Presented at the Leather H.E.A.T. Conference,
April 19, 2015, Los Angeles, CA
Copyright © 2015, Laura Antoniou. May not be reproduced without her express permission, although sections may be quoted for review purposes. The podcast is available at Leatherati.
Good morning, perverts! I hope you had a fun time being perverted! Awesome, now I’m going to ruin your brunch.
In preparing to speak to you, I did what I usually do, which includes going through my old keynote speeches, including: “Here’s a Dollar, Buy a Culture.”
However, I do this to see whether I’ve touched on certain issues in the past, and whether I’ve evolved on those issues, or changed my mind, or whether something new has happened to spark controversy.
And my, hasn’t this been a good year for that!
I came across this gem from a keynote I delivered in 2005 at South Plains Leatherfest, in which I first coined the phrase “Middle-Aged Guard.” This is what I said back then:
“Trouble comes in when people rely on fiction to tell them the truth – and fiction is the diametric opposite of truth. Fiction writers use truth as a tool, the same way we use metaphors and archetypes. When it suits us, and the story, we add truth. When the truth is inconvenient, or ill suited to drama, we make up our own version of the truth.
“Now, sometimes, using fiction as a guide is helpful! It’s probable that our earliest storytellers told stories to communicate fears and beliefs and to teach the “right” way to do things according to what went on before, or what people believed went on before. So, cautionary tales and heroic epics both serve to warn and inspire; to provide a sense of stability and continuity. In small, insular communities, stories serve the primary purpose of alerting us that we are not alone; they give us a link complete with codes to recognize each other. I remember cruising chicks by asking them which story in Macho Sluts was their favorite. Of course it was natural for the slaves at Hellfire to have Story of O collars and rings, for the men in the bars to read Mr. Benson and then act their favorite parts out. The literature brought us together and celebrated our sense of community.
“But mostly, living your life according to fiction is a BAD IDEA. You’d think this would be self-obvious, and yet – it’s not. “
Now I delivered that in 2005 – who would have guessed 10 years later, a movie based on a series of books Twilight Fan Fiction that used kinky sex as a replacement for vampires would be released internationally as a wide release Valentine’s Day media explosion? Complete with branded sex toys sold at Target?
And who could have seen the vast uprising of non-sensationalist media following those books and movie with actual articles and news stories that treat kinky sex as something romantic – fun – sexy? And completely doable with a hot date or a way to spice up your marriage? Thousands of – no, millions of women are reading those books in over 30 languages, buying the tie-in products, bothering the staff at sex shops (because Benwa balls don’t work that way, girls!), buying onesies for their newborns that read I’m a 50 Shades Baby and Blame Christian Grey.
On their babies.
And they call us kinky.
But they’re also calling us to ask if it’s okay if they get their kink on: just like those characters in those books, and if so – how? And where do they go? And what should they buy? They are banging on our doors!
I sure didn’t see that coming.
I couldn’t foresee a time when my royalties would eclipse my expenditures. The first time that happened? When all three of those books were on the New York Times Best Seller’s list.
For the first time in 20 years of publishing, I made money on my books.
I never thought that one day, that Susie Bright would call me from Audible.com, and say “we want to make an offer for your entire series.” I never thought I’d see my name in fucking Cosmo! Or to see the cover of my books featured in an internationally distributed media tie-in to “those” books, because the author of the article thought, “if they like those books, they’d like Laura’s!” Which, they really shouldn’t.
(They should read my publisher and friend Cecilia Tan’s “BDSM billionaire” trilogy – because that’s a genre now – and she wrote “Slow Surrender,” only her romantic hero, instead of being a douchebag, is David Bowie.)
And there are thousands of women out there writing BDSM romance novels featuring billionaires, vampires, space aliens, werewolves, and an awful lot of them about fags. Go us!
Oh, wait. Is that really us?
Because honestly, even people like me, like Cecilia, who have been writing for decades, who are actually queer, who are actually kinky, and are out under the names under which we file taxes: We are a minority.
You see, after that section I quoted about using fiction to inspire and communicate shared values, the next line in the speech says “but how can we even begin to address history seriously when so much of who and what we are is partially or fully fiction?”
I wish I could say that has changed in the last 10 years. But it hasn’t. And frankly, I’ve seen more change happen in the past year because of the inconvenience of the “real name policy” on Facebook than because of the culture in the kink scene of – what are those words?
Open and honest communication.
Let me tell you a coming out story. When the “Killer Wore Leather” came out (the only of my books to be a Lambda Literary Award finalist), my wife sponsored an oneg at our synagogue. (For you gentiles, this is when you sponsor the coffee and cake after the Shabbat service, and it’s a way to honor someone.) My rabbi called me up to light Shabbat candles, I said the blessing, and he congratulated me on my new book.
