Interview with the Director
Published 11.10.95, reproduced with permission of "The Front Page", Raleigh, NC. Interview conducted by Jim Duley, Editor of The Front Page.
Note: The New York premiere mentioned in the original article was cancelled due to technical problems encountered in assembling the master tape. The interview was conducted shortly before the scheduled premiere and we experienced a computer crash that prohibited us from having the master ready in time for the showing.
photos were included with the article and are not reproduced here:
Native North Carolina writer and filmmaker Randy A. Riddle's first feature-length documentary premieres at New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center Nov. 11. The video, TLC: Year With a Leather Club, chronicles Greensboro's Tarheel Leather Club through interviews with the club's members and a look at the organizations activities.Riddle has written for The Front Page and is the co-author of two books, FilmNET: A Guide to the Internet for Video and Filmmakers and A Queer Guide to the Internet, which he co-wrote with Stuart Norman of Greensboro.Riddle was born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone with a degree in Public and Applied History. He currently lives in Winston-Salem, where he works as an Academic Computing Specialist for Wake Forest University.
The Front Page: Your documentary TLC: Year With a Leather Club is set to premier in New York this weekend. How did that opportunity come about?
Randy A. Riddle: I've worked on the documentary for three years, financing it with my own money and alot of encouragement from friends. I needed some additional support to assemble the final master tape and that came from the Weinbaum Memorial Foundation, which was set up to promote education about Leather/SM by the New York Leather community. I suggested a showing of the documentary as a fundraiser to give a little something back to the Foundation, to show my appreciation, and that turned into the premiere during the annual Leatherfest weekend in New York.
TFP: What's the weekend going to be like?
RAR: Like alot of conferences, it will include seminars, discussion groups and workshops on Leather/SM issues. Usually, there are vendor spaces and other events. The video will be shown in the evening after Leatherfest.
TFP: Tell me about the film. It's a series of interviews with TLC members?
RAR: The documentary covers alot of ground. It's basically divided into four parts: a prelude about the founding of TLC and some background history on leather clubs, TLC's involvement with the NAMES Project and their donation of a panel to the Quilt, the club's trip to the March on Washington in 1993, and their yearly "run" or anniversary celebration. On the surface, the narrative takes you through a year of activities with the club, but we also bring in alot of the issues that surround the community -- what Leather/SM means to the individual members, perceptions of the club in the local community, how their family members feel about their involvement with the club, AIDS and Safe/Sane/Consensual sex, and so on. I shot about thirty two hours of material over a one year period -- about ten hours were just interviews with club members. So, what you see in the documentary is about 80 minutes of that total 32 hours.
TFP: What kinds of diversity did you discover within the Leather/SM community as you conducted these interviews?
RAR: You find people from all walks of life in Leather/SM. There are people in TLC who are construction workers, cooks, professional business people, hairdressers, educators -- just the whole gambit of professions. Leather clubs have traditionally been primarily made up of gay males. TLC is unique in that it included individuals who came from different parts of the country and from the founding of the group, they said they wanted to be totally inclusive. TLC is mostly made up of gay males, but includes females, and straight or bisexual people. There are around a half dozen clubs in the Carolinas and TLC was the first to have female members and I think it's still the only one. During the time I shot the video, Janet Blevins, who was also one of the delegates to the March on Washington at the time, was president of the club.It surprised me when I went to the March on Washington at the number of individuals who are in the community who are blind, deaf, or physically disabled in some way. I remember one male slave joked about his female blind Master that "there's nothing more dangerous than a blind woman with a whip!"Running into Janet was a real surpise when I first joined TLC -- she's from my hometown and I hadn't seen her since high school.
TFP: You make it sound like there is some resistance to including women in some clubs. How does including women affect the group's activities or its politics?
RAR: Well, it's partly a difference in style. You see different kinds of imagery with women in the community -- "leather and lace," for example. Even though TLC is open to both men and women and individuals who are hetero or bi-sexual, it is primarily made up of gay men and it can be difficult to attract women to the group. I guess they may see this group of guys and wonder what's there for them. In North Carolina, in general, there are not enough women's spaces, especially for women in the Leather community. Including women might also go against the grain of the kind of hierarchical/military-style system, I guess you could say, that the Leather clubs are based on. Women, particularly if they've been involved in women's rights organizations seem to prefer a consensus approach to decision-making. TLC is an interesting mesh between the two when you sit through several of their meetings and observe the dynamics that go on.
