Here’s a Dollar: Buy a Culture!


Given at

Southwest Leather Conference 2011

Good morning and shalom.

I know some of you are nervous this morning, and not just because you are going to be hanging by your tits in a little while. You’ve heard me before, or you read my speeches online or you heard about me on Fetlife and you know that for the past 12 years or so, I have been pissing people off at various leather events around the country. You might have heard that Master Jim invited me to speak about leather history and instead I called people in the community liars and fantasists who made up stupid names and histories and sold them to increasingly susceptible people while those in the know stood by, complicit and smug. You might have been there at the Leather leadership Conference where I told a room of dedicated, hard working volunteers that they’d better get out of the way and let professionals move in; or at IMsL where I asked why we were still doing leather contests anyway.

So you are here this morning, waiting for me to rip you a new one about how silly it is to be religious/spiritual/whatever the fuck you want to call it. Or, you are sitting there in complicit silence, knowing how silly it all is, waiting for my one-liners and zingers, for which you will send me congratulatory e-mails, but not actually, you know, do anything, except enjoy the comedy.

I apologize for disappointing both factions. I hope you will find some of this entertaining or funny, certainly; it’ll be a dull morning otherwise. And if you sincerely would like some comedy mocking faith based beliefs, I can recommend Bill Maher with some minor caveats. My problem with Bill is that he goes after the most obvious examples of wingnuttery, whereas when I mock, I’ll hit people where they really live, not just on the corner of Loony Lane and Batshit Boulevard.

There are two reasons why I won’t take the cheap and easy route of ridiculing faith, neither of which is because it’s rude. Because, really – I am rude.

The first is because it’s none of my business.

The second is that I honestly don’t care. And lets face it, that’s not the same. There are a lot of things that are none of my business that I occasionally find the energy and focus to care about – usually involving the deliciously fascinating stories of other people’s problems. But faith and religion? Don’t care. Really. Whether you believe in 10,000 gods or one or none, if you believe in a hero born of a virgin and fathered by a ghost or a winged serpent, whether you pray on your knees or feet, wearing shoes or hats or nothing, whether you light candles, chant, sing, dance naked, honor a picture or a celestial object, pray once a year or five times a day, fast or feast, give up chocolate for a month or sacrifice black roosters, goats or your own flesh, really, I don’t give a flying fuck. You can think sex is a sin, queer sex is a sin, kinky sex or lack of sex is a sin, and ya know what? Still don’t care. Why should I bother with what’s in your head? Why should anyone care?

As long as it stays in your head. Inside voice/outside voice!

And that’s the issue, innit? It’s what comes out for public consumption I – and all of you – should take notice and issue with.

This conference has the well earned reputation as the woo-woo event for the kinky community, the phrase a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mystical, new-agey, spiritual-but-not-religious intent in its design. That’s awesome. Seriously. It’s not my thing, but then neither is rope bondage or furry sex and they have conferences for that, too. Like what’s in your head, gathering people of a like mind for purposes of education, socialization, communication, celebration and getting you nutters all in one place so we know who you are is a Good Thing. Because frankly, I don’t have enough time to track you all on Fetlife.

And if all this conference did was let you gather for your morning yoga and communion, your mid-day meditations and prayers, your shabbats and sabbats and sabbaths and the inevitable spaces where people sob out their pains and joys to each other in an orgy of self confession and communal love bombing, you’d be no more of interest to me than the group of perverts over there arguing over which incorrect Japanese word is used for which incorrect knot and whether Rocky the Randy Raccoon is so 15 minutes ago compared to Sandra the Sensual Siberian Tigress.

But that’s not the case. And while I continue, please don’t take this to mean it’s only limited to you, either. Like everything else in our community of independent, rough riding, rugged individualists who nonetheless dress, talk, act and fuck pretty much alike from coast to coast, there are people here who merely represent a trend that has been slowly infesting the kink scene for some time now, and personally, I wish it would stop. Sadly, like the community wide customs of making up ridiculous names and histories for ourselves and honoring the flavor of the moment and forgetting the mistakes of the past, there is zero chance of what I would call positive change happening. But at least I will get that sublime and transcendent pleasure of saying, “I told you so.”

Looking into past speeches given here I was struck with an interesting similarity in theme. Here are two examples.

slave marsha said some people are called to slavery and mastery, and very, very carefully sort of mentioned that not all of them actually get there. But that’s OK, she hastened to add, because we all get to name ourselves. Then she quoted from the Book of Ruth.

slave rick said that kinky people just naturally seek and often find transcendence, but even if you don’t, that’s OK, because everyone has their own valid experience set and all that. Then he quoted from Thomas Moore a Course in Miracles and Jessica Rabbit.