After I sat down, the slightly deaf woman next to me asked “you wrote a book?”
I said “yes, best book ever.”
“What is the title of your book?”
“The Killer Wore Leather,” I said.
“The Killer Who Wore Leather? What is that? Is that like BDSM? Like that 50 Shades of Grey? Is it Kinky?”
By now, the entire congregation is looking at us. Including the rabbi. I said “well, yes, sort of. But mine is a mystery, and it’s intentionally funny.”
She thinks about that for a second and says, “I love mysteries. I love funny books.” She elbowed her husband. “Herb! Write that name down! The Killer Wore Leather! It’s on Amazon!”
And then we started singing Shalom Aleichem.
I come out every day.
The next Shabbat, we went to services, and several women came over to talk to me. One of them said, “I got your book. And then I went to your website.” Her eyes took on a gleeful joy, like she was sharing a secret, and she said “you must lead an interesting life.”
For those of you who have known me for over 20 years, you might remember a time when I did use various pseudonyms. I wrote the first two Marketplace novels under another name, because I thought that I wrote about trans folks, and men, and heterosexuals, and bisexuals, I was sure that no lesbians would ever buy my books if they knew I wrote that stuff.
Okay, so I was totally wrong about that, too.
It took Dorothy Allison to get me to come out of that closet.
“Who is this Sarah Adamson?” she wrote on a lesbian listserv. (If you don’t know what a listerv is, fuck you.) She wrote, ”I like these Marketplace books – does anyone know her? She sounds real.”
I came out so fast, there was a Laura-shaped hole in my closet door. Dorothy Fucking Allison likes my books! What do I care if some random lesbian says “eww dicks?” Dorothy Allison! She wins! I slapped my name on the cover of those books and never looked back.
Then there was my gay male stuff, which I started writing when I was working at the People with AIDS Coalition. All of our friends were sick and dying and no one could figure out how to keep them alive except by throwing condoms at them, and very few people were talking about how to make safer sex – sexy. So I started writing these erotic vignettes about men doing nasty, kinky sex with each other that didn’t involve fluid exchange.
One day, on a usenet news group (and if you don’t know what usenet is, fuck you!), an editor reached out to me and said “if you can write a story around these vignettes, I’d buy them from you. I buy stories for Mandate, Country Boy, Boy Next Door,” every single digest magazine (yes, gay women have been providing gay guys with their gay porn for decades). And they started paying me for them, but I had to use a man’s name because, according to the editor, gay men won’t read stories written by women. That seemed reasonable.
And guess what happened. Not only did you guys buy thousands and thousands of pages of porn written by dykes, but these days, the market for gay sex novels and short stories is made up almost entirely of straight women writing them for other straight women.
Didn’t see that coming either.
But I outed myself a few years ago, and put my real names on the boy books, because if all those straight women can have their names on gay male novels, I could too. Besides, you should know what you’ve been reading from me.
This is an amazing time to be out. A few weeks ago, I had a call from a journalist who was writing for a well-known Jewish media site, The Tablet, to talk about Jews and Kink. One of the first things she asked me when we sat down for coffee was “why do so many people in the kink scene use fake names? Don’t they realize that 700 million people have read the 50 Shades of Grey books and are out there looking to be kinky?”
And I said “uh… yeah. No.”
She had already spoken to about a dozen people, and they all used Fetlife names. You know, Mistress Rosy Cheeks, Slave Snivelus. Fake, silly names. In all the media attention we’ve been getting, I’d pick up an article to read, and those fucking ridiculous scene names far outnumber the names that could even be conceptually real. (cough cough Race Bannon – come on Race, some of us watched Johnny Quest…I’m sure your real name is probably Myron Finklestein.)
In a world where those fucking books outsold the Harry Potter series, where you can buy branded blindfolds and vibrators at chain stores, there’s a significant percentage of what we might be considered the “public scene” are still in the closet.
And there are always reasons. There are always good reasons. I admit that your reason is the best reason, whatever it is.
You might, for example, be worried about being outed at work.
I have had day jobs. I worked in advertising, in agriculture, in non-profits, in publishing, in design, in engineering. And I worked for the feds. They knew I was kinky. I put it on my resume. I mean, it doesn’t say “Laura Antoniou: Kinky as Fuck.” But at the top of my resume, I wrote “world-renowned teacher, lecturer, speech-giver, adult sexuality topics, and alternate sexuality.”
