Apr 132013
 

Cole, Shaun. ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century. Berg, 2000 Amazon

If there’s a predominant theme in Cole’s book on the history of gay fashion in the twentieth century, it’s that gay fashion is always imperfectly mimetic, a tangled mix of “passing, minstrelization and capitulation”, to quote sociologist Martin P. Levine (pg. 3)

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Sep 122012
 

The second panel I attended on Sunday morning was “Learning from Master-slave fiction”, with David Stein, Laura Antoniou, Anneke Jacob and Reid Spencer.

Most people encounter BDSM fiction before they encounter BDSM in real life, whether in the form of narratives or online encounters. This means that people tend to imprint on those fictions and receive ideas like: Masters are (or should be) wealthy, sadists, men, leather wearing, etc. Slaves are (or should be) without limits, make no decisions, etc. These assumptions cause problems later on. So what is the proper relationship between BDSM fiction, particularly Master-slave relationships, and actually living them?

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Mar 022012
 

Williams, Tennessee. “Desire and the Black Masseur” Tales of Desire New Directions, 2010. Originally published 1948

Dipping into the “literary figures who wrote kink” well, we find Tennessee Williams’ short story, “Desire and the Black Masseur.” A meek man wanders into a steambath, gets pounded and later killed and literally eaten by an African-American masseur. The end.

As a narrative of homoerotic interracial masochism, it works pretty well. The fact that the masseur is not named and only identified as “the Negro” means that is isn’t exactly racially progressive, but this is a story of fantasy, of a masochistic desire for regression and annihilation.

The narrative suggests that the drama of Burns’ masochism and the sadism of “the Negro” is a kind of cosmic drama of revenge and redemption for slavery and racism. I wonder if there’s a parallel between this story and, say, the race and gender subtext of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs and other works: the white, Christian man submitting to the (possibly Jewish) woman.

You could say there’s two kinds of masochistic scenarios: one which goes against the dominant flow of power in society (e.g. this story, Venus in Furs) and the other which follows the dominant flow of power (e.g. Story of O), though the last case may subvert the dominant paradigm. E.M. Hull’s The Sheik does both: female submitting to male, white colonizer submitting to Oriental colonized (who turns out to be an Englishman anyway).

The subversive element may be secondary and optional to the experience of masochism, but it does render masochism more visible and legible.

Jack Fritscher’s commentary on the story, emphasizing the difference between Burns’ initial passivity and his later active surrender and submission.

Feb 072012
 

It’s hard to kill a myth. In meme theory, myths are often analogous to parasites: hard to get rid of, but not too harmful. Or rather, they mask their harmful effects.

In the BDSM world, there are a lot of pernicious myths that many people want to believe. (Are kinky people more prone to this kind of fantasy?) The most enduring is the myth of the Old Guard.

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Guy Baldwin on the leather Old Guard

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Oct 272011
 

Leatherati has posted Guy Baldwin’s essay on the Old Guard. As per the site’s editorial request, I won’t post any excerpts here.

The most important thing Baldwin says about this misunderstood and much mythologized era (in large part because HIV killed most of the people who were actually involved) is that there were no universal protocols of leather. The idea that there was such a thing was a pernicious myth that other related subcultures have inherited to their detriment, and I’m glad to see an authoritative statement on the subject. The problem was that what local leaders of each community’s Scene handed down their own particular set of protocols as if they were universal.

Baldwin describes the primordial scene as three overlapping interests (motorcycles, “rough sex” and S/M fetish) and the people into the sex gradually segregated out over time, losing the bikes but retaining the military discipline culture.

Oct 052010
 

Lenius, Steve. Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness Nelson Borhek Press, 2010 Google books

Lenius’ book is a collection of columns published in Lavender magazine since 1995. It covers a considerable swath of recent history, including the rise of the Internet as a mass medium and some of the most politically and sexually tumultuous events.

His 1999 visit to Erotica ’99 trade show, right next to the Gay & Lesbian Business Expo, in NYC: “Erotica was kinky but very hetero, while the Gay & Lesbian Business Expo was very gay but not terribly kinky. I found myself wishing for a combination of the two.” Having attended several Taboo trade shows in Vancouver, I can attest that sex trade shows tend to be very un-queer.