My friends – and these two were both friends before today – I have to say you’re wrong. Your first statements were RIGHT and true, and then you softened them – as we all do – by devaluing them in order to make your message more palatable to a larger audience. I do this all the fucking time, believe it or not. You think my speeches are intemperate and harsh? You should hear what’s in my head! Now, one more reference to a previous speaker –

Master Skip said be nice to each other because mean people suck, which isn’t OK because it’s a toxic element that destroys the essence of community building. And then he quoted himself. And Chris M and Lady Medora. And interestingly for me, I get to quote him. He said that when he is asking people to be nice, it’s about “propagating good behavior and not about legislating feelings. Each of us is entitled to our feelings, opinions and neuroses, but we’re not entitled to act upon them in ways that are injurious to others.”

There’s that inside voice/outside voice thing again.

Here at SWLC, you celebrate the divine, whether it’s in ritual or personal interactions. I get that. But what some of you might not understand is that just because you see your beliefs and practices as inspired by, honoring or representing sacredness doesn’t imbue them with special value to anyone else in the whole entire fucking world. And they should not. However, your beliefs, your feelings, your opinions and neuroses – including your belief in anything supernatural – SHOULD be vital to you. For crying out loud, if you really believe that all paths lead to the same place, why pick one over any other? Why choose to worship on any particular day if the Jews, Muslims and Christians are all the same? Why bother to sink hooks into your chest and dance to drums when you could just hit yourself in the hand with a hammer while listening to Kenny G? Trust me, that hurts, too! On so many levels.

But when you make a conscious choice to embrace a belief, I really hope you are doing so with thoughtful consideration, honesty and passion. I hope that in your heart, mind, your soul if you believe in one, you think this idea, this identity, this experience really is the One True Way, or at least The Very Best Way For Me Personally, Respecting the Experiences and Opinions of Others as Valid for Them, Just Not For Me. Sort of like, “your kink is OK, it’s not my kink, but your kink is OK.”

In other words – “if I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

For example, I was not raised Jewish; I am an adult convert. I deliberately sought out teachers and a process to join this community, this faith, this culture, subjected myself to years of study and practice, submitted myself to a ritual tribunal for consideration, made public affirmation, the whole megilla. In doing so, I have made a statement – I believe this identity is so awesome, it is in fact better – more true, more ethical, more ritually satisfying – than the one I grew up in. Better than the one you grew up with, too. Why?

None of your fucking business. And why should you care? Have you been listening?

Passion is important; it is one of those states of being in which creativity, strength, courage, focus and hard work can all flourish. Feel passion. Revel in it.

But don’t expect others to share it. And even more important – do not pity them when they don’t. And most importantly of all, do not engage in the worst behavior of faith based people all over the world – assuming that your invisible friends inform public actions with greater validity than someone else’s invisible friends.

See, the creeping negative feelings I see infiltrating the kinky scene have nothing to do with what you believe, or how you worship or whether you do or not. It’s the actions affecting other people – even when coming with the very best of intentions – that concern me the most.

Years ago, I attended a workshop on a relationship topic that sounded interesting, taught by someone I like very much. To my shock and horror, the stated topic was completely disregarded in favor of a polemic against what I can only call secular perverts. The teacher, a fine human being, a good person, an outstanding kinkster, put forth the statement of fact that one could not have or enjoy or mature in a master/slave relationship unless the participants embraced some sort of spiritual identity. OK; that’s an opinion. It would have been enough to leave it at that. But the instructor continued by asking the people in the room if they could identify such a belief – and when some demurred, continued to water down the definition of “spirituality” until it became as loosely defined as a feeling of being really impressed by natural phenomena – and still, when some people shrugged and said they did not feel this or were interested in seeking this experience, the presenter seemed very sad.

Folks – just because you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t mean those who don’t are incapable of enjoying a nice plate of Pasta Bolognese from time to time. And just because I did just tell you to enjoy the feeling that your chosen way is the Best Way, Ever doesn’t mean you should be as uncivil – as Master Skip would put it – as to pity those who don’t share it.

And yet you do. It’s not the drumming circle the more secular SMers object to when they roll their eyes and call you woo-woo in less than beloved tones. It’s the smug superiority radiated by those who just know that if everyone believed as they did, danced with them, waved the sage, ate the matzoh, killed the chicken, reenacted psychodramas of cannibalism with a man in a dress – if they only joined the ancient ritual we made up in coven last Thursday – why, they, too, would know the secrets of the universe.

