Tonight, I want to talk to you about the past, the present and the future.
I'll start in the 1980s, because that's when I started going to SM clubs and events. To people of my generation, leathersex and sadomasochism were forbidden, hidden, radical activities. The guilt and shame about it were crushing. For many of us, accepting we were into SM meant accepting that we were just plain fucked up. That's what we'd been taught to believe, anyway.
Paranoia ruled: everyone was profoundly aware that, at any time, in any place, the revelation that you were involved in so-called perversion could mean you'd lose your job, your family, your reputation. We all used scene names, held firm to the social code of never outing anyone, of never even acknowledging someone you knew from the clubs when you saw them on the street. We tiptoed around like people who could, at any time, be arrested: because we were people who could, at any time, be arrested, simply by virtue of the toys we used and the type of sex we enjoyed.
In the early 1980s, we also believed ourselves to be a tiny sexual minority. Particularly in the het scene, which is the scene I know best. There were only a handful of clubs in NY, and many of the same people showed up at them. SM seemed like a small world. When the Internet came along in the mid 1980s, things started to change. People who would never step into a club began to participate on SM boards. People who lived in remote places and didn't even realize there was anyone out there who shared his or her weird sexual fantasies suddenly discovered there were entire websites and chatrooms catering to those fantasies. Masters and slaves crawled out of the woodwork -- well, ok, the slaves crawled. The dominants...swaggered out.
I remember walking into Paddles in NY one Saturday night in 1987, just in time to catch the tail-end of a Mr. Drummer contest. I was surrounded by a couple of hundred of impossibly hot gay men, dressed (and undressed) in leather, head to toe, all of them openly affectionate, upbeat, idealistic, and utterly beautiful to me. Most beautiful of all was that the men looked so proud and so comfortable with themselves. If the club had started levitating I wouldn't have been surprised. The energy was that high. I marveled at these people, and many more like them, who had achieved the sense of unity and oneness in leather that I witnessed that night.
You could feel it. These men shared a unified vision of leathersex, centered on a shared community vision of ethical behavior and personal honor. There was a lot of work to do to spread that vision, and they were doing it. Some of the men in the room that night built the backbone of our assumptions about what leather is, what leather can be. The 80s gave birth to "safe, sane, consensual." It was a time when the language of SM was being defined, when issues of consent in power relationships were fiercely debated. People cared deeply about the issues and politics that affected BDSMers' lives.
By the early 1990s, political activism to advance the acceptance of leather people kicked into high gear -- from marching in Pride Parades, to forming committees and organizations to help educate the vanilla public on the truth about BDSM. The 1990s were in some ways the fruition of the vision of the activists of the 1980s. We saw an unparalleled growth in sympathetic information and education about BDSM, a dizzying rise in attendance at clubs and events, more sash queens than I could shake a whip at, and successful efforts to found critical BDSM institutions such as the Leather Archives and Museum, the Domestic Violence Project, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Woodhull Foundation and many others you'll learn about this weekend. A new public dialogue about BDSM emerged as well, in part prompted by the publication of Different Loving by Random House in 1993. Perhaps most significantly, however, was the growing popularity of the Internet where hundreds of players and activists began to build influential sites and groups which, in turn, began attracting millions of visitors.
Tragically, even as the Scene was growing in size and dimension, we were losing the very people who'd once led us. AIDS took so grave a toll on leather leadership that, by the late 1990s, many of the most skilled and political savvy leaders were dead, and many of those who remained were exhausted and grieving. The people who stepped up to the plate to keep the projects and missions alive gave their hearts and souls to fulfilling their lost leaders' goals. It still wasn't enough. Some groups and clubs vanished with their leaders; some were abandoned because they couldn't draw high quality volunteers. Others ran out of funding and didn't know how to raise more. Still others are hanging in there, but struggling.
And now we're nine years into the new century. Now, at a time when BDSM appears to be more mainstream than ever, when we know there are not just a few hundred of us in the world but millions of us, we seem to be drawing fewer people than ever to leather events and support for BDSM businesses and institutions is dwindling. Even though there are very few people for whom a five or ten dollar donation would be a genuine hardship, many BDSM organizations are in desperate financial straits. It's not the economy, either. It is, I believe the mentality. Or, more precisely, it's that we, as a community, have not developed an agenda for the 21st century that is inspiring contemporary kinksters.
