(Keynote speech delivered at the Southwest Leather Conference 2013)
It’s Sunday and I want to talk about love.
Not “the Love that moves the sun and other stars” as Dante puts it, but the love between human beings. And I want to talk about Butchmanns, and about the maturing of our Master-slave community, and about my own.
I wonder if I can convey to you how it feels to stand before you in this room. Back in its younger years (and, I suppose, mine), Southwest Leather was the first leather conference I ever attended, in this same hotel. I’d only ever gone to big rowdy men’s events like International Mr Leather, which nobody would call a conference. Here is where I had my first exposure to Master Rick and slave Tina, who’ve become family to me; to Master Steve and his blustery good nature; to sweet excitable Master Taino, who introduced himself by saying, very nicely, “Don’t you know who I am?”; to Master Z, also a friend now, but at the time a hot fantasy DILF; and the astonishing Wayne Brawner, whom I watched throw a long, long whip at a small jumpy woman and make it coil around her ankle like a kitten curling up to sleep.
Southwest Leather, though, was not my first contact with Butchmanns. I have looked in vain for it since, but I have a powerful memory of running across (in the 90s, I can’t say just when) an early Butchmanns website, or possibly just a webpage authored by someone driven a little gaga by the thought of Butchmanns. I suppose I must’ve told my trusty search engine — anybody remember Excite? — to find me something about GAY MALE LEATHER MASTERS AND SLAVES. I was used to relying on Nifty.org porn for Master-slave imagery, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it.
Well! For once Excite deposited me somewhere truly exciting. There was a black-and-white photo of a windswept desert place: a few sun-bleached outbuildings, I think some wire fencing, a fringe of dusty shrubbery, low merciless hills in the background. No human presence. Ideal for an alien or non-alien abduction. The text, there wasn’t much of it, talked elliptically about Butchmanns slave-training camp. My hair stood on end as I read you could dispatch your would-be slave to Butchmanns, to surrender his clothing and all resistance to the demands of two implacable seasoned instructors.
What could be more awesome than that? And I surmised that one of those fearful Master trainers must be the titular Mr Butch Man.
Okay, my memory’s never been any match for my imagination, which I’m sure shapes my recall of that first encounter with the Butchmanns brand — but it didn’t feel so far removed from my overheated Master/slave fantasies. I remained in the dark about who trained the Masters, if such a thing was even done, and whether they were allowed to keep their pants and their inhibitions. But theirs was the role my fevered libido liked to cast me in: The One Who Is Surrendered To.
Alas, I had one glaring deficiency: the lack of a surrenderer. Butchmanns seemed to be doing a brisk business in them, and I only needed one or two.
Truth is, now that I look back, I had already met a few such men, without understanding what drew me to them.
My very first man, a complete surprise. He was a flight attendant. (So maybe not a complete surprise.) It was about three in the morning. We were strangers, relieved to be escaping the same nasty mescaline-fueled party. We walked. Forgettable words were exchanged. He turned to me in the dark. If I’d shifted my face just a quarter turn, that would have been the end of it.
His kiss felt like the antidote to a slow poison. If he was prepared for the fierceness that erupted between us, I was not.
That was the first time I made love. Rough as it was, I’d be lying if I called it anything else. I never saw him again. But because I knew love had happened, I couldn’t ignore it, I couldn’t forget it.
This, by the way, is how most of us with non-standard orientations discover it. It isn’t the sex. Sex I’d had before. It’s that other thing.
Love can lead you to who you are, but you have to follow.
I’ll gloss over the part where, because I couldn’t ignore or forget it, I found myself committed to an adolescent psychiatric ward.
Nobody really wants you to love the way you want to love. They want it locked down and channeled toward real estate and onesies and plasma TVs.
Then there was Bill, the first man who ever called me Sir. I’m not kissing and telling today; I would change his name out of courtesy if I could remember it. I never called him by it. He kept suggesting “boy,” but he was almost twice my age and I could hardly spit the word out. Mostly I just grunted and heaved him around. It was all so new and thrilling to me, and I was such a polite young man, that sometimes I got confused about which one of us was “Sir.” He’d crack a quick little smile when that happened, and we both understood that slip of the tongue represented something true, because Bill was training me.
