American Idle; How Infotainment, Popularity Contests and TMI Make Us Stupid or TL;DNR
Presented at the International Ms. Leather Conference,
May 4, 2008, San Francisco, California
Copyright © 2008, Laura Antoniou. May not be reproduced without her express permission,
although sections may be quoted for review purposes.
Good morning and thank you Glenda for scheduling a brunch at a proper brunch time. On such things does a civilized society turn; anyone expecting mature discourse at 9am at a sex conference needs to seriously reconsider their priorities. When I was a young pervert, I was just getting to sleep at 5am. Now that I am a middle aged pervert, 9am is about the right time for my first coffee.
Before I begin my rant/speech, let me pause for a moment to ask you to consider, sadly, the passing of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known in this country by the media phrase DC Madame. We know of her by that name because Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, was one of many steady client of her business, an escort service catering to the socially stunted crowd of government and military married men. Senator Vitter is still in office; the married father of 4 who supports abstinence only sexual education and a complete federal level ban on anything close to a same sex marriage. He also pushed for the removal of President Clinton the First from office over his affair with an office intern. Sen. Vitter is still in office, amazingly pushing to make it possible to prosecute someone for possessing illegal pornography even if they only saw it on the internet with no attempt to download, save, or send it to someone else.
Ms. Deborah Jeane Palfrey was dragged into a media circus; charged with criminal acts, prosecuted, sentenced, and in the end, killed herself rather than continue in what must have seemed an impossibly, selectively cruel world. Many of her former employees, some who had left that industry years ago, were thrust into the same rings of that circus, called to testify, threatened and exposed while hundreds of their clients remain anonymous, safe, protected from anything more harsh than a joke on a late night television show.
You may know Senator Vitter’s name, but not the name of the media created sexual monster called the DC Madame. For a moment, I would like us to consider Deborah Jeane Palfrey, sexual transgressive, who supplied a demand and was sacrificed by a sexually obsessive society which still doesn’t have any clue what do to with the simple fact that people like to have sex.
I mention her name today, not only for the moment I ask that we hope she is at peace, but because her identity was stolen and replaced by a glib piece of media shorthand which even her obits came to use. Because I don’t know how many of you here, today, will have ever even heard her real name except buried in a story of dubious accuracy.
I know by now, you expect me to have a joke. I’ll see what I can do to fit some in as we go along.
Here we are at International Ms. Leather, a celebration of leather, sm, sex, and hot babes. After a weekend loaded w ith far too much fun to be had by anyone who requires more than an hour of sleep per night, we can all go home secure in the fact that once again we have chosen a titleholder to represent us, to go out and raise money, awareness and visibility; to speak up, make noise, act politically and socially and of course, to excuse us from doing the same.
I hear the hissing from the politically active present here today and of course, I never mean you, individually, directly. I am using this very small pulpit to address the wider world, because I know everyone in this room is politically and socially aware, an activist and a community leader, and of course, a supporter of many worthy causes and activities.
Instead, I am addressing the majority of queers, who, in a recent poll, couldn’t answer 4 questions about whether same-sex marriages were legal in the respondent’s state, if the U.S. Constitution bans same-sex marriage, whether gays can serve openly in the U.S. military and if there’s a federal law barring the firing of workers based on their sexual orientation.
Only 38% of queer people could answer those 4 questions correctly.
I shudder to even guess at how many straight people can.
And I am horrified, consistently, when I find out how few kinky people know anything about the political and social issues facing our societies today. And when you don’t know about the issues, it becomes problematic to act on any of them, doesn’t it? Not tha t it stops some politicians…
But this is a travesty. A horrifying aspect of modern culture which is hard to understand for two reasons. The first is self interest; how can a kinky person NOT be as well informed as they can make themselves on all aspects relating to sex, social mores and politics? Isn’t it just a matter of selfishness? Just because I’m queer and non-breeding by choice doesn’t mean I am unconcerned with matters relating to choice, the education of children, and the mostly het world of sex for pay. Why? Because the forces who want children to be ignorant, women to be pregnant and disenfranchised and hookers punished are the same ones who want me closeted and silent, if not worse. I am by the simple reality of my life, my identity and choices, an ally of people I might have nothing in common with other than a narrow array of personal interest. But it behooves me to be aware of the fact that 87% of united states counties have no providers for abortion related services, even though if I found myself pregnant today, I could confidently inform the world that the messiah is on the way.