TFP: Considering the diversity within the Leather community, is there still an overall message to your documentary?
RAR: I guess the overall message would be one of tolerance more than acceptance. The video allows the viewer to see some of the people behind all that leather and discover that they're not that different from the people next door. So, it breaks down alot of the stereotypes that people have about Leatherfolk. I don't think Leatherpeople will see anything new in the documentary that they don't already know. Someone who is outside of the community may have a different attitude towards Leatherpeople they see on the street after they watch the documentary. I hope that the video will encourage some people who are interested in the lifestyle to be more careful and find people who will be knowledgeable and supportive.Piercing, of course, has become very popular among young people, but I'm not sure they know about things like sterile technique and procedure. On the Internet, in a newsgroup called rec.arts.bodyart, which is devoted to discussion of tattoos and body piercing, some young people get a piercing from someone that doesn't know what they're doing — it gets infected and gives it a really bad rep.
TFP: You mentioned stereotypes about Leatherpeople. What are some of the stereotypes that outsiders have of Leatherpeople?
RAR: Well, when you see someone all decked out in leather at a bar, that person isn't there to find someone to kidnap, take home, and beat up that night. When I first started going out in leather, it tended to scare people off and it really made me more outgoing in many ways -- you have to go out of your way to be friendly so people will see that you're just like everybody else and that you're not some ogre. Probably the biggest stereotype or perception that the community has to overcome is that we're somehow "looser" about sex than other people. The Leather lifestyle doesn't lend itself to one night stands. I interviewed a couple in the video that's been together for almost ten years. There's alot of negotiation that goes on between people before they go home with someone -- not everyone gets into the same kinks and fantasies and not everybody is at the same level of expertise, either as a Top or bottom, in their play.
TFP: Will there be an opportunity to see this documentary in North Carolina? What are your plans for distributing it?
RAR: I've had some interest in scheduling a showing of the documentary in Charlotte and Durham, but nothing is finalized at this point. Right now, I'm distributing it myself. I'll be entering the video in festivals and trying to find a distributor over the next few months.
TFP: Your plan is for TLC to be the first in a series of documentaries on the queer experience. What other ideas are you working on?
RAR: I think the thing that has really attracted me to Leather/SM -- and certainly many other individuals in the community -- is the whole idea of creating your own reality. Leatherpeople play "scenes"; in other words, you might bring to life a whole sexual fantasy that might involve dress, setting up a space like a dungeon or whatever. That takes alot of work to accomplish something like that in one's life. So, I want to look at parts of the Lesbian and Gay community where individuals or groups of individuals go about creating these kinds of "alternate spaces" where they freely express a lifestyle that may be at odds with the mainstream. The next documentary I'm working on right now, Goatboy and the Music Machines, is about a kind of modern-day mountain man who lives in the hills of Tennessee. Goatboy is a Radical Fairie who has set up a space where he has blocked out almost all modern technology -- he has no electricity or other conveniences we take for granted. Goatboy has taken this idea of creating his own reality so far that he's become a modern legend among the Fairies. So, I guess it's this whole idea of completely changing your life and making it into what you want that fascinates me. Most people get so caught up in their everyday lives and they may talk or think about doing something different, but they don't take that step -- but that individuality is really what makes society progress and continue and what really makes us human.
TFP: So you feel like most of us are not living up to that? Is that a problem?
RAR: It's a problem with American culture in general since World War II. Even though I love filmmaking, the influence of media has brought us closer together and made us more generic in many ways. You're seeing a disappearance of alot of regional differences in traditions, language, and music -- that's a little sad, I think. We tend to look at the disappearance of traditional cultures in South America or Africa, but this is something that's happening right here at home. Part of it is the influence from advertising. If one wants to find something unique in America -- whether it's a film, a piece of music, a book -- there's some searching involved. You have to get out and check out the local bookshops, art museums, or live music scene in your area. The Internet has given me the chance to sample a wide variety of writing, art, and music from local people all around the country. For me, at least, life is a little bland when you only listen to the Top Forty songs or shop only at a local mall.
TFP: When do you expect to be finished with Goatboy?
RAR: I'm still seeking funds to do the actual shooting and looking for sponsors or grant money that can pay for my travel to Tennessee, blank tapes and film, and editing time. I'm hoping to start shooting it sometime within the next few months and finish it sometime in late '96 or early '97.
