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The National Leather Leadership Conference
T here is a new force in the struggle to retard the erosion of our civil liberties. Inspired by the success of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) movement in raising visibility and challenging discrimination, people into alternative sexual practices such as Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/ Submission, and SadoMasochism (BDSM) are now becoming politically active.
This spring the 7th annual national Leather Leadership Conference (LLC) was held at the Boston Park Plaza hotel. The theme— Forging Links: Strengthening Ourselves—highlighted the need for the kinky community to become a political constituency with both internal and external alliances. The keynote speaker was Patrick Califia, arguably the most influential writer on SM, alternative sexualities, and gender issues. The BDSM community brings together people whose body pleasures are considered beyond the pale by sexual conservatives. Alternative sexual activities might include power exchange, role playing, nudism, restraint, pain, anal, fetishism, humiliation, swinging, and polyamorous relationships. Many of these acts are outlawed by antiquated laws, differing from state to state.
People are involved in BDSM activities because of the heightened sensations they experience. It is universally felt among those into alternative sex that they achieve a psychological and physical intensity that is beyond “vanilla” (non-kink) sex. The voluntary exchange of power that enables a submissive to give it up to a dominant is based on a complicated trust-based nego- tiation.
As with many minorities, research on BDSM communities is limited, but fascinating. Estimates of the percentage of the general U.S. population into some of these “forbidden” pleasures start with 5 percent to 10 percent, as reported in the 1990 Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex. These numbers are similar to those of GLBT folks, a group that has proven a valuable ally in progressive coalitions.
However, a 1998 Playboy poll by Dr. Marty Klein showed 30 percent of men and 32 percent of women surveyed have either tied up someone or been tied up during sex. Fully 49 percent of the men and 38 percent of the women have been on one or the other end of a spanking.
Nor is this a contemporary phenomenon. A survey of marriage habits conducted by G.V. Hamilton in 1929 demonstrated that 18 percent of men and 29 percent of women derived “pleasant thrills” from experiencing “pain” during sex.
At the Leather Leadership Conference, in a workshop entitled “The Way We Were,” the kinky sex historical timeline marked major moments, starting with the late 18th century work of the Marquis de Sade, to the early 19th century writing of Leopold von Sacher- Masoch, and through centuries of fetish paraphernalia and publications. Researchers have examined these communities since Magnus Hirschfeld’s renowned study of homosexuality in 1897.
“Safe, sane, and consensual” is the underlying concept of the organized SM community. It is what distinguishes BDSM from violence. It is a negotiated relationship in which the submissive sets boundaries and a safeword to instantaneously stop the action is agreed on. A debrief is often used to check on whether things went as desired by both (or all) parties.
In her article, “What is SM,” Susan Wright, spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, says, “Consent is the prime ingredient of SM. One difference between rape and heterosexual intercourse is consent. One difference between violence and SM is consent. The same behaviors that might be crimes without consent are life-enhancing with consent.”
The April conference brought together leaders of BDSM groups to share knowledge, foster a sense of unity, and build organizational skills. Over 200 individuals representing 28 states and 93 grassroots organizations attended. Most of the participating groups were pan-sexual—which means inclusive of all sexualities—with heterosexuals in the majority. This is particularly so for the smaller cities and rural areas where, as one participant from the midwest put it, “all the perverts need to stick together.” Only in bigger cities are there groups specifically for women, such as Boston’s MOB, and for gay Leathermen—the term gay men use about themselves in place of SM or BDSM.
Tim Davis, a respected activist, is presently a board member for the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and the current Emperor of the Imperial Court of Massachusetts (a GLBT non-profit fundraising project). He commented on the current state of play for men’s groups, “Though there have been a number of gay men’s groups in Boston over the years, there is no real ‘center’ to the gay men’s BDSM scene in Boston at this time. Many organizations have disintegrated due to internal personal differences or a lack of sustained volunteer support.” Other gay men point to the devastation by AIDS of many groups, along with the burn-out some of the older activists experience. In addition, the Internet has replaced the former leather clubs as the main way to meet others.
Gay men’s groups are not always prominent in organizing this annual conference, Davis explains. “Gay leathermen have a tendency to remove themselves from situations dominated by heterosexuals. In this respect, the most difficult thing can be to produce an event where gay men play a strong role in the planning, presentations, and attend- ance.”
Ms. Boston Leather reinforces this view of queer kink groups. “There’s a heterophobia in MOB and the gay community altogether. So many of our private interactions are sexualized. [It’s not the same when] you come into another arena where people you don’t desire are. Desire has a lot to do with how community is built.”