So, it is nightmarish, in 2008, to find myself still answering a question first asked of me in the 90’s when my books first came out. Asked of me, mind you, by kinky people, people aware enough to have found their “bdsm” groups and thereby me, out enough to know how to write to me, how to see me at a leather conference or spe cial event. It’s been so horrifying to be asked this year after year after year that at last I am saying this in a public forum, and specifically asking people to spread it around, because I am sick to death of the question and the ignorance asking it reveals.
Chris Parker is a female to male transsexual, a transman, a former woman, transgendered, a current man, he has transitioned, he passes; he’s a transfag, a former genderqueer butch with a soft spot for submissive masochists; he’s a new man taking a ride on the T, he’s a fucking trannyboy, now go look it up and fucking ask yourself why you didn’t know that.
Now, you may think that’s the point of this whole rant, but actually, it’s just a comic aside. The real issue is how we, as a community, allow ourselves to be distracted and ignorant; how a literate culture is so massively uninformed, apathetic, duped and massaged into believing the most absurd drivel imaginable. We’re paying 4 bucks a gallon for gas, fighting a war on several fronts and badly running an occupation with no end in sight; health care is a shambles, civil liberties are eroding, privacy is becoming a quaint fiction, and endless news hours this week have been spent on watching a woman struggle with a coffee maker and discussing a preacher whose repugnant views on some topics are easily matched by preachers with other repugnant views who happened to be friends with different politicians. I’ll see your Reve rend Wright and raise you a Pastor John Hagee. Don’t know who he is?
You should. Just as you should know as as much as you can about the lives of and issues surrounding transgendered people. Just as you should know that in 36 states, you can be fired from a public or private job because your employer believes you to be gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. Or to know that there is only one state in the US where gay people can marry; every year, I talk to more and more people who think queers can marry in anywhere from 5-20 states, and don’t remember what DOMA is – or who signed it into law. They are close to the issue in one way – 26 states have passed laws which explicitly deny queers the right to marry.
In other words, it’s equally important to know the stories behind the soundbites and video montages supplied by mainstream media and to be well informed about issues relating specifically to the kinky, queer, sexually transgressive communities. See, the second reason why I find it so horrifying how badly people are informed is because there is just so much information available out there.
Don’t like the 6 o’clock news on ABC? I don’t blame you. Try the BBC news instead. Want more than what is on the one hour actually aired? Go to their websites for more. Not your cup of tea? Check out your local public access station for truly special interest groups. If the “all news, all the time” radio st ation has too many commercials, try NPR. Or maybe print will be better. There are about 4000 newspapers in the US and Canada; how about one of those? Don’t like your local one? Read over 10,000 newspapers online. With archives. And hyperlinks.
Hate newspapers? Try news gathering websites. News blogs. News from different countries, news with political flavors and social flavors and oh, yeah, you can set up news search programs to deliver targeted articles to your e-mail every day, every hour, or continuously.
And yet…we don’t. Oh, most people make some stab at collecting some sort of news from time to time; hey, my alarm clock is set to NPR and I can barely function without at least 30 minutes of Morning Edition. In a world where we are literally flooded with information, it is necessary to at least whittle it down to something manageable, allowing time and energy to devote to things like actually getting out of bed, going to work, caring for family members and maybe even going on vacations, getting dressed up in fetish gear and getting it on with attractive strangers.
