October 30, 2016

It is always so wonderful to be here in Albuquerque. When Diane asked me to do the keynote this year, I was honored. When she asked me to teach, I couldn’t say no… and then there was this opportunity to get to know this year’s contestants as a judge…whatever you need! Then she asked me to sing too and I was like “Whoa! Now you are asking too much!” She wasn’t the only person that asked me to sing *cough Kathryn clears throat Gary*… and well, I hate to disappoint anyone so I will sing a little something.

To be or not to be? That is not the question. I decided long ago to be.
With me, it’s what to be. Make me some suggestions.
Good or bad, which is the best for me!?

In all seriousness, it is surreal to be here before all of you today. Albuquerque is where I grew up as a Leather person. Being here is being home. Many of you have been through it all with me… watching me grow up, fall, and get back up. For that, I am thankful and comforted. For those reasons, I know I can be completely honest about my experiences and I know you will be there with me.

I had the honor of judging this weekend and a question I asked of many of the contestants was “what can you achieve with this title that you cannot do without the title?” In interviews, there are no right or wrong answers; the questions are just ways to get to know the contestants… but we all have experiences and personal truths and mine is – nothing. There is nothing I accomplished with the title that I was unable to accomplish prior to being a titleholder.

As a matter of fact, in some ways, I feel like I did less in the last year than I had in the past. My time was focused on traveling, showing up, helping out wherever possible and trying to positively represent a title that meant something to me as a gay Leather woman. It wasn’t really less of an achievement but different accomplishments.

Before I competed at American Brotherhood Weekend:
I wrote the draft of the membership bylaws for NM Leather League.
I served on the Rio Grande Leather organization committee as volunteer coordinator and hospitality coordinator.
I co-founded girls of Leather: Albuquerque Metro (gLAM).
From what I was able to recollect, I attended 69 events/conferences – The event I competed at was my 70th conference!
I went to events in US and Canada in 17 different states or provinces.
I didn’t just show up at these events, I volunteered, staffed, performed, handled folks, taught, fund raised…
I did this “little thing” for the International Ms Bootblacks where I organized and coordinated fundraisers across North America, raising thousands of dollars, flew the bubbas out for this celebration, paid for flights, rooms, and seeded the funding for the IMsBB documentary “High Shine”…
Those are just a few accomplishments since living here in Albuquerque; never mind the experiences from when I was in New England!

Yet, before the sash, I would go to events with 15+ years of experiences, and would be told I didn’t belong. Other times, I was fortunate enough to have been offered opportunities to teach but then my classes weren’t always well attended because no one knew who I was and well there was a titleholder with half the experience was teaching at that same time. I plugged away and did the best I could; shared myself and my passions with those that attended and hoped that I would be asked to return. I was proud of the work I had done.

Everything I had done was to contribute back to a community that created a home for me. None of it was done to gain recognition … but it does hurt to not be seen or worse be rejected as a Leather person – a fundamental part of my identity.

So here I was at my 70th event, despite all that work I have done, regardless of all that I had accomplished, I heard mumblings of being referred to as the “dark horse” and “underdog” when I ran for American Leatherwoman last year. Of those competing for this National title, I was the only one that did not have a Leather title. I was the unknown. In some ways, this was a good thing; there was an element of surprise. No one knew what to expect of me. Admittedly, it disappointed me. There was no reason for me to be “the dark horse”; I was just as, if not more, experienced than some of the other people on the stage. But this is the reality of the situation in our community. I was always the girl behind the curtain and most people don’t pay attention to those that are not in the spotlight. Some do… and I know who you are! But we really put the sash on a pedestal.

My title year was AMAZING. I had so much fun and laughter in my travels. But, my title year was very different than that of my sash husband and sash boy. Their travel schedule was primarily dictated by invites to judge or various forms of participation at different events around the world. Whereas, I didn’t get a lot of invites. I reached out to events and expressed interest in attending with very little response or feedback. If I only went to events in which I was invited to attend, I would have gone to maybe five events all year.

I shaped my own experiences and made my title year what it was. I determined which events I would attend and simply showed up. Sometimes, I even paid full registration and still volunteered my time. At the end of the day, when I laid down on that unfamiliar mattress in Somewhere, USA; I was damn proud. I wouldn’t have experienced this if I didn’t show up; but as anyone that has ever been on the under-represented side of the equation knows, sometimes just showing up is. Fucking. Hard.

My experiences could have been different. I could have been upset that I wasn’t invited but I am not. I could have gone on Facebook and bitched about inequities or woes of not being included or recognized. But that isn’t me and what would that accomplish? This is a reality in which I, a femme leather dyke, am working in and I made the most of my year and had a phenomenal fucking time doing it. I cherish every moment of the experience.

But how was this any different than before I was sashed?