In her workshop entitled “Creating Female Leaders: Answering the Anti-Sex Movement,” Amy B. contextualized women’s SM. “The history of women is political, not long-lasting clubs like gay men have had. SM is the last frontier. It gets people hot—and not always in a good way. We don’t have a generation that came before us. We don’t have an organizational history.” Vivienne Kramer, co-chair of the LLC and chair of both the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and the New England Leather Alliance, works towards the integration of feminism and SM. “Sex is critical to the empowerment of women. There’s nothing like questioning sexuality and sexual roles to assert one’s feminist thinking.”
Major concerns about discriminatory laws and repressive government policies were expressed throughout the conference, all given a firm grounding in the keynote address by Patrick Califia. Author of numerous non-fiction and fiction works dealing with outlaw sex, transgenderism, and sexual activism, including a contribution to the groundbreaking book Coming to Power , Califia is one of the senior figures in the community. His most recent book, Speaking Sex To Power , gives an intimate account of his transition from female to male and of becoming a parent in a two-fathered household.
Speaking before the LLC, Califia agreed to help with the terminology. “BDSM is like the word queer, but for kink. When we called ourselves the leather community, for example, the rubber people got upset.”
Califia emphasizes the obstacles to political organizing and the need for self-education around law and public policy. He outlines some of the types of legislation that can be used to threaten kinky people and groups: “There are laws governing insanity, obscenity, public health, prostitution, zoning, assault, weapons, impersonating an officer, and public lewdness. There is discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in child custody rulings.”
Introduced by the co-chair Vivienne Kramer, Califia received a standing ovation from the crowd. After a few in-jokes about the travails of traveling without his “bottom” (submissive partner), Califia took a close critical look at recent legislation.
“One of the bad things that happens in a state of emergency,” Califia said, referring to 9/11, “is that hasty laws are passed.” The PATRIOT Act threatens paraphilias (perverts) and activists alike. It is “a large sweeping bill with more than 100 changes to previous laws. It expands the use of roving wiretaps, which are technologically neutral—they can be applied to key- words, subject lines, Google searches. We can expect to see some ludicrous intelligence gathering that has nothing to do with terrorism.” This contributes to what Califia calls “a political climate that is very hostile to activism of any kind.”
Califia believes that the BDSM community can no longer count on going “under the radar” and needs to find inspiration in past movements—from Margaret Sanger’s work around birth control to ACT-UP’s direct action. The movement requires good organizational practice, including fostering this and the next generation of activists. “Leather leaders,” he stressed, “need to pay attention to self-care, to remember that you can’t do it all. You need to have a lot of good sex because people who don’t end up reading too much Roberts Rules of Order. You need to recruit colleagues. The only way to do that is to make it look like fun.”
Issues of legislative and law enforcement threats are central to the agenda of the BDSM community. Vivienne Kramer pointed to the specific Massachusetts laws they are facing. “The laws are antiquated. Sodomy is against the law in Massachusetts, as are mastur- batory instruments. People are being fired or losing custody of their children because of their interest in SM. People are being prevented from opening businesses, like dungeons and swing clubs. Our goal is to make the world safer and establish civil rights for people involved in alternative sexualities.”
Susan Wright notes the increased attacks by religious extremists since Bush came into office. In partnership with Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Free Speech Coalition, they are campaigning against the Internet obscenity laws. This is just one example of a kinky group working successfully in a coalition.
There was broad conference agreement that building alliances is the way forward. Civil liberties, privacy, freedom of speech, activism—these are on the agenda of progressive groups everywhere. Susan Wright feels the BDSM movement is only beginning to understand this. “This community is where the gay and lesbian community was in the 1960s—just coming out, just realizing that they don’t have to hide. Heterosexuals have never thought in terms of the personal being political. There is an awakening because of the discrimination and persecution due to SM, especially now that we are advertising our issues and helping people fight back. When they come out, they begin to understand.”
Tim Davis links this coming out to increased attention from reactionaries. “As leather has come out of the closet more through the publication of events on the web and a generally higher acceptance of alternative lifestyles, it has garnered the notice of religious extremists. John Ashcroft’s heightened concern about morality on the Internet has increased our concern about the availability of SM information.”
The Leather Leadership Conference took its brief seriously, offering workshops in organizational skills and leadership development. They ranged from Non-Profit Realities: Topping the IRS; to Budget on a Boot Lace to Medical Information for the SM Com munity.
Cecilia Tan feels the conference has helped the community to prepare to build effective alliances. “LLC is important because no one is going to want to add the leather community as a plank in their platform if we don’t have a plank. If we can’t be seen as a political lobby, a force, a demographic group, we won’t be important enough to be noticed.” But there are some compromises she is unwilling to make. “We are saying to the gay mainstream that we are different, we are not ‘just like you.’ Maybe you can get yourself a place at the table by saying, ‘hey, look how nice we clean up,’ but the truth of the matter is that the reason Matthew Sheppard suffered has to do with the fact that people know deep down that we are not like them. We need to fight for acceptance that is out on the edge.”
Sue Katz has published on three continents where she has lived, including 14 years in the Middle East.
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