Friday, November 29, 2002

Book Review: “The Soul Beneath the Skin” by David Nimmons

(Commentary by Bill Schlichting published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #196, November 29, 2002)

Gay Life: Maybe It Really Isn’t (Or Needn’t Be) What One Thinks It Is

By Bill Schlichting

Saturday night rolls around, and many gay men find themselves in gay bars, wanting connection, but dealing only with competition; in baths, seeking solace, but finding only sex; in clubs, seeking affection, but getting only attitude—or standing outside them all, wishing for inclusion, yet feeling excluded. For David Nimmons, this is a phenomenon that should not, and need not, be. And he is doing something about it. Nimmons has written a book, The Soul Beneath the Skin, that describes changes in the gay community that have occurred in the past thirty or so years, almost without notice, and how these changes can apply to and affect the lives of individual gay men.

The Soul Beneath the Skin has two parts. In the first eight of ten chapters, Nimmons looks beyond the shared, common, and, according to him, unwittingly adopted view of gay life, and presents a radically different interpretation of gay men and their habits. Nimmons argues that the prevailing view of gay life, held by gays as well as straights, obscures deeper and more important truths; he asserts that all of us, gay as well as straight, are not seeing “the soul beneath the skin.”

For Nimmons, the conventional caricature of gay life as one-dimensional, body-obsessed, shallow, sexually profligate, powered by consumerism, with cultural values of competition, isolation, narcissism, and hedonism, and practices that discourage true intimacy is profoundly incomplete, inaccurate, and grossly misleading. He asserts that a careful reading of the facts supports a far different conclusion. Nimmons then details how gay men are crafting powerful changes around bliss and ecstasy, gender roles and sexuality, intimacy, friendship and communalism. He finds that this cultural experimentation has been little recognized, either by gay men themselves or society as a whole. He asserts that much empirical evidence suggests that self-identified gay men are engaged in a striking range of cultural innovations and social practices that present a picture far different from the prevailing one.

Nimmons describes and discusses these cultural innovations and social practices. He finds that levels of public violence in gay venues are vastly lower than those in non-gay ones; that gay men volunteer more often, demonstrating higher levels of altruism and service quite distinct from other men; that patterns of intimacy and interpersonal connectedness of gay men are taking new forms; that gay men are redefining gender relations in powerful and novel ways; that gay men have distinctive patterns of caretaking in sexual and communal realms; that gay men are enacting new definitions of public and private, family and friends, and transforming relations of pleasure, community, and authority; and that gay men are pioneering a wide range of untried intimate relationships, with new forms, rituals and language.

In doing this, Nimmons cites a growing body of evidence from public health and epidemiological studies, sociological and psychological inquiry, marketing and public opinion surveys, anthropological texts, and ethnographic studies, as well as personal stories. This evidence, according to Nimmons, powerfully contradicts the generally-accepted version of gay males’ lives. Due to its volume, the discussion becomes, at times, almost drudging. But keep reading, if you can—it will in the end be worth the effort.

In the last two chapters of The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons addresses how these radical cultural innovations and social practices occurring in the community of gay men as a whole affect and apply to the lives of individual gay men. Nimmons acknowledges that the actual collective patterns and practices of the gay community may be, and in many cases are, so detached from individual lives and experiences that an individual may see no gay world he knows in the culture and society described in the first part of the book. Nimmons admits that too often individual gay men “participate in a set of public practices that, if anything, work to extinguish those very values of love, care, compassion, and kindness” that they value and, as a result, are “left hungry for intimacy.”

The paradox is, if the gay community really is such a caring community, why have gay men built a public culture that smothers the very ideals they value and seek?

Nimmons responds as follows: He notes that gay men have already rewritten the rules in enormous and sweeping ways. He writes: “Nobody handed us the queer lives we enjoy. We hewed them from the hard rock of a homophobic world.” He suggests that now is the time for a new kind of work. He writes: “(G)ay men’s truly radical act is no longer simply to claim our sexuality, but to reclaim our hearts within it.” The challenge now is to dismantle one set of givens, all the more potent because gay men themselves have created them, and replace them with another. He writes: “As gay men built our culture, we can reshape it.”

Nimmons asserts that “(w)e can shift the discourses around beauty and body; channel new archetypes, create new language, and adopt new habits and rituals.” “We can remind ourselves, in word and deed, of some truths we have long known, but often forgotten.” All the truth-telling is just preparation for work in the real world. The next step is to subvert cynicism and manifest love.

