some new musings on activism

Well, the conference is finally over. I was hoping to write my Buck Angel post before getting swept into Leather Leadership madness, but it was not meant to be. It is still on the way. Gimme a few days while I decompress from a weekend’s worth of intense workshops, hobnobbing with amazing people, and occasionally getting my boots licked.

This year’s LLC was a very interesting ride. A number of things pissed me off; a number of things were extremely well done. I’m never sure if I learn more from the stuff I like – because, hell, some people do some damn good work when they get up in front of a crowd and talk about what they know best! – or from the stuff I don’t like, because it galvanizes me to think about what I don’t like, and why I don’t like it, and what I’d like to see done or said differently, and how I can make that happen. Fortunately the dose of “piss me off” to “impress me” was sufficiently balanced (or perhaps imbalanced) that I did not find myself spitting tacks by the end of the conference. I am currently way too tuckered out to come up with a coherent post about the long list of specific topics that are on my mind right now – that’ll come soon – but the overall effect was really inspiring.

And that’s what I think I got out of this conference more than anything else. It wasn’t so much the networking, though there was certainly lots of that. It wasn’t the workshops. It wasn’t the glowing feeling of being warmly greeted by people whose work I started reading ten years ago, the people I most look up to in the movement towards sexual freedom; these people are now friends (and dare I say colleagues, if way more seasoned ones) and every time I stop to think about that, it makes my head spin. It wasn’t the positive reactions to the talk I gave with Pepper – though of course that was great.

No, what I got out of this was a sense of deep introspection about the nature of sexuality activism ane where I am best suited to be making a contribution to the betterment of the world. And while the details of my personal conclusions may or may not be of interest, I figured I’d share the thoughts that started floating to the surface of my mind this afternoon, and the questions I suddenly started asking myself, in the hopes that perhaps they might provide food for thought a little beyond the confines of my own brain.

So picture it: 334 people gathered for a single event geared specifically towards leaders in the BDSM / leather / kink subculture. Men, women, trans people; people of varying racial backgrounds, ages, levels of ability; people from all over the States plus a smattering of Canadians. Every one of those people were there because, after one fashion or another, they are leaders in their communities. Conference planners, group leaders, researchers, grassroots mobilizers, writers, play party organizers, vendors, publishers, webmasters, board members, titleholders… every one of those 334 people represented a whole load of others in their local or national communities who look to them to perform some sort of function for the greater good.

I started to wonder to myself, what’s my place there? What functions do I occupy on that list of possibilities? Not that hard to answer, really; I can take a quick look at my CV and come up with a list of the roles I’ve filled over the years. Okay, not so challenging.

But what about the reasons for those roles? What has led me to do the specific sorts of activist work that I do? Why I am a writer, a workshop facilitator and a leatherdyke community organizer, rather than being, say, the treasurer of a pansexual BDSM group, or the logistics coordinator for an annual kinky camping weekend, or a lobbyist seeking to remove archaic laws from the books, or the moderator of an online chat group for pantyhose fetishists, or a statistical researcher seeking to compile data to show that sexual sadists can be just as mentally healthy as the average population? What inspires me to do the particular things to which I feel I can, and should, devote my energy? Why are you doing the specific things you’re doing, or as a secondary question, why are you not doing things you might be able to do?

As I started asking these questions, I came up with still more questions to help me answer them, these ones a bit more targeted. Here’s where I think that, though my own answers are likely to be really different from the next person’s, the questions themselves might be very useful indeed. In a sense, this afternoon I built myself a personal mission statement as an activist. Perhaps you’d like to do the same. Perhaps your process for coming to your own would look really different from my process. But hey, you’re reading this, so I’ll share mine and perhaps that’ll inspire you to either follow it or find your own.

The first question is about values. What sort of values do you hold dear? What is the motto by which you live your life? What is the ground upon which you build yourself? Boi L once told me that her motto was, “Do everything you would otherwise regret not doing.” Helluva value system, that. Me? I don’t know if I can sum it up in a single statement, but if I had to list the values that inform the choices I make, they would probably be about respect, honesty, clarity, humility, abundance, kindness, happiness, justice, growth, family / community, creativity, the value of learning, and the importance of contributing to making the world a better place.

