Friday, January 21, 2005

Virtual or Reality?

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #252, January 21, 2005)

It’s fashionable these days to talk about how technology is ruining leather and BDSM culture. Some say it started with the invention of the videocassette recorder—before which, since most people didn’t have film projectors at home, it was necessary to leave one’s residence, go to a theater, and actually mingle with other people in order to watch a porn film. With the VCR, one could watch a porn video in the privacy—and isolation—of one’s living room.

Then someone invented telephone sex lines, which subsequently morphed into chatrooms—before which it was necessary to leave one’s residence, go to a bar (or a bathhouse, park or dungeon) and mingle with other people in order to find, um, companionship.

Then came dial-a-trick, which became click-a-trick, which meant that one no longer needed to leave the house in order to cruise for sex or BDSM play partners.

But, so the argument goes, chatrooms are at worst a poor replacement for, and at best often a shoddy introduction to, actual real-life community experience.

To a great extent I agree with statements of this kind. But, on the other hand, technology and new inventions are not necessarily always bad. I’m glad , for example, that somebody invented the technology that allows people to read this column over the web.

In fact, I have a list of new inventions I’d like to see and technologies I wish would be taken further.

The first VCR I ever owned seemed great at the time. But my second VCR made the first seem primitive. Why? Because it had a remote control that allowed me to start, stop, pause, fast-forward and rewind from the comfort of my chair.

Let’s take that concept further: I want a VCR remote control for my life. Just think—if I caught a fleeting glimpse of a handsome man in a crowd, I could put life on pause and get a better look. Or, if I had too much to do and not enough time to do it, I could put everything else on pause until I caught up.

Boring meeting? Fast-forward through it. Really great vacation? Hit rewind and enjoy it all again—fast-forwarding through the mundane parts, of course.

Another example of technology that needs to be taken further is a feature of Adobe Photoshop and other digital-image-editing software: the cloning tool. Its on-screen icon looks like a tiny rubber stamp. It allows one to digitally sample a portion of an image and then duplicate (“clone”) it anywhere else on the image.

To see the cloning tool in action is to watch magic happen. Perhaps there’s a picture taken on a recent vacation that would be scenic except for the telephone poles and power lines. Simply sample the sky and clone away the wires going through the air. Then sample the trees and clone in some more trees in place of the telephone poles.

I want somebody to invent a cloning tool for real life. It would truly be a tool of a thousand uses. Imagine the infomercial: “Did you get mad and put your fist through the sheetrock? Simply sample another portion of the wall and clone away the damage! Teenagers: Did your face break out before a heavy date? No more Clearsil—clone away blemishes instantly! (Also works on scars, wrinkles and bags under the eyes!) Male-pattern baldness? Clone some hair into that bald spot! The possibilities are limited only by your imagination!”

Adobe Photoshop is based on technology that was originally invented by the innovative and creative folks at NASA for enhancing photographs from outer space. But not all inventions are technological ones—and when it comes to inventions, the innovative and creative people in the leather and BDSM communities have come up with some great ones over the years, too.

The invention of the hanky code, for example, adds interest and conversational opportunities to cruising while also being a great timesaver.

Another great invention to come out of the dungeon is the safeword, a means of quick communication during a scene. One of the most common safeword scenarios is modeled on the metaphor of a traffic light: When asked, a response of “green” means everything is fine, so keep going. Say “yellow” and the action slows down or temporarily halts while people check up on you and see how you’re doing. Say “red” and that’s it—the action stops, scene over.

So actually, in the dungeon one can have the real-life functions of the some of the buttons on the VCR remote control. Saying “yellow” is like pressing “pause” and saying “red” is like pressing “stop” or “eject.” Now if we could just figure out the fast-forward and reverse thing.

The problem is that safewords don’t work outside the dungeon. Believe me, I have tried. But when my car is spinning out of control, or the doctor has just told me the lesion is malignant, or the pipes have burst and are flooding the basement, yelling “RED!” at the top of my lungs doesn’t do any good.

All of this, to me, makes the concept of dungeon play that much more valuable. We call it “play” to distinguish it from real torture experiences, like what happened in Nazi concentration camps or more recently at Abu Graibh. A “scene” in a dungeon is like a scene in a play, except that it’s participatory theater instead of happening on a stage.