But it comes as a surprise to me to see, in our supposedly literate and over-informed society that people actually deliberately refuse to take advantage of any of those opportunities for education, information and a chance to know more than a sound bite. That 20% of college students say they get their news from John Stewart and Saturday Night Live. That kinky people don’t know when their own interests are endangered. That more people will call up to vote in a popularity contest like American Idol than vote in a national election. (Even allowing for the cumulative voting scheme and the ability to vote on the show without registering or being 18 and over.) That a common refrain in internet language is TL;DNR or TL:DR – meaning, too long, didn’t read. That people actually use unchallenged, excuses like “There’s just too much out there” as though the presence of a library in your community means you shouldn’t bother to read a book.
It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of being or acting cynical and jaded, especially as a self described sexual radical. It’s so tempting to simply shrug and give up; to say that all politics is decided by people far from me, there’s nothing I can do anyway, and it’s so much easier to just go along in relative ignorance, reading only things that agree with my world view and doing whatever I want until a crisis shocks me into some sort of late arriving activism.
And that is why people think Barack Obama is some sort of secret Muslim agent with designs to commit jihad on the American Public. That is why people know more about who fell on their ass on Dancing with the Stars than how long it takes for the earth to move around the sun. And while it is considered a mark of great distinction in our popular media to be smarter than a 5th grade student, I fear20for any future shows like that because of the inroads creationists have made in our schools. I fear, genuinely fear, that we have become so used to being entertained first and informed later, that we have become a people so easily distracted we might as well be watching Sesame Street hopped up on Ritalin.
So, what did I do today? I read some soundbites to a crowd which is likely to agree with much, if not all of what I said. I’m not any better than a political blogger who writes for a readership which is already predetermined to agree with me. But hopefully, I can spur some minor changes in your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines to just break out a little bit more and be beyond vanilla, beyond the common.
First step; get out of your comfort zone. I can spend all day reading nothing but progressive news, left wing media, and being massaged into a world of eternal gay and kinky interest, with side visits to my various geeky interests and so can you. Break the cycle and cut down your input from friendly and passive viewing by half. Substitute something outside of what suits your political, social or orientation interests. Not just to know your enemy, which is always useful, but to be able to hear and read and digest another view so you really know what’s being said about you, so you know what voices are framing the debate.
Second, refuse to be duped. Doubt and question more. Do it out loud whenever you can, even if it’s j ust to your partner. If you hear a story you feel is incomplete, for gods sake, go out and fucking google it. You have never had such an awesome possibility to fact check, research, debunk or support ideas, no one has, ever. Use your search machine to do more than look for naked pictures of people in bondage.
Third, know the difference between action and distraction. There is nothing wrong with being active in a small online community, for example. It can be fun, informative, and a great place to connect. But it pisses me off to see the amount of energy people expend arguing about stupid things in a miniscule forum. Before getting caught up in yet another flame war, yet another she said/she said, yet another debate on the difference between submissive and slave, or how real one relationship is over another, or who is the worse enemy to liberty, the crazy far left wing or the crazy far right wing, take a moment and realize that while you, ButchDykeTop at yahoo dot com are passionately writing your 10th response to LordHetDom at aol dot com- and he is writing his 11th back – neither of you has done a fucking thing to move the SM community forward in any way, or improved each others’ knowledge base except in researching obscure quotes from equally distracted commentators on partisan weblogs. Busy people should know enough to pick their battles and battlegrounds. Use the energy you would have wasted in unproductive and dissatisfying distractions in other ways…like these.
Every day…read a newspaper. I mean it. Not the Google news web page, which sorts headlines according to a popularity algorithm. A newspaper. You can read it online if you want, but don’t just look at the headlines; READ the fucking thing. Why? Because all news starts as local news. Because editors have agendas and reading a newspaper alerts you to bias and journalistic tricks. Because you will find out about sales and then you get to read the comics, sports and the bridge column.