Bill loved me but I was too wildly ignorant of my own nature to return it. He had a collar in a drawer that he put on when I came to see him. Now I can guess at the need it answered for him, but at the time I thought collars were toys, like cockrings.
Then there was Renzo. With him, I carried a leather collar and put it on him when he knelt. Renzo had been a victim of serious violence, sexual violence that had come close to killing him. He wore the scars of it, like the runes of a dead language, all over his beautiful furry body.
When we played, Renzo made me tie him up. He was afraid if I didn’t, the memory of that old trauma would overwhelm him, and he’d lose control and hurt me. I was worried that what we were doing was wrong, was harmful to him. He said, “Shut up and do what you came to do.” In time I began to understand he wasn’t reliving the attack that scarred him: he was un-living it, triumphing this time, robbing it of its power to terrify.
There were men I loved on loan who belonged to somebody else. Men who couldn’t decide if they were afraid of me or of themselves. As in the natural course of things, there were outbreaks of heartache and dread; but it seemed to me that the closer I got to what I would now call a power dynamic or authority-based relationship, the happier I was, and the more freely I loved and was loved.
Was it just the time? Sometimes I wonder. Was something happening to all of us in the 90s? Nowadays we can’t shut up about same-sex marriage, but back in the bad old 70s, there was a great and ultimately fatal sadness in the attachments I tried to make. We didn’t know what success at love between two men would look like. We’d never seen it. Some laws had changed, but the way we’d been raised to think about ourselves and what was possible for people like us was not legislatable.
Certainly the following decade changed us, when we were visited by that terrible socio-politico-medical scourge that threatened to erase us from the planet. We lay down in the streets, we marched on Washington, we took every stranger’s death personally. We smuggled medications from Mexico and Japan through Customs for men we would never meet with names we would never hear.
Maybe you can’t really know love until dying is at least a nodding acquaintance.
Whatever the reasons, by the mid-90s, in my world of gay men and leather, we all seemed able and open to love: it was a love stampede. (There has to be a country song by that title.) We knew what we wanted, and that was a heart connection, whether for an evening or a season or a lifetime.
So why am I yammering on about love? It’s not Valentine’s Day. This is Southwest Leather! It’s about The Woo, not The Wooing!
Well, maybe the distance between the two is not so unbridgeable as we tend to think.
I met a man who wasn’t like any other man. I felt I knew him before I was born. I felt we were made from the same clay by the same hand. I felt he should belong to me, almost the way at a party you reach for one leather jacket in a pile of leather jackets, or one half-empty glass on a table full of half-empty glasses, and say, “This must be mine.” Even his name was mine.
People I hardly knew had been calling me “Master” for some years, to which my response had always been, “Uh, no.” But here was my slave — at some level I knew that the minute he walked through my door. So I must be his Master. But how?
And just when I needed you, so serendipitously it could almost make me believe The Universe sent you (but not quite), Butchmanns jumped off my monitor screen and into my life, in the form of Master Skip and SlaveMaster.
I had been to MAsT and D/s discussion groups and support groups for Dominants, etc., but never had I heard a coherent philosophy of the Master-slave dynamic the like of which those two men presented. For the first time I heard out loud things that I knew to be true but nobody said on Recon — for instance, that the slave must be in service to something higher than the Master’s crotch. I heard other ideas entirely new to me that I recognized were true as soon as I heard them. Master and the slave as Jungian archetypes. Locating the M/s connection not in the body but in the spirit.
Between them they articulated an entire mythology of consensual Mastery and slavery, including even something like a creation myth, embedded with stunning metaphorical insights. I was fed up with hearing, in my discussion groups, slaves compared to cars and toasters and so on, as “property.” Imagine how thrilling it was for me to hear, in SlaveMaster’s words: A slave is owned in the same way that the Master owns his own hand. The Master expects the same obedience from his slave that he does from his hand. The Master cares for the slave as he does his own hand.