In the 21st century, people under 35 can barely remember a time before the Internet. They've seen all the porn and gone to a lot of parties. They've attended clubs but felt bored. They are so aware of the vastness of the SM/fetish worlds, that they don't feel amazed with delight just to meet another kinky person, the way many of us did back in the 70s and 80s. There was a time in Scene history when just talking with fellow perverts was enough excitement to keep coming back. These days you're never more than a few keystrokes away from hooking up with one for casual play. So what does the organized scene offer this generation that is new or different?
Ironically, even as the BDSM/fetish/leather communities have undergone a sea-change, not a whole lot has changed in the way the straight world treats us. Progressive media outlets may be speaking candidly about us, and more clinical studies -- such as two published recently, demonstrating that SM leads to increased intimacy -- may be proving that, gee, lots of sane people do this stuff and have a good time too; but media reports and the laws governing consensual sex still paint BDSMers into a grotesque Victorian corner.
For example, you may have read about the murder last week of George Weber, a NYC radio personality who hooked up on-line with a young SM hustler. The story was reported all over the media and in almost every case, you could read the moral of the story between the lines: it was SM that killed George Weber. He was asking for it.
Or perhaps you read about the tragic murder in Philadelphia last year, when a NY Scene regular kidnaped a prodomme he was obsessed with and fatally shot her fiance before killing himself. The NY Post headline read SLAIN BY S&M MADMAN OBSESSED WITH VICTIM'S WHIP-MISTRESS GIRLFRIEND.
The story was a classic love triangle. A pretty young woman split her affections between two men and a dangerous rivalry developed. Things gradually escalate to a horrifying but almost predictable climax: murder. We've seen it on Forensic Files dozens of times. But when did you ever see a headline describing someone as "Vanilla Madman?" Or a "Only Likes Missionary Position" Girlfriend? Never. No one ever bothers to expose the intimate lives of vanilla people. Yet when it comes to people like us, the press -- and the law -- feel entitled to invade our privacy and expose us to public ridicule. When media and courts put the spotlight on what we do, instead of who we are, they show a bais against BDSM by implying that crime and BDSM are linked. That implication is a subtle form of hate speech that goes unnoticed -- except, of course, by anti-SM proselytizers whose prejudices are fueled by such propaganda.
Some days it seems to me that the more there is for vanillas to see, the more there is for them to misunderstand because they are seeing BDSM out of its genuine (emotional) context. I've been semi-out as a sadomasochist since the late 1980s and then fully out since Different Loving was published under my real name in 1993. Like most SMers of the day, I used a handle on-line and in clubs (Mistress Cleopatra in the mid-80s, then Mistress Angelique through the early 90s.) Only people who became email buddies or met me in real-life knew me as Gloria. I might have kept it that way indefinitely too if not for the political significance of using my real name instead of a fake one on DifLove.
Though I was absolutely committed to coming out to everyone in my real life I was considerably less interested in coming out, as it were, to the world. I felt reasonably sure that my friends would accept my sexual identity. If they didn't, they probably weren't real friends in the first place, so the hell with them. I also felt pretty sure that people who did not know me would likely paint me with a broad brush as "that pervert." Since I am a pervert, I don't really mind that word, at least not when used by fellow pervs. Kind of the way a Jew can make jokes about Jews but suspects it's anti-Semitism in the mouth of a gentile. When a friend or partner says I'm depraved, it makes me laugh and want to playfully prove them right. When prudes say it, I despise their ignorance and bigotry.
I believe wholeheartedly in the value of candor and being yourself, without apology. What I question is the proliferation of explicit details about WIITWD, especially in the absence of solid public debate about who it is that we are. You know -- a group of people who deserve equal rights under the law because we are Americans, and the precise ways we get our jollies is nobody's business but our own.
So I wonder: when activists stress elements of play is that activism or is it exhibitionism? In our push to be candid and guilt-free, have we come out a little too far? By emphasizing play at parties, or focusing on skills with toys, are we really providing education about the reality of being a BDSMer? Honestly, I love a good play party, and am not saying we should stop having fun. But beyond the people you play with, how many others need to know that you prefer a whip to a paddle or that humiliation makes you wet? At age 53, I would now much rather be known as a sadomasochist than as a dominatrix, precisely for this reason: I don't think the straight world DESERVES to know what role I play in the bedroom. No more so, anyway, than I am entitled to know whether my mayor performs cunnilingus or my mail-carrier likes it doggie style.
