or Lesbian people/issues at the Republican National Convention a few months ago, but I suppose that's different.)
A number of leather people congregate at PlanetOut, the Web's most well-known and well-finananced corporate Gay-oriented portal. But we aren't shown as a visible and viable part of the overall LGBT community there -- we are stuck in a little section of the site and not a part of the rotation of constituent groups (African Americans, women, Latinos, Gay youth, etc.) that are highlighted in content on the portal's more visible pages. GayBC.com, the financially troubled Internet-based LGBT radio service, has a regular program devoted to Leather, but you would probably miss it -- the host of the show is depicted in a dress shirt and bow tie and you need to read the fine print to see that we are a part of the Internet broadcaster's efforts.
The list goes on around the Net and in print media. Ask any of these organizations or outlets and they'll say they're open to Leatherfolk. But, they seem to be open to Leather/SM on their own terms -- a kind of hidden visibility designed not to offend anyone who might happen to stop by. LGBT's have spent the last eight years mumbling about the "image" of the community, showing the world that we're just the "people next door". We've been bombarded with rhetoric about the "economic power" of LGBT's as our organizations and business leaders have pushed for same sex benefits, tolerance in the workplace, and our right to have corporate America make money off us. Leatherfolk are still expected to contribute and tow the party line, even as we're treated like a red-headed stepchild at the family reunion. The leadership of the Leather community, for the most part, remains silent on this issue.
If there is one thing that can be learned from the still-continuing Cold Culture War of the past decade, those of the Religious Reich will dig for any hypocrisy of the Left to benefit their cause. A sexual relationship based on power and influence in the Oval Office caught feminists perfectly speechless, but was turned by the Right into a nasty, drawn out national convulsive episode of Presidential impeachment. And that's only the most visible example of how the Right has taken advantage of an Achilles heal to plot the downfall of the American Left.
As the Right demonizes Gore during the current post-election chad flap, it is becoming apparent that we are in for a period of intense hatred and rhetoric from the Right over the next few years. Insulted and incensed by a failed impeachment effort and a host of other battles that have not gone their way, the Right isn't going away in defeat, but becoming far more energized and motivated than ever before. Have you read some of the hate speech coming from the Right during the election flap and seen the angry, intimidating protesters hounding the Dade County elections board?
Unfortunately, it appears that mainstream LGBT's have set us up for the fall. Already, leadership in the LGBT community is comfortable pushing Leatherfolk (drag queens, fairies, etc.) to the periphery because there are some within the community that find us offensive. When the Religious Reich turns up the heat, digging for every Leather/SM excess that LGBT's want to sweep under the carpet, how will our leadership react? If history is any indication, Leatherfolk are poised to be thrown to the wolves with gusto. The person calling you "sick" and "perverted" and insisting on more laws that limit your private sexual practices may not be Pat Robertson, but the Gay or Lesbian community leader that was asking you for time and money for "the cause" just a few weeks ago.
Even if the Right doesn't start attacking us directly in attempts to fuel more suspicion and fear of LGBT's, there are many within the community itself that will continue to push us aside. The genie, so to speak, is out of the bottle -- the idea that SM is antithetical to feminist ideals, that the trappings of SM are disturbing to those who have experienced domestic violence, and that SM rights are something "different" from the rights sought by LGBT's are all ideas that aren't going to go away very easily. The current crop of so-called LGBT leaders have made it okay to discriminate among their own, even as they talk about concepts such as "diversity".
We are at an important crossroads in the Leather/SM community, created not by external forces, but by a willingness of our leadership to "get along" or, in a few cases, to just cash in on the Gay marketplace. Where we go from here is uncertain. Leather/SM community leaders may finally wake up and begin questioning how the LGBT movement has taken advantage of us over the past few years. But, I fear, it will be too little, too late. The commercialization of Leather has made it more of a "lifestyle" consumer choice, specifically spayed and neutered to be as personally fulfilling and nutritious as Diet Coke. Individually, we may push for something deeper, but the larger LGBT community will insist on harmless sash queens that will shut up, smile, and wear the tiara (and drink Coors). The close-knit camaraderie, tradition and spiritual aspects of Leather/SM will become harder and harder to find.
One wildcard in all of this is the rise of het or pansexually oriented Leather/SM organizations over the past few years. In North Carolina, at least, they seem to be cropping up everywhere and are far more active in education and discussion of politics than the more established, primarily Gay Leather/SM groups in the state. The new pansexual groups, spurned by a visibility of SM in popular media and more acceptance among hets for kink than among the larger LGBT community, have been at the forefront of a new renaissance of interest in SM.
These groups are embracing of the Gay SM'ers. But, all of us know that pansexual and het organizations have a different energy than primarily/exclusively Gay male groups. Hets have much less of a community tradition and the more rigid model for Gay SM groups, which evolved from a military and early biker club structure, is probably not a good fit for the new pansexual organizations. Even though the Tarheel Leather Club always referred to itself as a pansexual group, it could never attract more than a small number of women, bisexual or het-oriented members, probably because it was based for the most part on the classic Gay male Leather club rules and structure.
Gay male SM'ers may find ourselves back where we started: underground. In the 1950's, one finds an impressive amount of public information available about the existence of SM and kink, but societal pressure so intense that few SM advocates were public about their lives. It was a small, close-knit community that survived and even thrived because of this pressure; the transference of information, the learning of history and skill, the devotion to a life of kink was made even more imperative because it survived only by a thread. That may be the only way that Gay male SM, which emerged from the returning soldiers and outlaw biker clubs of World War II, will continue to grasp its unique identity through assimilation and destruction by the LGBT community and a possible assimilation and reconstruction by pansexual SM.
When I came out in Leather almost ten years ago, Leather/SM was seen as a means for self-exploration and learning. Leatherfolk served a very specific purpose in the larger LGBT movement. It was the dark, titillating side of sexuality -- the exploration of roles, risks, trust and personal limits that leads to the most intense learning about one’s self. Most of all, Leatherfolk, in the words of one good friend, weren't like 'normal' people because we were the ones who turned fantasy into reality. Without the camaraderie, nurturing, and support I received from the Leather community, I could never have gone on to take the step into making documentaries in the first place. I hope these ideas don't become extinct, lost in the frantic grab for money and power now taking place in the LGBT movement.
There are no easy answers here, but, in the tradition of any great democracy, the future really lies with you. Any relationship -- kink or vanilla, economic or political -- is a two-way street. Our community needs to start asking, "What's in it for us?" Our very survival depends on it.
(This essay was originally published at leatherpage.com in November, 2000.)