In his column on people who build fucking machines, he observes that the people who build these devices are all men and apparently heterosexual. One could argue that women (whether by nature or nurture) are less inclined to find technological solutions to problems, while heterosexual men tend to think of sexual performance with women as a duty to be fulfilled and a problem to solve.

My particular interest was in the historical sections. Lenius views WWII as a turning point for gay identity. “… the rough-and-tumble, almost-hypermasculine comradeship of their military days held a romantic and even a sexual attraction.” (Pg.55) There was a strong blue-collar theme to this culture. You didn’t “play with” someone, you “worked on” or “got worked on by” someone. Implements were “tools,” not “toys.” The recognition phrase was “Are you a working man?” This ties into the view of the working-class as a source of masculine authenticity, much like the military. This was an exclusively male culture, no lesbians or straights allowed. In the 1980s, leatherwomen formed a similar culture, and AIDS brought leather men and women together. Leatherwomen started taking care of ailing men and raising money for research.

Heterosexuals don’t enter Lenius’ narrative until the early 90s, after leathermen have become visible to the mainstream. Then they start coming out of the closet and talking with leathermen, creating the possibility of a pansexual leather community. That was published in 2001, and I’m not sure that has really come to pass. This account also glosses over the organized hetero kink community that goes back to the early 1970s.

Lenius also talks about Robert Bienvenu’s work on BDSM history, comparing the “soft” images of 19th century kink (silk, lace, fur, etc.) with the “hard” images of 20th century kink (leather, latex and metal, etc.) Beivenu’s American fetish style began in the 1930s as an offshoot from the European fetish style, while Gay Leather developed in isolation from either style in the 1950s.

Other columns document the “cleaning up” of New York and San Francisco in post-2000 years; the decline of leather magazines like Drummer, surpassed by the Internet; brief histories of the Leather Archive and Museum; issues of race and age among leathermen; the hankie code (said to have started in the Gold Rush of 1849, creating a nearly all-male society in which men who would lead during dancing would wear bandanas in the left pocket, while the “girls” wore them in the right pocket); the controversy over leather dress codes (again returning to the theme of military/working class masculinity by barring polo shorts and loafers); and how the AIDS crisis transformed pageant winners from pretty title-holders to ambassadors and fund-raisers.

There’s also some particular insights into the differences and similarities between gay, lesbian and straight BDSM culture. Scene names, for example, are rarities in gay male and lesbian circles, while straights who use their real names in the Scene are the minority. I suspect that this has something to do with Internet culture’s influence on the straight BDSM culture, in which handles were commonplace, both for anonymity and for a heightened sense of initiation. Another aspect is the greater acceptance of alcohol and other substances in gay BDSM play, likely due to the centrality of bars in leather culture. “The unspoken but implicit message often seems to be that drinking and drugs are integral parts of the scene, necessary elements of machismo; if you don’t partake, maybe you’re not a real leatherman or leatherwoman.” (Pg.226)
Thankfully, since Lenius wrote that in 1997, there are many more non-bar social events for leatherfolk, and pansexual events tend to be dry.

Lenius writes mainly from the gay leatherman perspective. He’s particularly engaging when he writes about his personal experiences: coming out twice, living with his family, his life in leather bar culture, his experiences as a leather pageant judge. He’s also aimed at a gay but not necessarily kinky readership via the magazine, so some of it is more written as outreach for the curious vanilla gay man and woman. This is a bit frustrating, as I get the impression that Lenius could go much deeper into various topics, but his regular column format and his vanilla readership forces him to stay on the surface. His column predates blogging as a mainstream medium, which might have better served him to explore ideas in more depth.

May 282010
 

Perhaps I was too hasty in my previous post. Recon.com, a hookup site for gay men into fetish wear, somehow got sex-and-queer-unfriendly Apple to approve their iPhone app.

From Queerty:

So how did Recon get on there? By “invest[ing] a lot of effort in designing an application that ensures that [they] walk the right side of the line as far as content and imagery is concerned,” says the company.

Or maybe it’s because Recon’s iPhone app is really just a geo-locating chat app, like Grindr. There’s no obvious sex going on in user profiles, but it sure is suggestive.

This doesn’t change my opinion of Apple. It just shows that their authority is arbitrary and has no transparency in their decision making process.

