(Keynote address at South Plains Leather Fest/International Master/slave Contest Weekend, March 9, 2014)
Thank you for your kind reception and for your attendance here this weekend. As I said when I was invited to give this keynote, it’s an extraordinary privilege to be given a forum to formally address one’s peers, one that I do not take for granted, and so before I begin I want thank the South Plains producers for their trust and confidence. It’s my sincere wish that when I’m finished you’ll continue to feel that your trust was well placed. That said, the older I get and the longer I do this, the less I seem to know. If I do many more of these, I’ll soon not know anything.
When Master Jim, with the encouragement of the slave marsha and Sir Cougar, invited me to play a part in this milestone anniversary conference, he said that they felt I was the ideal choice because of my longtime participation in both of the communities that SPLF-IM/sW focuses on: the Leather community; and the Master/slave community. They felt I could provide an informed, dual perspective on the state of our deviant union. That reasoning resonated with me, and since it’s hard to say no to Master Jim—and even harder to say no to Sir Cougar—I readily accepted.
Truth be told, I thought this particular address would be a breeze. Many of you have no doubt attended one or both of the terrific pair of presentations Master Jim and slave marsha have individually given entitled “Listen Up, slaves! What Your Master May Want You To Know But Won’t Tell You,” and “Listen Up, Masters! What Your slave May Not Say, But Really Wants You To Hear.” I figured I would just piggyback on their idea and give a “listen up” talk of my own, with the only difference being that I would have to handle both parts of the equation. No problem. I would just put on my Master’s cover and make a list of those things that I want you leatherfolk to know about the Master/slave community, and then put on my leatherman’s chaps and do the same vis-à-vis you M/s-D/s people. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.
(Some of you are already sensing the schizophrenic challenges that lay ahead for me.)
It wasn’t too long, however, before I realized that South Plains caters to not two, but three different radical sex communities: the M/s-D/s community; the Leather community; and the fetish/kink community. I suspect that many of you understand why I’m distinguishing “Leather” from “fetish” and “kink,” and for those who don’t I’ll be explaining my take on those distinctions a little later. For now, it’s enough to say that because of this it quickly became apparent that anything beyond a superficial approach to this address would necessitate my speaking to, and speaking as a member of, all three of these communities.
It was then that the process of crafting this keynote took an unexpected, and for reasons that I’ll share with you momentarily, an undesirable turn. But it also forced me to think deeply about the things I’ll be addressing and to get very clear with myself about where I stand on all of them. And that’s the first point I want to make: what you’re about to hear is a set of personal observations and opinions. Although I’m given to believe that others share my points of view, I don’t pretend to be an official spokesperson for any of these communities.
So, with that caveat, why was realizing that I would need to distinguish Leather from kink such an unwelcome development? Well, because that meant I would have to share with you my take on what Leather “is”…a topic of oftentimes heated public discourse that I have until now successfully avoided. There are many reasons why I’ve chosen not to express any of my thoughts and feelings on the matter until now, none of which I need go into. But I will say that chief among them is the unshakable belief that it doesn’t really matter. What’s happening is happening; what will be, will be, and I can either accept that reality and continue to grow (both as a kinkster and as a person), or I can dig in my Wesco-shod heels, become stagnate and die before I die. Besides, anyone here who knows me knows that engaging in public controversy is simply not my style, particularly when doing so will only add more fuel to the fire. As I see it, the “Leather debate” has much in common with the ongoing creationism versus evolution debate, in that each side is vehemently standing its ground and making anyone with a different point of view the enemy, much to the larger community’s detriment. Because of that, you’ll be happy to know that in finalizing this address most of what I initially wrote regarding the isness of Leather is now on the cutting room floor, and I’ll be limiting my “What Is Leather?” commentary to only a handful of essential truths that, in my experience, are either glossed over whenever the Leather debate occurs or have never been publicly broached, at least not as far as I know.