Don’t think that because YOUR ritual is so much better than others that it is mutually agreeable, acceptable or even interesting to anyone else. I wish this only happened to me once – but have been strong armed into attending and even participating in rituals not my own in kinky spaces for over 20 years now. Sometimes by people who at the same time, denigrate my own faith while doing so. Hey, leather community, want to respect the Jews among us?

Move Folsom off of Yom Kippur in those years when they fall on the same date.

But that’s not going to happen, and that’s OK – the dominant culture gets to pick these things. But what you don’t get to do is tell me that religious Jews wouldn’t go to Folsom anyway, or that your Jewish friends all go, so what’s my problem.

This is no different than the smug superiority of evangelical Christians who claim they love the Jews, and that’s why they keep trying to make us Christians to save us from hell. Or, those who swear they love the queers, and just want us to stop being queer through the magic of You-Pick-the-God so they don’t go to hell. I long ago lost my wishful thinking that oppressed people would not buy into oppression – but just as racism, sexism, and whatever ism you can name is represented among us, so is discrimination against nondenominational people – whether atheists, agnostics, or members of my sacred and holy tribe of the United Brotherhood of None of Your Fucking Business.

In other words – “when I am only for myself, who am I?”

When you bring your spiritual and religious beliefs into the public realm and use them as your sole reason to do things that involve and affect the person or property of others, understand that you are doing the exact same thing as people you wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. Just as so many of us are embracing each other this weekend in the spirit of magic and imminence as brothers and sisters, the new governor of Alabama announced that anyone who didn’t believe in his version of Jesus was NOT his sibling. Just as we are assuring ourselves and each other that our particular deities look upon us with love, the Phelps clan and their less obnoxious but much more dangerous fellow travelers scream that their deity hates us. And just as we are might feel called to celebrate love by engaging in sex behaviors in groups of more than two pairbonded, differently gendered couples, others are claiming they celebrate that same love in polygamy that harms women and children.

Therefore, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” If you don’t like it when they use their holy texts to denigrate you, don’t use yours.

And it’s the same thing. Why? Because when the supposed backing for any action is that “my religion/faith/spirit/holy books/guru/channeled ancient priestess told me so,” there is no counter argument. There is no debate. There is no REASON. Arguing over which interpretation of an religious position is more valid or worthy is about as useful to public discourse as arguing whether Superman can beat up the Green Lantern. Speaking of which, if that sort of thing makes you feel spiritual, there’s a new Buddhist temple in Thailand painted with images of comic book heroes, Keanu Reeves and the predator. Knock yourself out.

It’s easy to see why people “love the woo” while in the midst of the kink community. By being queers and outcasts, weirdos and freaks, we have traditionally been denied the comforts of communal religion. But we as humans are social creatures; no matter how much we might reject community ties, it’s a truly rare person who doesn’t actually belong, or wish to belong somewhere, to some group, some culture. And once you find a group that celebrates who you are and allows you to participate in rituals of meaning, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking and then saying things like. “God actually LOVES fags! I know this! If you read the holy books this way, it’s perfectly clear!”

But the people who think God hates fags say the Same Exact Thing, with about as much proof as you have. The correct answer to “we should have/destroy this law because this holy book says so,” should not be disputing the text. It should be “what does law in a secular nation have to do with religion?” And by the way, can we stop pretending the US is a Judeo-Christian nation? I am not a fucking Judeo, and it’s condescending and empty as well as inaccurate.

Religion and faith have their places in the human psyche; they have their places in social relationships, in growth and development, in the seeking of truth, in all sorts of forces for good in the individual. But when you pull them out in public, you need to hear the real statements you are making, even when you modulate them with carefully chosen words and phrases designed to be least offensive to the largest group of people. Believe at will – with all your heart and soul and might. Share with those who want that experience with you, or those who are merely curious about it. But always remember that the path to enlightenment is a singular one. No one else can take you there, and you can’t coerce anyone to come with you. You might be ready to kill the Buddha on the road, but when you swing that sword, I might be right there as well, and I haven’t finished my fucking conversation with her.

Speaking of which.

Didja see what I did there? I used a reference to what would be a pretty obscure Buddhist koan; I am sure some people here know it well. Why am I so sure? Because when Americans do their shul shopping – or, I should say, their spiritual exploring – Buddhism is one of the major religious food courts in the mall. And most only buy the 99 cent taco and move on. More than half of all Americans change their religion, by the way – something to bring up when religious people claim being gay is a choice. Tell ‘em so is religion, and that’s protected by law. Watch them sputter. Rinse, repeat. I do this often.