The Butchmanns philosophy, if I may call it that, is not monolithic, I know. Distinct differences in the styles and practices of its chief proponents are easy to spot. But it is consistent enough and powerful enough to have helped lead thousands of us, myself included, on the path to sound relationships with our slaves or Masters, in fulfillment of our most profound longings, for wisdom, intimacy, self-acceptance, self-definition. Butchmanns’ founders and instructors gave us a whole new lexicon with which to talk about how our relationships work: “heart of a Master,” “slave heart,” “orders from the Universe,” and let us not forget, “the Woo.”
Hell, now that MAsT is part of Butchmanns Inc., it’s no exaggeration to call Butchmanns the home of the international Master-slave community. Such a distance we’ve come since that windswept, wire-fenced, sand-choked compound that filled my head with “Yes, Sir, Mr Butch Man!” fantasies.
Have we maybe come too far? Might a mild correction be in order?
And why is it, if we’re honest, that so many of us quietly feel we don’t measure up to the Butchmanns standard?
Partly it has to do with that most traditional Sunday subject: religion. Like it or not, Woo is now an amateur religion. It doesn’t make any money. But it has a deity, a.k.a. the Universe, a rough cosmology, an epistemology (we know what we know because the Universe tells us so). It has high and low priests and diehard adherents and even a few fairly sacred texts. It’s a pretty loose and gluten-free religion. It goes down easy, and it’s a simple matter to ignore the parts you don’t like. (Unlike some of the more established religions, where 80% of what you’re told makes you mentally stick your fingers in your ears.)
I can’t in all honesty do that anymore. As I say, I know and love Master Skip and SlaveMaster. If they tell me they are receiving and transmitting orders and messages from the Universe, I absolutely believe them. But I’m going to ask for the reciprocal courtesy when I tell you the Universe isn’t talking to me. I don’t think I’m defective or stuck with a broken receiver. Do I hear voices? Yes, and all of them are mine. I recognize their fear, their fake outrage, their sadness, their longing all too well. I make the best decisions I can by the light of my conscience and nothing else. It does no good to tell me it’s really the Universe or my neural pathways calling the shots. I don’t experience that. I don’t believe that. I don’t think I should have to.
The other part — and by now you’ll have guessed where I’m going — is that there seems to be no room for ordinary love in the Butchmanns scheme. I love my slave. I don’t want to overcome loving him or pretend not to love him, and I decline to indulge in the customary hairsplitting about loving and being in love. It’s taken me almost sixty years to figure out who I am when I love and how love happens for me, and I’m not giving that up. Again, I do know there is no rigid “Butchmanns scheme,” it’s more like variations on a theme, but love seems to have a bad name in all of them. If any of you Butchmanns instructors cops to being in love with your Master or slave, you’re very quiet about it. Leading those of us who confess love to feel like very slow learners.
I’m trying to make an observation, not an accusation. You are all too good, too humble and too kind to tell me or anyone, “You’re doing it wrong.” Let me give you the closest analogy I can think of:
When I was just thirty and traveling in South America for the first time, I got lost a lot. I would stop and ask directions, then promptly ignore them and get even more lost. Upon examining this pattern, and with a shock of horror at myself, I recognized that somehow by osmosis I had absorbed, from television or God knows where, some preposterous stereotypes. When anyone spoke Spanish to me or even English with a Spanish accent — which was everyone I met (hello, it’s South America) — I mentally dismissed whatever they had to say. I mean, I’m asking where such-and-such a museum is, and some local resident is telling me, but the look on my face, which they see perfectly well, is saying, “That’s all very nice, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
We Masters and slaves who claim love out loud are very familiar with that look. But love is our country, we live here! It’s perfectly safe to believe that we know our way around it.