This brings Nimmons to Manifest Love, a project founded by Nimmons that “exists to help gay men find new ways to be with and for each other.” It invites a variety of gay men “to create a new kind of world together, one that better reflects (their) best values and aspirations.” It seeks to foster “a more critical understanding of (recent) cultural innovations . . . and to find concrete ways to manifest sustaining values of (gay) communities.”

A key focus of Manifest Love is “creating individual and collective acts to help (gay men) reflect, experience, and practice values of care and nurture in new ways.” These “loving disturbances” are “innovations and experiments in applied affection;” they are “concrete real-world experiments devised to nudge the patterns and practices of gay lives into more affirming and humane directions.” (Readers of Lavender were introduced to Nimmons and Manifest Love in the March 23, 2001, and May 4, 2001, issues of the magazine.)

The Soul Beneath the Skin is both a clearing away of myths and misinformation about the gay community, and a call to act to bring these transformations to the lives of individual gay men. This book describes a part of a heritage of gay men of which many may not be aware; it provides a basis and foundation, and encouragement, for those who find public gay life other than what they would like, and would like to change it; it shows that the lives of self-identified gay men are not what they often are assumed to be, and that public gay life need not be what it often feels like and appears to be.

Copyright © 2002 by William H. Schlichting

Lessons From a Scene Gone Wrong

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #196, November 29, 2002)

An unfortunate leather/BDSM-related tragedy that happened recently in St. Paul has become national news, and in the process has cast both the local and national leather/BDSM community in a very unflattering light.

Here’s what we know: Maceo Brodnax, who lived in West Hollywood, Calif., is dead. St. Paul resident Steven Bailey, a/k/a “The True Master” (his internet handle), is in police custody, charged with second-degree manslaughter in Brodnax’s death. Bailey is facing a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, a $20,000 fine, or both.

Here’s a condensed version of what apparently led to this outcome: Bailey and Brodnax hooked up over the internet, and on Nov. 2 Brodnax traveled from West Hollywood to Bailey’s apartment in St. Paul. He apparently died there that same day, but Bailey waited several days before trying to dispose of the body. According to a St. Paul Police report, on Nov. 6 at 3:17 AM officers responding to a report of “suspicious activities” found Bailey trying to load Brodnax’s body into his car so he could “dispose of the body in the river.”

The police report states that Bailey originally told police that he and Brodnax “had gotten together to engage in strangulation sex,” but Brodnax had begun to choke him too hard and he then struck Brodnax with an ashtray. When autopsy reports cast doubt on this cause of death, Bailey “admitted he had fabricated his earlier accounting of the incident.” He then said that as part of their activities he had put a gas mask on Brodnax and covered the end of the mask with a plastic bag containing a rag soaked in chloroform. At this point, again from the police report, “the phone rang and he must have lost track of time”. When he realized Brodnax was no longer breathing “he ran back into the bedroom and took the mask off and tried to revive” Brodnax to no avail.

This official recounting of the tragic tale of Brodnax and Bailey raises many questions, to most of which we will probably never know the answers. To anyone at all familiar with the leather/BDSM community the situation as reported presents several “red flags”—elements of the story that make no sense. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to arrange an interview with Bailey for this column, but if I could have talked to him these are a few of the questions I would have asked him:

• How can a top “lose track of time” talking on the phone while a sub is in the next room in a chloroform-filled gas mask? Why would anyone even answer the phone in such circumstances? Why would anyone leave the sub and go to the next room?

• If one’s own efforts at reviving someone failed, why wasn’t 911 called?

• Why wait several days before attempting to dispose of the body? And why, in the middle of a major metropolitan area, would anyone think they could haul a body out to a car at 3 AM without attracting attention?

Since this story came to light I have heard many theories and scenarios trying to explain what went on, and especially the seemingly nonsensical elements, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to recount them here. At this writing they must be regarded at best as only speculation—we’ll probably never know exactly what happened or why, or who’s to blame for what. Maybe more information will come to light during Bailey’s trial, and then more conclusions can be properly drawn. Or maybe not.

That said, what can the rest of us learn from this tragic turn of events? Plenty. For starters, remember that edgeplay is risky. (SM is risky. Sex is risky. Life is risky. But I digress.) If you’re an edgeplayer, the risk is one of the things that makes it exciting and stimulating. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes accidents happen. Usually by accepting that risk one acknowledges that something unpleasant might eventually happen, and one therefore needs to prepares as best one can to deal with it when it happens.