TFP: Will the Goatboy piece be in the same style as the TLC documentary?
RAR: I want to use a different approach with Goatboy and make it more experimental in nature, using alot of stills and some manipulated film footage. In keeping with his personality, it's going to be a kind of stream-of-consciousness visual poem.
TFP: How long have you been involved with the Leather/SM community?
RAR: I had always been interested in Leather/SM, but when I went through my coming out process in the Gay community, I was really kind of afraid of the Leatherpeople I saw. I believed alot of the same stereotypes that many people do about Leatherfolk.In 1991, I was working on a series of columns for The Front Page that profiled different people in the community. One of those was an article about Bill Costomiris who had just won the Mr. Charlotte Leather contest and was one of the founding members of TLC. Bill and his partner, Michael, really impressed me with their openness and honesty about the lifestyle and really made me get over that nervousness about Leatherfolk. I started going to the meetings shortly after that and was a member of TLC for over a year before I started shooting the documentary.
TFP: What does being a leather man mean to you personally?
RAR: I still consider myself a novice when it comes to being a member of the Leather community. In general, it's made me much more focused on goals in my life and has created a certain balance in many ways.I guess you could say that I'm the shy computer geek by day and Leatherman/filmmaker from hell by night [laughs]. Seriously, I connect my interest in Leather/SM with my interest in Paganism and Native American spirituality and I'm really eager for the chance to learn more about the traditions of the subculture so I can form some kind of record of it and pass it along to others as a teacher someday. It really is a kind of path you have to take -- you don't just put on a pair of chaps and a Leather jacket and go out one day and start doing heavy SM the next.
TFP: So, is the documentary a kind of record of your own experiences in the Leather community?
RAR: In a way it is, since I'm a part of TLC. I was really surprised when I first came up with the idea for the documentary that no one had done a film or video about Leather clubs before. That seemed really bizarre, since Leatherfolk are such a visible part of the Lesbian/Gay community as a whole. I suppose it was a way for me to make some kind of permanent record -- or at least as permanent as video tape will be over the next few decades -- of this particular club. You don't see me anywhere in the video, but these are all friends and people I have looked up to over the past few years. One of the clips I decided not to include in the documentary was of myself getting a nipple piercing on the last day of shooting [smiles].
TFP: Some queer people perceive the Leather community as being about only sex, perhaps in the same way that straights look at queers. Do you think that's an accurate perception of the Leather community?
RAR: No, not at all. Being a Leatherperson, someone who takes the "lifestyle," or "scene," or whatever you want to call it, seriously; involves much more than sex. With some people, their SM play is connected with paganism or spirituality -- using pain/pleasure as a way to alter consciousness. For some who might be in a Leather club, it might be the sense of community and fraternity -- some people have even called Leather clubs something like the Gay Kiwanis. With others, it might be their way of expressing themselves artistically or politically. This whole dark kind of imagery you see with Leatherpeople is a little scary to people who are not a part of the community and Leatherfolk use it to shock other people or make them think. The early Leather/SM clubs evolved from the outlaw motorcycle clubs that sprang up in the 1950's so it has it's own kind of code of ethics that goes along with that.
TFP: Do you think the gay men and lesbians are ashamed to be sexually explicit?
RAR: Americans are very sex-phobic in general. You can show any amount of violence in a film and no one pays any attention to it in this country. When you tackle anything having to do with sex, then people start to squirm.
TFP: Are we trying too much to fit in with the mainstream sex-phobic culture?
RAR: For the most part, yes, and I think we'll be worse off for it in the long run. Americans in general have a tendency to latch onto images they see in popular culture and loose their individuality. You can see the same kinds of debates going on in other minority cultures -- some of Spike Lee's films, such as School Daze or Jungle Fever, deal with those assimilation issues head-on. But, if Lesbians and Gays get the nice house with the 1.5 kids in the suburbs and the minivan parked out front, what does that prove? Do you want to live in a world where everyone is exactly the same? As a minority, we do have unique history and culture and I think it's important to preserve and continue those traditions. Since World War II especially, with the influence of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, American society has lost its tolerance for individuality and lesbians and gays are just part of that trend, unfortunately.
TFP: How do you see the Leather/SM community within the context of the greater queer community?