But again, let me remind you that what you’re about to hear is simply one man’s opinion, albeit an opinion begot from having spent almost four decades thus far in the clandestine world of Leather. Next June will mark 40 years since I first crossed the hallowed threshold of a leather bar (for the record, it was the Ramrod in Phoenix, Arizona). Although things at that time were already changing, I came out at the tail end of what’s been lamentably labeled “the Old Guard” (another debate I’ve declined to participate in). While that doesn’t mean you must therefore accept what I have to say as gospel, it does, I hope, mean that you won’t dismiss it out of hand.
It’s my position that even though they share many of the same ideologies and practices, Leather and kink are not synonymous. A large part of the confusion, I’m afraid, is the fact that a lot of leathermen and women—myself included—have for years been lumping the various practices that make up the menu of BDSM under the general umbrella of “Leather.” However, notwithstanding that most of these practices are cross-cultural with respect to the consortium of subgroups that comprise the larger kink community, the fact that one engages in them does not automatically make one a leatherperson, and here’s the primary reason why:
Leather was first and foremost the expression of a specific homosexual identity.
Let me say it again. The kink subculture we call Leather came into being solely as the result of a particular and explicit expression of homosexuality, and, for its first several years, primarily male homosexuality at that. Leather as we’ve come to know it was birthed from the reactions of a subpopulation of American gay men to a specific social perception, namely that they were contemptible sissies. But for their genitalia, post-WW2 America didn’t even perceive male homosexuals as men, certainly not “real” men. Leather, with its hypermasculine attitudes and iconography, was my forebears’ way of saying, “Oh, yeah? Well, fuck you—I’ll be more of a man than you could ever hope to be.”
Because of this, the fundamental criteria for cultural legitimacy as a leatherman or leatherwoman have until only recently been a homosexual orientation and a sharp bend toward kinky sex; one without the other was simply not enough. Please believe that I’m making no value judgment in saying that, none whatsoever—I’m merely stating a fact.
”Vanilla” homosexuals were societal outsiders, as were heterosexual kinksters; leatherfolk, on the other hand, were the outsiders among the outsiders. SPLF-IM/sW is in part a Leather conference because its founders and owners—Master Jim, slave marsha, Sir Cougar and Mark Frazier—are all leathermen and leatherwomen, and their Leather sensibility permeates this event.
Leather’s hypermasculine ideal no doubt held a genuine erotic charge for the gay men and, later, butch lesbians who adopted or otherwise embraced it, but full disclosure necessitates my pointing out that it was also a coping strategy for dealing with the horrific projections of an unenlightened society. It was likely an unconscious defense mechanism for the internalized homophobia that Leatherfolk undoubtedly wrestled with as well, but as any student of Freud can tell you, protecting one’s psyche in such a manner can have both positive and negative consequences. At the risk of being branded a traitor to the tribe, I must say that with its denigration of the feminine and its disparagement of homosexuals who did not meet its butcher-than-thou standards, early Leather, particularly as a coming out process, fostered much that was psychologically harmful—something that’s rarely, if ever, acknowledged in the various histories of Leather presently available. But, let me hasten to add, given the times it was the only way that those gay men and lesbian women knew how to deal.
It might surprise you to know that there was little communal recognition of the BDSM that’s part and parcel of Leather experience. Instead, early Leather broadly and imprecisely categorized its practices simply as “rough sex.” and a leatherman’s rough sex scenes, consciously or unconsciously were in many ways rites of passage into an exaggerated form of manhood.
The point I’m trying to make is that historically Leather has had strict requirements for membership, and these restrictions have led to it being over-romanticized by a whole host of interlopers, and by a few insiders as well. “But what about Leather today?” you may be asking. Well, the first generation of leathermen and women have all but left us, and with each new generation the qualifications for being designated a leatherperson became significantly more relaxed. You need no longer be born into Leather; you can now be adopted or otherwise fostered and granted associate membership. Hell, nowadays you can sometimes even buy your way in. The one thing you still cannot do, however, is commandeer a place at the Leather table.
