Friday, August 24, 2001

Look, Ma! I’m a Negative Media Image!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #163, August 24, 2001)

Awhile ago I was sitting on a bus, casually reading what was then the latest issue of Lavender. Under “Letters to the Editor” I came across one that asked two questions: “(1) How much do we really love ourselves and each other” (hmmm, I thought to myself, I frequently write about those concepts in my column—better pay attention here) “if the one GLBT publication we have consists mainly of ads for anonymous sex, bars, and parties,” (well, there’s more to the magazine than that, but I think I see the point the writer is trying to make) “and information on sadomasochistic sex play?” (emphasis added)

Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. And to the sound of screeching mental brakes, my immediate and visceral reaction was “Whoa!—Wait a minute—Now we’re getting personal!”

This letter writer obviously thought my column was a Negative Media Image. I hadn’t felt so demeaned, devalued and dishonored since Trent Lott made his famous pronouncement comparing homosexuals to alcoholics, sex addicts and kleptomaniacs.

Eventually I regained my composure and continued reading: “All of this seems particularly and painfully ironic since it is sandwiched between articles on HIV and AIDS”—about which I have also written frequently over the years. And yes, it is ironic. Entire books have been written discussing this irony and how our community is reacting to it and dealing with it.

Next paragraph of the letter: “(2) How can we expect others to love us, and how can we love ourselves, if we portray ourselves primarily as a community obsessed with sex, looks, alcohol and illness?” Okay, that resonates with me—and somewhere amid all that information about sadomasochistic play I’ve managed to write two columns about Manifest Love, an organization holding seminars around the country that, among other things, consider this very question.

Continuing with the letter, which was soon going to run over to another page of the magazine: “Let’s go for media images (and self-images) that portray us as more politically”—(“correct,” I thought to myself as I turned the page, the writer is going to ask for “media images that portray us as more politically correct.” That’s not what the writer said, though)—“engaged and more loving.” Oh. Politically engaged. And more loving. Okay, can’t argue with that. Can I? Well, here are some items from the letter writer’s list of more positive media images:

• A column on “community activism”—Lavender has profiled many GLBT community activists over the years. But it’s interesting to note that in the “Community Activist” category in Lavender’s recent Crème de la Crème awards, “not a single person got more than one vote,” according to editor Timothy Lee. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s because the media isn’t giving enough publicity to community activists, whether community activists aren’t being diligent enough in seeking publicity, or whether community activism is in a lull right now.

• A column on “family life (one not written by a straight woman)”—well, let’s trash another columnist, shall we? Seriously, I’ve always been proud to have my column be in the same magazine as Abigail Garner’s “Families Like Mine” column. Lavender’s editorial scope has always been broad enough to give voice to GLBT subcommunities, like the leather community or straight children of gay parents, that haven’t been heard before. And if we don’t think it’s fair to be excluded from our families because we’re gay, why is it any fairer to exclude someone from our family because they happen to be straight?

• “Our favorite recipes”—Well, now that would just be redundant. According to the stereotype, that’s what we gay men talk about while we’re partying in the bars looking for someone with whom to have anonymous sex.

• “Family pictures (self-chosen and/or biological)”—Lavender, and the gay press in general, is and always has been our community’s family album. Every issue is filled with family pictures of one type or another. The issue in which this letter appeared contained several pages of photos from our most recent family reunion, Pride 2001.

• “Life in the workplace” and “artwork and artists in the community”—Every issue contains arts coverage and reviews, and much has appeared in Lavender about life in the workplace both positive (such as GLBT-friendly companies to work for) and negative (such as harassment issues—I’m remembering especially harassment faced by transgendered folks).

• “The Girl Scouts (they don’t discriminate!)”—No, indeed they don’t. Last year I wrote a column about a group called Queer Youth Exist, a safe place for queer people under the age of 21 to discuss issues, such as an interest in BDSM, that would be difficult to discuss elsewhere. It was created by two girls named Hedge and Katze as their Girl Scout Gold Award project.

So I would argue that Lavender is more than “mainly ads for anonymous sex, bars and parties,” and over the years I have tried to do more with this column than just provide information about sadomasochistic sex play—not that there’s anything wrong with providing information about sadomasochistic sex play, mind you. In writing this column I have tried to show that an important part of the leather/BDSM community is learning and expressing love and respect for oneself and others (which is exactly what the writer of the letter was calling for). It’s not for everyone and doesn’t claim to be. But I don’t think it’s fair for someone to say that because something doesn’t work for them, it has no value for anyone.

But I know that no matter what I or anyone else may say on the subject, some people will not hear it and therefore will not understand. Then it all gets down to the same old dichotomy: do we as a community bow to political correctness and present only what we think will be perceived as Positive Media Images in an effort to say to the straight world, “See? We’re just like you! Now will you accept us?” And do we therefore hide the drag queens and the leathermen and the dykes on bikes who so stubbornly refuse to be assimilated?

No. Whatever else the leather community is, it is not assimilationist. If other elements of the GLBT community are embarrassed by us and feel we’re Negative Media Images, our response to them must be in the same vein as the queer community’s response to the straight world. We say, in as proud and dignified a manner as possible: “Sorry you feel that way. But—we’re here; we’re also queer (same as you); get used to it.”

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Sunday, August 26

Leatherfolk, come together for an afternoon of bawdy fun and merriment at the Minnesota Rensissance Festival. Meet in the area between the Great Bear and the Great Hall (where the Feast of Fantasy is held) between 1:15 and 1:30 PM. Maps and ticket info can be found at: (This announcement courtesy of the Atons of Minneapolis.)

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