If your definition of edgeplay is “whatever I think is too risky,” that’s an example of YKINOK (Your Kink Is Not OK) thinking, and it’s an attitude that is not helpful to anyone. Remember that something you enjoy might be someone else’s idea of edgeplay. Much of the media seems to think that anything beyond the missionary position qualifies as edgeplay and is having a field day using this story as a bludgeon against kink in general.

A lesson we can draw from Bailey’s plight is to realize that what happened to him could happen to almost anyone. Edgeplay scenes can go wrong. So can less-extreme SM activities. So can vanilla sex, for that matter. What happens if you bring a trick home who subsequently has a heart attack or a stroke? No matter what the emergency, it’s good to be prepared to deal with it by thinking about the possibilities and planning for them beforehand:

• Have appropriate safety equipment available (condoms, gloves, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, bolt cutters, whatever the scene calls for) and a working phone. Another safety idea: MSDB periodically sponsors kink-friendly CPR/first-aid courses; visit their website at for more information.

• Don’t play either top or bottom while angry, under the influence of substances, or when your judgment is otherwise impaired.

• If something goes wrong, don’t panic—panic will keep you from dealing with the situation effectively. Remain calm, stop the action immediately and deal with the problem.

• Don’t be afraid to call 911—someone’s life may depend on your making that call.

Tops, remember that you are responsible for your bottom’s safety. If something goes wrong the bottom might suffer physical, mental or emotional consequences—but most likely you will suffer any legal consequences.

We can also draw a lesson or two from Brodnax’s fate. Foremost among those lessons would probably be the value of getting to know people in your local community (through whom you can check the background and references of potential play partners) and the value of caution when meeting people over the internet (where checking references is not as easy—you can still ask for references, but how does one check the references’ references?).

A good scene starts with trust between the partners, but trust takes time to develop. Meeting someone for the first time and “trusting them immediately” is naive at best and dangerously delusional at worst.

If you’re meeting someone for the first time, especially in an unfamiliar place or another city, don’t meet them alone. If that’s not practical, set up a “safe-call” buddy system—bring a cell phone with you and check in with your buddy at pre-assigned times to let them know you’re okay and how things are progressing. Any resistance to this idea from the person you’re meeting should trigger major warning sirens about their trustworthiness. (For more information about safe-calls visit

Trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t—walk away rather than risk further involvement. If you’re already in a bad situation, get out of it by any means necessary. Do whatever you need to do. Remember these ultimate safewords: “NO!”, “HELP!” and “9-1-1!”, screamed at the top of your lungs if necessary.

Friday, November 15, 2002

What to do If the Cops Show Up

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #195, November 15, 2002)

Suppose you’re attending a dungeon party. Suppose you’re in the middle of heated action and there’s a knock on the door. It’s the police. What do you do?

Now suppose you’re the host of said dungeon party. What do you do?

Or suppose the party is being hosted by an organization of which you are a member, or even of which you are the leader. What do you do?

In all three of the above scenarios, your preparations need to start long before the police ever arrive. Actually, there are steps that organizations, private hosts and partygoers can take that will minimize the possibility that the authorities show up. If (in spite of everyone’s best efforts) the police pay a call anyway, there are things that can be done that might defuse the situation before it spirals out of control.

This information comes to you from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF). Disclaimer: Neither NCSF nor your humble columnist is in the business of presenting legal advice. These are common-sense guidelines. Every situation is different. Your mileage may vary.

Whether hosting a party or attending one, one of the first things to consider is the question of how likely it is that this party will attract the attention of the authorities. What will be happening at the party? A grope/orgy room in the basement? BDSM activities in a dungeon? Is the BDSM “non-sexual” or might it include sex? Is the party all-male, women only or mixed-gender? It is unfortunate but true that certain activities and certain groups of people are of less concern to the authorities than certain other activities and groups of people.

Imagine you’re a police officer. You know about as much as the average citizen knows about sex parties or BDSM activities. Your police department has probably not given you training in these areas.

As an individual officer you might take action against activities you find at these types of events for any number of reasons: You might perceive the actions as illegal; there might be peer pressure from other officers; you may be afraid not to do something in the situation (CYA, in other words); or you just might not like someone’s attitude and feel like teaching them a lesson. Your police agency might encourage or direct you to take action against these kinds of activities for all the above reasons and/or for the added reasons of politics (internal or external) and community pressure. That’s some of what’s motivating the officer who knocks on your door.

