South Plains Leatherfest 2012 Keynote Speech
The Future of Leather
Presented on March 11, 2012
By Phillip Wolf, aka Boymeat
It must be said right up front that I speak to you all this morning with pride and humility in my heart. I must give thanks to Master Jim, slave marsha, and Cougar for bestowing me the amazing honor of this opportunity. I look at South Plains Leatherfest as being one of the largest, most prestigious, and at times one of the most influential events on the national circuit today. I recognize that there has been a lot of trust and faith placed in me today and for that I sincerely thank you.
And it also must be said that while such an introduction is usually expected out of a keynote speaker, I have facts that back up my feelings. You see, in exactly 2 weeks from yesterday, I will be wed to my amazing partner, Kathryn Tact. And when I say wed, I do not mean a casual affair in the New York City Clerk’s office. I mean the great Southern Jewish wedding in North Carolina with over 170 guests that had to be scheduled around International Ms. Leather in order to prevent that event from losing half of its educators and its producer. For me to accept the invite to do a keynote a mere 2 weeks prior to such an event is the act of a madman.
But when South Plains asks, how the hell do you turn that down? And so, here I am.
While we’re on introductions and disclaimers, there are a few other items we need to address before I dive in. We are at an event that is honoring Leather in all its forms – our past, our present, and our future. While the meaning of the word is a fun and fruitful and in the end a frustrating conversation in and of itself, I think one of the few things most people can agree on is that honesty is a part of that definition. So I’m going to be perfectly honest with you all right now.
I’m scared shitless over what I am about to say. Truly, deeply, without any exaggeration, terrified.
You see, when Master Jim reached out and asked me to speak, I didn’t even need to look at the topic for me to know the answer. Of course I’ll speak!
But he’s a good salesman, that Jim. He asked me first, got my attention and excitement, and then followed through with the topic. Such a trivial topic, one that is impossible to fuck up, that is simple and obvious and not controversial AT ALL, no siree bob!
Nothing too grand. Just the Future of Leather itself.
Right. That ole thing. Sure. No problem.
I have half joked in the months and weeks leading up to this event that if I didn’t piss off every single one of you and quite possibly everyone else in Texas, I would have clearly failed. I must ask you again believe me when I tell you that I did not write this speech with that purpose in mind.
So please give me a few minutes lead time before you chase me with pitchforks when this is all over.
The term “Leather” has always been one a loaded one. It comes with the weight of meaning and tradition and identity, making it a very cumbersome word to deal with. Due to this weight, it finds itself in all sorts of debates and disagreements and arguments. This speech comes at a very interesting time, as our history has been called once again into question, the debate over whether or not leather even exists right now is debated, and the future is a murky mess that no one knows how to predict and is generally discussed with moaning, groaning (and not the kinds we heard last night in the dungeon), some choice curse words, usually ending with someone throwing their hands in the air and walking away muttering to themselves, head shaking.
I personally came to this world in a very unique fashion. With 16 years under my belt, I have come to recognize that I and those like me represent a bridge. On one side of the bridge is pre-internet leather & kink… and on the other… the as of yet uncharted post-digital age of SM. Growing up in NYC, I walked into the doors of TES, known then as The Eulenspiegel Society, and somehow walked face first into someone who would become my mentor, my guide, my best friend, and soon to be my best man at my wedding, Lolita Wolf. She raised me as one would in the olden days. She took me under her wing; she taught me how to behave, how to act, how to conduct myself with respect and honor, how to play, how to seduce, how to take a hit and how to dish it out.
It was with her that my first leather vest was bought… and my first pair of leather pants… and my first… well, you get the picture. I was taught how to cruise at a gay leather bar or seduce at a heterosexual dungeon, and I figured out how not to trample anyone in the dark room when dropping to my knees. I knew what it meant to put a hankie in my back pocket, and I wore them with pride in the grand lobbies of IML and MAL. I was taught how to attend IMsL as a bisexual man, how to blend in and how and when to disappear to give the leatherwomen their space. I learned how to bottom and bottom hard, and then learned how to top, and top hard I do. With these and more, I’ve had experiences and lessons that allow me to truly say I have lived fully in that world.
Some have said that I am “old leather,” though I would never say this myself. But I recognize that one of my legs stands on that side of the bridge.
My other leg has been busy doing other things. My other leg found SM through my dial-up modem, first on Prodigy message boards and then in AOL chat rooms. It was in 1992 in a room called Le Chateau that my 16-year-old-masquerading-as-18-year-old self found out about TES. As soon as I could, I dived head first into that group, the first organization of its kind in this country that opened up the doors of SM and invited everyone in to attend. My mentors there were plentiful… every class I attended was a lesson and every teacher, whether they knew it or not, was a mentor. Those who taught masterfully were amazing mentors who taught me and countless others skills and concepts. Those who taught poorly were mentors in their own right demonstrating what NOT to do, an important lesson in itself! Our lab class was the dungeon during the weekends. My friends and I practiced what we saw in class at Hellfire and the Vault and at Paddles and the Crucible… we took what we saw, tried the techniques out, and made them our own.