The next question as about passion. What makes you feel passionate? I could speculate for eons about the nature of passion. My pet theory is that all passionate pursuits are in some way a connection to divine energy, but that’s about as woo-woo as I’m gonna get on you. But regardless of where it comes from or what it means, most of us can acknowledge that there’s at least one thing in our lives that makes us feel that particular rush of excitement and strength and longing and joy, that thing which never fails to make our ears perk up if it’s mentioned, that place we can lose ourselves for hours and feel energized and sated rather than tired. For some people that’s a creative pursuit – cooking, making art, making music. For some it’s a physical pursuit – hockey, dance, yoga, skydiving. For some it’s intellectual – a certain topic of study. For some it’s relational – a certain type of relationship, like mothering or submitting or teaching. For some it’s career – moving up the ladder in their field of choice. So what’s your passion? Or what are your passions, if you have many? Me – I’m not going to give you the list. It would double the length of this blog post. Suffice it to say that my biggest problem is not having nearly enough hours in the day to pursue all the things I feel passionate about. Fortunately I’ve managed to arrange things such that I get paid to do some of them.

Regardless of where they lie, the things that make us passionate can become key pieces of our identity. That’s when you go from being a “man who sleeps with men” to “a gay man,” or from a “person who takes snapshots sometimes” to “a photographer.” Some people don’t draw these distinctions in quite the way I do, but bear with me. I think naming is a powerful thing. Charles Moser – one of the editors of Powerful Pleasures, the kinky academic book I’m reviewing in a long-drawn-out (some might say procrastinated) series of occasional instalments here – gave a presentation today and he quoted an ancient Chinese proverb: “The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their correct name.” Very true… and I don’t wish to name myself something I am not.

So, to explain the logic: Do I enjoy rock climbing? You bet. Am I a climber? No. Why? Because I’ve gone climbing maybe a dozen times over as many years, with long breaks between. Climbing is an occasional amusement, not a part of my identity. I might lose myself in it for an hour or two, and feel that rush of enjoyment or excitement, but it hasn’t turned into a passion for me. I don’t go climbing three times a week, or own my own gear, or subscribe to climbing magazines, or find all my friends within the climbing community, or take vacations to places where there are interesting rock faces. I just enjoy the climb to its fullest when it happens. On the other end of the spectrum, am I a writer? Hell yeah. I can’t stop writing; it would be like taking a break from breathing. Not gonna happen. Am I a queer? You bet. Deep down in my bones, every moment of the day. Every step I take, I take queerly. These things I take to be pieces of my identity, rather than activities; they have been consistently true and consistently passionate for me for long enough that I acknowledge them as simply being elements of who I am. And thus, I can feel accurate (remember that value of clarity?) in naming myself those things.

Now, we can arrive at elements of identity through all kinds of means that have nothing to do with passion. I am a Canadian, not because I’m really excited about it, but because I was born and live in Canada, and that marks me as having a particular perspective on the world. I am a woman, not because I’m passionate about being female, but because I was born in the body I have and the experience of that body has informed my everyday experience of life and my take on the world. I’m white, but I don’t feel a sense of inspiration or thrill about my whiteness, and the culture I live in creates a reality in which I’m “normal,” and therefore neutral. Nobody’s out there celebrating white culture and creating websites about the challenges and joys of being white – unless you count whack jobs like the KKK, which is hardly a model of healthy, positive Caucasian identity. As a result, my skin colour is a piece of my identity in that my whiteness informs how I experience the world and gives me certain sorts of privilege, but it’s not a piece of my identity because I have any passion about it. Perhaps if I lived in a world where whiteness were oppressed, I would have stronger feelings about it, find more passion in its defence, find excitement in learning what it means. As it stands? Meh. Not so much. 

