leather north and south of the border

Can you smell it? Fall is on the way. Sure, it’s still sunny and warm out, but the sunset begins at dinnertime instead of halfway through the evening, and the edges of the leaves are just beginning to turn red as you speed along the highway.

Which is exactly what I did twice this past weekend, on my way to and from the Great Lakes Leather Alliance weekend in Indianapolis. Speed along the highway, that is, not turn red at the edges. My loyal companions and drivers (ah, the perils of lacking a license) were Boi M and my best friend and platonic life partner D, and we whiled away the time with fun car games (“how many sex- and kink-related verbs and nouns can we come up with for each letter of the alphabet?”) and in-depth conversations about the nature of D/s, self-mastery versus self-control, and the differences between the American and Canadian leather scenes.

That last one is still on my mind as I write, so I’m going to delve into it a bit here. But first, some context.

The reason we were headed to GLLA is because of an odd text message I received while I was in Amsterdam with Boi L in June. It was from Riley, GLLA Bootblack 2007, asking if I might be interested in serving as a judge for the GLLA 2008 bootblack contest. I’d never judged a contest before, and in fact I generally don’t have many good things to say about the leather title circuit (read my post entitled “the reasons i didn’t run” if you’re curious), but many of my arguments against it were rendered moot in this particular case thanks to the fact that bootblacking is a skills-based contest, not a see-how-cute-your-butt-looks-in-leather contest. So I thought about it for a bit and said yes.

Fast-forward to this past weekend, in which a medium-sized hotel was sold out and packed to the gills with leather-clad kinksters in an impressive variety of sizes, shapes, colours and genders. It was a weekend to remember for many reasons. The company of some fantastic bootblacks – contestants and judges alike, they were all just excellent people, and they made me feel warmly welcome. The occasion to meet and share space with additional wonderful people, two of whom agreed to share a hotel room with the three of us without ever having even met us. (Five to a room meant that Boi M slept in a little nest on the floor, but we both kinda liked that idea, so it all worked out.) The pleasant experience of picking myself up a rather gorgeous “predominantly gay” (his words) boy-toy for the weekend and having all sorts of intriguing fun with him. A trip to Outword Bound, Indy’s queer bookstore, which netted me a lovely stack of additions to the ever-growing collection, along with a few other books from a table at GLLA itself. A new piece of leather from the GLLA vendors’ mart. A trip to a huge old warehouse filled with bootblacking and footwear care supplies – it felt like stepping into the 1940s, and all I could think of was how perfect it would be to set a modern-day queer porn there. Really, it was almost as good as a library, and that’s saying something. And most of all, the experience of judging my first contest – I definitely learned a lot about how the judging process works, thanks to the kind and patient input of the other, more experienced judges.

I walked out of the weekend feeling like I’d had a great time, emerging with new knowledge and experience and some really sweet new connections. At the same time, I also came out of the weekend feeling as though I’d just spent three days in an alternate reality, a different sort of community that doesn’t look much like the one I call home. It was strange to be welcomed so warmly into the heart of that community – into a position of some authority, no less – and yet to still emerge feeling as though I were very much an outsider. I’ve been trying to unpack the differences I felt for the past couple of days, and while I don’t think I’ve got it all figured out yet, I’ve made a few observations that might explain that odd sense of home-but-not-home.

For starters, the American leather scene – at least as represented at GLLA, which brings together participants from seven or more states – is much like American culture in general, in that there’s a sense of staunch patriotism that permeates… well, everything. During the contest’s opening ceremonies, everyone stood and sang the national anthem. I experienced this once before at IMsL in San Francisco, and I had the same reaction now as I did then – I had to hold back laughter.