Both live theater and dungeon play are “real” in that they involve flesh-and-blood humans (as opposed to the celluloid image of a movie or the video image of videogames and chatrooms). Both dungeon play and live theater are illusory in the sense that they are exercises in role-playing. Both require what theatrical textbooks call “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

But illusory or not, once disbelief has been suspended both live theater and dungeon play can be profound and life-changing experiences. Someday virtual-reality technology may well evolve to the point where it can offer the same level of experience. Someday I might have real-life fast-forward and rewind buttons—and my real-life cloning tool, too.

But for now, technology only goes so far. And chatrooms and the internet can offer only a shadow of the richness and transforming power of real-life involvement in the real-life leather/BDSM community.

Friday, January 7, 2005

The Leather Life Interview: Jason Hendrix, IML 2004

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #251, January 7, 2005)

PHOTO: Jason Hendrix, International Mr. Leather 2004

You can tell by the way he smiles, and from his easy and hearty laugh, that International Mr. Leather (IML) 2004 Jason Hendrix is a genuinely happy guy.

He’s also a busy guy. Since Hendrix won the IML 2004 title last May he has appeared at seventeen events throughout the U.S. and in Canada and Germany.

But he wasn’t too busy to grant me a phone interview, so I called him at home one recent Tuesday night.

Leather Life: So, Jason, what are you doing right now?

Jason Hendrix: I’m doing laundry, and after I get off the phone with you I’ll be balancing my checkbook and paying bills. I’m doing laundry because I leave on Friday to go to Nuremburg, Germany.

What events have you done so far this year? I’ve got a partial list: Washington, D.C. Pride; Folsom Street East in New York City; San Francisco Gay Pride; a fundraiser in Baltimore; Mid-Atlantic Leather Sir/boy in Washington, D.C.; IMsL; Great Lakes Leather Alliance in Indianapolis; and Berlin Folsom Europe in the beginning of September.

Then I was in Kansas City for the Mr. Dixie Belle contest, and then San Francisco for the Mr. San Francisco Leather contest and Folsom Street Fair. The next weekend I judged the Mr. New York City Eagle contest. The next weekend I was in St. Petersburg, Florida for the International Leather Sir/Leatherboy contest. Then the next weekend I had off! And then, let’s see, I was in Detroit, Michigan for a fundraiser, and then Hartford, Connecticut, as a judge for the Mr. Connecticut Leather contest.

Then I was at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force meeting in St. Louis. Then I was in Washington for my stepdown as Mr. D.C. Eagle, then I was in Toronto for Mr. Leather Toronto and my first runner-up Remi Collette’s stepdown. I stayed with Remi and his lover David—David Kloss, the first IML—and had a great time.

So now I go to Germany. And then it all starts back up again Martin Luther King Weekend with the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend.

Whirlwind schedule—I’m exhausted just hearing about it. How many weekends have you had off since you won the title?

I haven’t counted. I know I’ve had off more than John [Pendal, IML 2003], and part of that is because I didn’t have the luxury of not working. In fact, when John put the medallion around my neck and put the sash on me that Sunday night at IML, he leaned over and he said to me, “Don’t quit your job.”

The voice of experience.

(Hendrix laughs) One of the most difficult things I’ve found in being IML is that doing it alone is really hard. I’m still working my job [with the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors in Washington, D.C.]. I’m trying to get in as many hours as I can during the week while I’m here. Sometimes I work Monday through Thursday ten hours a day so I can get Friday off and go away for the weekend. And trying to juggle that with IML, which is almost a full-time job itself, and home, and finances—it becomes a real challenge for me to get it all done.

But after next weekend I’m going to have about five weeks that I don’t go anywhere, and it’s going to be a great time for me to catch up on my first six months of paperwork and to finish writing my journal of what I did the first six months [to be posted on the web at Hendrix’s website, <>].

Are all the events blurring together? Are there things that you remember about each one? For instance, how was IMsL [the International Ms Leather contest]?

IMsL was interesting—I told one friend of mine, “You know, I felt like the most popular kid in high school.” Everybody wanted to come and sit down beside me, and everybody wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me. It was a little overwhelming. But I had a great time.

