leather: learning and lacking

It’s late, I’m wiped out, and I really need to go to bed. But I took off for a camping trip in the backwoods of Missouri before I got the chance to wax poetic about my pilgrimage to the Leather Archives and Museum… which is just plain wrong! So I figured I’d take a few moments to go there now.What can I say. First of all, the sweet and geeky Riley, LA&M volunteer extraordinaire, was incredibly helpful throughout the entire day – and it was an entire day, from opening to closing and then some. Among other things, he provided a full and detailed tour of the place (more on that in a sec), recommended a lunch restaurant for pick-up and found me and D a spot to eat when we needed a break, and carried out a full database search for me to help me find bits and pieces about Canadian leather history.

And he’s not the only one. Rick, the executive director, was equally awesome in his willingness to make repeated jaunts to the archives room to withdraw stacks of specific files for me – even though it was 30 minutes to closing by the time I asked. And other wonderful folks there indulged me in such things as, oh, opening locked cabinets to let me stroke the bindings of certain books, opening the gift shop till so I could buy souvenir patches even though nobody else was there, and that sort of thing. I think I kinda fell in love with all of them, in a brain-crush sort of way.

I’m tired enough that I don’t think I can really do justice to the sheer coolness that is the LA&M, but suffice it to say that the incredible volume and variety of information stored in that single spot is just mind-boggling. I could spend days there, weeks – hell, who am I kidding, I could move in and sleep on their couch for a few years without getting bored. In the same room (just one of eight) they have lesbian erotic SM photography (by Barbara Nitke, among others), a copy of the original German version of Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” three huge books of leather organization colours (i.e. membership patches) from all over the world, a crocheted cock-cozy in the colours of the leather pride flag (apparently created by the mother of a former leather titleholder – good lord!!), various implements of torture intended for uses both consensual and not, wise words about Old Guard mentality, a four-sided display devoted to the International Mr. Leather contest, and a horrendously kitschy glitter-eyed stone gargoyle who apparently used to guard the personal dungeon of Chuck Renslow, a figure in gay male SM history and a major donor to the LA&M. (I guess that was his show-tunes side coming out.)

And I haven’t even begun to talk about their library. Oh. My. God. Folks, you just haven’t lived until you’ve smelled the pages of a first-edition hardcover ninth-printing edition of Alfred C. Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female right after a 50-year-old hardcover edition (with illustration plates!) of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. Line that up with another hardcover – this time a first English translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis… and well, I just had to be left alone for a little while to recover. Plus, we’re talking a full collection of Drummer magazine – a classic gay SM porn / community networking mag dating back decades! – that’s actually there for the touching and reading, along with copies of every SM-related book and zine known to man, just for starters. The collection includes pamphlets so old they were mimeographed. There was one charmingly un-edited single-author treatise on “penis punishment” that featured a long list of torture approaches – many of them quite creative, really – and accompanying cartoons and photographs along with the author’s gleeful reportage on his own experiences in the domain.

The whole place was full of gems like this. I could go on for hours.

The most significant piece for me, though, was to note what wasn’t there. And that tells an interesting tale in itself – though perhaps one whose furthest conclusions I can’t yet make.

What wasn’t there was dykes. Well, there are a few references here and there – there’s a travelling roadshow exhibit about women in the SM world, among other things, and a few colour patches and vertical files. But there are so few that they feel like speciality exhibit pieces among a sea of items related to gay men and the straight/pansexual scene. 

What wasn’t there was also transfolk. I didn’t do a specific search, but at the same time I didn’t see a single readily visible piece of exhibit or literature that was about trans people’s participation in the BDSM scene, either currently or historically – unless you count the presence of Patrick Califia’s works, but they’re not actually about trans concerns for the most part.

What wasn’t there was Canadians. Considering we share a massive border and a ton of cross-border history, there were no more than 15 or 20 slim vertical files about Canadian leather organizations and events. I’m starting to develop some interesting questions around the ways in which Canada’s leather groups function, and have historically functioned… questions, not conclusions. But big questions. I also wonder if perhaps the Canadian groups that do exist are either unaware of the LA&M’s existence or uninterested in it for some mysterious reason – surely we must have more to beef up their files with than that. Do people realize we can just basically send them boxes of stuff? Do we remember and treasure our history enough to archive it at all? Big questions, and ones that will certainly impact the course of my future research.

And so on, and so forth. In no way do I intend any of this as a criticism of the LA&M. More like a recognition of several things: first, that community-based groups necessarily have community-based connections, and that’s what creates the kinds of channels that feed them. In other words, since the LA&M was created and is maintained largely by gay leathermen, of course they’ll have more access to materials on topics directly related to gay leathermen. Second, that lesbians and other queers of the current, former and future female persuasion are as always more underground and less readily accessible than the more moneyed and publicly visible groups made up of either gay guys (heavy on the devotion) or straight folks (high in number). And third, that nothing but a concerted and deliberate joint effort on the part of numerous members of both/all communities will ever change that visibility and accessibility – at least when it comes to historical information.

That, in combination with a delicious little tidbit I unearthed about a female officer elected in the early 90s, at age 22, to the head position of a heretofore all-male Toronto SM organization… have reaffirmed my interest in writing a Canadian leatherdyke history. Rick made me promise to keep in touch if I needed help with my research; in turn I promised him I would send my work to him once it was done. Perhaps someone else will find more than a single tidbit years from now in their own search. I’ll cross my fingers… and download some grad school applications.

3 thoughts on “leather: learning and lacking

  1. I read a speech recently that mentioned a beef that some Canadians have with the LA&M. Apparently, some folks feel like the LA&M does not have a lot of Canadian items, like you say (and I agree), but they go one step further and recommend Canadians refrain from supporting the LA&M, which is a sticky wicket, because it perpetuates the very thing they’re lamenting.

    You should check your Email shortly. 😉

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