It wasn’t so much laughter at a room full of Americans singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but rather, laughter as I tried to imagine how it would go over at An Unholy Harvest if we tried to get all the leatherdykes and trans folks to stand up and sing “Oh Canada.” I mean, the idea is ludicrous. One might sing the Canadian national anthem at a Remembrance Day ceremony (if one were to attend such a thing), or on Canada Day before the fireworks go off on Parliament Hill, or perhaps (if they still do this, which I sincerely doubt) in the mornings before class in elementary school. But the idea of bringing nationalism and patriotic pride into the kink scene is downright funny north of the border. Why would one have anything to do with the other? I would be almost as surprised to hear “Oh Canada” sung at a kink event as I would to percieve the opening notes of “Happy Birthday” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and just as likely to bring patriotism into my dungeon as I would be to bring my brothers to an orgy. They’re both fine and dandy but they just don’t mesh. (Of course, I like my brothers way more than the Harper government, so perhaps my comparison is still off.)

So as a Canadian who doesn’t know the words to the American anthem, I could only stand and look around to observe the utter lack of irony present in the room as the proud notes rang out from the throats of everyone around me. I felt like an alien from outer space.

I could speculate on the reasons for this difference. I might be missing some big ones, but the first thing that occurs to me is that the American leather scene will of course be imbued with American patriotism to the same degree that the rest of American culture is, which is to say, heavily. In addition, the American leather scene takes some of its roots in military culture, with its emphasis on hierarchy, brotherhood and so forth (plus the addition of things like gay sex, biker iconography and SM practices), whereas the Canadian one doesn’t have nearly the same roots except in some instances of mild cross-border cultural influence.

I don’t really understand that degree of national pride, but it doesn’t necessarily offend me. Unless… and here’s where I caught a glimpse of the underbelly of that pride. In a workshop that Boi M attended, the presenter talked about how he often liked to come to dinner in a dress uniform because he liked the formality of it within the context of his D/s household. Fair enough, if that’s your thing. But he went on to say that he never wore American uniforms because he had never been in the service and felt it would be disrespectful to sport a uniform he hadn’t earned. Instead, he wore the dress uniforms of French, African and Canadian military.

Does anyone else see the problem here? Um… so it’s okay to sport an un-earned uniform from another country or culture, thereby layering cultural appropriation on top of the existing disrespect? Yikes.

I certainly don’t think that all American leatherfolks see things this way – among other things because not everyone is into wearing uniforms. It was simply an instance that spoke really strongly to me of the ways in which military culture perfumes the American leather scene, but not always in ways that resonate with a fully considered and culturally sensitive approach to that symbolism.

Another example of the place that the military holds in leather culture was the instance when, during another ceremony at GLLA, the MC asked that everyone who was in the service or who had family members in the service stand up and accept the applause of the audience because they’re heroes, and it was thanks to them, and to their fight for freedom, that we kinksters had the freedom to practice our kinks today. Again, this was a bit of a mind-bend for me. First of all because once again, the idea of proudly proclaiming a pro-military stance on stage at a kink event and assuming everyone in the room will applaud would simply never fly in Canada. Not that we’re all anti-military, but there’s not really much glory given to the armed forces; some people think they’re inherently evil baby-killers, some think they’re godlike heroes, and the vast majority predictably fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, acknowledging that the military is necessary but preferring to hold them to ideals of peacekeeping and rebuilding and minimize the emphasis on weaponry and assault.

In Canada, for all that some kinksters fetishize uniforms, we don’t like guns much, we’re not into muscular foreign policy, and we’re highly and vocally suspicious of any instance in which the military seems to be being used as a tool to further our national economic interests rather than to encourage world peace. So the way that robust support for the military was presumed – correctly – among kinksters, particularly in light of the ongoing lunacy of Bush’s approach to Iraq and elsewhere, really showed me how we differ north of the border.

Certainly, as typified by Pierre “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation” Trudeau, we’ve also sustained a healthy cynicism when it comes to the government’s right to meddle in our sex lives. With the possible exception of the gratitude that some queer people show the government for allowing same-sex marriage, or swingers for legalizing private group sex, we don’t tend to get all excited about how wonderful our government is and how much freedom it allows us – and ours is markedly kinder to sexual “deviants” than the American one. Instead, we tend to view advances in sexual and relational freedom as ground that must be fought for by grassroots activists and sustained by ongoing critique of the governement, rather than as being a testament to the greatness of that very government and its various arms of enforcement.

