Friday, July 26, 2002

Fear of Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #187, July 26, 2002)

Who’s afraid of the big bad leatherman? A lot of people, it seems, and sometimes that’s part of the fun. Admit it—don’t you sometimes derive just the teeniest bit of enjoyment from intimidating people? I was recently part of a group of leathermen and leatherwomen who caused heads to turn, and probably tongues to wag, as we walked to our table at an upscale restaurant.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s not fun at all when people are afraid of you. Fear of people who are different has produced (among other things) the Crusades, the Holocaust, the troubles in Northern Ireland, perpetual war in the Middle East, and nuclear tension between India and Pakistan. It has produced Jim Crow laws and sodomy laws. And it fuels the recent and continuing vicious attacks by conservative Christian groups on members and organizations of the GLBT and leather/BDSM communities.

Incredibly and unfortunately, leatherphobia is found in many groups besides conservative Christians. Some “mainstream” GLBT folks cast a jaundiced eye at leather, as do some feminist groups who believe that all BDSM play constitutes abuse.

And then there is our community’s own leatherphobia: gay leathermen who are hesitant about socializing with lesbian leatherwomen (and vice versa), gays who are suspicious of the bisexual or heterosexual leather scene (and vice versa), and everyone who feels uncomfortable around leather transsexuals and those into genderfuck.

What is everybody so afraid of? Where does all this fear come from, anyway? Why do so many people feel threatened by so many other people?

There could be many reasons why I might feel threatened by someone, and all of those reasons can be highly instructive if I can stop being afraid long enough to learn their lessons. Here are just a few possible scenarios:

If I am a closet case, ostensibly a heterosexual but who feels “forbidden” urges for members of my own sex, I might project those urges onto all the queers out there and then loudly decry their immoral ways. Ditto if I feel the “forbidden” urges of leather, BDSM or anything else that to me seems “kinky,” i.e. attractive and repulsive at the same time. Those urges, and by projection the people I see “giving in” to those urges, are threatening to me—because if I took an honest look at what those urges were telling me, I might have to make major life changes. Never mind that those major life changes might make me a happier and more authentic person—I’m too threatened to allow that into my consciousness.

Fear does not always so neatly equate to projection and disowning of parts of oneself. If I, as a gay leatherman, am threatened by conservative Christian groups who are saying that what I am and what I do is evil, it might be that part of me suspects they’re correct. This is internalized homophobia or leatherphobia rearing its ugly head, and I need to have a serious talk with myself. Or it may be that I am quite comfortable with who I am and what I do, but I fear the consequences of hate speech for me and my tribe: oppression which can range all the way from the inconvenience of a canceled leather/BDSM event to hate crimes up to and including murder. One way of dealing with that fear is to become more involved politically and socially, to work to turn a climate of hatred into a climate of acceptance.

What about people into leather/BDSM who distrust not just conservative Christians but all “vanilla” society—anyone who’s not as kinky and as much of a player as they are? Does everyone else have to be kinky in order to validate their own kinky proclivities? That could be shame, guilt, and a sense of inadequacy talking.

What if you’re one of those people who play the “My kink is okay but yours is disgusting” game? Maybe someone else’s kink, or the way they practice it, really isn’t safe—in which case some mentoring and education is in order. But more probably this game is another form of internalized kinkphobia. If their kink bothers you that much, ask yourself why. What buttons are being pushed? One of many possibilities: Maybe you secretly want to try it but are ashamed of your desire. What can you learn from your discomfort, and what can you then do with that knowledge?

To say that these types of fears are irrational, and therefore should be ignored or “gotten over,” is to sell them short. On some level, we must be perceiving a threat or we wouldn’t feel fear. So to ignore our fears or to discount them is to miss their lessons. On the other hand, by looking at them unflinchingly we can discover why something or someone makes us fearful, and we can then make whatever changes are necessary so we don’t have to feel that way anymore. Our lives will be better and we will be stronger for having had the courage to face our fears and deal with them.

Here is a message from Stephen Weber, International Mr. Leather 2002, that just happens to tie in nicely with some of what has been discussed above:

“As some of you know, I have overcome many obstacles of discrimination in my life before and since I found leather. I challenge each of you to think of ways you may have discriminated against someone based on age, sex, weight, race, handicap, orientation, or any form. Also, think about how you have benefited from discrimination, whether intentional or inadvertent—no matter how it happened, it’s not a good feeling. Do your part to STOP discrimination in all forms. We are a small community and a small family. We do not have the time for this type of dysfunction. We must appreciate our similarities, accept our differences and then celebrate our synergies. After all, the health of our family is only as strong as the health of us as individuals. So look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what you can do to help others feel better about themselves and then how, together, we can make a difference in our family.”