Interestingly, even though the Leather gateway has been widened, and even though, through a confluence of events, the number of people publicly indulging in kink is at an all-time high, the percentage of kinksters who actually are leathermen and leathewomen is dwindling. Indeed, even the kinky young gay men now coming into the scene don’t by and large identify with Leather; instead they’re all about fetish and “gear.” There are, I believe, two primary reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, what it means to be a “real man” has been hugely redefined over the last 60 years. “Macho” is now far removed from “manly,” and the balance of strength and sensitivity that one derives from the healthy integration of both the masculine and the feminine elements of one’s psyche is the new Holy Grail for men of all sexual orientations. Secondly, homosexuality is significantly more accepted here in the U.S. and in Canada and Western Europe as well. Because of these developments, the hypermasculine persona that leathermen heretofore idolized and embodied no longer serves much of a needed purpose beyond the fetishistic. I personally don’t feel any of this is a calamity; rather, I see it simply as the evolution of my species.
If leather is dying, it’s dying a natural death.
In light of everything I’ve just said I would be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly address the MDHL movement (“movement” being my word, not theirs). For those of you who until now have not heard of MDHL, it is not the latest designer drug. MDHL is an acronym for Male Dominant Heterosexual Leather, and while it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, it has already spread from coast to coast. Let me be clear that I categorically support and affirm the idea of consciously created community, particularly when it’s created around well-thought precepts and a shared set of values, as is MDHL. However, based on what I’ve read on numerous MDHL websites, and by what I witnessed first-hand while attending a recent MDHL event, it seems to me that it’s been built on a foundation composed at least in part of Leather myths and legends. Furthermore, because of their heterosexual orientations, the men of MDHL, many of whom I count as friends, simply do not and cannot possess the psychosexual makeup of the gay leathermen they so clearly admire and so strongly wish to emulate.
As a leatherman, I must confess to feeling a certain dismay regarding the wholesale appropriation of Leather culture that’s been taking place during the last several years, not just by MDHL but by much of the larger kink community as well. However, since I’ve learned only too well that I create as much suffering by taking offense as by giving offense, I’ve chosen to largely ignore it. Besides, my vexation over what I perceive as rampant Leather squatting may simply be an unconventional variant of the archetypal tension that naturally exists between Pioneers and Settlers. Whatever the case, it would, I believe, be more in keeping with its principles of “honor, integrity and respect” if MDHL proclaimed itself “Leather-inspired” and its members “Leather devotees” rather than the unqualified Leather label it prescribes for both.
Public reaction to that last statement will no doubt crash Fetlife’s servers.
Okay, with that long introduction to what will now have to be a relatively short speech, what do I as a leatherman want the rest of you perverts to know? Well, for starters, our history is not your history. As the late Jack McGeorge impressed upon me, you heterosexual kinksters have your own long and glorious history...learn it and cherish it! If you don’t know where to begin, my scholarly friend Master Bert Cutler highly recommends Rob Bienvenu’s eye-opening dissertation “American Fetish” or, more modestly, his own pre-Ph.D. essay entitled “The Development of the BDSM Community in the U.S.” Whatever you do, please stop co-opting our Leather history for your personal advantage.
Next, don’t look to leatherfolk for guidance on your public covering and collaring ceremonies—such things were never a part of Leather. I’m not saying that collarings and coverings didn’t sometimes happen, they did, but when they did they were usually private affairs involving only the individuals—rarely more than two—directly affected. It wasn’t until the expansion of the M/s community following MAsT ‘99 that I even ever heard of, let alone attended, a public collaring ceremony. As for covering ceremonies, with Hardy Haberman’s permission allow me to read to you some excerpts from a self-described “rant” he recently posted on Facebook:
This is a Muir cap. They are called this because they were (first) manufactured by the Muir Cap & Regalia (Company) in Toronto, Canada. It is not a “master’s cover” to me, it is a frigging hat and I like the way it looks when I wear it. It makes my dick hard, and guys who react the same way find it appealing and are attracted to me, and it therefore serves its purpose. It signifies one thing: that I’m into leather.
The silver brim used to mean I’m a Top. Bottoms wore them too, back in the dark ages of the 1970s, but theirs had no decoration. Muir caps were quick and easy symbols to let people know what role you played in the dungeon and the bedroom. They were not awarded by any committee or group.