But I’m not talking about the bits of identity we don’t choose; I’m talking about the ones that we arrive at through a process of living and experiencing the world, and of discovering what brings us joy and pleasure and a sense of rightness and satisfaction. This is not to say that we can’t experience passion relating to an un-chosen aspect of ourselves. Sometimes that passion comes from a factor we haven’t chosen, or didn’t think was a big deal when we chose it, or for which we didn’t really experience a clear moment of decision. For example, my existence as female has certainly been a major factor in informing my passion for feminism; my “choice” (more my parents’ choice than mine, but still) to learn French as a child certainly helped create a passion for language; my queerness and my kink, which sorta found me more than I found them, have certainly inspired my passion for sexual freedom and creating alternative sexual community. There are lots of queers out there who don’t develop activist passions, and lots of French speakers who never have a career in language work. For me, they became passions. So what of your passions has turned into a piece of your identity? Are you a cellist, a dominant, an accountant, a philosopher, a film aficionado, a hot lover, a soccer player, an immigrants’ rights activist? Who are you? What are you? (I assume the answers will be multiple.)

Now the next step is to take our values and your passion and your identity, and mix ’em all up together. The result: our priorities.

Let’s say that one of your values is excellence, and you’re passionate about painting, and you pursue that passion enough that you begin to feel that you are a painter. If you apply your value to your passion-informed identity, what do you end up with? A life in which you will apply your values to your passion and devote your resources, time, energy and focus to that pursuit. In other words, you make it a priority. Of course there are certain priorities we all share – survival, for starters. Getting our basic needs met. But as Patrick Califia said in his closing keynote address this afternoon, “Working toward something greater than only your survival needs gives you meaning and purpose, and I think that’s the definition of happiness.” So with your happiness in mind – as defined by Patrick, as in, working for something greater than your survival needs – what are your priorities?

And last but not least – for this portion at least – the question is, what are you gonna do about it? You know what your values are. You know what you’re passionate about. You’ve mixed them together, and you have a priority. Now it’s time to act. If you value creativity, and you’re passionate about dance, but you’ve been sitting on your butt working six days a week at a desk job and going home exhausted, then perhaps you’re still operating at that basic survival level and not looking at happiness. Maybe you should put aside two nights a week to pursue dance lessons so that you can eventually start choreographing. Maybe you should use that creativity to find ways to insert dance into your everyday life, like waltzing with the vacuum cleaner on Sunday afternoons or coming up with one new move per day on your lunch break and writing it in a notebook. Really, whatever works.

If you stop here, you can probably come up with a personal mission statement that will work for you. But because I’m thinking about this in terms of activism, I’m going to keep going. I’m going to assume that if you keep reading now, it’s because one of your values is something like “social justice” or “community” or “leaving the world a better place than I entered it” or some similar thing that’s about going beyond your self-interest. I’m also going to assume that you’ve got a passion in some particular area that points, or could point, that activist bent in some concrete direction. If you’re passionate about dance and value social justice, you might want to think about working with a group that provides dance lessons for underprivileged youth. If you’re passionate about numbers and you value community-building, perhaps you’ll found a society for budding statisticians. If you’re passionate about Buddhism and you value education, perhaps you’ll become a Zen teacher and spread enlightened teachings. This is no longer just about what works for you; it’s about what might work for people beyond you. For me, I’ve combined my value of community-building and making the world a better place, my identity as kinky and queer, and my passion about sexual freedom; all together, that has translated into me devoting my time, energy, focus, creativity and skills to building leatherdyke community. (Lots more than that, but you don’t need the list to get what I’m driving at.)

The next piece is about your skills. So you’re an activist with an area of passion… now what skills and assets do you bring to the table? Of course you can build skills over time, and that’s a laudable goal, but I’m talking about evaluating the things you already know you’re good at, and the things you’re not, and then see how those skills match up with the needs in front of you. For me, I know where my skills lie. I’m fine with the basics, but I’m no numbers whiz; I can’t do web design and am not the least bit interested in learning; and I can’t stand inefficiency so working with a large board of people who all have to agree on something before we can move forward just grates on my nerves. (Don’t even start me on my rant about how consensus is a dangerous myth and a complete waste of time.) But I’ve got great people skills, I’m highly organized, I’ve got lots of ideas, I’m articulate in print and in speech, and I’m comfortable in team leadership roles. So this is how I end up in charge of things with one or two well-chosen colleagues, working with awesome teams of volunteers (some of whom take care of finances and web design, bless them), and doing a lot of the in-person and in-writing PR. Fun times!

