Our Greatest Enemies
I was recently asked by a human sexuality student to provide a kind of assessment on current health and state of the local leather/kink community (in general) and how I felt I was doing (personally) integrating being a leather man within the gay community at large.
The first part was easy.
I felt pretty comfortable talking at a high level about the current state of the leather (predominantly gay male) and D/s or kink (pansexual) communities in Philadelphia. Although our collective ranks were arguably larger and more organized in the past (unless nostalgic tales of Philly’s seedy history are also tall tales), I certainly see our future in very positive terms.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve been heartened to see numbers of groups and clubs in the area growing, and attendance at local events growing, even within just the past couple of years... to say nothing of increased cooperation among clubs over the past few years. The dark days when clubs or organizations fought for territory and market share seem to be in the past.
Back during my title year, I noted that my kinky carnival fundraiser for The Attic Youth would not have happened-certainly not as successfully as it was-had I not received tremendous support from our pansexual allies. And that spirit of cooperation continues to grow.
In late March, an inaugural "town hall" meeting was organized, inviting leather and kink community leaders to work together to correct the tarnished image that Philadelphia has earned (rightfully or otherwise) for bickering and backstabbing.
It’s worth noting that the proposed series of town hall meetings was inspired by the ongoing leather town hall meetings that have been taking place in the New York City area for years (which, in full disclosure, haven’t been without their own controversies). It’s also worth noting that the initial Philadelphia town hall meeting was organized by local pan community leaders who proactively made a point of saying that they wanted to be more supportive of the gay and lesbian leather community.
In short, this town hall was being formed to recognize and celebrate our diversity, and to find ways of strengthening and building our communities with our collective talents and backgrounds and interests. I thought it was a great idea, and certainly a welcome one.
In the invitation that went out for the town hall meeting (which I unfortunately had to miss, as it was held the weekend prior to my move and therefore my time was spent packing up the house and preparing to close on my new home), the organizers rightfully noted, "Different groups meet different needs. No one group is better than any other and if one split off from another, it was to expand on another unique aspect of the lifestyle."
Participants were asked, politely, to check their emotional baggage and checkered histories at the door. And from all accounts that I’ve heard, they did.
Mark Twain famously said that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated after hearing that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal. Similarly, our local community is alive and well, and getting healthier all the time. Reports of our infighting are also greatly exaggerated.
Of course, there will always be gossip spread by trouble-stirrers inclined to share stories of discontent and community sabotage, promoting a notion of the Philadelphia kink community as fractured and divisive while simultaneously promoting themselves as leaders above the fray.
But the folks who are in the trenches here, organizing workshops and play shops, munches and bar nights, know the truth, and we’re all the better for their efforts (whether we attend their events or not).
Real strength and leadership sometimes means not allowing oneself to get bogged down in other people’s bull; sometimes it means ignoring bad behavior, because to acknowledge and respond to outrageous claims simply feeds the egos and needs of those who do us the most harm. We’ve come a long way, baby.
All of which then brought me to the second part of the question-how I perceived my place at the table of the gay community at large. And I stumbled with my answer.
For nearly a decade I worked in the gay press. For years I was a writer, then editor and eventually (at age 22, although I have a hard time believing that I was ever so young) publisher of the defunct Au Courant Newsmagazine. During that time I also freelanced for many local and regional publications, and even for some national magazines like The Advocate and Instinct.
As just about anyone who has worked in the gay press will tell you, the hours (and the pay) are horrendous. There were certainly some perks (free tickets to shows, opportunities to meet celebrities, etc.), but they are often outweighed by politics.
To put it bluntly, it was challenging sometimes to tell who was our greatest enemy-the religious and conservative right or ourselves. Gay non-profits, businesses and clubs battled for supremacy, visibility and dollars. And it got ugly fast.
So when I was eventually laid off by the paper, I had had my fill of the gay community. I was disillusioned by the juxtaposition of inspiring messages of hope and solidarity at marches and rallies, while watching a success stream of backstabbing. The disco anthem of "We are Family" was our soundtrack, but we lived Sordid Lives of a dysfunctional extended family. Believe me, it was a relief to flee Queer Nation and to no longer ACT UP.
Truth be told, I only started going back to pride parades when I found a community among the leather folk and started joining the folks on the Bike Stop float for the trip through the gayborhood down to the festival at Penn’s Landing festival (while enjoying a potent brew of cheap vodka flavored with Gatorade mix). Apparently nothing spells pride (or gets my butt dancing) like that messy combination of sun, electrolytes and grain alcohol.
At this point, I don’t really know if I feel like a part of the gay community, and to some extent, that saddens me. It saddens me more that I’m not sure that I even believe in a gay community-just a collection of individual sexual minorities.