Today, some folks like to make a ceremony over the gift of a “cover.” It’s a way to show you respect someone in your family or community. Nice idea, but it does not automatically bestow on the wearer any power or rank. So enjoy your covering ceremony…embrace it as a new tradition…but do not rewrite my frigging history and try to pass it off as truth.
For those who don’t know Hardy, and around these parts, I don’t know how you couldn’t, he’s a long-standing leatherman of good repute, and you’d be a fool to challenge his take on this bit of Leather history. To it I’ll add only the following confirmation from Guy Baldwin, whose experience echoes my own: “When it comes to my cover”—this is Guy speaking—“I, like every good leatherman of my day, bought it.”
Lastly, taking on our trappings doesn’t make you a leatherperson any more than droopy britches, thuggish behavior and incorrigible homies make Justin Bieber a gangsta from da hood.
So now putting on my Master’s cover, here’s what we M/s-D/s people want you to know.
First off, in granting or taking on the honorific of “Master,” we are not attempting to signify communal rank, status or any sort of expertise. For us, “Master” denotes a relationship role, period. You leatherfolk reserve the “Master” honorific for those among you who have demonstrated great expertise in one or more fetishes or who by their longevity and wisdom have achieved elevated communal status, we get it, but we don’t get why the manner in which we choose to use the word upsets you so.
Just like same-sex marriage is a threat to conventional marriage only if those in conventional marriages are insecure or have low self-esteem, unless they have a very fragile ego our less-restrictive use of the “Master” honorific shouldn’t pose a threat to those among you who’ve been bestowed that title by your local communities. (And for the record, we think there are more self-proclaimed “Masters” among you than you let on.)
Second, we know the governmental powers that be scrutinize us to a much higher degree than they do you. We understand that our country’s legal system will often turn a blind eye to your SM escapades but that our 24/7 D/s lifestyle is virtually always an invalidating taboo. We’re working on changing that, but in the meantime please don’t throw us under the bus in your efforts to achieve greater social acceptance.
And third, unlike you leatherfolk and kinksters, our primary reason for engaging in SM—and by the way, not all of us do—is not to facilitate an enhanced sexual experience, it’s to support and strengthen the D/s dynamic that is the cornerstone of our primary relationships. Because of that, our relationships are not necessarily sexual ones, which is why we’re able to cross sexual orientation and gender boundaries in our SM.
And as a personal aside, notwithstanding the unkind insinuations of some of my former club brothers, the fact that some of my D/s relationships have involved biological females (of all orientations) does not mean I’ve given up my gay card. Even though I sometimes cross the vaginal curtain I’m still a Kinsey 6…or at least a 5-1/2.
Finally, here’s what we kinksters have to say to you Leather and M/s folk:
Lighten up, people!!! You are sucking all of the fun right out of this thing that we do.
You call them “tools,” we call them “toys;” you call it “work,” we call it “play.” Potato-potahto.
Poly is a relationship choice, not a competitive sport.
SM need not define you to be a quality play partner; bedroom-only kink is not necessarily a stepping stone to greater perversion; and D/s doesn’t have to be a lifestyle in order for you to be a valuable member of this community.
Finally, mind-blowing sex is what first drew all of us to kink, and it’s what continues to drive most of us at some level. Please don’t discount that or disregard the sexual components of BDSM in your fervent exploration of its other intriguing facets.
So that’s it—that’s my triumvirate manifesto. What’s the takeaway?
Well, the cynics among us might conclude that the grass is always browner on the other side. For the rest of us, however, who have a stake in the building of our tribe, allow me to end this address on an up note by saying that just like the ego and the shadow both complement and counterbalance each other so that the little “s” self can function at an optimum level, each of our subgroups brings with it unique gifts and eccentricities that keep the larger community in check and on course. So my kink is not better than your kink; your lifestyle is not more authentic than mine. We are more alike than different, and there’s more that unites than divides us. Because of that, we need neither compromise nor assimilate to strengthen our family ties. But if vibrancy and diversity is what we’re aiming for (and I truly hope that it is), then celebrating, not tolerating, must be our watchword when it comes to our marvelous differences.
Thank you for listening.
Copyright ©2014 by Skip Chasey. All rights reserved.