Now here’s another difference: titles. I wonder if the American penchant for Scene titles is an offshoot of the military model that underpins much of the leather scene. Just about everyone I met at GLLA prefaced their name with an honorific. Sir This, boy that, Lady This, slave that. Very rarely did I get introduced to anyone who just went by, y’know, Bob. I definitely felt like the odd one out when I introduced myself as Andrea. I know in this blog I use “Boi M” and “Boi L” to refer to my bois, but that’s only for the sake of online discretion; in real life, we just use their names.

GLLA definitely made me wonder what it would have been like to “grow up” in a leather scene that encouraged the use of titles in such an overwhelming way. Had my journey in kink begun south of the border, would I now by “Lady Andrea” or “Sir Andrea” or something? I suppose it’s possible, but they both feel way too formal for my liking. If someone wants to call me Ma’am or Sir, they’re more than welcome to, but I’d prefer they do so because it’s an accurate reflection of how they feel about me rather than as a general nod to my role in the Scene. I just don’t need that kind of reinforcement, and it makes me uncomfortable when strangers relate to me with indicators of a formal sort of respect I haven’t directly earned via a relationship with them. My hierarchical relationships are exactly that – relationships, not a signifier of our respective places in the community. That sense of D/s individualism is, oddly, far more present in Canada than in the US, from what I’ve seen, and stretches far beyond the realm of honorifics and well into the way a community operates, though I’m not sure I can articulate the specifics of that bleed quite yet. Lemme think about it some more.

I definitely have further reflections on this topic, but perhaps they are better saved for a future post when it’s not the wee hours of the morning. Before I sign off, though, I should re-indicate, in case anyone missed it the first time around, that none of these observations are intended as a put-down of the GLLA weekend or its organizers and participants. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and am thrilled to have met so many excellent people and be exposed to a community that functions differently from mine. It intrigues me to tease out the differences between those communities, and I do feel more at home when I’m at home (duh), but no disrespect is intended – simply a sense of observation and speculation.

Hokay. Disclaimers over. Bedtime now.

8 Responses

  1. I’m not in the American leather scene, but I am American and in the American BDSM scene, and the patriotic behavior you described would make me very uncomfortable. As would the strict formality.

    I think there are strong urban/rural, class, race, and political belief divides in how Americans deal with patriotism. In a crowd of urban, upper middle class, while, liberals (yuppies) it is often a dirty word. And I don’t think many of us would be totally comfortable with singing the national anthem at a ball game (though we would), let alone at a kink event. But, that is them, I could see other groups of people enjoying it.

  2. Interesting. I’m not completely surprised by what you describe but intrigued. These days, whenever I go stateside, I have the same thought: this is not the U.S. that I grew up in. When I was a kid there, in the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of patriotism (yes, we sang the Star Spangled Banner and said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school) but it seems to have multiplied by 10 since then. It may be because they are “at war” (gag) or it may be that I perceive more subtleties as an adult.

    But I find it ironic that anyone involved in non-mainstream sexuality would be thankful to their government when that government is actively against any non-mainstream, non-hetero sexual activity. Then again, after knowing people who are from various “sexual minorities” who are bigotted against each other, I guess nothing should surprise me.

  3. Hmm. Like Ruie, I am American and in the bdsm but not specifically the leather scene. (I see real leather types around, but they’re not the majority.) I’ve never encountered overt patriotism aside from maybe the occasional American flag or (of course) military uniform, if that counts.

    In defense of the guy who wouldn’t wear a U.S. military uniform but would wear those of other countries, perhaps he just felt there was no chance he would be misidentified as actually having served in one of those other armies, so it would always be recognized as a kind of costuming, while wearing a military uniform of your home country could be actually confusing. I don’t know.

