Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Radical Inclusivity and My Year in Leather

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that, whoever you are, reader, you have an opinion about leather.

It's also overwhelmingly likely that you own or use leather.  Maybe it's on your shoes or the seats of your car.  Maybe you own a leather jacket like the Fonz.  (Eyyy.)  Maybe your belt or purse is leather.

Maybe you think it smells good.  Maybe you only buy "vegan leather" because you think killing cows is bad.

You are 22 times more likely to be killed by a cow then a shark.  Not so innocent now, are they?

Regardless of what you think, you think something, because leather has been a shocking influential culture force, ranking well above the Slap-Chop and just below OxyClean.

Jury's out on how it compares to the ShamWow.

So it should not surprise you when I inform you that leather has its own little subculture.

It has a flag and everything.

This subculture isn't exactly new.  Its origins can be traced to post-WWII.  It bases much of itself on military protocols and sexual ritual, which shouldn't surprise you, since leather is a very sexy material indeed.

And at this point in the post I think it's a good idea for me to issue the following warning:


Here be dragons.
Part of the reason I am issuing this warning about proceeding is because leather culture has a fair bit of overlap with BDSM and fetish or kink culture, which is again unsurprising, since leather culture began largely as a gay / sexual freedom thing and is still very heavily male-dominated.

 Pun intended.

Look not further than the influence of homoerotic artist Tom of Finland (above) if you want to know what leather culture looks like.  By this point you should realize that this is a NSFW post and that, if this sort of thing offends you, you'd be better off leaving now and reading some other blog.

If you're still here, you may be asking, why on earth am I talking about leather culture at all?


Well, back in August, I won a leather title, and have spent the last year immersed in leather, and wanted to describe my personal experiences about this relatively insular community.

What's a leather title, you ask?

Okay, so, you know how there are beauty pageants?  Think that.  But more leather.  Title contests often feature interviews, a formal wear portion, a sexy wear portion... they're seriously a lot like a beauty pageant.

The concept of a leather contest has been around since sometime in the 1970s, when gay bars would have pageants as an excuse for hot men to strut their stuff on a stage, which in turn brought more patrons.  For example, the very first International Mr. Leather contest in 1979 originated from Mr. Gold Coast Contest, which was a bar contest. The competitive element made the title contests more interesting to watch and provided a structure for multiple hotties to go through multiple costume changes on the stage.  However, the contests soon went beyond merely being a bar gimmick.  Contests became regional in nature and "winners" held on to their title for a year, during which time they operated as a sort of liaison for the community and a pillar of what the particular community stood for.

Another example of an early leather contest is Drummer.  Drummer is a big name in leather culture; Drummer was an American magazine founded in 1975 which, like Tom of Finland, helped develop the iconic image of a "leatherman."  The publication arranged International Mr. Drummer contests in San Francisco from1981 until 1999.  Nowadays there are multiple Drummer organizations whose names are references to the Mr. Drummer contests and the Drummer magazine.

Well, helloooo.

If you are still confused and want more historical PG-13 information without worrying about seeing a penis, you can look at this primer here.  So now that you're up to speed on what the hell a leather title is and how leather titles and leather title contests are sort of a big part of leather culture you're probably asking how in the fuck I got one.

Your guess is as good as mine.

The short answer is that I was asked if I wanted to run for a contest by a good friend of mine, V who happens to be a producer for said contest.  The contest in question is for the title of Inland Empire Leather Ambassador.

Inland Empire is basically Riverside and San Bernardino county.  Aka "the stuff east of Los Angeles."

The Inland Empire Ambassador title is called "ambassador" because one of the major missions of the ambassadors (aside from reminding people that the Inland Empire exists) is to foster cross-talk between the Inland Empire and the greater leather community.  The holder of the title is expected to plan events, volunteer at events, learn and share and teach leather values to the Inland Empire leather community, encourage growth of the community within the Inland Empire, and nurture the Inland Empire Leather community by networking with other leather communities outside of it.

This is about as hardcore as the "gay agenda" gets, ladies and gentlemen.

 We also fundraise for non-profits!

So V asked me to run and I said yes because what the heck, it sounded like fun and also I had literally returned from my dad's funeral a week ago and was not thinking straight.

Pun intended.

I knew I was in too deep sometime during the contest because holy shit leather contests are serious business.  I dragged myself through speeches and interviews and a formal leatherwear section and a sexy leatherwear section.  At some point I was asked what I was flagging.

There's an entire not-so-secret code involving handkerchiefs!