Granted, it only seems fair that we who love are the ugly stepchildren of M/s, since in mainstream culture, love is The Shit. All the songs and the stories are written for lovers and about lovers. But you know? That radio love is not for me either. I think my slave nailed the reason the day I dragged his ass down to Mr S. to get him outfitted with new leathers. Most of you know him as quiet and mild-mannered, and he is; but take him shopping — for himself — and suddenly he’s Spartacus. “I hope you don’t think I’m like one of your soap-opera characters!” he snapped at me on the way home, eyes blazing. “Buy me a big shiny present and I’ll dance around like a little girl? I don’t think so!”
Did I mention that my slave is also very smart? In those mainstream depictions of love, there always seems to be some kind of submerged, unacknowledged quid pro quo going on. “I did X for you, so I expect you to do Y for me.” (Which is like a meta-country song title.) I bought you dinner, you better put out. Unclog the sink and I’ll forget the lie I caught you in. And so on.
I don’t bargain with my slave. Hey, those nice new leathers were never going to belong to him. And he’s not in charge of meeting my needs: I am.
Most of the centuries-old conventions of romance are, let’s face it, fucked up. To be worthy of him, a lady must always say no to the hero’s advances. (What, he refuses to join a club that would have his member as a member?) Fortunately, there comes a point when he knows her better than she knows herself and sweeps her off her feet despite her resistance. (Down at the courthouse we call that rape.) He doesn’t burden her with his troubles, such as the mad ex-wife in the attic. (Details!) Her love so improves him that he gives up his old habits and bad companions — a development common as crabgrass in romance and as rare in real life as the Rapture.
It couldn’t be more apparent to men who love men and women who love women that that shit doesn’t apply to us. When my slave comes home with flowers, I don’t think, “How romantic,” I think, “Oh, we’re having company for dinner.” I appreciate how difficult it must be for you of the heterosexual persuasion to break free of those persistent roles and images, but it has to be done. What’s the alternative? Discounting love because you notice the version you were handed is synthetic is like refusing to wear cotton because cotton candy once got stuck in your hair.
Butchmanns, I love you, and I want you to change. I’ve had some sleepless nights about saying these things to you in your own house, but I decided it would betray our friendship not to tell you truthfully what I think and feel.
It’s not your fault that no other model of Master and slave is so persuasive or widely embraced. Nor are you responsible for the way your message can be corrupted in transmission, as is inevitable when big important ideas enter a subculture numbering hundreds of thousands. I can’t be the only one in this room who has seen the emotionally stunted prop themselves up with the dogma that Love is weakness and has no place in a power dynamic!, to entrap partners in technically consensual but actually abusive relationships, because they heard that’s how it works if you’re doing it right.
Not your fault. But perhaps not entirely beyond our power to address.
When I say change, you have every right to give me That Look again and say, “That’s nice, go build your own desert sandbox.” But maybe you’ll see your way to enlarging the sandbox we’re already in: you’ve done it before. In the dark ages of M/s (and Nifty.org), Master and slave was an erotic authoritarian dynamic, expressed in SM practices designed to subjugate and “break” the slave for the Master’s pleasure and convenience. It was you who insisted that SM was optional, sex too; that what linked Masters to their slaves was something more fundamental than gender or orientation. And okay, we’re convinced: our community is full of non-sexual M/s dynamics in which we see all partners are happy and fulfilled. Is there any other measure of success?
So might it be possible for the pendulum to swing back, just a little, and readmit to the fold those of us who love sex and SM — and each other?
I don’t believe love can ever be the enemy of happiness or goodness or growth. It’s the fear of losing love that drives us to desperation, that tempts us to desert ourselves in hopes of impersonating someone more lovable than we think we are. As I told you once, Master Skip, I consider M/s my protection against that fate. The one sure way I know to lose my slave’s respect and obedience is to pretend to be other than I am.
I will confess to you all I did that once — it was only for a moment — and it was almost the end of us. We came back from that catastrophe once; I’d be a fool to risk it again.
I’ve said enough, I’m sure more than enough. I ask you to receive it with an open heart. It is offered in thanks for what all of you have done to support me in coming into myself and coming finally into love. It brings full circle across the years that first day I sat with you, here in this room, never thinking, never dreaming, of this distant, joyous, unlikely Sunday to come.