Agony Column
by Wendell Ricketts

From Issue 2.2 - October/November 1995

The Leather Community and Its Discontents

Only someone operating from the complacent and self-satisfied position of believing he is firmly established as an "insider" in the leather "community" could have written the superficial apologia for the status quo that Joseph Bean contributed to Frontiers' leather week issue. But having Joseph Bean -- who notes his more than 30 years in the scene as well as his decade of writing about the community -- review leather "culture" is like having Newt Gingrich critically examine the Republican party: the results of the analysis are more than a little predetermined.

From his position as an author, editor and publisher of leather-related magazines, leather-contest judge, emcee at leather events, and leader of leather-related workshops, Bean looks out over the "community" and pronounces it in fine old shape. Which isn't exactly the shock of the century.With disarming intellectual dishonesty, Bean dispenses with the question of whether the leather community exists by simply contending that it does. Well, perhaps he and I can find a nubbin of agreement here. I'm no more interested than is he in "how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin?" debates about the community's existence. But Bean's contention is a straw man. The actual criticisms that have been leveled at the "community," including mine, have never been that trivial.

Rather, people are asking what the nature of the leather "community" is. They are wondering who gets to establish the customs and the mores and the codes of behavior and dress (if you insist there is a leather community, you can't pretend that there aren't also rules -- there's no such thing as community without them). People are asking why it seems hard for so many people to get in and, once they are in, why whatever sense of "leather community" they find isn't more fulfilling.

Sadly, no amount of cheerleading from one after another of our positive-thinking local leather columnists alters the fact that significant numbers of kinky people not only don't experience solidarity, safety in numbers, and loyalty in this "community," but feel actively discounted, even betrayed by it. Nor does such boosterism provide a response to -- or even an acknowledgment of -- the pellucidly obvious fact that traditional leather "culture" has been and remains overwhelmingly a middle-class white man's game. Bean may be experiencing an "explosion of growth and inclusion and diversification" in the leather community, but he and I must be looking in different directions. What I see, instead, is more in the nature of an Old Boys' Network that has become ever more defiant about protecting the fortune and privilege -- both literal and figurative -- that it has amassed.

A case in point. A group of bona fide leather community members recently put together a mini-excursion to attend a Very Big Deal rubber party in Los Angeles. They recruited friends of friends, secured cheap airfares (one of them is a travel agent), and flew down in high spirits. On the evening before the party, the members of the original group (each of whom owns at least one house) decided they should all have supper at what is arguably the most expensive restaurant in L.A.

"But wait," said one of the invitees, a student who works two jobs to make ends meet, "I can't afford that." General consternation ensued until it was decided that the student would skip supper and meet them at the party later. Not one of these "community" members suggested that they might subsidize a meal for the member who couldn't afford their pricey tastes. And yet each of them believes firmly in the inclusivity and "diversification" of the "community."As someone who has been unemployed for nearly a year because of the actions of my leather "brothers" at Drummer magazine and who has more than once been refused entrance to a leather event because I had not spent sufficient thousands of dollars on costuming, I find such stories all too typical. More than that, I find them excellent reason to be pessimistic about the status quo.

The leather community that Bean describes and congratulates is a coelacanth, a living fossil. It shouldn't be alive, but it is. It has survived, like that African fish, by not evolving. But the lack of movement, of introspection and change, is not, as Bean implies, because of some AIDS-related generation gap, which has got to be the sorriest rationalization for inaction imaginable. Young kinky people are everywhere -- on the Internet, at Rolling Pin Donuts, at chaos punk parties in the lower Haight. The thirty-to-forty-somethings are here too, in abundance. Where we often aren't is at the Mr. Drummer Contest or at beer busts at the Eagle. So whose institutions are we talking about here?

The problem with Bean's call for solidarity is that like so much "outreach," it is an invitation to join his "thing." It's not an attempt to create a new "thing," nor is it a suggestion that the movers and shakers in his "community" might give up some of their power so that talented kinky people of different stripes can become more visible and influential.

Bitter? You bet I am. But not because the so-called "community" includes "insiders" and "outsiders" and "haves" and "have-nots," and not even because it's clear that I'm not one of the "haves." That's just life under American capitalist democracy, and virtually every gay organization, event, or group with which I've been involved has reflected it. As a former sociology professor put it, "Class consciousness is knowing what side of the fence you're on. Class analysis is figuring out who's there with you." I'm pretty clear who is there with me, and it doesn't include a lot of the gay men who seem to think they are part of whatever it is that Bean is describing.

No, what wounds me and enrages me is that the spokespeople for the "leather community" so often refuse, with every fiber of their being, to acknowledge that such distinctions and divisions exist. They gloss over their failures and their perpetrations and speak instead of our "common enemies" and the need for "unity," both of which are great sound bites but empty ideas.

Whether or not we experience "shared feelings" in the face of an attack from the outside -- what Bean calls the minimum definition of community -- is beside the point. Common interests -- even a common interest in not being carted off to a relocation camp by the fundamentalists -- don't make a community. They make a special-interest group, which is vital for fighting political battles, but notoriously inefficient at meeting human needs.Even more important is the recognition that "standing with" the leather "community" that Bean describes means solidarity with people who I know will not stand with me when it comes to challenging the "community's" racism, sexism, distrust of transsexuals and bisexuals, apathy regarding political issues that do not affect them personally, entrenched power structures, notoriously unethical employment practices, nepotism, and class bigotry.

Indeed, the commitment of so many leather writer and "leather culture" members to silence about the exclusivity and intractability of the "community" and their dissembling on behalf of leather "solidarity" has literally become a sacred bond. Perhaps, in the end, it is that bond which makes them a community.

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Last updated: 21 November 1995