Then someone gave me a sash and I was like oh okay this is a thing now apparently.

Look at that thousand-yard stare.  I have no idea what's even going on.

 Winner, winner, fidget spinner.

 Here's a bunch of title holders at Folsum, which is a BDSM and leather subculture street fair held in September, that caps San Francisco's "Leather Pride Week."  Google at your own risk.

I'm half-joking about my surprise.  The thing is, I have a lot of friends in leather, which, as I already mentioned, has a fair bit of overlap with BDSM communities.  For the last several years I've been giving classes on petplay, which is a whole separate thing.

The thing about petplay is, there's some parallels with leatherpups, which is a subset of leather culture.

Confused yet?

Anywho, I was already well-known in a lot of BDSM and leather circles for my (very tame and non-sexual) classes and involvement in petplay events.  I was already volunteering at charity fundraisers, and slapping together classes and events at sex-positive conferences.  I was already doing that stuff.  So I thought, why not have a title?

And here we find ourselves.

I'm about halfway through my title year and I have a lot to say about what I've seen.  Like an culture there are good and bad parts.  Ultimately, every culture is a place for people to feel like they belong.  Subcultures like leather and punk and burners and so on are places where people who have felt rejected or not at home in maintstream cutlure can find a place to belong.  And that's a wonderful tihng.  Everyone should feel like they belong.

In fact, the platform I ran under was radical inclusivity.

The thing is, radical inclusivity, in the mainstream, means accepting marginalized groups.  For example, queers.  Within the subculture of leather, it likewise means accepting those who don't fit in... including the politically conservative, the heteronormative folks, and the willfully ignorant, to name a few.  

Mind you, I'm not saying we should excuse bad behavior.  Merely that we should open ourselves to welcoming those who have not been traditionally welcomed.  This is a shockingly controversial idea because, especially for Old Guard leather, leather was a closed community and a safe space for gays.  There is still an unfortunate amount of toxic "us v. them" mentality within the leather community.

I'll give an example.  Here's a WILDLY controversial thing I wrote on National Coming Out Day:

On "National Coming Out Day," regardless of what you identify as, the most important thing to come out as is an ally.

It's easy to champion a cause you are a part of. It's easy to care about gay rights when they affect you personally. But when a person in a majority position of power stands up and says, "I demand my fellow human being has rights, and I say that because it is right, it is just, it is self-evident... NOT because I have any personal vested interest in it," that is a very powerful statement indeed.

Also, please recognize that ANYONE can be an ally. Not "just" straight or "just" vanilla people. Don't use historical marginalization as an excuse to marginalize those who want to help you, just because they are not part of your group. ANYONE who wants to live in a world where coming out is safe is an ally, and they should proclaim it loudly. Our voices are stronger together than they are by themselves.

I am an ally. My orientation does not matter. I stand by and for a world of equality.

How DARE I suggest that gay right are human rights, and that human rights are for everyone!
Case in point: within a month of getting my title, I was told to check my privilege.  (This was in a discussion about why cis-men get offended when you "call them out" for being cis-men, and I said it was because pointing out their demographic is often used as a way to silence them or mitigate the validity of their opinion.)  Since i'm repping a title and also not a total piece of shit, I asked if they could explain to me what "checking my privilege" means.  I was offered a curt yet wordy explanation that checking my privilege meant recognizing the social structures afforded to me by society or something.  I replied that I understood the concept but was looking for, you know, actionable and objective action items.  Things I could do to make them feel more heard, or things that might use my privilege elevate disenfranchised groups.  I was then told to go fuck off because my demand for knowledge was offensive.  (These were the actual words used!)  (Also, after I thanked them for engaging with me at all, they proceeded to say I was a "typical white man" who wasn't willing to change.  Which is weird considering I had literally asked them how I should change my behavior.)  While I will readily admit that it is not their job to educate me, I do think it's in their best interest.  And I approached the conversation with all of the innocent sincerity of a college freshman taking his first philosophy course.  I was completely blind-sided by the aggression and defensiveness of the whole thing.

Artist's depiction of the conversation.

That conversation left a bad taste in my mouth.  Leather titleholding is a lot more political than I realized.  And not in a good way.  The intentions themselves are generally positive.  People say they want rights for women, and people who are transgendered, and gays, and sexually disenfranchised groups, and racial minorities.  And those are things I want, too!  But often, in their attempt to correct for past injustices, the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction.  There's an over-correction that often demonizes majority demographics.  I'm not for demonizing anyone.  See above: radical inclusivity.