  4. Fascinating to hear about all of this. This sort of thing is exactly the reason I’m so averse to getting involved with the kink/BDSM/leather scene — the titles, the military vibe, the nationalism. It’s not that I imagine these things are stronger in the leather scene than the rest of mainstream U.S. culture (though, yes, there’s the military origins of U.S. leather culture), but rather that they exist in pretty equal amounts. (And that amount is WAY too much for me to handle.)

    …I can’t believe they actually sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

  5. I think there are strong urban/rural, class, race, and political belief divides in how Americans deal with patriotism. In a crowd of urban, upper middle class, while, liberals (yuppies) it is often a dirty word.

    I think the degree of ‘patriotism’ you see depends very greatly upon where you are geographically and exactly which demographic of people you are with. It’s a stereotype, but I also think that it is actually true that white, middle or working class people in rural areas are more likely to display the kind of behavior you’ve described. I’ve never seen anything like that at a kink event in, say, New York City.

  6. Dev – In the case of this particular gentleman, he wears uniforms in his home during private dinners with his leather family. Perhaps he wears them elsewhere too, but he was not talking about public outings where strangers may misunderstand his dress, so I don’t think the costuming rationale entirely applies. Also there’s no particular reason why he couldn’t have served in those other armies, the USA being a melting pot and all. That said, I wasn’t aiming to trash the poor man. People with a uniform fetish are caught in a bit of a bind – unless they’re in the service, they can’t really indulge in their fetish *without* appropriating something, whether it’s a rank they didn’t earn or a culture that’s not their own. I don’t have this fetish myself, so I get to skip all that, but for those who do I can imagine it might pose a few challenges. In some ways it could be more challenging for someone who *is* respectful and doesn’t wish to appropriate than for someone who just says “fuck it, I don’t care, I just think they’re hot.” So… yeah. Didn’t mean to make it sound like I was stomping on his fetish.

    linaria – I agree that there are certainly demographic and geographic differences to consider, and this event did happen in the Midwest. At the same time, that’s exactly what surprised me about seeing the same sort of thing come up in San Francisco earlier this year (hardly a rural bastion), and at a dyke-focused event no less (IMsL). Okay, so the opening ceremonies there were led by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (leathermen who do outrageous nun-style drag to raise money for charity) but there was still an anthem, a flag ceremony and a whole range of other things that demonstrated similar cultural differences in relationship to patriotism and militarism. I’m not coming to any sweeping conclusions about what this all means, just pointing out that it comes up even in places I wouldn’t expect it nearly as much according to stereotype.

  7. Patriotic items such as flags, anthems, and uniforms are not abstractly different from other fetishized items that declare community membership. Leather itself falls into this class. The psychic links between leather and lust, and leather and kink, are learned links, just as the psychic links between nationalism and flag, and nationalism and anthem, are learned links. So, just as it is fruitful to explore the ethical implications of unthinking displays of patriotism and nonconsensual nationalistic dominance (e.g., cultural appropriation), it is equally fruitful to explore the ethical implications of using leather as a kink symbol and a source of nonconsensual personal gratification (nonconsensual because leather comes from sentient beings – other animals – that did not consent to the taking of their skin). The acceptance of the idea of superiority that is implicit in using leather is not all that different from the acceptance of the idea of superiority of one nation over another.

  8. All the way through elementary & high school, Oh Canada is still sung every single morning, at least in my old school board, unless they changed it in the 4 years since I graduated.

    I’ve encountered this bizarre patriotism in unexpected places as well; “Medieval Times” which is a medieval re-enactment dinner, jousting knights, that sort of thing. All the knights and their countries had vaguely spanish sounding names, yet at the end, when one was the victor, he rode around the arena carrying the Stars and Stripes, and everybody just went wild. I’ve attended an identical show in Toronto, and there was certainly no such equivalent flaunting of the maple leaf.

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