Friday, October 24, 2008

Leather Invasion: Kink The Vote!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #350, October 24, 2008)

Date: Tuesday, Nov. 4

Location: Your designated polling place

Six months ago I wrote a column with the headline “Sex and Politics” (Lavender issue 335, March 28, 2008). I ended that column by saying, “If politicians professing to be God-fearing Christians have made such a mess of things over the last few decades, it might take a bunch of people formerly known as ‘pervs’ to make things better.”

It’s time. On Tuesday, Nov. 4, in the spirit of many “Rock The Vote!” and, more recently, “Queer The Vote” campaigns over the years, it’s time for “Kink The Vote!”, a nationwide Leather Invasion of the polls to help make sure the next four years are better than the last eight.

The concept of a “Leather Invasion” was invented by Robert Valin, a self-described “leather bear” who lives in New York City. Dismayed by bar closings and other signs that New York City’s leather scene was dwindling, he set about to revitalize things by calling for “new and alternative social and cultural activities for those interested in the love, commraderie [sic] and kinship of the Leather/Fetish lifestyle.”

In one of the group’s early outings, New York City leatherfolk invaded MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. Other Leather Invasions have included IKEA, Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The idea has been adopted elsewhere, including the Twin Cities, where there have been Leather Invasion nights at several local theaters and restaurants. (Of course, the Atons of Minneapolis have long held their monthly Leather/Levi dinners at area restaurants—same idea.)

Now it’s time for the biggest and most important Leather Invasion ever—nationwide, at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

I don’t have to tell you things are a mess. I don’t have to tell you how bad the last eight years have been for our community, our country and the world in general. You can see it all around you.

I don’t have to tell you how you should vote. You’re smart enough to figure that out for yourself.

But consider this: The leather/BDSM/fetish community is a voting bloc. Or it could be if we want it to be, and if we make it one.

The radical Christian right is often estimated to make up about 15% of the voting public. The GLBT community usually is estimated at roughly 10% of the population, but according to the Stonewall Democrats GLBT voters account for only between 4% and 5% of voters in national exit polls.

Kinky folk, according to author Gloria G. Brame (Come Hither: A Commonsense Guide to Kinky Sex) are estimated to be between 5 and 50% of the population; the consensus is 10-15%, but Brame suspects the true percentage is higher.

Now consider that in 2004 about 64% of the general population voted. In the 2006 mid-term elections that figure fell to 40%. That’s a lot of people not voting. That means that if you do vote, your vote’s significance and influence is increased.

Imagine if we, the proud members of the leather/BDSM/fetish community, all showed up in force and voted. Imagine if we all got our friends to come to the polls and vote with us.

That’s what we need to do. We need to vote, and we need to vote in numbers big enough that the election results are a sound repudiation of the damaging and destructive politics and policies of the last eight years (and, in reality, most of the last twenty-eight). Oh, and we need to vote in numbers that produce such a large enough margin of victory that the election can’t be stolen—or stolen again, for those of you who are into conspiracy theories.

You can bet the forces of intolerance will be at the polls. These people will be voting against our community’s best interests, but ironically against their own best interests as well. Some people are so concerned with keeping an African American out of the White House, or keeping gays and lesbians from marrying, or trying to control what goes on in other people’s bedrooms, or taking away a woman’s right to make choices about her own body, they will base their vote on those issues and ignore the economy, the environment, two wars and our country’s tattered image.

These people will be voting. We need to outnumber them.

And remember, it’s not just a presidential election. Minnesotans, for example, will be voting also for a U.S. senator, a U.S. representative, state representatives, a variety of district and appellate judges, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, and possibly for other city and county offices and on various ballot issues. Be an informed voter—research candidates and issues before you go to the polls.

Not registered to vote? In Minnesota you can register at the polls on election day (info at <>). Wisconsin and Iowa also allow same-day registration at the polls. (By the way, the state with the highest voter turnout in the 2004 elections was Minnesota, with Wisconsin taking second-place honors.)

You have every reason to vote and no excuse not to. On Nov. 4, everybody gets one vote, although not everyone will use it. Use yours. Kink the Vote!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Meet CARAS: Better Leather Living Through Research

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #349, October 10, 2008)

And now for something really sexy . . .