It’s very interesting for me to be going to these events as the current IML, because in my mind before I was IML I looked at a man who was an International Mr. Leather, and, you know, this person has achieved a certain status and a certain rank and a certain—something. You know, in my head I had built up who this person was. Now I meet people, and they’re like, you know, “I can’t believe it’s you! It’s such an honor to meet you!” and to myself I’m like, “Okay, I understand that, but I’m just Jason.” I don’t really get caught up in all the celebrity part of it.

What’s been really nice, too, is wherever I go there are guys from my class there, that I competed with in IML. IML was such an incredible experience. You get there Wednesday night, and you start with the pre-registration. One of our classmates, Mr. Oregon, had started a Yahoo group for all of us. In the weeks before the contest people were saying, “We should all get together, let’s meet somewhere and have dinner together.” Finally I got on there and said, “I’ll make a reservation, how many people want to go to dinner?” We ended up having like 40 people for dinner Wednesday night, and we just started there, meeting and getting to know each other. And then suddenly it’s Sunday, a few nights later, and it’s like, “Omigosh, it’s going to be over in a few hours!” It was very sad, because you didn’t get to know everyone, but I got to know a lot of guys, like, really close. After this experience I have a lot of men who I know will be friends for the rest of my life. They’re just really great men—I listened to parts of their lives, and the things they’re doing in their community, and I thought, “Wow, there’s no way I am going to be able to stand next to them.” It was quite incredible and humbling to be with these men, and they took up the job after IML was over—they went back to their communities and continued doing the work that they were doing. They didn’t stop just because they didn’t win IML—they kept doing the work, which is really, really important and really impressive.

I have to tell you, though—I have heard many other IMLs say exactly what you just said about, you know, “I saw all these other men, and wondered how can I possibly compete with them?” and they’re the ones who went on to win. So, that seems like that’s pretty universal. If you didn’t have that reaction you probably wouldn’t win.

Right. I mean, I have heard stories, which I know are true, about men who either didn’t make the top 20 or they didn’t make the podium, and they either threw temper tantrums or packed their bags and left Chicago. But that’s not what it’s about! I don’t understand what they thought was going to happen, because for me it was like, whatever happens, happens. I’m going to do my best and see what the outcome is. Anybody that sees the DVD or the video can tell that when they called my name, I was in shock!

I got a picture of you at that exact moment—your mouth is hanging open, and your hands are coming up to your mouth. It’s like you’re absolutely gasping in shock.

I was! I was—it was so funny because when I got there, they didn’t have a nametag for me. And the second day they said, “Well, everyone will have a nametag by Thursday.” I still didn’t have a nametag, I didn’t get one until Friday—everybody else had a nametag, but I was still just “contestant.”

And then we picked numbers, and I picked #2—and I thought, I got a low number, and you know low numbers never win. Maybe I’ll make top 20, but low numbers never win, and I was so depressed about that.

I did my interview, and then I talked to other contestants who said, “Oh, my interview was so hard!” And I thought, “Uh-oh, mine wasn’t hard—why wasn’t mine hard?” So I said, “Well, what did they ask you?” And they’d tell me the questions they were asked, and I thought, “Okay, I got asked the same question, but I didn’t think it was a hard question.” They were just questions about yourself. And I thought that was kind of interesting, that some of them thought the questions were hard—the judges just wanted to know who we are, you know, they wanted to know what wasn’t written on the application.

Tell me about the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force meeting in St. Louis.

You know, Matt Foreman [executive director of NGLTF, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force] came and spoke at this year’s IML contest and apologized for them not including the leather community for the first 31 years of their organization. So they made sure that I was there, IMsL was there, and International Mr. Bootblack was there—and actually recognized us the second morning of the plenary. And they showed my “I Want You to Vote” poster from the Leather Vote Project up on the big screen, and explained how great it was that we had all come together, and how we had teamed up with them and how vital and important the leather community was.

Until just now, I didn’t connect that speech at IML with the fact that you teamed up with NGLTF for the Leather Vote Project.

Well, you know, Chuck Renslow is also on the board of NGLTF, and they were looking for a way to reach the leather community. And they knew that one of the things I wanted to focus on the first six months of my year was the importance of voting—it wasn’t necessarily who to vote for, but the importance of voting, why it’s important and why we all need to vote. And then I would mention some of the things that we need to think about, and, you know, without saying who to vote for, kinda who to vote for.

