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.