After a few years of these public lessons, I saw that the younger generation was being under represented. TES and Black Rose and all of the groups like it were growing old, led by people my parents’ age, and I quickly saw that something was missing and did something about it.
What would become a very radical step, though I still to this day really can’t understand why, I and 3 others, myself and Josh HighTower from TES and Kyri and Schelli from Black Rose, founded TNG, The Next Generation, groups dedicated to creating a safe space for the younger members of our community. While at first it was probably a selfish move, created in response to us being the youngest people around and feeling a little lonely, we wanted to fill the doors of TES and Black Rose with more of our peers. What it turned into was a deeper step at creating inclusion, inviting the new wave of perverts into the already established SM educational powerhouses known as TES and Black Rose. What came next was astonishing – new, younger blood brought with them new energy, new ideas, and new terminology and definitions and beliefs. What was tradition became yesterday, and today continues to be written.
That was my yesterday. Let’s talk about today now.
Today is a very, very interesting time to be talking about leather.
On one hand, we have amazing new debates on what leather was. Thanks to a guy named John Weal, and a book that he wrote that had a nice subtle title of “The Leatherman’s Protocol Handbook,” and some responses by a strange old man named Guy Baldwin, the myths of old guard are once again being brought into spotlight and debated… to the point that I don’t think anyone knows which direction is up anymore.
This debate has huge implications on what our future is, and brings up questions that truly need to be asked, but will never be answered. What WERE our traditions? Can anyone truly say? Was the bestowing of a Master’s cover, or a leather vest, or a pair of boots, truly a signifying point where someone can say they are a part of the leather community? Did we truly live with rules on how to act, how to behave, how to top, and how to bottom? Was the exchange of power – Master and slaves – the true personification of leather? Or was the simple sound of a belt flying through the air striking naked flesh at the end enough? Is it the gay men that held the standard of what leather was and is? Was the women’s scene cut from the same hide, or was it the same and yet different? Can Pat Bond and Cynthia Slater and all of those het and bi rabble rousers of the 1970’s be considered a part of the leather scene? Did those in NY conduct themselves with the same protocol as those in San Francisco? Or maybe it was the east coast as a whole that acted differently than the Midwest, which acted differently than the Pacific coast. Or maybe it was that the guys in Greenwich Village did things differently than those on the Upper West Side.
I think you get the point.
On the other hand, we have true and honest discussions on what leather is today. I’m a bit of a whore for topics like these, and while I’ve mostly stayed out of the debate, I’ve been a voracious reader. And for those of you like me, you have to admit, the shit that’s out there today is AMAZING.
It’s amazing because the conversation has shifted. We talk about what leather was when we discuss yesterday, and today we ask ourselves, does leather even exist?
Here are just a few examples.
On July 27th, 2011, the San Francisco Leatherman’s Discussion Group hosted a panel entitled “Is Leather Dead? Does it Need to Die?” Including yesterday’s greatest leather luminaries, Guy Baldwin, Race Bannon, Gayle Rubin, and Instigator Magazine’s Michael Thorn representing today, they kick started a national debate on whether leather was dead and what was next. They spoke about all of the changes swirling around – social changes, economic changes, and technological changes. But not a single question about what the future had in store was authoritatively answered.
On August 25th, 2011, there was an article in the Dallas Observer, “How the Internet Killed (Or Maybe Just Changed) Dallas’ Leather Scene.” The culprits in that article? Tourists, straights, women, and the worst, social media.
In September, guest columnists from all walks of life posted pieces on Leatherati.com trying to answer the age old question – “what is leather?” And no matter how many essays you read, you never really had the answer.
So does leather still live and breathe?
Let’s look at the evidence against – the leather bar, dying in some places and dead in others. Recon and FetLife and Bear411 and Grindr rising in its place. GMSMA and many groups like it – dead. Leather contests – heh. Not going there. SM education groups – membership dwindling. The art of the cruise replaced by the art of the instant message or the tweet. The space where all are welcome vs. the secret place that you had to be in the know to find.
That’s what everyone says these days.
Now let me tell you what I see.
I see evolution.
I see leather as a world of sexual outlaws, doing what outlaws do. I see a history of people looking around at the world they are in, deciding what parts of it they liked and what parts they didn’t, and building their own lives with their own rules and their own protocols all with the intent of one thing – to get off. Whether getting off physically, or emotionally, or spiritually, or some combination of all of the above, each person and group and community looked around in their time and place, took the resources that they had, and created their own world.
And with the coming of each new generation, that world changes. The new bring new ideas, new ways of thinking, and also the experience of living in the now that brings evolution to the scene. Because humans are social creatures by default, every single one of us has had the experience of searching out others like us. And in each generation we used the technology available to us at that time. From going to a bar you only found out about through word of mouth, to phone sex lines to ads in a newspaper to kinky magazines to books with directories to chat rooms and then to the grand social media world, each served merely as a tool to seek one another out. Every single one of these technological advances was seen as the end of the world to those who lived before them, while those who were new shrugged their shoulders and did their thing.
