Friday, June 4, 2010

Leather Pride: In Our Hides . . . or In Hiding?

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #392, June 4, 2010)

“I am who I am. I am not ashamed of who I am—not one bit.”

These are the words of the late Harvey “Jack” McGeorge, weapons inspector with the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC)—and a longtime leather/BDSM/fetish community activist and leader. In 2002, at the height of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, McGeorge was “outed” as a BDSM practitioner by The Washington Post. To be able to make the above statement in the midst of a media firestorm—that’s leather pride.

In the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and elsewhere across the nation, June is Pride Month for both the GLBT and leather/BDSM/fetish communities. We spend much of the month of June proclaiming our pride in ourselves and our community. Minnesota Leather Pride again has planned a full schedule of Leather Pride events, details of which can be found at <>.

Some would ask why Pride celebrations are important or even necessary. What is there about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender that deserves a parade? What is there about being a member of the leather/BDSM/fetish community that calls for participation in the GLBT Pride parade?

Others wonder why leatherfolk should be proud at all, of anything. They note that members of the leather/BDSM/fetish community are classified by other parts of our society as sick and/or criminal. The American Psychiatric Association, in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV, describes as “sexual disorders” many of the activities enjoyed by leatherfolk. Many of those same activities are illegal in all fifty U.S. states and in the U.K. as well. How can anyone be proud of that?

Actually, we need pride in ourselves and our community all the more in the face of these societal attitudes and prejudices.

Recall that at one time members of the GLBT community were regarded in pretty much the same way. Homosexuality was considered by the American Psychiatric Association to be a mental illness until 1986. And there was a time when law enforcement officials raided gay bars, and arrested their patrons, on the flimsiest of justifications.

Eventually gay men and lesbians got tired of being told they were mentally ill criminals, and the Stonewall riots in 1969 were the result. Forty-one years have passed since Stonewall, and in those years the GLBT community has made great progress toward full civil rights (although there is still work to be done and progress to be made).

When will members of the leather/BDSM/fetish community get tired of being told they are mentally ill criminals?

Many of us already are, and have been for awhile. Thanks to some community members’ efforts, the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t consider us as sick today as they once considered us. Work continues at reducing even further the psychiatric stigma of our proclivities.

Another community movement called “Consent Counts,” which started in 2006, is working to decriminalize BDSM activities. It won’t happen overnight—it might take ten or fifteen years or even longer—but the groundwork has been laid and the process has been started.

But, quite apart from psychiatrists and law enforcement, the perception of our community, our interests and our activities needs to shift among the general public. A recent survey of college students demonstrated that people who had a friend who was an SM practitioner had a more positive attitude and less prejudice toward the concept of SM than was found among people who did not know anyone who was into SM. This is similar to the trajectory of acceptance for members of the GLBT community—it’s easier to be judgmental and discriminatory against “those people.” It’s harder to be judgmental and discriminatory when you are friends with someone in the reviled group.

So, if you’re interested, put your pride into action. Get involved in the movement to remove our community completely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Get involved with Consent Counts and help decriminalize BDSM.

Even more important, be proud and come out as a kinky person to the best of your ability. No, it’s not yet safe for everyone to be open about their interests. Jobs, spouses and children all can be lost if one comes out—or if, like Jack McGeorge, one is outed against their will.

But the more visible our community is, the more public opinion will change for the better. And that will make it easier and less threatening for even more of us to come out, be visible, and be who we really are.