Every week, set out on purpose to find out something new about human sexuality. Believe me, you do not know all there is to know. Look up a term, read a specialized journal. Talk to someone whose orientation, gender, sexual expression, tastes, and history is different than yours. Find out what your local laws are on sexual behavior, zoning for adult businesses. There can be no sexual freedom without sexual literacy. The more you know about the vast world of human sexuality, the more you will come to know how it is affected by the media, by politics, by changing mores, tastes and habits. And the more likely you can be part of a positive change, rather than get caught by surprise when your neighbors – or you – find yourself confronted by the law or the morality brigade.
Every month, take action. Write a letter; not an e-mail, and certainly not a post on a website, even a news site. Make a telephone call. Contribute to an organization by volunteering or sending money. Fee l free to act beyond that, but try to remember at least once every 28 days or so – easy for women of a certain age to figure out when they might schedule it – you should reach out of your comfort zone and make a mark.
And once a year, get off your ass, and after considering your choices and options, take that fine ass out to vote. Not only during presidential election years, but every year. It’s easy to be seduced by cynicism and decide one person will never make a difference. But if you vote in every election, if you pay attention even to the small ones, you will find that your voice does count in ways you might never guess. Who serves on your local school and draft boards is important. Knowing what the promises and positions of your city and county elected officials can keep stealth candidates exposed and machine candidates under scrutiny. And knowing your lieutenant governor is handy when your governor is found engaged in transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. Who knew they were even using the Mann Act in this day and age? Well, if you were sexually literate, you would have.
And finally, here at International Ms. Leather I am going to propose something astonishingly insensitive considering the venue.
When Chuck Renslow came up with the idea for the first Mr. Gold Coast contest, which was to become the International Mr. Leather Contest, it was not to create a leader in the leather community. It was not to elect a speaker, a historian, a figure of responsibility and public consumption. It wasn’t even to be able to parade a bunch of hot guys around the bar. It was to sell beer. The contest was a distraction, an enticement, a spectacle to get guys to settle in for a while and spend money and time at the bar.
It’s been 30 years now. I put it to you as gently as someone like me can…isn’t it time we moved past popularity contests and put infotainment in the right place? The new titleholder doesn’t need the permission or cheers of the community to do any of the basic things I outlined for anyone here to do. You all, as individuals, do not need a sash or a panel of judges to grant you the ability to learn, grow, make change and question authority. I put it to you; if the energy gathered here for a weekend were spent on just making a happy space for leatherwomen and their allies to come and connect, to spend some money and make some money, to learn, to entertain and to teach be entertained, would that be so bad? Could the barely functioning system of contests change instead to something celebrating achievements of other kinds? Where are our business leaders, our philanthropists, our social workers and teachers and librarians?
There have been people debating the need for and predicting the demise of leather contests since they first began. They have continued through a combination of inertia, a dearth of imagination and the fact that they continue to sell beer. It’s hard to think of new ideas, hard to sell them, hard to nurture them in a world where most people find their niche as pure, passive audience, able to dial a phone to express their dislike for this week’s favorite flavor but too apathetic to learn the proper name of a woman punished for men’s misbehaviors.
If you want to be better than that – better informed, better situated to respond, better able to understand in times of confusion and teach in times of confrontation, get out of your comfort zone. Open your eyes, your ears, your laptop and your wallet for more than what is fed to you, what is dished out as news mcnuggets to a ravenous yet undiscerning world. Have parties, too; get out and dance and fuck and take joy where you find it. Have beauty pageants if that’s what sells the beer, get some frilly femmes and humpy butches to dance and stomp and get it on with wild abandon. But maybe, one year, instead of choosing International Ms. Leather, I hope to see a gathering like this celebrating the election of a sexually literate member of the local schoolboard, or the defeat of yet another attempt to keep condoms away from those who need them most, or even the victory of a leather friendly city council member. I would like to see us celebrating and rewarding people who have already been community activists and leaders instead of anointing new ones we hope will stick around; to give a travel fund to someone who might not loo k quite as handsome in leather, but knows the way through the legislative corridors of political power blindfolded.
In other words, like any honest pervert does, I want it all.