Looking at the program of parties, seminars, presentations, etc., at Equality Forum 2009, which started late April and runs through the first weekend of May, you will be hard pressed to find anything kinky (once again). How well are they representing my needs and values as a leatherman?
And does the omission of overtly sex positive programming (excepting for safe-sex programs) reflect the tastes of Equality Forum organizers or the general gay community at large? Once upon a time, I blamed Equality Forum organizers for exclusion (and certainly they could be more open)... but it’s possible they also reflect a larger truth about the gay community.
Ever since AIDS, we in the gay community appear to be sex negative in our politics (but not our media, since sex still sells). I was one of millions who marched by conservative churches, pointing fingers and crying "Shame!" about their policies towards gays and people living with HIV/AIDS, yet we seem to have adopted that shame anyway. While publicly discounting claims that we were dying for our sins, oh so many years ago, I think many of us accepted blame on some level-after all, illness was being passed through sexual contact. It was hard to view that as liberating.
Consequently the gay movement has grown increasingly more conservative, failing to acknowledge that we are sexual creatures unless there were opportunities to promote safe(r) sex. To grow public support for our causes, we neutered ourselves. We became as a class of people something akin to the asexual best friends and witty sidekicks that were presented in the mainstream media.
We shifted from promoting sexual liberation in the 1970s and early ’80s to promoting safe sex in the ’80s and ’90s (and in the leather/kink world, "safe sane and consensual")... but these days, we’re mostly focused on same-sex marriages.
If we define community as a group of people with a shared set of common values, I’m not sure that same-sex marriage is an issue that will ever bind us together and build our communities as the HIV/AIDS pandemic once did (although it’s certainly good public relations for building heterosexual allies, and therefore probably a good strategic move).
In fact, if it weren’t for growing support with our non-queer allies, same-sex marriage would seem like a bad investment of energy, time and money. After all, it’s based on a relationship model that fails 52% of heterosexual relationships!
Don’t get me wrong-I’m not anti-marriage, and I don’t think the majority of the leather and kink community is either. I know several leather folk who have married, and now that I’m living in New Jersey, I’m expecting to have a civil union with my partner (my boy, eryc). There’s talk that New Jersey may soon join the ranks of states that will recognize same-sex marriages, and undoubtedly we’ll take advantage of that if it happens.
But is there a place at the table for a sexually-identified subset of a larger community, when that larger community is largely asexual? Can leather men and women have a place in their community, but not in their politics?
Or will we just continue to be used as graphic visuals (like drag queens) to depict the gay community, while never being fully embraced by the community at large (again, like drag queens)?
In short, what would it take to bring us all together? It actually seems like the leather and kink communities have a better chance of achieving true community than gay leather folk do within the larger gay community.
In the past when I’ve written about community challenges like event planning, I’ve shared some ideas and techniques that I’ve used in my professional life, based on workflow, organizational understanding, and team building that I’ve acquired over time through training, education and hands-on project management.
So if we can equate building community with how we build functional project teams (and to some extent, I believe we can), there are arguably five stages that we can expect to go through: forming, storming, norming, performing and transforming.
In the forming stage, we’re strangers. We may be excited to come together, but there’s ambiguity about our relationships to one another and our respective roles (and the roles others are to assume). With all this uncertainty going on, we tend to be polite and friendly while we try to determine where we fit in and what’s in it for us to be involved. You know you’re in this stage when everyone is smiling and wants to be friends... wink wink.
In the storming stage, we start to get to know one another-personalities and egos become more known, as do individual agendas. Insecurities (and voices) are often raised during this stage-often making it unpleasant in the short-term, but also providing us with valuable information that we can use to build genuine alliances because real communication begins to take place.
In the norming stage, a project team leader defines how the team is to function, assigning roles and responsibilities to team members. By clearly defining the vision and project goal, team members not only see "the big picture" but how they fit as a piece of the larger puzzle and how they are dependent upon one another. In a leather or kink community that’s loaded with alpha-types, perhaps our greatest challenge is accepting our dependence on others and that we are, in fact, just a small component of something that is far greater than us. We have to let go of our egos a bit.
In the performing stage, a group of people transforms themselves from a collection of independent individuals (perhaps strangers, perhaps not) with their own respective agendas to a functional team working toward a common purpose or goal, supporting one another as needed as it ultimately serves their own common needs. Until now, local community groups have each had their own leaders and agendas; the challenge here would be to find an overarching individual or a team of leaders that we can trust to lead us to our common vision. In that regard, the proposed series of town hall meetings may very well lead us to a stronger, truer kink community in Philadelphia area than ever before... I don’t believe the gay community at large (in Philly or beyond) is seriously pursuing such community building.
