From Issue 2.1 - September 1995

The First Duty of a Revolutionary is to Survive:
An interview with Pat Califia

by Jaz Turbine

In a recent interview, Pat Califia, pervert fairy-godmother and writer-in-residence, talked about the leather community, the gay and lesbian community, the world outside, politics, art, and a bit about herself. A concern about the survival of the leather community -- its denizens, its art, the practice itself -- hung consistently at the surface throughout the conversation.

Califia's conception of survival operates on a number of levels. The leather community (such as it is in the Bay Area) needs to assess its relationship to both the gay and lesbian community and the culture of America at large, especially in these Newt-driven, fear-filled times. To effect any kind of successful strategy, perverts must find a way to "transcend the deep divisions that hold segments of our community apart." Unity -- across the lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality -- is vital to the continued life of any minority, especially an outlaw minority. The leather community must become politically sophisticated enough to push back -- hard.

Perverts are titillating outlaws

Perverts, according to Califia (in the interview and in everything she writes), are outlaws, revolutionaries whose damnable sexual activities seize upon issues of violence, first amendment freedoms, and the right of the state to control what we do with our bodies. Most of straight culture, and even most of gay and lesbian culture, vilifies leather sexuality without understanding that these are their issues too. Legislating civil liberties for any despised minority sets a dangerous precedent for everybody in what is supposed to be a free society.

The SM community, according to Califia, is coming under increased scrutiny for a couple of reasons. One more benign reason is the commercialization of the leather look, witness a film like Exit to Eden with Rosie O'Donnell in full leather gear in ads appearing in family newspapers -- she even had a whip in her hand! Plots of hour-long television dramas and sitcoms include or revolve around a TV version of a leather lifestyle, though the stories always seem to include a murder, as if having SM sex inexorably leads to death.

TV and mass media are a "vampiric establishment," always looking for "subcultures to pirate because [the media] are so unoriginal." The imagery of leather sex is more accessible than it was twenty years ago, but whether the media gets portrayals of us right or wrong "isn't the point." Much more important to the survival of the community is that "baby SMers will remember that this exists in the world and that you can find it and have it."

The more malignant reason for the increased visibility of the leather community is that we have come under greater scrutiny and lobbying efforts to contain us are more frequent. Anti-porn legislation includes SM content by name. Images of SM from parades, marches, and demonstrations have become grist for the filmic mill of the Christian right wing, churning out propaganda to justify the legislative infringement on civil liberties.

Fractionalizing: Us and Them

The SM community also runs into problems with the mainstream gay and lesbian community that seeks to distance itself from what it perceives to be a radical fringe. Califia called it "criminal" that "SM people raise so much money to fight AIDS, but none of that money comes back into the [leather] community." She noted that "perverts won't take advantage of services because of their [negative] reception."

In addition, Califia sees a "resurgence of gay male separatism," noting that in the 1980s "leather dykes became more prominent and pressure was on the gay male leather community for acceptance," but that this "trend is being reversed." Her theory on this is that in the 1980s, "gay men had high volume sex to base their identity on, and women were no threat." Now that their space has shrunk," largely due to AIDS, "establishing a masculine identity is more difficult," and accepting women into gay male spaces threatens that identity.

Difficulties persist within the leather community itself as well as with the world at large. According to Califia, a small community, like the leather dyke community fifteen years ago, may look united because "those who don't fit are invisible, excommunicated." Now, the leather community is larger and more diverse, which is "appropriate and healthy, and inevitable as more people accept an SM sexuality" in their lives. Men, women, heterosexuals, fetishists have "a different aesthetic," but as perverts we all have "a shared political agenda."

Califia's "caveat" to this nice world of difference and the idea that in a larger community there will naturally be more options is: "bitchiness." The "old guard," oft "romanticized" by people newer to the community, has "bad habits;" chief among them "cliquishness," a tendency to "hang on to old grievances," and a resistance to sharing power with new blood, all of which she finds to be "unhealthy and dangerous," and which threaten to "stymie the growth of the community."

After all this, Califia does has very concrete, do-able ideas for what to do and how to survive as individuals as we help our community thrive. The first duty of a revolutionary is to survive.

The "first stage in trying to politicize SM people is to make it possible for people to find each other." Just finding meeting spaces or papers that will take SM personals is hard and saps a lot of energy.

Education is the "weakest part of our platform." We talk to each other, but we need to talk to the mental health professionals in order to depathologize SM sexuality. In response to the greater publicity of the leather community -- whether in the popular media or in right-wing propaganda -- we need an anti-defamation league, a media watchdog type of organization that will educate the general public about issues in the leather community the way GLAAD does for the gay and lesbian community. Part of such a counter-strategy would be for all of us to write letters as a "practical political solution."

Califia believes that as a community "we're not prepared to deal with this new visibility." We still go about our lives as if "our semiotic was a secret code and the only people hip to it were others like us." The stepped-up lobbying efforts against the verbal and graphic representation of our sexual practices proves that this is an out-dated notion we can no longer afford.

Unity, diversity and cross-education

Another positive step would be stronger "coalition building." This is made difficult because those other organizations don't want anything to do with SMers, despite the amount of fund-raising that goes on in the leather community. And we need an effective lobbying organization at all levels of government, one that can emphasize, for example, that the leather community is better than anyone else at promoting safer sex.

Within our own community, we need to educate ourselves about each other: "gay men need to educate themselves about feminism; lesbians need to educate themselves about AIDS and sodomy laws; straight people need to address their homophobia, and everybody needs to address biphobia and transphobia." This kind of interaction doesn't have to mean the loss of separate social spaces, which are appropriate. But it is the truth that we hang together or we hang separately.

This kind of political activity can seem overwhelming. Since the first duty of a revolutionary is to survive, Califia advises that we take on projects that genuinely interest us and know about, because "passion keeps you from burning out." The next step is that the second you volunteer, you start recruiting and training your replacement. And of course, "have a love life and survive." We have to trust each other to get work done, let go of power and control, and welcome youth, which comes out into leather with more political experience than was the case ten or fifteen years ago. The baby SMers have a lot of experience to back up their attitude.

Califia herself, of course, keeps on keeping on. She has recently finished an MA in counseling -- because "I want people to call me 'doctor." She intends to set up a private practice. There are literary projects in the works, with Second Coming off to the publisher. She is at work on a novel called The Code for Masquerade Books -- about a woman and a gay leather man in San Francisco during the early 1970s, in which she both pays tribute to and thumbs her nose at the old guard -- and a book on the cultural history of transsexuality for Cleis Press.

With all these projects, Califia has another, one that she considers very important: her sobriety. She was quick to indicate that she does not mean that "everyone needs to stop doing drugs and alcohol." But when you're different and an artist, "you're expected to self-destruct." Califia expresses gratitude to the people who taught her that she can do this "without giving up parts that are wild and free out there."

Califia has been clean and sober for four years now, and "if we live longer, we can make more trouble." Amen to that. We can't afford to lose any more troops in what is shaping up to be a fight for our pervert lives. Always remember: the first duty of a revolutionary is to survive.

© 1995, Cuir Underground

Last updated: 10 October 1995