The local Census office brought me in for an interview, and said, “so you teach about sex. Tell me about that.” So I did – I told them how I traveled the world teaching about kinky sex.
“And how,” he asked “does that experience help you in a job here?”
I said “I can learn something new and deliver it to a class in a way that will keep them focused and interested. I can speak to a large and diverse audience, and frankly – after asking people whether they use enough lube for anal sex, I have no problem asking people questions that they might think of as nosy or uncomfortable.”
“Good point,” he said. And hired me that day.
I passed the background test. And I wound up training hundreds of census workers to use courtesy, clarity, and humor, to get the information needed. And my teams topped the percentages for responses all through the borough of Queens.
Now, can I say that being out have cost me work? Absolutely. When I was laid off my job in advertising, I sent out resumes for over a year. It didn’t occur to me until two years after that, when someone asked me “are they googling you?” And I thought.. maybe?
Or maybe they noticed I was over 40. And figured, “why would I hire someone who is out of touch?” So, I don’t know.
But there is a risk to being out. There’s so much to know.
It sometimes seem that the larger communities have taken the wrong cultural aspect in which they look for inspiration.
When I was but a wee pervert, going to IML and the single-digit Living In Leathers, and the big events back in the day, I thought kinksters of all stripes could take over a whole coliseum for a weekend of debauchery – fashion, shopping, classes, social events, party all night, and gather together ten thousand strong. We’d be like… a comic book convention! We could all go together in one place, and yet all have something to do satisfy our niche interests.
Instead, we went in the other direction. There are more of us than ever, but we are Balkanized. We are broken apart into tiny, discrete subcultures. So everyone has their own special treehouse, their own sashes, and their own titles, their own special language, and their own weekend event, so you need never see anyone who is not exactly like you.
You can be divided by activity. The first time I heard about a rope bondage convention, I thought “and then what? Are you not allowed to go if you use handcuffs?”
Okay, it’s nice they have their own treehouse.
And then it got worse.
There’s a conference for straight men and their ladies, who I suppose are permitted to be bisexual, because… straight men (because you’re so marginalized, guys).
And to tell you the truth, I actually did not like the formation of the master/slave conferences, even though, for all my sins, you are my people.
Why are we separate?
You can go to a master/slave weekend. You can go to a rubber contest. You can go to a puppy or pony event. For all I know there might still be a biker event out there.
There’s a new title every week. And sometimes I have to blink and wonder if what someone just said is real, or is a title I made up in “The Killer Wore Leather.”
(By the end of the book, I started running out of facetious title names. I’d start to write a name and my wife would google it and say “oops, can’t use that, because there is a Ms Idaho Leather Mommy.” Which is why, by the end of end of the books, the titles start to sound really goofy.)
Our clubs and boots and events seem to multiply in numbers as their members continually divide with messy breakups. They sputter away from volunteer fatigue or founder burnout.
Or they explode into senseless internecine strife.
So fine. If that’s the way the community is going, and since I am not producing a weekend or contest, I can only bitch at you from the sidelines. Obviously, I have no real answer to why we don’t have a kinky equivalent to San Diego Comicon.
Wait a minute. We do. Frolicon. Where I went two weeks ago. I’ve never been able to go, because it happens around Easter, which to Jews, is also usually Passover. And since I have a kinky seder at home, that comes first. But this year, I led the kinky seder at IMsL to Jew up the place, so I went to Frolicon.
And I saw 2500 pervy freaks parading their kinky, geeky selves, in their fetish finest or nothing at all, in their fur suits or their spandex, their period garb and their fairy wings, they drank like fish, played like weasels, they socialized and they frolicked the fuck out of the joint all weekend long, and I swear I haven’t had that much fun at an event in ages.
No titles. No speeches. No fundraising. They did have burlesque. They had karaoke. They had a contest for costumes – it was at 11:30 at night, about 5 people said, “ooh, I have a costume” and jumped on the stage. Everyone got a prize.
There were room parties on every floor. The furries rocked, but the winning party was “The Four Bartenders of the Apocalypse.” And you know how they judge that? They slap a badge on you that says “party judge,” and you go from party to party, and the hosts bribe you! With sex!
It was an event to come to and party your ass off and meet other people with no agenda. And you could buy a ball gag AND a comic book in the vendor space.
So while I was writing this, I looked up the calendar for upcoming leather contest events, and I saw – I kid you not – seven titles I had never heard of. I remember when there weren’t seven titles in the United States that were not going to IML.
Why do we have so many sashes and so little money?
Iago – the bad guy in Shakespeare’s Othello – says “who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, ‘tis nothing; ‘twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”
Folks, sometimes I think the scene is robbing me of my name.
