Friday, November 28, 2003

Out of the Closet or Under the Radar?

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #222, November 28, 2003)

It was in 1973 that Minnesota’s then-Governor Wendell Anderson smiled out from the cover of Time Magazine, holding a just-caught fish. The cover story of that issue was “The Good Life in Minnesota.” Now, thirty years later, a very different aspect of the Good Life in Minnesota almost made it to the pages of Time—almost, but not quite.

For the last few years radical right-wing elements have stepped up their harassment of leather/BDSM events across the nation and have said some very nasty things to the media about leather/BDSM and its aficionados. Would a sympathetic article in Time Magazine about a midwestern BDSM weekend help to counter that bad press, or would it simply act as bait for more harassment?

That was the question faced by the organizers, as well as the attendees and potential attendees, of a recent nationally-promoted fetish weekend event held in our area. Less than three weeks before the event, the organizers received a letter from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF). A reporter from Time had contacted NCSF wanting to write a 3- to 4-page article on “mind/body/health” issues related to BDSM. NCSF had given him a list of doctors, psychologists and sociologists to interview, but the reporter also wanted to attend a pansexual SM event, preferably in the south or midwest, in order to talk directly to people involved in the scene.

The reporter was described as “an out gay man who has written positive articles about alternative sexuality and sexual orientation.” He wanted to be able to identify the name of the event and the city and hotel where the event was being held. He would be identified at the event as a reporter and would not quote individuals who did not want to be quoted. An escort from NCSF would accompany him to the event.

Presented with this offer of media coverage for their event, the event’s organizers (wisely, in my opinion) asked attendees, prospective attendees and members of the local leather/BDSM community how they felt about it. Based on community feedback the organizers decided not to allow the reporter to attend, although the feedback was far from a unanimous rejection of appearing in Time.

Some responses were unequivocal: “If a reporter from Time Magazine or any other publication is there, I won’t be.” Some people felt personally threatened by the possibility of losing job, spouse or children if they were outed as a result of the article. Others noted that publicity in Time might bring the same sort of harassment recently suffered by events in the New Orleans and Washington, D.C. areas. This viewpoint could be summed up as “The less the general public knows about us, the better.”

Many respondents expressed distrust of the media. Could a reporter from a national magazine like Time be trusted to write a fair article? Obviously, NCSF trusts this reporter or the organization wouldn’t be helping him with his research. But in spite of that, one commonly-expressed viewpoint was that the only reason Time or any other major media organization would even consider writing a story like this is because they know that sex and sensationalism and titillation sell magazines. According to this viewpoint, anyone expecting a, you should pardon the expression, “fair and balanced” representation in the pages of Time would be disappointed.

Another reason cited for not having a reporter at the event was timing—tickets had already been sold on the basis of the event being closed and private. Even those who thought media coverage could be beneficial questioned the wisdom of changing the nature of the event on such short notice.

But why was this such a big deal, anyway? Look at all the reporters year after year at the International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago, and look at the huge crowds that event attracts. Ah, but International Mr. Leather is an event predominantly for gay leathermen, who started coming out of the closet in the late 1960s. By contrast, this event was primarily pansexual, and many members of the pansexual community are still very much in the closet about their sexual preferences.

This comparison between the gay and pansexual leather/BDSM communities was not lost on Dan Brady, manager of local BDSM group TIES. Along with several others, Brady expressed the opinion that media coverage, and the resulting increased visibility of the leather/BDSM community, could be beneficial:

“If we can get a fair hearing in public, we have less to fear from the people who fear us because we’re unknown, or misunderstood. If we have widespread press, the people who would love to join us and learn from us have a better chance of finding us.

“Yeah, we could stay in the closet as a community—and some have some very good reasons to stay in that closet individually—but that would easily give the impression that we were hiding because we were doing something wrong, something to be ashamed of.

“Are we doing something wrong here? Do we need to be ashamed of being kinky?”

Brady continues: “Staying in the closet will not be effective in preventing us from being a persecuted minority. Coming out of the closet has done wonders for the GLBT community—it hasn’t made things perfect yet, but social acceptance has gone a long way in that direction in the past 20 years.

“We’re already getting press—most of it from the people who would prefer that we not exist at all. I, personally, mourn [the loss of] an opportunity to tell our side of the issue in a very public venue.”

Brady summed up his feelings about the rejection of the Time reporter by saying, “I fear we’ve missed an opportunity, not sidestepped a bullet.”

Here’s the irony I find in this situation: In many circles the acronym “GLBT” (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) has been amended to “GLBTA” (the “A” stands for allies, or allied persons). When I first encountered this acronym I assumed that the “allies” were heterosexuals who were nonetheless sympathetic to our GLBT cause: PFLAG members, metrosexuals, and other honorary gay people. They are members of the heterosexual majority, and therefore have credibility with that majority. But they are willing to use that credibility to vouch for us GLBT types, to say that we too deserve the respect of the heterosexual majority.

But now I’m beginning to think it may be a two-way street. Maybe those allied persons—in this case closeted kinky heterosexuals—also need help from us, the gay leather community as well as the general GLBT community. And it’s our duty as GLBT people, who have already blazed these trails for ourselves, to help and support our allies in their quest for an exit from their own particular closet.

Upcoming events

Atons Holiday Fundraiser benefiting Aliveness Project
Sunday, Dec. 7, 5-10 pm, The Saloon
Silent Auction, door prizes, haircuts, bootblacking. Drink specials, free food. $10 donation (or $5 with 5 lbs. of food or nonperishable items). FFI or to donate an item for the auction:

MSDB Bizarre Bazaar
Saturday, December 13, 11am-5pm, Da Moose (356 Monroe Street NE, Minneapolis)
Don’t miss this year’s Bizarre Bazaar and get ready to stock up on those unique stocking stuffers for that special kinked one in your life. This is a great opportunity to support your local artists/artisans/retailers. $5 at the door; $3 advance tickets available at Dreamhaven Books (Lake St. & Colfax, Mpls.), Smitten Kitten (35th St. & 23rd Ave. S., Mpls.) and at area munches or by contacting MSDB (

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