So, we kinksters, being part of the rest of the world, also change religions a lot. Which brings me to my final point.

I know you’re so thrilled you have a spiritual practice that speaks to you. I know seeking ecstasy is exciting, fulfilling, transcendent; it brings you to the divine, it brings out the divine in you, it changes your state of being, it’s the neatest thing since Angry Birds.

But that does not give you the right to take on a culture not your own in a thoughtless, uneducated, insular, and yes, appropriating manner.

The title of this speech comes from Lea Delaria, who used to rant, delightfully, about cultural appropriation in many forms, the best example being white girls cultivating dreadlocks. Here’s a dollar, she snapped at these oblivious mall chicks in Jamaican coiffure; Buy a culture!

Interestingly, I titled this speech, oh, about 2 weeks after I was invited to make it. Which was 18 months ago. But just 2 weeks ago, I had a conversation with someone over – culturally appropriated hairstyles. No kidding. He was describing to me an incident that arose over the use of the term mohawk. I asked, honestly, “So, what DOES one call a hairstyle where the sides of the head are shaved or plucked bare leaving a narrow strip across the top?” because you know, I am a sensitive fucker who wants to use the right words, see? And in frustration, he said, “The word is not the point!”

Now of course, the word is part of the point. He was saying, as a person of native north american identity, that using the name of a people to refer to a haircut was at best flippant and at worst, disrespectful and appropriating. And like most good liberals, I try to be mindful of cultural appropriation – especially since I myself have appropriated one. So at the end of the evening, we realized that we agreed on one thing – it really isn’t the word. It is the thoughtlessness of the use, the idle, unmindful, culturally ignorant behavior that marks a dominant culture that feels free to commit genocide and then create a whole entertainment industry based on stories emphasizing the bloodthirstiness of the dead victims.

Of course, I am not sure what’s worse – making an oppressed, minority or foreign culture seem radical, dangerous and threatening – whether it’s Native Americans or Muslims – or re-making that “other” into something soft, cuddly, mystical, commercial and stripped of all real cultural significance.

It’s not just a modern and American thing – the early Christian churches made great headway by co-opting the local faiths of indigenous people and recasting them in Christian images. After all, virgin births, heroes abandoned to watery deaths and returning to lead their people, dying gods who leave and come back – these are all pretty common all over the world. Hey, you have a holy day at this time of year? So do we! That tree? It’s Jesus’ tree. Those eggs? Jesus’ eggs. It’s an amazing coincidence. Come over to our place! We’ve got wine!

But even when your purpose is to honor a belief or behavior, even when you feel like you want to preserve it, celebrate it, find its meaning and do it with love and respect – know that someone who was raised that way, often in isolation and hardship, without feeling like the rest of the world respects and honors their culture – is going to think you are at best, a fool and at worst, an imperialistic thief killing what is left of their heritage.

Among the many sins of the kinky community, we argue endlessly over the rules of a culture that really didn’t exist, and pretend we belong to a culture that a deluded professor in Queens NY made up in bad science fiction novels. And like the rest of our dominant culture, we assume that the heritage, rituals and beliefs of the others – who, oddly, are either mostly brown skinned or far away or dead, conveniently – are ours for the taking as much as something completely made up.

And you know what? To the winners of history do go the spoils. That’s the harsh reality of life and neither I nor the actual keepers of such things can or really should tell you what to do – as long as it doesn’t harm the person and property of others. Tribal elders have said that no one not of their lineage may perform the O-Kee-Pa, or call what they do by that name. I don’t believe Christians should take a seder and use it to announce that their messiah has come, either. Neither of us has the authority or power to enforce such a thing and really, I don’t want anyone to. That is the glorious freedom of our modern secular world — and I thank God for it.

But we can and should be better than fools or thieves. The first step is to not be fools – to research, study, question, delve, to dedicate ten times as much energy to reading and questing that we spend acquiring our toys and clothing and arguing our by-laws and bullshitting on Fetlife. The second step is to be civil – to do what we do with passion while respecting the rights of others to engage with us or not to. And the third is to acknowledge, mindfully, what we appropriate. Take responsibility for what you do; isn’t that part of the whole SM fantasy culture of respect and discipline and honesty? Yes, you might be leading lay line tours up in Sedona under the name Coyote Fang Morningdew. But hon, you were born Nancy Ann Fitzpatrick and your mom misses you at mass.

“And if not now – when?”

And by the way, for those of you who are still wondering about the truly deep, eternally pondered and debated philosophical issue I raised earlier in the speech – Green Lantern kicks Superman’s ass.