May 282010
 

Prism Comics, about LBGT issues in comics, has a great post on the impact of Apple’s content policies on comics in general and specifically LBGT themed comics. Even fairly mild stuff

“My problem with Apple banning [Jesus Hates Zombies] is simply this,” says Lindsay. “They allow the Marvel book Kick-Ass. How in God’s name is my book worse than Kick-Ass when it comes to content? The simple answer, it’s not. But because Kick-Ass is a Marvel book, it gets a pass.”

The experience of smaller publishers producing books with LGBT characters and situations also seems hard to reconcile with Murphey’s assessment of Apple’s guidelines.

Tom Bouden’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest was rejected as an iPad app for the App Store, again due to “materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.” A handful of sexually suggestive images depicting men, some extremely mild, were specifically flagged as problematic in the 80-page graphic novel.

A few lessons from this situation:

1. Media and standards and platform, and especially who controls them, matter to content. Censorship (public- or private-sector) is often not so much about controlling content but about controlling the medium itself. When new forms of media appear, which put words and images in new places, censorship kicks into high gear. Walled-garden content systems like the iPhone/iPod/iPad or the Amazon Kindle are a reaction to the wide-open Internet, reassuring big media companies that they will retain control.

2. If you’re a big, established company, like Playboy or Sports Illustrated or Mavel comics, the standards for judging your content is different if you’re somebody publishing an indie comic off your laptop. Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition will net more revenue to Apple than some little swimsuit company’s illustrated catalog app. Money talks, “community standards” walks.

3. People will find a way. Even if your LBGT indie comic doesn’t get into the iVerse, it can still get into the iPhone via the Amazon Kindle app. The question, however, is how level will the playing field be. Amazon takes a 70% cut, while Apple takes a comparatively mild 30%.

4. It’s still censorship when non-government parties do it, and even worse in a way because there is no system of appeal or open standards. Apple and Amazon, being corporate entities, can do it purely by fiat.

5. That the violence of eroticized-yet-plausibly-deniable violence of Kick-Ass gets a pass and two men making out doesn’t speaks volumes about our culture’s twisted view of sex and violence.

6. Watch out for chilling effects and pre-emptive self-censorship.

I’ve often imagined an alternate history of American comics in which the Comics Code Authority of 1954 never happened, and the medium matured, gaining respect and credibility until it equaled film or television. It surely isn’t coincidence that the most heavily censored medium is also the one that struggled longest for critical respect.

Mar 082007
 

I bought a “stripped” copy of the 1972 edition of Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook off Ebay. It’s a strange read, considering it was published the year I was born, 1972; unironic use of the word “groovy” for one thing.

Even the terminology is different. Townsend uses S and M to refer to Sadist and Masochist respectively, not Slave and Master. It’s also a glimpse into a time when you couldn’t even mail-order whips and handcuffs.

Townsend’s attitude towards women or heterosexual S/M people is not positive.

While I cannot speak from personal experience, I have discussed this heterosexual bondage scene with several people who are deeply involved in it. I found that in most cases it was the man who desired to submit. Le Grand Marquis to the contrary, I saw the antithesis of the gay leatherman involved in this. Then I found some of the most qualified Ms [masochists] saying it really wouldn’t matter: “If I’m strapped down, maybe with a blindfold over my eyes how can I tell if it’s a man or a woman who shoves that dildo up my ass?”

Thus, I may have been wrong… at least as far as the very deeply involved bottomman is concerned. As to the rest of us- the S [sadist], the less experienced guy, or the casual leather tripper- I must adhere to my original premise. In the hetero scene we have a woman, whom our society usually casts in a submissive role- and who has been emphatically placed in this role by nature’s sexual physiognomy- assuming the master’s stance. The man, who may be a leader in the business world or an otherwise strongly dominant figure, assumes the posture of a crawling slave. Thus, the elements of bondage and humiliation are much the same as ours. But the fetish… the object of adoration is completely different. For most of us, if we’re going to play M, we want to know there’s a cock attached to the S! And we want to know it’s real!

Like Krafft-Ebing, Alfred Kinsey and even Nancy Friday, Townsend’s work is in large part a collection of people’s stories, and those stories rather freely mix fantasy and fact. A large part of the book are stories men have mailed to him, many of them set in a military or paramilitary institution.