Research—or, to be more specific, research concerning leather/BDSM/fetish and other alternative sexualities.

Okay, maybe research isn’t terribly “sexy.” But it’s important. And our community has the good fortune of having an organization that understands how important good, credible research can be. That organization is CARAS (Community Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities).

CARAS is a national-scale organization that started with an idea proposed by Dr. Richard Sprott at the ninth annual Leather Leadership Conference in 2005. The organization’s mission is to support and promote excellence in the study of alternative sexualities and to make research findings and information available both to other scholars and to alternative sexuality communities (including leather, BDSM, fetish, kink and polyamory). It does this by creating partnerships between community groups and academic researchers.

Good research is crucial for advancing the interests of sexual minority communities. The GLBT community benefited enormously from research done by Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s and 1950s, which among other things showed a much greater prevalence of non-heterosexuality than had been previously thought to exist.

Also in the 1950s, Dr. Evelyn Hooker actually tested the then-prevalent idea that homosexuals were mentally ill. Her findings: self-identified homosexuals were no worse in social adjustment than the general population.

Research that challenged medical and legal discrimination against homosexuals, like Kinsey’s and Hooker’s, has been a big factor in improving life for members of the GLBT community. CARAS’ goal is to foster the same kind of research to benefit other alternative-sexuality communities.

Not much empirical information about alternative sexualities is currently available. Questions about what alternative sexualities are, how they affect people’s lives and how members of alternative-sexuality communities interact with the rest of society have not really been studied in a systematic, scientific way. Good research can replace ignorance and silence with well-grounded, accurate facts and insight.

Because solid research hasn’t been done, the many examples of inaccurate research that draw flawed conclusions about alternative sexualities are hard to challenge. Some of this flawed research is done by researchers with no connection to the communities they are studying, which often leads to clueless results. Worse, some researchers are influenced by preconceptions, myths and stereotypes, and the resulting studies are not objective, but instead are actively biased against the communities being studied. CARAS strives to encourage and disseminate research that is helpful instead of pointless or damaging.

In its role as a liaison, CARAS must satisfy the needs of scholarly and academic researchers. Simply stated, those needs are: get funded, get data and get published. If the research helps advance a researcher’s career or helps expand a field or domain of knowledge, so much the better.

But CARAS also must satisfy the needs of alternative-sexuality communities, such as the need that the research be relevant and helpful to the community. It also is important that the results be presented in understandable English instead of academic jargon.

To harmonize these needs, CARAS uses a research model known as “community-based research.” This is not a new invention—it’s an established concept that has been used, for example, in HIV/AIDS and other public health research.

Community-based research differs from traditional research by focusing on communities, not isolated individuals. Also, in traditional research models, researchers have all the power and authority, and the ability to dictate what’s important and what’s not. In community-based research, however, power is shared between the community being studied and the researchers doing the studying. A community can decide that research being proposed would not be helpful, and can choose not to support the research or to suggest changes to the proposal. Ideally, the community has input at every stage of a research project—what ideas will be researched, how the research will be done, and the manner in which the results will be made available.

CARAS already has some significant accomplishments to its credit. It created a well-received training DVD for counselors and therapists on working with clients who are kinky (contact them at the address below for a copy of the DVD). It recently reviewed a proposal from a student wanting to research the impact of stigma against leather/BDSM/kink on people’s access to health care. And it has done presentations and outreach at annual meetings and conferences of the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and several other professional groups. CARAS currently is the only organization consistently doing this type of outreach in vanilla settings.

Community support is essential to CARAS’ mission and success. Individuals can subscribe to the organization’s newsletter and web forums. Community organizations can get involved by becoming sponsors of CARAS. Academics wanting to do research on alternative-sexuality communities can be referred to CARAS to have their research proposals reviewed. (CARAS can be contacted at <>.)

One final thought: Research has a long timeline—doing it takes a long time, but the results are influential for a long time, too. Right now the leather/BDSM/fetish community is about where the gay community was in the 1960s, and seems to be moving on the same path. CARAS exists to facilitate and focus the efforts of a modern-day Kinsey or Hooker whose research will lead to greater acceptance of alternative sexualities.