a history unwritten: leatherdykes in canada

Somewhere around 2 a.m. last night, I had a revelation. It may very well be a life-changing one. No, I’m not kidding.

So depending on how eagle-eyed you are and how often you read this blog, you may have noticed that when I originally posted yesterday’s announcement about Unholy Harvest, it read “Canada’s first-ever weekend for women of leather.” Well, until yesterday, I thought that was true.

However, last night I got a note from Elaine Miller of Vancouver’s Leatherdyke group stating that in fact there was a huge event for leatherwomen in Vancouver about ten or twelve years ago… apparently it attracted around 100 people from the West Coast of Canada and the US. So: I stand corrected.

I also stand incredibly intrigued.

When my colleague Jacqueline founded the Unholy Army in 2003, she was hoping that it would attract the elders of our community – the older leatherdykes would surely come out of the woodwork and join us. But it’s been four years, and we’ve had a web presence and a presence at Pride and lots of buzz – we’ve got members from several different provinces and a couple of states, Jacqueline has presented at a major North American leather conference, I’ve referenced the Army in my writing on major international BDSM lists, and so forth – and nobody, but nobody, has shown up. I know of one or two older leatherdykes in Montreal and they kinda keep to themselves for the most part. And that’s about it.

Granted, I am talking specifically about Montreal here – we have a lot of cultural particulars that just don’t apply in most other places in Canada. I’m thinking mainly of the language question, which has a huge impact on most aspects of queer culture both in terms of what doesn’t get transmitted (the latest concepts in queer theory, North American queer cultural norms, the English-language writing scene, etc.) and what does come our way (connections to French-speaking European cultures and aesthetics, vieille souche Quebecois cultural approaches and attitudes, etc.), and how they blend (bilingual events and cultural products like art and theatre, collaborations between groups of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, networking among younger activists from both the French and English universities, etc.). Really we’re just a big bag of quirky when it comes to queer culture. So it doesn’t entirely surprise me that our leatherdyke community, or lack thereof, would look different than elsewhere in Canada.

When it comes to Canada though, we’ve been talking about Unholy Harvest with our contacts in various cities all over the country for months now, and nobody had mentioned any past such events in Canada. So to learn that there was a strong enough community to create and host such a large event over a decade ago… well, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Elaine for having told me this. Of course I’m interested in accuracy when it comes to our Harvest communications, but more specifically, this is the first time I’ve ever had a sense that there was a history to Canada’s leatherdyke world beyond a few small and scattered groups in three or four major cities. And that, folks, is big fucking news.

In 2006, I attended the Leather Leadership Conference in New York City, and I met a girl there who was doing a PhD thesis on the history of leatherdykes in the US. I was fascinated. We exchanged cards. I was chewing on various ideas for graduate work, and the idea of community history really turned my crank. But no matter how intriguing the thought, it felt to me as though there was probably not enough material on leatherdykes in Canada to actually cobble together a project.

So I kinda dropped the idea, and instead started thinking about working on the history of Montreal’s leather community specifically. I was very much inspired by Andre Patry, a total sweetie leatherman and former Mr. Leather Montreal titleholder, who gave a short presentation at a history panel event I organized last year in honour of Gay Line’s 30th anniversary – “30 Years of Queer.” He talked about the history of the gay male leather community as he knew it. Among other things I remember him mentioning how deeply it was affected by the AIDS crisis – how for a few years in the early 90s, there were simply not enough leathermen still alive for them to even run a title contest. His sense of history and community and connection and activism really struck a chord for me and I felt that someone needed to start chronicling this history and putting it into writing before the last remaining people who were actually there to experience it also passed away. Not that Andre is anywhere near death’s door – you could still bounce a quarter off his buff-boy pecs – but you get my drift.

It’s not that I now find the idea of the gay men’s community to be any less compelling; certainly there’s a rich history there that’s well worth committing to paper, and the particular linguistic and cultural context of Montreal makes that especially interesting and especially challenging to accomplish.

But I have to admit that for a number of reasons the idea of working with dyke history still holds a greater appeal. Why? Well, for starters, because it’s familiar to me. I know what questions to ask, or at least how to ask them. I’m a member of this world, and in some ways a creator of it; it would feel to me like researching my family tree, discovering my own genealogy.

Now, make no mistake about it, I think that writing a Canadian leatherdyke history will be a major challenge.

Leatherdykes are damned hard to find, unlike the gay boys where you can walk into the Black Eagle or its equivalent in any major city in Canada and figure out who’s who with a few well-placed questions. We function via networks and interpersonal contacts, not via well-publicized events advertised in glossy mags. We are underground by nature. I can speculate for days on why this is the case, but whatever – that’s just the way it is.