With each new generation, new concepts were introduced to the world. Each new concept was viewed with a contempt only matched by the coming of the antichrist. Switch was once the dirtiest word in the land… antithetic to all that was holy in the leather world. Then it was the bisexual. Which of course flowed naturally into pansexuality. Pure SMers look at pure DSers with contempt, and some Master/slave couples see themselves as the end and be all of leather, not to mention all of the woo-woo vs. those without the woo. But all of these groups and more hold a thread to the fabric that is leather.
And as each generation passes, walls come tumbling down just to get built again just to be smashed once more. Dykes intermingling with the gay men and then walking to their respective corners once more. Gays hanging with the hets, and then getting annoyed and going away again, and back and forth and so on. And today, the new growing force of queer and trans, bursting through previously conceived boxes of gender and sexual identity and smashing all of the walls down to the point of being unrecognizable.
But no matter the changes, one thing still remains constant. People are still kinky. People still need to get off in ways that are very, very, very much not vanilla. People are still finding happiness and joy when exchanging power with someone else. Pain is still equating pleasure. People still bottom. People still top.
I’m repeating this because it is important. Sexual outlaws are still entering the scene in droves, and like the leather gods and goddesses of yesterday, they are looking around, seeing what they like, discarding what they don’t, and doing their own fucking thing. That is leather to me. And it’s happening. Right now. Everywhere. Leather is living and well – there are just people who choose not to see it that way.
And now, the point of it all. You’ve heard me ramble on and on about yesterday and today, and we finally get to the reason why we’re all here, completely ignoring the fact that you might be here simply because this is where the coffee is. My views on the future of leather.
Here we go.
The future of leather requires us to stop trying to define it.
Leather is not the fabric of your clothing. Leather is not the material of your toys. Leather is not your protocols. Leather is not Master and slave, or hard core SM. Leather is not exclusionary, but it’s not necessarily inclusionary either. Leather is not the rules you keep, or the thing you were taught, or the thing you are teaching right now. Leather is not your gender, or your sexual preferences, top, bottom, Dominant, submissive, switch, femme, butch, trans, two-spirit, gender queer, or androgynous.
Leather is all of those things and then some. Leather has no gatekeeper; it has no board of directors, no leadership committee, and no dictionary definition. Leather is in the hands of the individual, the sexual outlaw, meeting up with other sexual outlaws and doing what feels right to them at that time. Leather is and always will be the exploration of the self as a sexual being, an ethical outlaw charting paths for themselves at their own choosing. Leather is being honest with ourselves and others, it is adults playing with sex and pain and pleasure and power and gender and identity and roles consensually with other adults.
The future of leather defies your attempt to define it, it refuses to be defined, and it laughs at you when you try. Leather doesn’t even always call itself leather. Leather is and always will be a tricky bastard and/or bitch and/or the gender neutral version of those two words that I don’t think has been invented yet but I’m going to go with fucker.
The future of leather is in the hands of evolution. The future of leather is going to be alive and well, and you only need to choose to open your eyes to see it. The future of leather is depending on your letting go of what you thought it was, and being open to what else it might be.
The future of leather believes that the magic of SM/leather/fetish/kink or whatever else you want to call it comes in many forms. That the magic you felt is not dead… it’s just different. And that’s ok.
History and tradition is a wonderful thing. But one has to acknowledge that things always change, they always evolve, and what is true today will almost always be somewhat different than what it was yesterday.
Do you understand? If you truly believe that leather is the way we did things back then, and only that, then to you leather is dead. If you believe that leather is the way we do things RIGHT NOW, and only that, then to you I say, leather is dead. But to everyone else who keeps their eyes open and sees a world of orgasms and couplings and screams and moans, leather is alive and fucking well.
You keep saying that leather is the way you are doing things right now, honoring your traditions and your history, and it isn’t that! Because leather is how you interact as a sexual being with other sexual beings, however the fuck you are doing it at that time.
Because leather is in the hands of the doers! Leather people don’t talk about being leather, they do it! They play however the fuck they want to play! They meet each other how ever the fuck they want to meet! And they meet whoever they want to meet! Wherever! Whenever!!!
Not one of us can predict what is going to be 20, 30 years from now. And it is really hard to accept the change that is all around us. To this day I struggle with the loss of GMSMA. How in NYC there is no public place for a gay man to sit and learn about SM and meet others in a space that isn’t a sex party. I struggle with the fact that my local club is no longer what it was to me 15 years ago. I struggle with the fact that there are people younger than me who are doing things that I could never imagine doing when I was that young… that they don’t enter the world in quite the same way I did… that they have leaped past the traditional struggle of top vs. bottom and entered into a whole new world of gender politics and sexual fluidity. I struggle with the fact that the boxes that I knew once contained the leather world no longer exist, and there are new boxes in its place.
I struggle, but I also celebrate. Because once again, history is repeating itself, and the future is as it always was in the hands of the young. They’re creating new groups. They’re creating new identities. They’re creating new terminology. They’re doing the same damn thing that we did and our forebears did before us. And I’m pretty damn impressed with what they’re creating.
The future of leather is right before you. We just need to open our eyes.