Friday, January 23, 2004

What’s in a (Scene) Name?

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #226, January 23, 2004)

Hi, I’m Steve Lenius. Pleased to meet you.

For pretty much my whole life, I’ve been known by that name. When I was very young I was called “Stevie,” but as soon as I was able to express a preference and make it stick I put a stop to that. When I started writing I decided that I would refer to myself in print as “Stephen A. Lenius,” but such a formal byline just didn’t seem to work at the beginning of a leather column. So here I am—your humble columnist, Steve Lenius.

Even in the world of the internet, I’ve pretty much had one online handle since I first started my online life. That handle, “slenius”—eminently practical if unimaginative—has lasted me through, at last count, four different internet service providers.

Contrast that to the experience of noted playwright/lyricist/screenwriter/performer Betty Comden. She devotes the first chapter of her autobiography, Off Stage, to the succession of names by which she has been known over the course of her lifetime. She makes the point that “One’s name is, after all, the label by which one identifies oneself. If it keeps changing, perhaps one’s sense of identity keeps shifting about also.”

In light of this, consider the use of names as they relate to the leather/BDSM milieu. It has been my observation that if you are in a leather bar and introduce yourself to a gay leatherman he will most likely introduce himself using the name with which he was born. Occasionally he will introduce himself using a nickname, and this nickname will be the name by which everyone else in the bar knows him, and perhaps even everyone else outside the bar. That’s just the name he goes by. The same can be said of the vast majority of leather lesbians I have known over the years.

The issue of names is handled somewhat differently in pansexual/heterosexual BDSM circles. Here people who identify themselves by their birth name seem to be the exception; the norm is to identify oneself by one’s “scene name” or “handle,” which is a pseudonym either that an individual has chosen or that has been bestowed on them by someone else. A scene name is usually chosen for its uniqueness, at least within a given community—although as the Twin Cities pansexual community grows I am increasingly seeing confusion arising from two or more people sharing similar or identical scene names. And some people use one scene name in person but have a different online handle, which can make things even more confusing.

Hearing people’s scene names can be interesting and even titillating. A scene name is useful in that it often tells you something about the person’s interests or preferences, and for added spice the name often contains an element of fantasy/mysticism/sexiness. Especially in chatrooms and other online parts of the leather/BDSM community, a scene name can be evocative, and it can also be a good conversation-starter—I have seen fascinating online discussions about the derivation of people’s scene names. Seeing a scene name online, and reading what the owner of the name has written, has often made me curious enough to want to meet the person and to seek them out at a munch. A scene name represents an identity tailor-made for the BDSM world, and the conglomeration of all the scene names in a room or a chatroom is an integral part of defining that scene.

But unaccustomed as I am to being referred to by multiple names, sometimes I have to wonder about the practice. If I had a scene name, would I feel like Sybil, of multiple-personality-disorder fame? Would it be hard for me to remember who I was and what personality I was manifesting at any given moment? Would I be segmenting the BDSM part of my life and my personality and keeping it somehow removed from the rest of my life?

Another thing I’ve noticed about scene names: While they can be practical in some ways, they are very impractical in others. The fact that I know someone only by their scene name effectively limits the ways in which I can interact with them. I can’t look up their scene name in the phonebook if I want to call them, and I can’t find their address if I want to send them a card. Scene names can enhance safety, but at the cost of reducing intimacy.

Pseudonyms can be a way of hiding one’s identity. And, now that I think of it, at one point in my life I did create an alternate identity. When my mother, Mary Borhek, wrote her book about coming to terms with having a gay son—me—she used her own name on the cover of the book. But every other character in the story was allowed to select their “nom de book,” as we referred to it. I chose “Eric Borhek,” and the book therefore became My Son Eric. (I thought the title had a nice ring to it.)

That was in 1979, and none of us knew what would happen when the book was published. If she were writing it today, I wouldn’t feel it necessary to hide behind a pseudonym. And I think that says something about the comparative state of the gay and lesbian leather community and the pansexual/heterosexual leather community.

Sometimes it seems to me that the use of scene names is a response to oppression. It is an instance of taking a problem, i.e. the necessity for secrecy about one’s activities, and turning it into an asset by eroticizing it. My intent here is not to make accusations or to cast blame. For the vast majority of people I know in the pansexual/heterosexual BDSM scene, the necessity for secrecy about one’s activities is not because of guilt or shame on the part of the participants. It is because so much of the rest of society does not look kindly on those activities and stands ready to punish people who engage in them—perhaps by the loss of a spouse, children, or job.

There was a time, not so long ago, when GLBT folks had to keep their activities and major parts of their personalities hidden—for exactly the same reasons. Life today, in this 35th-anniversary-of-Stonewall year, is much freer for gay leathermen and leather lesbians. I can only hope that the pansexual/heterosexual BDSM community has its own Stonewall equivalent and reaches the point where a scene name is a choice, not a necessity.

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