I am of the opinion that you should never tear others down to lift others up.  I am fully aware that this is an ideal that is difficult to always put into practice.  However, I have seen a lot of anger and drama within the leather community, and I would argue that 95% of it was avoidable if only people had taken a deep breath and asked themselves, "Am I accomplishing anything by being upset right now?"

Patience and understanding is what happens when you deserve to be mad but instead you choose to try to understand.  "Anger" is one letter away from "danger."  It is these types of platitudes I recite to myself as I watch people on social media aggressively value-signal to each other.

There's a lot of smugness in the community with regards to social and political issues.

In the last two years I myself have become much more moderate and even-keeled.  We live in a dark, dank timeline where people are very divided and upset and prone to impulsivity.  We are a divided people.  And that is not where I want this country to go.  I believe in dialogue.  Or at least, I want to.  I want to believe people can rise above terrible and frightening circumstances and be kind to each other.

 Mr. Rogers gets it.

My title came about during a time when a lot of people were talking about punching Nazis.

Most leatherfolk I know are pro punching Nazis.  

 Indiana Jones wears a leather jacket and carries a whip.

While it's fashionable right now to assault neo-Nazis, and undoubtedly very gratifying, I, for one, am anti-punching Nazis.  Hear me out: many of them use that as justification to become further radicalized. While many (hell, most) neo-Nazis are absolutely vile people, a lot of them are also lacking in any sort of real support network, and have found acceptance among their fellow neo-Nazis. The "us v. them" mentality of hate groups makes them very, very hard to leave, similar to a cult.
Life After Hate is an organization that tries to help de-radicalize, rehabilitate, and re-integrate neo-Nazis.

For those who don't believe neo-Nazis can be rehabilitated and should be punched in the face, I would like to present the case of Daryl Davis, a musician who has befriended and convinced over 200 Klansmen to exit the KKK. Davis's advice for dealing with racism and hatred? "Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they're not fighting."

Shout-out as well to Tiffany Whittier, a parole officer who befriended a neo-Nazi who went on to get his tattoos removed and get a stable job, abandoning his prior racist ideologies.

Or consider the black educator Lawrence C. Jones who convinced a lynch mob to let him go and also to donate to his school, who famously said, "No man can force me to stoop low enough to hate him."

My point is, sometimes, people can come back from the brink. We should make sure they know they have a place to come back to. 

If a guy who faced a fucking lynch mob is able to find it in his heart to forgive evil people, and resist hateful ideologies without becoming hateful himself, then we can, too.  Hate the idea; hate the system; but don't hate the person.  People are small, broken, and fallible.  We should try not to hate individuals. 

(Biden went on to say, and I am not making this up, "It's one thing to say: 'I think the proposal on the following is a serious mistake. I think it's gonna do the following damage.' It's another thing to say, 'The guy's a fucking idiot, and he is an egomaniac who's a whatever.'"  Throw that shade, Mr. Vice President!)

Some people, of course, are totally vile and we're incapable of not hating them.  But we should still try to temper our visceral reaction toward them and, you know... not escalate the situation by assaulting them.

Be the bigger man!  Take the high road!  Et cetera and so forth!

Anywho, for all of its failings, the leather community does provide structure and community to many.  And I've had some good experiences.  When my insurance lapsed in December, for example, I had one person I barely know get me my asthma medication, which is not cheap.

It's $300.  For the medicine that lets me breathe.

But putting on productions and having commitments and laurels isn't worth it for me.  I learned in the last year that I didn't need a title to do what I'm already doing, which is learning, teaching, and trying to embrace humanity with open arms even when it's sort of shitty.  Having a title just isn't for everyone, and it certainly isn't for me.  Having every word and action scrutinized is tough.

You have no idea.

I'm looking forward to passing my title along.  (Titles, like the curse of the video tape in the movie Ring, can only go away by passing them on.)  I've learned a lot in the last year... probably more about myself than about leather.  But in the end, leather subculture is all about being yourself.  It's about self-expression without hate or fear.  That's something we can all get behind.

Get behind.  Oh my God.

In closing I'd like to sum up what my take-away message has been from this whole leather thing with the graphic below.

I did not make this graphic.  I did, however, say that quote.  And someone liked it enough to make a little leather graphic that people shared on FaceBook.  Which is kind of nice, because it means I'm not alone in trying to be the change I want to see in the world.  And not being alone is, at the end of the day, what every community is really all about.

Click for full size.

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