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.

Friday, January 9, 2004

This Calls for a (Kink-Aware) Professional

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #225, January 9, 2004)

Sooner or later, everyone is confronted with some sort of problem requiring professional help. It may be physical, it may involve mental or emotional health, or it may simply be a practical matter such as legal help, financial planning or even a crashed computer hard drive. Especially as one year ends and a new one begins, many New Year’s resolutions are about making changes that involve the services of a trained professional.

Once you’ve decided that professional help is needed, the next step is finding the right professional. It’s important to find one with whom you’re comfortable and whom you feel you can trust. If you can trust them you will be able to be honest with them, and the ability to communicate openly, honestly and completely can make the difference between success and failure in the professional relationship.

While finding the right professional help can be a daunting task for anyone, kinky people and others involved in alternative sexualities are faced with problems that other people aren’t. The last thing we need is a professional whose prejudices and judgments will get in the way. At best they will be a hindrance to dealing with our problem, and at worst they can actually cause the situation to become worse.

A classic example of this is chemical-dependency treatment for gays and lesbians. There are alcoholism and chemical-dependency treatment centers that work very well for most people but that put a significant stumbling block in the way of gays and lesbians, who are told: “We’re not here to discuss your sexuality, we’re here to discuss your alcoholism.” In other words, discussion of your sexuality is off-limits here, regardless of whether or not you might think it has anything to do with your addiction.

Treatment centers of this type expect you to ignore your sexuality and to therefore not be honest about who you are. The necessity of keeping one’s sexuality under wraps in a treatment setting can be a real barrier to dealing effectively with the issues that brought you there in the first place. And if these treatment centers often don’t deal effectively with gay and lesbian issues, a trans person will probably be met with even less understanding.

That’s why GLBT substance-abuse treatment centers have been established. They are safe places for GLBT folks to get the help they need without judgments getting in the way. The theory is that the more honest one can be about who one is and why one does what one does, the more likely it is that the person will be able to stop the behaviors that are causing them problems.

It’s the same for kinky people of whatever sexual orientation. Life is easier and simpler when you don’t have to spend time and energy explaining to your physician about the lash marks on your back. And suppose a kinky person is involved in divorce proceedings with a non-kinky person, and child-custody issues are involved—it is probably not a good idea for the kinky person to have a lawyer who thinks their client’s kinky behavior is sick and that the kids will probably be better off with the non-kinky, and therefore “healthy,” parent.

That’s why the notion of “kink-aware professionals” came into being. Any web search engine will pull up many hits for this search, but probably the most popular website in this field is the Kink-Aware Professionals (KAP) list (<>). The privately funded, non-profit website bills itself as a resource for people who are seeking “professionals who are informed about the diversity of consensual, adult sexuality.” While it formerly carried only listings from the United States and Canada it has now been broadened to include listings from around the world.

The KAP list includes listings for professions where kink-awareness is especially important and can make the difference between success and failure of the professional relationship. Some of the professions are health-related: psychotherapists, medical doctors, spiritual counseling, and other “complementary” healers such as chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists. There also are listings for legal and financial professionals, and there even are listings for computer professionals—which means you can find someone to retrieve data from your crashed hard disk without having them judge the contents of your saved e-mails or JPEG files.

According to the site, professionals who are listed there “may or may not be personally involved in kink sexuality, but they are friendly to such erotic choices.” The site states that its list “is composed of professionals who have requested that their listings be posted on this site. None of them are screened in any way. This means that anyone contacting these professionals should take the necessary precautions, just as you would do if you were searching for a professional through any other means.” So, once you have the name of a professional whom you might want to use, it might be worth meeting with the professional, discussing what you’d like to accomplish with them, and seeing if you feel comfortable working with them. Ask them for references, but also do some networking on your own. Ask around the community and see if other people have had experience with this professional, and if the experience was good or bad.

As a bonus, the KAP website includes an extensive collection of links covering many facets of the leather/BDSM community. There are links to organizations, leather crafters, erotic toy and other retailers, magazine and book publishers, accommodations, personal websites and more.

The website requests that you “Always tell any professional you find here that you heard about them through the KAP website. It is important that they know this referral system is working.” And if you happen to be a kink-aware professional in one of the fields covered by the KAP list, visit the site to find out how you too can be listed.