I do a lot of work to put my name out there. But I don’t think I represent you, because I lie. I’m a professional liar. I make up stories.
The people who should be representing the people here, are the ones who are not lying. But you’re lying, too.
In 2008 I stood up at International Ms Leather and asked if we still need leather contests. (Because I’m popular that way). Because year after year, regions and titles host these events year after year, and we hear horror stories. People who win flame out after embarking on an overly ambitious travel and appearance schedule, sometimes risking their financial stability to do so.
A seemingly endless array of fundraisers for charity to support the travels of those titleholders seems to hijack event after event until some people refuse to go to a fucking bar for fear they’ll be hit up for a raffle, bid on a basket, or, worse, listen to speeches over brunch.
Have we stolen trash?
Let me be clear: I’m not saying all contests or events are trash. But of all the things the wider array of kinky communities could steal from the gay men’s leather world – you took the myth of the Old Guard and leather contests.
That’s what you take.
A fetishized style of dress and comportment, and – as Jack Rinella put it to me once – an excuse to sell beer.
There are other things we could steal if we’re picking pockets. How about – being out?
Because for all romance and angst people want to throw over whatever you think of as the Old Guard, in those halcyon days of yore, men risked arrest, imprisonment, barbaric tortures in the name of psychiatry, and yes – loss of jobs, family, children, community – which is why so many were closeted back then. But now, if you go to IML, and look at the contestant list, even the guy from the little bar in the little town, in the middle of nowhere, has a name that looks like it could be listed in the white pages. (By the way, if you don’t know what the white pages are – fuck you.)
Many of these men have had the best reasons in the world to be closeted and use a fake name. They have sensitive jobs. They are teachers, doctors, lawyers; they come from large families who may not be happy that their golden boy is parading around a stage in his jockstrap – however much you appreciate it, gentlemen. But they’re out. And they’ve been out for decades.
I’ve been out in the scene for over 30 years. I’ve had my name on the covers of my books for over 20. I produced a contest in 1992, thank you very much (and if you weren’t even born then, fuck you). My wife has held two titles. And International Ms Leather 2010 Mollena Williams lived with us. We were her Evil Jewish Lesbian Landladies.
So believe me, I have nothing against titles, per se. It’s a great show when it works. But is this where we need to be? Is this where we should be? And is this where we’re going?
If 2500 people come out and get dressed in their steam punk gaming gear and get their freak on, but only 150 come out for Mr and Ms Global Leather (and bootblack), Contest, then who are we making the event for? Kinky people, or sash fetishists?
If 20,000 gay men go to Chicago to shop and attend parties, but less than 1,000 go to the contest, that doesn’t mean IML and the IML contest is bad – it means that the concept of what IML has become expanded to suit the audience. (And apparently, what the non-contest guys want is beer, porn, poppers, and room parties. I will stand for that agenda.)
And if so many people out there want to write an article about how there are real kinky people there are out there, and have been for ages, doing fun stuff and doing it well, and NOT acting like the characters in a teenage romantic piece of garbage – but the only spokespeople they can find are quoted with that damning “chose not to use his real name,” then the people reading about us and hearing about us think that we are all closeted freaks who are secretly ashamed of what we’re doing.
The irony of hearing our mantras of “trust” and “honest and openness” and all this crap that we make speeches about, coming from someone who has (I am sure ) the very best reason to be closeted – but also wants to represent me – makes me increasingly uncomfortable.
You cannot speak for me under a false name.
I’m a writer. And all writers are thieves. The key is to steal from the best, and to make of it something special and different. Maybe we’re stuck on our thousand-islands-of-kink approach. And from now on, we’ll get further and further specialized until we can go to the Jewish leather authority-based relationship-Star Trek cosplay event – for which I’m ready. And put yourself up for the Captain/commander/ensign titles (contest held after havdallah on Saturday). However, for the eight of us there (all right, maybe as many as a minyan), we have a great time.
But honestly, truly, we are better together. I believe this. We are stronger because we have to sink our asses down and look at people across the table who are different from us, yet the same, and make things work.
Even when our own diversity seems like an encumbrance. We become more aware of our diversity and then we can go happily back to our special super secret treehouse, where we are only with the people who are exactly like us and get to do our secret dirty thing that we don’t want to do in front of other people because they make us feel icky. Really, that’s what most of our fights boil down to.
Ain’t nothing wrong with having your own super secret treehouse. But.