Meanwhile, as a community, I think we have much bigger issues to deal with than who likes to get spanked and how and where. We need more and better dialogue on BDSM. We need more and better studies. We need a political agenda to fight social wrongs still plaguing us -- whether it's the person whose angry ex uses SM as a weapon to humiliate someone in court, or the club who can't stay in business because a local prosecutor thinks BDSM is a sin.
We need civil rights so we do not continue to be busted at the whim of prosecutors, demeaned by religious leaders, dissed by feminists, exploited by media, and bereft of all legal rights, as anyone who has ever wished they could add a submissive or a dominant to their insurance policy knows. In Georgia, I have absolutely no legal status as being in a relationship with my female life-partner, although we have cohabited for seven years now. She can't add her Master to her insurance policy as long as he is legally married to me. Poly people, SM people, and especially poly SM people have no legal rights. We can't file for poly domestic partnerships. Meanwhile, since the existing domestic violence laws do not make exceptions for consensual BDSM, any prosecutor who really wants to screw you, can screw you for having rough sex, whether you're doing it at a club or in the privacy of your own home. There may be more of us, and we may be more open, but we do so at our peril because in fact, we are just as legally vulnerable today as we were 30 years ago. At any moment, government agencies could close down every BDSM venue in the US and we would have very limited power to fight, since there are virtually no laws on our side and a multitude of laws against us.
I propose that leather activism in the 21st century must become more relevant to the world as it is today. It's a world that still needs a lot of fixing when it comes to equal rights for sexual minorities. We should learn a lesson from gay and lesbian non-kink activists who have done a superb job controlling their image and steering dialogue away from "what we do in bed" to "what rights should we expect as Americans." If the gay community had made butt-fucking and pussy-licking the center of their activism, I don't think they'd be where they are now. Similarly, I don't think we should try to win consensus approval on whipping and bondage. We don't need straights to give us permission to have the kind of sex that satisfies us: we just need them to agree that we deserve the right to have it.
I believe that for the 21st century, it's crucial for BDSMers to develop the political power to fight job discrimination, selective prosecution, and all the other social injustices we have lived with for decades. We need to inspire new generations of activists to recognize the injustice and take action against it. Why can't SM groups do at least a good a job as all those fundie groups who constantly write letters to television stations to protect us against Janet Jackson's nipple? Maybe if newcomers could come into a community that had a real sense of purpose, a unified vision for change, they would not only stay but would invest themselves in the process. I believe that by becoming more politically and socially relevant, we will attract more people, more resources and more financial support to our institutions and projects.
I myself like to dream of a world where unfair sex laws are scrapped. A world where poly people can have some legal recognition of their partnerships. Where a Master has more rights over a critically ill long-time partner than, for example, his slave's estranged relatives. A place where BDSM relationship issues -- like when does SM step over the line into abuse? or how do you balance work/home/kink? -- are given at least as much priority as how to throw a single-tail. Most of all, I dream of a world where people come to realize that sexual rights are a fundamental human right, and that no adult capable of giving consent should ever be penalized, much less criminalized, for pursuing her or his notion of personal happiness. If we are to maintain the health, and grow the political power, of the SM community, I think we all need to dream about what the future could be and begin to take action to make that dream real.
I hope that as you go through your classes this weekend at LLC, you will ask yourself "what kind of world can we build as a community?" and "what can I personally do to make the BDSM world a happier, prouder, more unified place?" Set aside your past grievances and look to the future. The tools for change are all here this weekend, the ideas are all out there. We have any number of groups represented here who are depending on you to rally support for them when you return to your local community. Visit with as many as you can. Find the project or projects which intrigue you the most and learn all you can. Bring that energy back home and use it to motivate your people to do something meaningful at your next meeting -- like hold a fund-raiser or hold intensive discussions about BDSMers' place in the world. Step out of your comfort zone and make alliances whenever possible. Join arms with all consenting adults whose sexual rights are routinely trampled -- be they trans, poly, swing, sex-workers, or anyone else -- and stand up for every adult's right to choose what kind of sex to have.
The past is over. Let us honor it. The present is here. Let us do something meaningful with it. The future is coming. Let us build a vision for it together.
Dr. Gloria G. Brame
April 3, 2009
Reproduction and distribution of this speech is permitted on two conditions: 1. do NOT change a word of it, and 2. copies must include the following attribution: Gloria G. Brame, http://gloriabrame.typepad.com.