A lot of people may know you from your Leather Vote Project poster. I was handing out Leather Vote Project palm cards at The Minneapolis Eagle, and I wish you could have seen the, um, “appreciative” looks when I handed the cards to people and they saw your photo.

But it didn’t work! The same administration is still in the White House! What do we do now?

Well, you know, I won’t say that it didn’t work. A lot of people were being pessimistic about it—but more people voted in this election than have voted in forty years. To get people out to vote, it was great. I think that our community really turned out well, and did great work, and got out there and voted. I had men contact me and say, “You told me to vote, and I want to let you know that I voted, and I had never voted before.” So that really meant a lot to me.

But I think the thing we need to do as a community is not to look four years down the road—we can’t think 2008, we have to think 2005, and 2006, and 2007, and our city councils, and our mayors, and our governors. It’s got to be across all levels—you just can’t say, well, we’ll wait for the next presidential election in four years.

What other causes are you working for this year?

Mentorship. There are so many people now who are going online to find their kink—you know, all of these websites, and you put your pictures up and talk about what you like to do. I’ll go in there and see these guys who are like, “Oh, yeah, I’m 25 and I’m a Master.” And I’m like, “Huh? How could you be—who trained you?” I’m 41 and I’ve been practicing SMBD for ten years almost, and I’m not a Master. How could someone who’s been having sex for a couple years be a Master?

But they don’t know. They just read something on someone else’s site, or talk to somebody else online, and they figure they know what they’re doing.

For me, when I came out into leather, the internet wasn’t really much of anything. So, when I wanted to find out about stuff, I saw a guy at my gym that I knew went to the Eagle, and I asked him if he knew someone who could teach me, that I’d like to learn some things. And he said, “Yes, it’s someone who I’ve used, I highly recommend him.” So I went that route.

I’m not sure how we as a community can get people back out into the community. I don’t know, but it’s bothersome to me and I’m not sure how we would address it.

Well, I’m glad that at least you’re talking about the issue.

One of the other things I hope to talk about in my last six months, and actually even after my year is up, is to get the message out that as someone who’s negative, to say that it’s okay to be negative, and to talk about how to negotiate safer sex.

You know, when you’re growing up you’re taught that the boy cuts the grass and the woman washes the dishes, and the boy plays football and the girl plays with her dolls, and women talk about their feelings and men don’t talk about that stuff—because it’s feminine to do that. So I think you see a lot of men don’t talk about or negotiate safe sex.

That’s one of the great things I learned with SM—to negotiate a scene beforehand, what’s allowable and what’s not. On the internet, they’re not really negotiating anything—they’re just saying, do you want to come over, hook up, whatever.

I’ve met guys and gone home with them, and things start getting hot and heavy, and I pull out the condom, and he says, “I don’t need that.” And I say, “I do.” And he says, “Well, okay.” He doesn’t care. But I think to myself, “I don’t know you, and I don’t know the last person you were with.” I don’t think people are thinking. And there are so many positive men who are into barebacking, and they think it’s okay because they’re only doing it with other positive men—but what about all the other things they can pick up?

When I went to Berlin I was really impressed with how sexually free everyone was—all the bars had darkrooms, but they also had condoms and lube—and the men practiced safe sex. I also don’t think there’s as much of a drug culture in Europe as there is in the U.S. right now.

Talking about your day job: Are they supportive? How have they been, having International Mr. Leather as an employee?

It was really interesting. After I won, the director, who’s my boss, was very excited. She said, “You know, you’re a gay leader now, this is so great!” She’s been really great about my saying, “I’m gonna have to squeeze some hours in here, and move some around there,” and I’m using up all my vacation that I had built up over the years, which is fine.

What a way to use up vacation!

Yeah, really! A couple months ago, my mother actually asked me, “So, are you going to take a vacation this year?” and I just started laughing—“But I call you every weekend and I’m in a different town, you know?” And I said, “No, there’s no vacation this year.” Sometime in the summer I’ll take a week off and enjoy having time to just be Jason.

Although, when I was in Canada I was talking to David Kloss—the first IML, remember—and I asked him, “Does it really ever stop? I mean, yeah, your year is over and then it’s the next gentleman’s turn, but I know that you’re always an IML.” And he said, “Yeah, you are—you are always an IML, and people will refer to you as that years and years down the road. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s Jason Hendrix, he was IML 2004.’” And I was like, “That’s kinda wild.”