RAR: This may sound strange, but Leather clubs serve some of the same functions in the Lesbian/Gay community that fraternal organizations or biker clubs serve in the larger society. The clubs are often called on to provide security at events or to do fundraising for various causes. I think the Lesbian/Gay community needs that kind of rough edge to keep mainstream society back a little bit. For example, I'm working on a fiction film script with Sean Martin, a cartoonist in Canada who does the "Doc and Raider" strip. In the script, which is based on his cartoon series, the story revolves around a Leather couple, one of whom is HIV positive. In one scene, the character who is HIV+ releases all of his rage over his health status in an intense fist-fight scene. That's not quite like Tom Hanks dancing around with an IV bottle in Philadelphia. So, I guess we provide that kind of menacing image that can really get under the skin of someone like Jesse Helms.
TFP: You have called the Leather community one of the most visible, but least discussed segments of the lesbian and gay community. Do you feel that most queers and queer organizations would prefer that the Leather/SM community would be less visible?
RAR: Again, it gets back to the assimilation issue. Transgendered individuals and people in the Leather community always seem to be the ones who are warned about toning down their dress and behavior at public events. I think that many, more conservative Lesbians and Gays want to, I guess, mesh into straight society and be as non-disruptive as possible to make it easier to be accepted by straight society. But these people also feel uncomfortable with their own sexuality in a way -- they probably fantasize about what they see in the Leather community or the Transgendered community, but they're afraid of asserting their own individuality and being themselves. Again, the pressure to conform and be acceptable in American society is very intense.
TFP: Where do you see the Leather community going in the future?
RAR: That's an interesting question. Leather clubs were very closed and insular during the 1950's and 60's. Joining a club or even just finding one at the time was very difficult and the clubs had very strict rules of conduct and traditions that were passed from older members to newer members. The Leather clubs emerged from the outlaw biker clubs that sprang up after World War II and were more or less based on a very strict military model. These soldiers that came back from the war wanted some of that structure and probably some of that kind of masculine imagery back in their lives when they returned from the War.With the increased visibility and awareness of the Lesbian/Gay community since Stonewall, and with more open discussion of sexual issues in our society that has come about since that time, the Leather clubs have become more open and public. There are several good books on Leather/SM available and people have begun to explore a Leather lifestyle or interest on their own, without joining a club or "mentoring," I guess you could say, with older people who have been a part of the community.Even the imagery of the Leather subculture has worked it's way into rock music, in recent years, and there have been alot of younger people who wear the leather jackets, chains, or handcuffs, or who might get the piercings or tattoos associated with the Leather/SM subculture simply because it's cool or trendy and not because any of the trappings have any meaning to them.You're seeing more women and other minorities involved in Leather/SM and that trend will probably continue. Many young people who are in their 20's and just coming out into Leather seem interested in learning about some of the traditions of the Leather subculture and about Lesbian/Gay history and that's certainly encouraging. The younger people also seem to be encouraging a wider range of expression in the community that doesn't always fit into the traditional Master/Slave kind of roles that we've seen in the past.
TFP: So Leather sexuality is not all just being a Top or a bottom anymore?
RAR: Definitely not.
TFP: Getting back to your aspirations as a filmmaker...where did you get your interest in producing videos?
RAR: I've always been very interested in media history. I consider myself a self-taught media artist. When I was a kid, I was very lucky to have access to alot of classic films on 8mm from a public library. Many of the films most people don't see unless they take a course on film history and that got me hooked. I made some short films in high school and college and had done some short video pieces about the time I first joined TLC. The TLC documentary is my own kind of personal thesis in a way -- it's my first feature-length work and it gave me a chance to pull together alot of the things I've learned over the years.I'll say that I think people will be a little surprised by the style of the documentary. I'm a big fan of the "Chicago-style" documentaries that were done in the late 60's -- these were low-budget 16mm films that were done with cameras and film stock that were readily available because of the wide use of the format in television news and industrial films at the time. Often, the films are not well-lighted or perfectly composed, and have a kind of rough edge that captures the moment -- D.A. Pennabaker's Don't Look Back, a documentary about Bob Dylan, is a good example.I've noticed a trend over the past few years, especially with video documentary, that there has been leaning towards very slick and over-produced work that might include recreations of events or complicated visual effects. My documentary is a look back towards that film style of the late 60's and a translation of that style to the medium of video. I think you may start seeing more of this style, since broadcast-quality cameras and editing equipment are becoming as affordable and available now as 16mm was in the late 60's and early 70's.
