This past weekend, I was invited to present the keynote speech at Colonial Kink in Williamsburg, Virginia. They asked that I speak on the topic of diversity in the kink / leather communities, and since it’s something that I’ve been doing a lot of listening, thinking, and conversing with friends & peers in the community, I was pleased to do so. I have had a couple of requests from people for the text of the speech, so here it is…I hope that you find it enjoyable – but more than that, I hope that you find it thought and conversation provoking.
A little over 22 years ago, I found a community that changed my life; it changed how I viewed the world, how I accepted myself, who I gave my time and energy to, and ultimately it developed me into the leatherwoman that stands before you today. It was not the BDSM or Leather community that I found at that time – it was the community of Alcoholics Anonymous. And I’ve found that the ideals (or the Twelve Steps & Traditions, for those of you that are familiar with those sorts of groups) have shaped how I perceive my role in the kink communities – and how I see my community of calling & choice as it relates to the world today.
First, let me give you a little bit of my own history. I am a relative newcomer to the kink community; I went to my first group, the Escape group, in Richmond VA in late summer 1998. The first play party that I ever attended was held just a month later. What I found there were people who were pretty much just like me – mostly white, mostly educated, mostly middle-class, and all of whom found out about the BDSM scene via the internet. I needed to see those people – I needed to feel like a part of a group, and not so different from the people around me in order to embrace my sexuality.
From there, I stepped out of my comfort zone, and met the members of CUFF in Charlottesville, and the members of Richmond Leather Club. What I found there were people who were not all like me – many identified as gay or queer, a few as transgender, some in long-term marriages, many parents, some who had been involved in the leather or kink communities for over a dozen years, and some who were even fresher faced than I was. And while those folks may not have looked like me, I found that we shared a common ground – we all loved and fucked in ways that were not what the folks down the street did, and we all just wanted to find space to be who we were, without explanation or apology. And most importantly for me, those were the people that I learned from.
We do not, as human beings, learn anything new until we begin to see things that we’re not familiar with and interact with people and situations that are outside of our own personal norms. And as people involved in the various sexual subcultures, we do not learn unless we step outside of our own sense of who and what we are about, and become exposed to different ways and different people.
Not all groups are diverse; that’s fine, if it’s the intent and the mission of the group. I believe firmly that each person has a right to safe & sacred space; if that means that you only play with people of your own gender or orientation, or that you have a group that you meet with that is exclusively for people who choose the same role or relationship structure that you choose, that’s ok. It is not my place – nor, do I think, it is anyone’s place – to override a group’s focus or mission. The danger for all of us in the community is that we often default to only gathering with people who are just like ourselves without ever looking at why our groups are limited, and whether it’s truly in the best interests of the group (and, by extension, the community).
As with individuals, a group that does not fully understand and seek clarity on what they are about and their purpose as a group will end up a sorry mish-mash of expectations with little future to grow and carry forward in the world as a whole. When we’re talking about people, we often tell them to look at what it is that they truly want to do, or feel called to do, and to create ways to make that happen. With a group, it’s a little harder – we have to do that same alignment of our mission on a group level, but we are all called upon as members of that group to check our own motives and expectations as well.
If our mission is to be open to anyone who has an interest in kink, are we hard to for someone with minimal access to the internet to find out about us? Can a person in a wheelchair gain access to the meeting? What about people who are surviving on a subsistence income – do we have ways that they can get to meetings via public transit, or can afford the cost of attendance? Do we put people who are in the minority in our groups – racially, sexually, or spiritually – in the position of being the token spokesperson for an entire group of people like them? For many groups who promise accessibility, those answers are no – and not because it is the groups intent, but simply due to ignorance of the challenges faced by, again, people who aren’t just like us.
And again – it’s not just our organizations, it’s ourselves. We expect everyone to use a scene name, on the assumption that they should be as anonymous as we are. We assume that everyone that we meet has a basic knowledge of safe play & safe sex, and knows their STI status. We believe ourselves to be more evolved than the “vanillas” are. We, as my friend Q the bootblack puts it, end up drinking our own kool-aid. We get comfortable on our thrones, and in our groups, and we don’t challenge our own assumptions – and with that, we stagnate, we are caught up preserving the status quo, and we eventually wither and walk away.
The principles that I mentioned earlier, the ones that AA embraces? One is that in order to have a healthy community, we must be united. It doesn’t matter if we identify as pansexual, queer, bondage aficionados, masters & slaves, bedroom players, or “all of the above”, we must step outside of our smaller groups and come together to share information, to learn, to grow, and to encourage the growth of other individuals & groups. One of my most valuable learning experiences in my early explorations in the community was attending the BDSM 101 series in Washington, sponsored by SigMa & Men of Discipline (both all male clubs) and Black Rose (a pansexual club). The people I met there – both the leaders and the other attendees – came from a huge variety of walks of life, and it taught me that there are so many ways that we can work together, despite our apparent differences, to reach a common goal.
Another AA principle is that we expect our leaders to act as trusted servants, and that they (and we) remember that the good of the organization is not always the good of the individual. I am sure that many of us have heard stories of someone who has used their position to their own advantage – the people who limit membership, hold information & access to groups & events hostage, encourage animosity between members, or just mismanage their role in their group to the detriment of others. Sadly, it happens, and one of the challenges of living in the leather & bdsm communities as responsible, consent driven people is having to stand up & speak out about such behavior. Often, the lack of diversity and the schisms that wedge us apart from each other can be laid at the feet of such abuses of power – and it’s our individual & collective responsibility to ensure that our leaders are responsible to all of their membership, as well as the community as a whole.
And, most importantly we want to remember AA’s 12th Tradition: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. In an environment that deifies individuals based on roles and longevity, and one in which many people feel that there is something permissible and attractive about displays of such authority, we must consistently remember that it is the principles of the community that are important, not the individual egos.
We must dig deeper, in order to grow and thrive. We have to evaluate what our mission is, both as individuals and as members of the community, and whether we’re fulfilling that mission. And we must change. We must ask the hard questions, we must expect more from ourselves and from our organizations. We must, as the Mahatma Gandhi said, be the change that we want to see in the world. And when we find that, we have the right – no, the responsibility – to vote with our feet, with our money, with our energy, and with our passion. As activists, we have four things that we can do: We can accept it as it is, we can change ourselves to fit the role we must undertake, we can change the current structure, or we can walk away & create something new. The choice, as always, is yours.