In the transforming stage, the final stage of a project team, the goals of the team have been met. When this common challenge has been achieved, the team is brought together to celebrate their success and to document lessons learned. By this point, individual members have come to trust and appreciate one another; friendships have been built; respect and affection have been earned and reciprocated. Where once there was mistrust or misgivings, there is now perhaps a sense of loss as the team members come to understand that it’s time to part ways.
Can this stage be relevant to communities?
I remember when I was a student at Rutgers University attending a gay intercollegiate summit at the College of William and Mary, where OutWeek Magazine founder Gabriel Rotello (a hero of mine at the time) spoke about the gay civil rights movement being one of those movements whose very nature was to destroy itself. His premise: if you come together as a community to achieve a common purpose (say, achieving equal rights for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation), and that goal is achieved, then ultimately there is no reason to continue to come together as a class of people.
His speech came at a time for me when, for the first time, I was finally reaching out to peers and finding a sense of community. I was floored and devastated by what Rotello had to say because it seemed to make complete sense and because it suggested to me that the great bonds that I thought I was forging were, perhaps, illusory. And in hindsight, of course they were... even in the absence of meeting our common goals and vision.
But it was the first time I remember questioning whether there is such a thing as a gay community or whether there was only a gay movement. Do sexual minorities share enough common values to consider ourselves community and to keep us coming together if the system of oppression that currently makes us second class citizens is corrected?
The same could be asked for leather/kink, and the sexual liberation and freedom of expression that they seek. Arguably, there is more in common among the leather/kink crowd than sexual minorities to keep us coming together, even if sexual freedoms were achieved... if nothing else, we still have common interests in play parties, unusual hookups and fetish fashions.
At any rate, around the same time that I heard Rotello speak, I was also a great fan of the writer and lecturer, M. Scott Peck, whose book The Road Less Travelled provided me (and many others) with an initial blue print for self-actualization and happiness. Peck was a devout Christian, and his religion very much influenced his writings, but books nonetheless offered great insight to me for personal growth and connection to others.
In The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace he wrote: "There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community."
Under his definition of community, members accept each other, celebrating each others’ uniqueness while finding commonalities, and making decisions for the common good based on consensus. Individual differences are appreciated for providing broader perspectives to discussion and debates, and because individual differences are appreciated, an environment is created where members are encouraged to be reflective about themselves and the world around them and how they interact. Members of such a community are safe to be themselves, to express themselves honestly, and are therefore more open to embracing others with equal respect and compassion.
Peck’s book identified a four-stage process of community building that in many ways echoed organizational theory for team building. His "pseudocommunity" corresponds to the forming stage-where politeness and suspicions prevent us from genuine communication and real agreement. His "chaos" corresponds with the storming stage, where genuine communication, even unpleasant exchanges, can ultimately lead to true understanding. His "emptiness" corresponds to norming stage, where individuals divorce themselves from their egos and agendas that prevent them from otherwise becoming a part of a community. (Unlike in organizational theory where this is facilitated by a project or team leader who lays out rules and guidelines for the team to follow, Peck’s theory holds that for this to occur in the forming a community, individuals in this stage must voluntarily open their minds and hearts and allow themselves to resist the individual impulses that serve our own distinct needs. In the absence of strong leadership in our respective communities, and impeded by strong ego and individual needs that are both real and valid, this is undoubtedly the hardest hurdle for us to clear.) Finally, Peck’s "true community" has a parallel in the performing stage, where individuals work together with empathy toward one another, where there is a level of understanding, trust and respect for each member.
Sounding perhaps more Utopian than practical, Peck’s community is functional not because there is a single leader (as in organizational theory), but because community members in their ability to openly communicate and respectfully debate and disagree can lead to decisions and actions as a group.
Can that really work? Hopefully our leather town hall meetings will provide some answers in the future.
In looking back at my not-so-distant past, when I was circumnavigating a triad relationship, I realize now that I very much followed Peck’s example in building community. In defining rules for how to make our relationship work, we put the family before individual egos and needs, putting the triad relationship before individual relationships within the family. The spirit of the family was most important-love, affection, respect-and that drove us forward successfully for many years. But not forever.
Although the relationship didn’t work out, I don’t blame the framework. After all, there’s a big difference between a community and an intimate relationship. Unless you’re a total slut. At any rate, I still believe in triads, and I still try to believe in community.
So what can I conclude about the state of our gay community and where we as a leather community fit in? I suppose I could identify in which stage I believe we are falling in organizational theory or Peck’s community building framework... I certainly don’t think we’ve achieved what we want to, but I do believe we’re probably on a good course.
But instead of asking ourselves how we’re doing, perhaps it’s more important to ask ourselves where do we want to be, what is our vision for the future, and what are we prepared to do to get there?