Here are some ways to minimize the chance of that officer paying a visit Some don’ts: Perhaps no alcohol. Definitely no illegal substances. Definitely no minors. No money should change hands at the door—that looks too much like “sexual services” for compensation. Either let it be a free party, use a true donation system, or pre-register attendees in advance.

There’s a formidable amount of legal research that should be done beforehand, including applicable state and local laws, local permit rules, zoning ordinances and fire codes. Don’t allow occupancy by more than the legal number and don’t block fire exits. (You might also want to consider the matter of insurance coverage for the event.)

Don’t draw unwanted attention. Advertising and invitations must be targeted and discreet. Respect the neighborhood: Partygoers should not park illegally, should be wearing street-legal attire to and from the party, should not litter and should obey all local smoking ordinances. Too much noise or any public displays of activities that the neighbors might find offensive are sure ways to get the cops on your doorstep.

The entry to the party must be a defined area that is visually separated from the various activity areas, and there should no sex, BDSM activities or socializing in the entry area. There should be designated door personnel who should admit only people who have been invited to the party. As guests arrive they should be asked to sign a “Waiver of Liability” or “Assignment of Risk.” A sign in the entryway and a statement on the sign-in sheet should inform guests of the nature of the party; this demonstrates that all guests had “informed consent” as to just what kind of party this is.

These preparations will pay off if, in spite of all your precautions, the party is visited by the authorities. If that happens, one of the designated door attendants should go outside, close the door and ask if they can be of assistance. Try to resolve the issue there. If the officer wants to gain entry, the door attendant should politely advise them that they do not have the authority to grant entry and that they will go get a person who does. They should then leave the officer outside while getting the host, property owner, rentor, lessor or organization member in charge. That person should then go outside and talk to the officer, again trying to resolve the matter there.

All this time, of course, word should be spread to the rest of the party so guests can compose themselves. Stop the action, clean up and get dressed as soon as possible.

You do not have to allow a “consent search” or a “voluntary entry.” However, if the officer does not want to wait and decides to enter without permission, do not block the officer’s entry. (That would be called “obstruction of justice.”) Voice your objection and stand aside.

In dealing with law enforcement officials, the following tips are taken from a “Pocket Reference” card provided by the NCSF. They are important for anyone to remember, and not just at parties:

In dealing with officers:

• DO stay calm.

• DO be respectful, polite and courteous.

• DO use your common sense.

• DON’T have a “bad attitude.”

Statements and Communication:

• You have the right not to make statements.

• You have the right not to incriminate yourself.

• Be honest in whatever you decide to say.

• Use simply language, clear and easy to understand. (You don’t want to come across as speaking down to them.)


• In cases of interrupted BDSM play where the officer suspects abuse, volunteer to have your partner talk to the police to reinforce the consensual nature of the action.

• Transport toys in a secure location and in the trunk of the vehicle. Do not consent to a search.

• Keep in mind those things that demonstrate that consensual SM is different from abuse.

And finally, although I sincerely hope you never need to use this piece of advice:

• If you are arrested, do NOT make any statements, and ask for an attorney.

NCSF has much more information available on this topic. Contact them at National Coalition for Sexual Freedom/Law Enforcement Outreach Program, (301) 585-7820 or

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

MSDB Bizarre Bazaar
Saturday, November 16, 11AM-6PM
Location change: Moose On Monroe, 356 Monroe St. NE, Minneapolis (call for directions)
Minnesota Stocks, Debentures and Bonds (MSDB) presents its 3rd annual fetish holiday shopping experience: fetish/leather, books, piercing jewelry, portrait photographer, tarot readings, and live entertainment by Psychic Slutz. $3 in advance, $5 at the door; advance tickets available at Dreamhaven Books, Deluxe Piercing, or at

Friday, November 1, 2002

The Next Generation of Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #194, November 1, 2002)

Leather, like almost every other community these days, has to deal with a generation gap. Our version is called Old Guard vs. New Guard, and it can make the routine battles of parents and teenagers look like high tea. Here is a brief snippet of typical dialogue—or rather, two monologues—from the two camps:

Old Guard: New Guard, you say you’re the future of leather? Boy, are we in trouble! You’re undisciplined, you’re disrespectful, you’re slovenly! You think you know everything, but take it from me—you know nothing! You’re hopeless! Why should I waste my time trying to whip you into shape—so to speak—when you show absolutely no interest in shaping up, getting your act together, and doing it right?