Also unlike the men, in the past leatherdykes have gone to bat with radical lesbian anti-SM feminists in conflicts that were really ugly and visceral, and that surely didn’t help on the community development and visibility front – when your sexuality is alternative (i.e. you’re a dyke) and you’ve finally found a community that accepts you (i.e. the lesbian world), you have to be really fucking secure to stand up and claim a further alternative sexuality (i.e. BDSM or kink) in the face of key members of your community who would rather excommunicate you than shake your hand – let alone sleep with you. So while in some ways I’m sure that brought some people out of the woodwork and solidified relations among leatherdykes in that way that only an “us against them” situation can do, I’m equally sure it drove other leatherdykes and potential leatherdykes into hiding.

Put it all together and I’m not surprised that it’s hard to find information about leatherdyke history in the Great White North. But when I get little nuggets of information like the one Elaine gave me yesterday, and when I realize that in co-organizing Unholy Harvest I am actively (if inadvertently) setting up the first hints of a nationwide leatherdyke network… well, it’s hard to stay stuck in the mentality that a leatherdyke history would be such an impossible project.

Hence my 2 a.m. revelation. I think I have my mission, folks: I think that Canadian leatherdyke history needs to be written, and I’m feeling certain enough about my intention to do so that I’m posting it for public consumption. It may take me a while – to the tune of three to ten years, I imagine – but hot damn, is this ever a project I can sink my teeth into. I was already looking at grad school possibilities and meeting with potential thesis advisors. Now I know exactly what I’ll be writing on those application forms. Wish me luck, friends. I promise I’ll keep you posted. 

8 thoughts on “a history unwritten: leatherdykes in canada

  1. “not enough leathermen alive..to even run a title contest” -That’s a very moving idea to wrap one’s brain around.

    At some point that is not this moment, I hope to do oral histories and write about the impact of HIV/AIDS on the leather community, what the community response was/is, and the different ways in which public health has tried to target the leather community over the years. Whenever I finish, I’ll send you a copy…though it could be a good three to ten years as well. 😉

  2. Interesting stuff. Of course, I have an anthropological as well as personal interest in this kind of thing. In the next few years, I’m hoping to create a course on sub-cultures and counter-cultures as I have a huge interest in these types of social sub-groupings formed along the lines of common interests, whether it be leather, sci-fi, spirituality, sexuality, etc. Perhaps someday I will be using excerpts from your works in my classes. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

  3. Riley, darlin’ – there is no way I’m waiting three to ten years to get my hands on the cool thing your geeky brain produces. 😉 Though I am willing to wait for your specific AIDS project, which sounds pretty darned cool, especially given how intimately related the SM world and the AIDS crisis found themselves early on. And yes, it was incredibly moving to hear Andre speak… of the 8 people that night he was the one who brought me close to tears. All the better that he did it in head-to-toe leather.

    Hey, ever read the short story by Robin Sweeney entitled “Dress Leathers”? I highly recommend it if not – you will doubtless recognize its multilayered gorgeousness. It can be found in Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel’s anthology “Switch Hitters.” Let me know what you think when you have a chance.

    Nancy – I would be so thrilled to know you were using my work in your classes! Definitely one more motivation to get goin’ on it! And what a super-cool class topic idea. You are such a creative teacher.

  4. ::wide grin::

    I haven’t read that short story, but I’m officially known as Mama’s Switch Hitter, so um…. there’s that. I’ll be sure to read it.

    I once had an extremely geeked out interaction with Carol Queen in a glass elevator. Picture your reaction to the Kinsey first-edition amplified to 11 and in a glass elevator with the dude himself. I have never been a suave human being…

  5. Interestingly enough, after sending you the note about “Allies in Diversity” in Vancouver in ’93, when putting together the Mayhem! (coming May 2009) Leatherwomen’s weekend, I was contacted by a woman I’ve known electronically for 15 years. “I know you’re saying Mayhem’s the first in Western Canada since 1993, Elaine. But did you forget Alberta Bound in the late 90s?”

    Er. Um. Yes. I had totally forgotten about Alberta Bound, a smaller women’s weekend in, I think, Calgary. (Am I getting this wrong, O internets? If so, tell me.)

    Maybe we pick up our collective history this way… in dribs and drabs and in conversation with others that spark our recollections.

  6. I was lucky enough to be around Elaine and the whole local culture back then. It was very open and way too cool to be sustained. I would love to see it crest again.

    Gender means everything and absolutely nothing;)

    Johnny B

  7. I’d be curious if you know any leather dykes in the Atlantic provinces? I would certainly be interested, as a rural queer slowly claiming the title of leatherdyke myself. I hadn’t read this post before so it was a treat!

    1. Sure thing! Look up Jeanne and Kate from Halfway Creations (amazing toymakers just outside Halifax). Or ask at Venus Envy Halifax if they know of anything going on these days. Best of luck!

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