Presented at Leather Leadership Conference,
April 21, 2007, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Copyright © 2007, Laura Antoniou. May not be reproduced without her express permission, although sections may be quoted for review purposes.
I can only assume you invited me here because in some way you think of me as an artist, which is very flattering. I happen to think of what I do as more of a craft, with occasional artistic pretensions. In fact, I find myself somewhat amused by the theme of this conference, the art of sharing power. When you look at the manipulation of power as an art, it really puts literature, music and painting in their place, doesn’t it? I disagree with the notion of power as an art form; to me, power and the manipulation thereof is a science. Art is by nature subjective. We can argue all day over whether an etching speaks to you or a song is catchy or a statue frightening, whereas the presence, absence and use of power has quantifiable results.
I mention this not just to argue, although as some of you may know, I do enjoy it from time to time. In order to discuss the topic I want to share with you today, I need to break the leather community up into different, overlapping populations, like a Venn diagram. Try to pigeonhole an artist and see how far you get. For the sake of simplicity and blatant personal amusement, I call these populations Ho’s Pro’s and Schmo’s.
All of us here are, have been and will be members of each group. What these types are and how they behave and interact is part of understanding how any social and civil rights population begins, survives and thrives. And although we look at the history of the leather/SM community and think we are actually quite old – or at least middle aged – in reality we are barely adolescents as far as community maturity goes. I am sure everyone here has experienced the growing pains, frustration, depression, anxiety, euphoria, strength, and of course the sexual energy of this stage in human development, reflected in the community. The vast reach of the Internet added a metaphorical two feet to our height. But at the same time, the number of charlatans, fools and noobs in that population gave us all acne. At last we have the freedom to move about the larger world and meet each other in public places with a little money to spend; but that same visibility made us more vulnerable to potentially powerful forces which ignored us when we were too young – and hidden, kept powerless.
As we move forward, we can only hope to mature. But just as humanity experiences arrested development, so do communities. It is my hope that we do continue to grow, in size, in maturity, in power, in dignity, in respect. And a major part of what will aid us in this growth is professionalism. To carry my metaphor to the extreme, it is time to consider the worth of McJobs when a much larger and more rewarding world awaits.
To some here, I just uttered a profanity; to others a painfully obvious truth, and to yet another group a sense of curiosity. How you have reacted will help put you on my Venn diagram of Ho’s, Pro’s and Schmo’s.
To illustrate what I meant by the path of maturity for communities, let’s examine the gay/lesbian/bi/trans/questioning/other community, or, as it was called when I came out, the gay community. From small, local groups of mostly closeted people who took great chances doing things like writing letters to newspapers and appearing, blocked by shadows and potted plants, on occasional television shows, to marching in their working clothes outside the White House and State Department, to rioting in Greenwich Village to marching down the main streets of cities all across the country, to nationwide organizations with millions of dollars in budgets to entire radio and television and print networks, to lobbyists and politicians, the gay community has gone the spectrum of childhood, survived adolescence, and even survived through an epidemic of monstrous proportions to enter yuppidom with a vengeance. To do that, they needed the contributions of the Ho’s, Pro’s and Schmo’s, who I will finally identify.
Ho’s are by nature attention getters. They like it, they want it, and they are good at it. If they are not good at it, the Schmo’s don’t care, and without Schmo’s, Ho’s are nothing. Ho’s are the people you want in positions of early inspiration, if not leadership. Driven by a combination of self esteem, boredom, friendliness, charisma, plus curious mix of both greed and altruism, Ho’s are usually the first ones to stand up, say “let’s put on a show” and actually do it. When you gather 12 people in your living room, create, name and organize a group and put together your first event, you are a Ho. When you travel across the country teaching people how to do Mayan feather bondage, you, too are a Ho. When you create a web based directory of all your favorite groups, causes, celebrities, how-to websites and other ephemera, you are a Ho. When you turn your back porch/basement/spare room/bedroom into a miniature factory to make your macramé bondage gear, you are a Ho. (A hippie, too.) I am a Ho. The people who show up, pay the entrance fee, sign the petition, take your class, listen to your music, eat your erotic cookies, read my books – they are the Schmo’s.
Sometimes, Ho’s like to say they do it all for the Schmo’s, but Schmo’s don’t buy that. Schmo’s are not just users, they are consumers. They are audiences, students, voyeurs, critics, they are buyers. Ho’s will sometimes make the mistake of believing the Schmo’s are ignorant and powerless and dis them. Ho’s who do this are often late called…Schmo’s. And assholes.
For the most part, every community starts off with a combination of Ho’s and Schmo’s. But as a community grows, so do the scope of activities and needs of the population. A gay community could at one time be identified as a bar and the two blocks around it. As the two blocks grew into the gay neighborhood, perhaps a community center came into being. And with the arrival of real estate and money will eventually come…the Pro’s.
