South Carolina Pride in Leather Keynote
by LE
10 Sept 2016

“I want to feel like a bird, singing in an open cage…”

Thank you South Carolina Pride in Leather for inviting me to be part of this wonderful weekend.

That lyric is from a song called “Then So It Is” by Melissa Ferrick. I love the imagery and feelings it invokes. I love it so much I wish to have it tattooed on my body… it represents my dreams and desires and all my complexities.

Birds have the ability to soar and be free to explore high in the sky and down here on the land. They have an experiential perspective of the world that we can only strive for. They have a voice in the songs they sing. The bird in this lyric is happily singing in an open cage. It has the ability to fly but it chooses to stay.

I have spent years flying around, meeting many different people, enjoying numerous communities, listening to various songs, seeking my cage, my place that I call home and finding my voice.

I surmise that we all are doing this same thing: Trying to figure out where we belong, who we trust, and learning about ourselves along the way.

I have had the privilege to travel around the country for both work and my title year which has offered me the opportunity to get to know many communities. While each community is unique, I have noted some common themes of discussion in my travels. Of which, the desire to build bridges and bring the community together is heard everywhere. Building bridges is said so frequently that we joke about it being part of the Leather Lingo drinking game!

Community and community building is not a new topic and it certainly isn’t an earth shattering idea; yet, there is still discussion about its relevance, its importance, and a general sense of something missing.

Wikipedia states “a community is commonly considered a social unit (a group of three or more people) who share something in common, such as norms, values, identity, and a sense of place that is situation in a given geographical area (e.g. a village, town or neighborhood). Durable relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties also define a sense of community. People tend to define those social ties as important to their identity, practice, and roles in social institutions like family, home, work, government, society, or humanity, at large. Although communities are usually small relative to personal social ties (micro-level) “community” may also refer to large group affiliations (or macro-level), such as national communities, international communities, and virtual communities.”

I apologize for that rather long excerpt; however, this offered me a lot to think about when considering what community is to me, for us.

Many have told me their stories of how they found the Leather community and while details vary, the theme mirrors my own introduction to Leather.

In 1995, I unwittingly walked into a play party consisting of male Dominants and female submissives and I kept returning. My concerned vanilla friends tried discouraging me from going to these parties but I enjoyed attending; not because of play or because of the sex, as I certainly wasn’t having sex with anyone, but because my boundaries were respected and nothing ever happened without my consent. I was free to explore new sensations and I dictated what I would or would not try. I felt safe even though I seemed to be the odd one out.

I always felt like an outsider and I finally found a place where I belonged.

We have this desire for belonging, for family, for home, for our cage… We find comfort when we are with others of similar experiences, culture or interest. Various cities throughout the US have their neighborhoods; there may be an Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and/or even gay neighborhoods. We are drawn towards these “communities” and feel safe with others similar to ourselves.

What is wrong with what we have available to us? What exactly are we trying to build? I’m no engineer but I am certain the how we build something will depend on what we are working with and what we want. I realize that there are various communities. There is a macro-level Leather community or the national and international Leather community and then there are these micro-level communities that consist of regional, local, and interest-based communities such as the Master/slave, puppy, girl, and boy communities. If a community comes together based on norms, values and identity, how do we expect it to be cohesive the larger the community gets? Norms, values, and identity…

Norms: We are rebels and outlaws. We thrive outside of the norm.

Values: We claim to have common values: honor, integrity, respect, loyalty, trust… How does that distinguish us from a radical Christian Right group? Would their values not look similar?

Identity: How many of us want to be boxed into a specific identity?

Are we even really a community?

I’ve lived in MA, NM, NY, CA, and now OR and every time I move to a new area, this question of community is considered. I look at my upbringing, personal experiences and introductions to various “communities”.

My upbringing and countless other encounters shape my idea of community. Community is personal and it is a place where I can connect; whether it is sexual, play, similar experiences, desires, or interests. I feel safe, seen and heard. My boundaries are respected, and there is a general understanding that consent matters. I am engaged and encouraged to contribute and participate creating a sense of belonging.

Any less than positive interactions boil down to different values and priorities; we were not seeking the same thing or one of us had expectations of something else. We didn’t connect; our interests or priorities conflicted, and I felt unwelcomed or unwanted. What is interesting to note is that my “safe space” had no correlation with sexuality, station, race , sex or gender identification.

There is a huge difference in my expectations of National/International community vs the regional, local, and interest-based communities. The larger the community, the less cohesiveness and connection we can expect. The interactions are more superficial; there are so many people it is really hard to find the time for that one-on-one connection.

Is there a need for these larger, macro-communities?

I believe so! Heck, let’s be real, if the national and international community didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to all of you in South Carolina!

The International/national community is a way of networking, learning, exploring, trying new things, and who doesn’t want to expand their sexual horizons? You may see traces of our values (honor, trust, integrity, loyalty, etc.) at the macro-level and you will make connections with those that have similar values. The macro community has offered opportunities for me to connect with so many all over. I would not trade it for the world.

However, that which sustains us is what is happening at the local and interest-based levels. These are the groups in which you will find the connections you need. It is at events like this that you and I get to form deeper and more meaningful relationships.

Do we need to build bridges? Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar postulated that people can only maintain stable social relationships with 100 to 250 people; 150 is the value most commonly used. Greater numbers cause a tipping point and social problems occur.

We have reached a tipping point. The community is washed out with the desire for inclusivity and being respectful to everyone’s sensitivities; we have lost the edgy, raw, underground feeling that we once were. This desire to include everyone and not offend anyone has resulted in greater divide than actual connection. People are retreating to their smaller groups and interest-based circles and not want to get involved with the local, regional, or macro- communities. Sadly, many of those withdrawing are the ones that helped create the space we are in now. We are losing our connections to our history.

So, instead of building bridges, we need to repair and maintain the connections we have. The smaller interest-based and local communities are a necessity; this is where most people will find the greatest connection and fulfillment; however, access to macro-communities will assist those that are still figuring out where exactly they belong by offering opportunities to meet others, explore interests, and grow.

There is also value in the sheer numbers of the macro-community as noted in history, with the Stonewall Riots and the marches in DC including the upcoming march against gun violence in DC in early October. However, we cannot expect the macro-community to embody all of the same values we do at the micro-level.

People that are truly interested in Leather will find us. We do not need to lure them in! Truly, we don’t. In many cases, this expression of desire to build bridges with those outside of the community is more telling about the individual’s need for connection than a community deficit; their current cage doesn’t feel like home. You define what is important and valuable to you and you have the personal responsibility to incarnate those values. This will help you find what you are looking for in the macro-community which will guide you toward the specific-interest communities.

As a women that wrestled with society’s misogyny and ethnophobia, my introduction to the community could have gone really bad considering I was the gay girl that was married off to a nice Portuguese farmer that was destined to be a housewife with 10 kids and subservient to all men. I found myself at home in a room full of het male Dominants and female submissives. This was everything I had fought against. Had I been received with indifference or rudeness (… and that does happen!) I cannot imagine what sort of song I would be singing today.

What was it that made you feel like you belonged? How were you welcomed? Spoken to? Considered? Did people talk to you and genuinely want to get to know you? Are you approaching others in that same respect? Are you creating opportunities for others to grow, experience, and contribute?

If community is of value to you, then we need focus on how we connect instead of the dictates of those around us of their personal needs. Community is about us, you and I right here, coming together.

We create our cage. There are times we need to fly to change our perspective; other times, we just need to sing.