During my first mini-tour of the year, Bob Miller, the co-founder of CLAW (Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend) was presented with the Leather Leadership Award at Creating Change in Chicago. I went to the event to stand with him in support. At Creating Change, one of the attendees approached me and said “I’ve met lots of Leather men but I have never met a Leather woman before.” I smiled and replied “Oh we exist; we normally don’t walk around with a sign announcing we are Leather woman.” It was at that moment, that I realized the spotlight that was on me. I represented what some people conceptualized as what a Leather woman is. It was also indicative of how Leather woman were often overlooked and unnoticed.

Then there were all the “She’s with us” moments. I heard that more in the last year than I had in the last 20 years. I walked into a primarily men’s event; I hadn’t yet registered and the men working security let me in when they saw my sash because “she’s with us”. Another time, I was walking from one hotel to another and got picked up along the way because you know girl shoes aren’t really made for walking and again I heard “she’s with us”.

There were countless other “she’s with us” moments. For the first time, I felt welcomed everywhere I went; I was seen as a Leather woman. While I try to shrug this off, the fact is that I should not have to be wearing a sash to be seen as a Leather person. It is hard to not have this heavy realization that the only reason some people even see me is because I was wearing this sign that I am a Leather woman and when that goes away will I be seen again?

Throughout the year, I had many memorable experiences like when Bob Miller persuaded me to host the BDSM speed dating session at CLAW. I was nervous and worried. I fretted over the idea that the men would not take kindly to this very femme woman being in their space. Honoring spaces is important to me; and the gay men need their space! Yet here was Bob Miller telling me “it will be great!” and “you are perfect for it”. I arrived at the men’s play space, set up the room for speed dating, explained to the men how speed dating worked, and created a space so the men could get to know each other.

I was relieved and elated that the men had a good time and that I was not an imposition. One of the coordinators said that of all the sessions, my speed dating session had the most play. He also confessed that before that session, he would never play if there was a woman in the space but felt very comfortable with me and would have no problems if I was there.

Why is that?

Perhaps it was the super power skills attained from being the girl behind the curtain for so many years; making play happen and not needing the attention on me? But why does having boobs and a vagina create such an issue that some men will go out of their way, approach me in a hotel lobby, to tell me that I don’t belong and should leave? Why is it that with a sash I am welcomed and seen to the extent of acceptance and inclusion?

Leather woman are not as visible; less so are femme Leather woman. People that look like me are not pictured in Tom of Finland fantasies. One of the issues that we face is that we aren’t always dressed in full leathers because frankly cute clothing in my size is not found on racks in most vendor marts. Aside from corsets that are not necessarily leather, everything has to be custom made or ordered online from China and then tailored. I can’t afford it; many women cannot afford it. But never mind all that! Why should how I dress define me as a Leather person?

Some of these experiences may have nothing to do with being woman or being femme. There is something really wrong when we endorse someone with a sash regardless of their experience, service to the community and behavior meanwhile we invalidate and suppress those that are and have been working hard without a sash.

These experiences are symptoms of a bigger problem. We talk about valuing things like Honor, Respect, Integrity, Honesty, Authenticity, Service…; how do we express that as individuals in our day to day lives?

When women are devalued and rejected, how is that an expression of any of those values?

How does the lack of leather clothing insinuate that someone is less of a Leather person if we are truly living these core values?

What value are we expressing when we immediately invite and elevate someone that looks a certain way and are dismissive and create extra challenges for anyone of under-represented and marginalized groups to prove that they are worthy?

When we consider these core values, we are failing when we indiscriminately honor and admire a person with a sash with little consideration of who they are as people first. When we do this, we are valuing things like grandiosity, need for admiration, power and success. What does any of that have to with Honor? Respect? Integrity? Honesty? Authenticity? Service?

Serving the community as a titleholder is an amazing opportunity but the sash is not and should not be the defining factor of someone’s worthiness. Being a titleholder is not a reward, it is a role. As I see it, the way that our community works is similar to wall climbing challenge in bootcamp. There are people on the ground helping lift others up and over the wall, the titleholder has the role of the person at the top of the wall helping people up and over these obstacles, and then there are people on the other side of the wall assisting others as they come down. Every role is vital and no one person is more essential than the other and at some point, the titleholder has to lower themselves down and serve their community in other ways because it is a new year and there is a new obstacle to overcome … together.

The sash, clothing, heritage, skin tone, body size, s-type, D-type, or what is between my legs does not define my worthiness or my ability to contribute to this incredible community; nor should any of these things define anyone else. Our core values and how we express those values is what shapes us and defines who we are as a person, family member, community member or contributor.

“To be or not to be? That is not the question. I decided long ago to be.”

I decided long ago to be me, to serve the community, and to live true to those core values. How are your thoughts, words, actions aligned or misaligned with your core values? What do you value and are you living authentically to those values? Because when it comes down to it, the question we have to ask ourselves is “to be or not to be?”