TFP: So your video will be more reminiscent of the classic gay and lesbian documentary Word is Out than the more polished Times of Harvey Milk based on the Randy Shilts book?
RAR: Yes. But video is a different medium that has it's own look and feel. You have to compromise in many ways with video -- the way many people will see the documentary initially will be in a darkened theater or auditorium during a festival and some will see it in their homes on the small screen. A piece feels very different when viewed in very controlled circumstances in a theater rather than a home situation with distractions all around. So, that was definitely a consideration during the shooting and editing. Also, video has it's own kind of grain with low-light scenes that's very different from film -- I think that's very apparent with the TLC documentary.
TFP: Did any of these earlier films have an effect or influence on you?
RAR: I would say that straight films and videos have had a bigger influence on my work, mainly because Lesbian/Gay film and video is so hard to come by here in North Carolina. It's hard to travel all around the state to festivals or art houses to catch films I want to see, but I do try to get videos by mail as much as I can and that's been helpful.
TFP: On another topic, you have invested a great deal of energy into promoting the Internet as a resource for the gay and lesbian community. Why do you think it's so important?
RAR: The Internet is the most significant revolution in communications in the past century. I use myself as an example -- I've built up alot of interest in the TLC documentary over the past couple of years through contacts on the Net. I put up a Home Page on the World Wide Web about the video that generated orders before it was even finished and an invitation from a festival director to enter the piece in a competition. I'm even using the Net to work on that film script with this writer in Canada -- we just send it back and forth to each other almost instantly through the Net.
TFP: How do you think queer people in North Carolina could better utilize the Internet to improve their lives and their organizations?
RAR: Learning about what the Internet is and isn't and what it can and can't do are the first steps. It can be a great way for Lesbians and Gays to network with like-minded people from all over the world. It may even prove helpful in getting out information on candidates during the upcoming elections. The possibilities are really endless.
TFP: What about access? Does the Internet truly provide access to information for people in isolation? Or is it another way in which people with money can exclude the masses who may not have access to computer equipment at home or in the workplace?
RAR: That's a misconception that many people have about the Net. I know people who access the Net on a $200 computer for less that $10 a month -- that's far less than many people spend on cable and a good television set. When I started using the Internet, I was working as an Administrative Assistant and was using an old 386 that I picked up for $300 when someone totaled my truck. If a financially strapped filmmaker like myself can do it, many others can if they are willing to learn by going to their local public library or computer users group.You can see a real information revolution taking place with all of this available technology. The TLC video was edited on an off-the-shelf Macintosh Quadra. About three hours of material were put into the machine and stored in digital form on a 9 gigabyte hard drive array and the entire video was edited on that Macintosh. My editor, Randy Marshall of Metropolitan Video, was the first in the area to begin exploring digital video and now he does consulting for major firms like Adobe and Avid. Three years ago, when I started shooting the TLC documentary, this technology only existed in high-end broadcasting facilities. Because of the cost factor, editing this video could not have been done without digital video technology. You might spend $200 -500 an hour to edit in a broadcast facility. When you put in 50-100 hours just piecing together the final master tape, that adds up. With digital video, I was able to realize my vision for alot less than that.You're starting to see people put together a whole video system for less than $10,000 and most every home in America has a VCR. So, I think you're going to see alot of videos similar to my work emerging over the next few years. The technology is giving truly independent filmmakers who have a vision a way to shoot and edit a final product. The Internet is giving us a way to reach our audience without spending a fortune on traditional advertising. It's an exciting time for video.
TFP: I surf the net quite a bit, and use several of the national online services, like America Online. I seem to meet people from North and South Carolina every day -- teens, married men and women, older folks -- who are struggling with their identity and using their computers as a way to reach out to other people. What should we be doing as a community to meet the needs of these people?
RAR: The best thing we can do as individuals on the Net is to engage in dialogue with others and put out good, accurate information. I really see the Internet as a tool for personal and grassroots empowerment and the potential is just beginning to be realized.
TFP: What do you want people to take from your work? What's your bottom line?
I always said that I would be happy if I could just get people to think
and take a second look at the world around them -- that's pretty much
the motivation for everything I do, whether it's writing, video or film,
or just going about my daily life.