In addition to all this, you have to think about what makes you happy. As an activist, small but tangible results make me really happy. Although I happily support Charles Moser’s fight, and will gladly sign a petition or spout my opinion on the situation, in practice I’m probably not the person you’ll find slogging away on a 20-year uphill battle to remove sexual sadism and sexual masochism from the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual so that shrinks stop pathologizing my people. I need to see things happen faster than that, so I stick with smaller goals. Who knows; maybe when I’m a big grown-up activist instead of a young upstart, I’ll see things differently, but right now I want instant gratification. So what makes you happy? Again, I’ll assume you can list a few things, but even just one is good. For me, I’m happy when I’m seeing people understand things they didn’t get before; when my contributions are valued and taken seriously; when I see new relationships forming around me; when I am learning and being intellectually stimulated; when I get to be creative and work with dynamic people; when I’ve had a hand in making things fall into place smoothly.

I could list a bunch of other things that make me happy, and how various things on my activist CV are born from various combinations of my values, identity, priorities and skill set – but you get my drift. Basically, for each activist endeavour I undertake, I want to be able to create a sentence that reads something like “I am an XXX, I value XXX, and I am passionate about XXX, so I engage in XXX area of activism by contributing XXX, and what makes me happy about that is XXX.” If I’m missing one of those pieces, I’m probably going to be less committed or less satisfied in my activism. That means that if I’m finding myself to be unhappy, I need to look at each of those pieces and ask questions about what I could change.

Perhaps everything else feels good, but as my identity shifts from one thing to another, I’m finding that I’m not resonating as strongly with the other folks I’m working with – for example, I dropped my organizing duties in the general dyke community but held onto my role in leatherdyke organizing at least in part because I was feeling so much more of a strong resonance with fellow kinky dykes and wanted to keep that as a central piece of my work. Other changes can happen: Perhaps my values may change over time. Perhaps my passion might become more specifically targeted, or shifts in a different direction. Perhaps my skill set improves or deterioriates in a given area, so I need to change the type of contribution I’m making. One thing’s for sure, if that last piece – “what makes me happy about it is XXX” – becomes harder to fill out, something’s gotta change.

So there it is. My newfound take on the philosophy of activism. Maybe I’ll turn it into a workshop and present it at next year’s LLC. Hee hee! In the meantime, I’m going to sign off and go be a sleepy activist whose bed will make her very happy indeed.


3 thoughts on “some new musings on activism

  1. I can relate to pretty much all of this. I spend a good chunk of my 20s wondering where to focus all this energy that I had. I knew I wanted to use it to “change the world” but I didn’t know if I wanted to take the actual political route, as in become a politician, not get corrupted and dabble in many causes or do the grass rootsy activist stuff and focus on more specific causes.

    My skills and my passions led me down the second path and it fulfills me to the nth degree but I’m not closed to other means in the future. I know I would be good in politics but I will be better when I’m older and have had a chance to hone a couple of skills that are still lacking.

    On a related note: many people will list their line of work as one of their main features of identity when asked to describe themselves but, in most cases, it’s more about a role. Let’s face it, most people aren’t lucky enough to have jobs that they are passionate about. When I have to describe myself, “anthropologist” is right up there but not because it’s a job. I used it even when I wasn’t working in the field. It’s become a worldview and a way of life for me and I am an anthropologist because I strive to use anthropological knowledge to work on social issues like Native and queer rights.

    Anyway, all this to say that I never wrote down an actual mission statement but thinking along these lines (passions, skills, identity, priorities – although not necessarily in these words) sure helped me recognise, define and situate myself in recent years. Being able to do this has also helped give me direction while having the flexibility to recognise when I need to change my direction, either slightly or drastically.

    To close: my new passion is genderqueer/trans/fat friendly smut so hopefully in the near-medium future, I will be helping to create films for you to review on Sex Geek ; )

  2. Sweet! Yay for good porn! Have you heard of the new porn flick by Morty Diamond, Trans Entities? It’s about a kinky FTM couple and it won a couple of awards at the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto just a couple of weeks ago. From what I can tell it’s very promising, and while I don’t know if it’s explicit about the fat-friendly thing, the stars are not what I’d call skinny either. Just in case you needed inspiration…

  3. Thanks for the head’s up! I will look into it. At the moment, I’m creating a mandate and set of goals for the new smutty film collective I want to start. Last time I was this obsessed about something, a new drag king troupe was born so who knows what the future will bring : )

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