I treasure a world, where I can sit in the lobby bar (as is my custom), open to any and all of my brothers and sisters, my friends and acquaintances, my fellow liars and my fans and readers who I haven’t met yet, and my ex-lovers, and that girl I played with that one time in the dungeon in that place and then George Michael started playing and the next thing you know we’re all singing along to Father Figure… oh, like that hasn’t happened to you??
I treasure that universe. And the moment when no one has been asked what is in their pants. Or whether their relationship style fits a story that someone else made up. Or how they like to fuck or who. All they are asked is “are you with us? Take a seat.”
When the point of the event is to make those moments of connection and make space for people to get nasty and kinky and get their freak on, that’s what I live for.
And maybe a contest is the only way to get us together like that. But I actually don’t believe that’s true; I think we can be better. We have managed to simultaneously imbue contests with greater importance than they should have, and cheapen them by having so many. Sometimes I think we should invite Oprah to lead these things: “you get a sash, and YOU get a sash, and YOU get a sash! Everyone gets a sash!”
And the people who have the sashes spend most of their time talking to us. To us! We know who you are! We fucked you! You don’t need to talk to us – talk to the news! Under your real name! Because they’re showing up under theirs.
I say we are worthy of better and more. And this is our golden opportunity, folks. Admit it: answer that nosy person next to you squished on the airplane. Tell them “I’m going to International Ms Leather.” The worst thing that happens is that they shut up with their nosy fucking questions. The best thing that happens is that they get that gleam in their eye and say “International Ms Leather? Is that like BDSM? Like in that 50 Shades of Grey?” And you will have the pleasure of saying “yes, but much, much hotter.”
Tell your co-worker that you went to the Fetish Flea Market – another event, by the way, that gets 3,000 people without a contest. Why? Shopping. After all, they’re going to tell you all about their weekend at Disney, tell them all about your weekend at OUR Disney. And if they say, “well, what did you buy?” You just lean back and say “let’s just say: Mister Grey had a limited imagination.”
You have made a connection, and you have sold the deal, and honestly, no one really wants to talk about sex at work. But you stated your position.
Tell your sister that you’re running for a title. And assure her that no, you don’t stalk your lovers, or track their cell phones, and that you won’t wear your sash at Thanksgiving. Unless, of course, she asks you to. In which case, you can show off your rope bondage on the turkey – or your carving skills.
Those awful fucking books have actually given us – the genuinely kinky people – a surprise bonus at the bottom of the purse that we’re living off of. They have given us a way out of the closet, and a hundred million reasons to make more and more varied events aimed at enticing and, dare I say – recruiting? – the kinky people who read them, acted on them, and would love to get to know us. Intimately.
But if all we have to offer them are names that sound like we just got finished playing World of Warcraft, they won’t stay.
I want them to. I want us to be bigger. I want us to be better. So I’m going to tell you: be brave, and bold, and you will find out the most amazing things about yourself and sometimes about other people.
Speaking of which – my first mainstream book, “The Killer Wore Leather?” I gave it to my relatives. Mind you, they could have bought any of my books at any time, but I have the stupidest relatives on the planet and I don’t think they know how to use The Google. Either that, or they’re like “I don’t want to know.” But I sent out copies of “Killer.”
So I get a call from my father-in-law. He loved it! “This is hysterical! You are so creative! You are such a good writer!” And I’m all “aww, thanks, Dad, that’s really nice to know!” And then Karen gets on the phone and says, “Dad, we’re going to be in Chicago in um… May. Because we’re going to be at a convention. So we’re going to stop by.” Because my father-in-law lives in Holland Michigan (all you gentlemen, yes, just up the road from that kinky campground). So he says “oh, great! We’ll come to Chicago to meet you. What hotel are you staying at?” So I said “well, Ken, the main hotel has been sold out for about a year, and all the hotels within a 10-block radius, and we’re staying five miles away.” He said, “what convention sells out that many hotels?” So we told him about IML. Dead silence on the phone. “Wait,” he finally says. “You didn’t make that up?”
Meanwhile, his former wife, my mother-in-law, Nancy read the book, a retired English teacher – she loved it, too! Wrote me a lovely letter about it, and at the end of the letter after she told me nice things about my writing, she said “I do have one question for you: those interesting people you describe as ‘bootblacks.’ Do they really exist?” I said, “yes, yes they do, that’s why they are the heroes of the book (the unsung heroes),” And she said, “how can I meet one?”
Both of these parents love us because we’re their daughters. They’ve read the book and now know about this world that we live in – probably more than they wanted to. But they rejoice for us. Because we’re happy. And because we’re comfortable here. And both of them had to ask: “is it real?”
Yes, as the final line in my most current book attests: we are all real. So go out and fucking live that way.