New Guard: Old Guard, you’re an old fogey! You’re still fighting World War II, or at least Vietnam! The world has changed, but you haven’t! People don’t go for all that hierarchy and discipline stuff any more, and most of your vaunted protocols are just so tired! Why would I want to play those games? Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I want to be your apprentice for the next 20 years! What do you have to teach me anyway? Who said your way was the only right way? Who made you leather god?

It didn’t used to be like this. For the first several decades of the leather community’s existence there was no Old Guard vs. New Guard. Those expressing an interest in leather were mentored by those already in the community; in this way the community’s knowledge, traditions and values were passed down from generation to generation. The AIDS epidemic destroyed this system of mentoring, as described by noted leather author and International Mr. Leather 1989 Guy Baldwin in a recent speech:

“. . . the old leather tribal elders . . . became distracted by the need to help care for their own brothers who were suddenly fighting for their lives, and all too often, losing the battles . . . the tribal elders simply no longer had the time or the emotional energy necessary to focus on bringing new ‘children’ into the fold. And just as in any culture, whenever elders can’t make time for their children, those elders become irrelevant as children strike out on their own to explore their interests . . . whatever they happen to be.”

So that’s the problem. What do we do about it? Here’s a starting suggestion: You know all the advice and cliches about parenting and raising children that you’ve heard over the years? Some of us who didn’t have kids thought we could safely ignore them. But—guess what—they apply now, to our community. The elders are parenting the community, and the next generation represents their leather offspring. They don’t call them Daddies for nothing.

So, what do leather parents need to know? First let me say that your humble columnist writing about parenting is like a priest offering marriage counseling. So I am indebted to Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for this bit of parenting wisdom:

“There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children—one is roots, the other wings.”

Ponder that for a moment. Let it sink in.

We can give the next generation of leather roots by remembering, respecting and honoring our leather traditions and those in leather who have gone before us. The Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago is so important because it’s all about roots. So is the heritage of leather clubs. We also give the next generation of leather roots through education that goes beyond mere technique—by modeling and sharing our community’s heart, soul and values. There’s more to BDSM than just technique, and there’s more to Leather than just BDSM.

Because of the huge hole left in the community’s structure by AIDS, the New Guard felt it was in the position of having to reinvent the wheel. A sense of roots lets the next generation of leather know the who and the how and the why of the community, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel—they just have to update it.

We give the next generation of leather wings by giving them freedom—by letting them update that wheel. They’re not us. They will do things differently, and their leather community will reflect them, just as today’s leather community is a reflection of us.

We can’t know what the future holds—who could have seen AIDS coming? But we do know one thing the future holds: change. I’ve seen leather change since I started writing this column in 1995, and it will continue to change and evolve. It won’t stay the same. If we try to keep it the same—if we don’t let it change—it will die. We will kill it.

As we pass the leather torch to the next generation, we can’t tie their hands—so to speak—by saying, “Here, we bequeath this to you—but you must always do it like this.” What kind of estate planning is that? Besides, we won’t be around to check up on whether they’re doing it “right.” All we can really do is to foster a next generation who understands leather, respects it, cherishes it, and is smart enough to make good decisions about its evolution.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Atons Leather & Levi Dining Out
Saturday, November 9, Cocktails at 7PM/Dinner at 7:30PM
McCormick & Schmick’s, 800 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
Presented by the Atons of Minneapolis, open to all. Please call the Atons HotLine for more information or to make reservations.

Atons Beer Bust: Harness Your Tom (Turkey)
Sunday, November 10, 6-10PM, The Tank (Saloon)
Learn the ABC’s of flogging at the Atons’ monthly $5 beer bust. Demonstrations and door prizes. Tank dress code enforced.

MSDB Bizarre Bazaar
Saturday, November 16, 11AM-5PM
2700 Winter St. NE (off Industrial Blvd.), Minneapolis
Minnesota Stocks, Debentures and Bonds (MSDB) presents a fetish holiday shopping experience: fetish/leather, books, massage, piercings, portrait photographer, tarot readings, petting zoo with live animals (not for the kids—wink wink nudge nudge). Live entertainment by Psychic Slutz. $5 in advance, $6 at the door; advance tickets available at Dreamhaven Books, at or MSDB, Minneapolis, MN.