My definition of Pro is someone who actually makes their livelihood in the community. Which is why I am a Ho! By profession, I work in advertising. But since my writing supports me about as well as a decent craft sideline on e-bay, I could only live on that income if I were, say, homeless. Now, the National Writer’s Union disagrees with me, they say any writer who makes any money is a Pro, and you can certainly argue that financial success does not make someone skilled, which is an alternative meaning of the word professional. However, I couldn’t think of anything else that rhymed, so work with me here.
In a world of small groups of limited scope and influence, the early paid professionals are always scorned. I can remember the angry and completely unjustified accusations that anyone who actually wanted to get paid for their work was a profiteer who wanted to make money ON the community, not IN it. Among volunteers of any sort, there is a suspicion of someone who gets paid to do what you think you have been doing yourself for free, for love, for adoration, for applause, for snacks, for chicks. And there is no question that some Pro’s will always lack the actual value of their pay, that’s life. But the primary reason for the shift from Ho’s and Schmo’s to Pro’s is time and focus. Pro’s come with job descriptions, goals, and systems of accountability. And when you have moved beyond “the club treasurer of Killer Dykes reports we raised $250 for on Toys for Twats Night” into “David Geffen wants to give us 3 million dollars to build a gay hall of fame in Iowa” it makes sense to be assured the finds will be used wisely, according to plan and law, and in full oversight of a board of directors. You can get volunteers to sweep the one room you rent from the MCC and stack the chairs before everyone leaves, but arranging to furnish and fill a conference center for 10,000 needs a larger scale of coordination and guarantees that everyone will show up and do their job.
The steps in between are usually painful for all involved, from the volunteers who wonder where their paychecks are to the professionals who want to know why they aren’t allowed to show competence in a field they enjoy without being despised for it. There couldn’t have been enough money for the paid staff of the organizations like Human Rights Campaign (which for most of my gay lifetime, has been the leading gay organization in the country) to compensate for the continual accusations that working for them was betraying the grassroots of the movement.
And frankly, until very recently, working for any of the gay groups was a money-losing proposition. It is only in the past ten years that salaries have finally reached a level comparable to that of other civil rights organizational scales.
Let me give you a real life example. Back in the late 80,s early 90’s, I worked for the People with AIDS Coalition in NY. For laying out 2 magazines and all of their handouts and flyers and a quarterly guide to all AIDS services in the area, I was paid the princely sum of $27,000, which was more than I’d earned at my last job. The director was paid $49,000. Toward the end of the lifecycle of that organization, the board made a decision to hire a fundraiser for the unheard of salary of about 70 grand. It was a lot of money. The protests against this decision were strong and emotional. We ran on the contributions of volunteers, we were underpaid and overworked, the offices tiny and prone to burglary and climate change. How could we justify finding and spending that much money on someone who wasn’t going to even be providing direct service to the PWAs who were our constituents, our Schmo’s, as it were.
Well they did, and almost overnight, there was created a fundraising department which … raised funds. A lot of them. Not enough, in the end, to keep the organization from eventually going under, but as the type of group it was, it would have naturally been subsumed by a growing world of much more professional groups anyway. Perhaps, if the move had been made sooner, there would have been both monetary and political/social support to keep it going. We will never know about that organization, which is long gone. But you can be assured that any thriving organization knows the value of paying for professionals who are focused and skilled and dedicated – if only for the sake of their compensation, although naturally we hope for more.
These days, when people decry the profit motives of large gay organizations, these complaints and accusations come from the Schmo’s. The Ho’s know by now how to work with these agencies and professionals in order to get support for their favorite activities and social needs. (And perhaps some of them hope to get a job there one day.) But lately, I have seen two very interesting examples of intra-community criticism, which made me realize what the next step in the leather community aging process will be. It’s the Pro-vs-Pro arena.
See, once a community does grow large enough to have its powerful and visible organizations of professionals, for a while these organizations will enjoy a period of dominance, if you will excuse the expression. Once the HRC gets a foot in the door of the presidency and you see gay people sitting and talking with the chief, you know it’s something the “Gay is Great Club of Northern Michigan” could never have done. You have to respect that. When GLAAD throws its media awards and half of Hollywood shows up, you have to think, cool, tHo’se are awesome allies. And I would see things like that and send ‘em a check and feel like a pretty good Schmo. They were working for me, doing things I couldn’t or wouldn’t do on my own, and doing a fairly good job. If they made missteps, I could forgive. They were the best I had.
But in the past several weeks, Andrew Sullivan (the HIV positive, Tory, former editor of National Review and recovering Bush addict) has come out strongly against the HRC. For fiscal irresponsibility, for not being transparent concerning their membership numbers, and for not being activist enough. Now, as a former Bush cheerleader who believes gay marriage is the number one issue for the community yet also believes that deciding it on a state-by-state basis sounds reasonable, you can dismiss Sullivan as a hack. But as one of the most read bloggers in the country – not among gay people, but generally – enough read and distributed so that he actually makes his living from it – he is not to be discounted. Part of his beef is that he believes HRC also acts as the gay wing of the Democratic National Committee, but the most interesting thing for me is that HRC is so off the sacred list. Is it because they are less influential? Because they are guilty as he charges them? Is it because there are so many avenues of gay identity and expression that people don’t believe they NEED a national organization to vender cool looking t-shirts and stickers and tell us where to show up for the march?
Another professional gay pundit, Michelangelo Signorile also came out swinging this past week, and his target was GLAAD. How could you pick on a group wHo’se aim is to raise visibility of gay characters and artists in the media? Because, Mike, revealed, the very gay-produced TV shows on the new gay networks are ineligible for the coveted GLAAD media awards. GLAAD has become, in his eyes, an organization which massages the egos of Hollywood stars 4X a year so they can rub elbows with people like, say, Isaiah Washington, from Gray’s Anatomy, who got into the news for calling a co-worker a faggot. GLAAD, which called for the firing of Don Imus for his use of a word I am using liberally in this speech, did not call for Mr. Washington to be fired.
Interesting. Whatever you say about Sullivan and Signorile, they are not Schmo’s. Ho’s, definitely, but also solid Pro’s. I can’t help but wonder what people in tHo’se two large and successful organizations are feeling about this. Do they feel betrayed? Attacked? Dispirited? Or will they consider the criticism and determine whether they have a problem, and whether it is a matter of publicity or a change in action that’s needed? One way is the way of Ho’s, who are by nature easily bummed. The other way is the way of the Pro.
So what does all this mean to the leather community?
We are at the start of our professional era. From a small core of professionals such as club and bar owners, toy and clothing makers and of course, pornographers, we are approaching the need for more full time, paid professionals to manage our foundations, or community groups, our meeting spaces. We need, honestly, more lawyers who know who we are and what we do and what we need. We need media professionals to promote and to respond, to plan and to lobby for aid and understanding. We need speakers outside of the community who do more than visit human sexuality classes. We could use more publishers, more filmmakers, more writers and editorialists. And although many of these positions have been and will continue to be staffed by volunteer and underpaid Schmo’s and Ho’s, eventually we will get tired the continual drama, burnout and other challenges which make people quit and walk away and want someone who will just show up every day and do nothing but this work, all day. For this, they’ll want to get paid, and they deserve to get paid. Wouldn’t it be nice to get past the teenage anger and envy and actually do the work required to get them paid well? I doubt we do, I doubt we will. Everyone knows that teenagers have to make their own mistakes, and they never listen to old people anyway.
Another valuable thing we might harvest from the mistakes and foibles of the gay community is to not assume one organization or one spokesperson or one direction will be the answer to our needs. Diversity means more than making sure we have differently colored, gendered, abled and spiritual people around, it means we can try multiple paths to success at the same time. Don’t count on one agency to do it “all” even if they do have paid staff. And if that agency offends you, support, join or start another, depending on whether you are a Schmo, Ho or Pro. You are supposed to be leaders, so lead. If you succeed, more power to you. If no one follows you, you are a Ho with no Schmo’s. Either way, it’s a learning experience.
And as for the inevitable sniping, consider the source. Is the person accusing you of bad behavior a Pro, Ho, or Schmo? Worry the most about Pro’s. Not only because they might have the ability to reach more people with their opinions, but because being Pro’s, they might have a valid point. True Pro’s want the esteem of other Pro’s the way Ho’s want popularity with, well, everyone. A Pro doesn’t worry about one Schmo, only a herd of them. Pro’s could worry about Ho’s, because Ho’s can be entertaining while they are being mean. But their escape clause is pretty obvious; laugh with the Ho’s and court them on the side. They’re Ho’s, they can be bought. My price list is very reasonable, for example.
The growing pains of a community are real and they will be struggles. There is no way to beat the memories of harder times, romantically told by people who may or may not have actually been there. But that’s true in any society. Sometimes, you do have to throw support behind a person or cause or organization or business because it’s all you have; sometimes you will feel like an outsider in your own family, your people, your tribe, because you think differently. But the advance of the Pro’s is a good thing, and should be welcomed, and supported. If we can manage it with a minimum of accusations of theft and profiteering and snobbery, we’re ahead of the game as far as maturity goes. People and their skills and time are worth money, even if they offer themselves for fame and love and laughs. There will never be a time where everyone can make all the money they want only doing what they love, and that’s life. But we should not begrudge tHo’se who will serve us and themselves within our community with the goal of creating better businesses, better social rights and protections, better access to media, to the real powers that be, better ability to defend ourselves from unjust accusations, to protect our speech and writing and rights of assembly, or even to make a better spanking bench that doesn’t weigh 46 lbs and has to be shipped by freight. In fact, when we see what they do and we think, hey cool, we should send ‘em $20. It’s the least a Schmo can do.