First I want to congratulate Sahra, the new IMsL, and Bella, the new IMsBB. This is a real milestone year with the Bootblack anniversary. Who could have ever predicted that we would ever have such a bootblack community of women?
I am so honored to be this year’s keynote speaker. My first IMsL was in 1995 when I was invited to be a judge. In 1996 I coordinated the workshops. I’ve been the Celebrity Auction Coordinator and I’ve taught workshops and intensives, led panels and now look! I’m the keynote. This is a really big deal for me.
My standing before you today wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple. My path was not a straight line into the scene. Instead, it was like a pinball game, getting bounced around, ricocheting left and right. It led through some places where I had to confront my own doubt and shame. And frankly, I’m still not really over it.
I was brought up never to talk about sex. My mom gave me books from the library to explain about menstruation and sex. ”Here read this and ask me any questions. And never talk to anybody about it, not even your friends.” We never discussed sex after that.
It was certainly not a sex-positive upbringing. Nobody had even use the term sex-positive in those days.
The kids at school were not too different. I didn’t know anybody who was gay. And We’re talking New York City in the seventies! You KNOW that there were gay people at that school, but no one was out. A rumor went around about me that I was bisexual and that was pretty scandalous. I secretly kind of liked the rumor and wondered if any bisexual opportunities would present themselves to me, but nothing happened. Nobody was willing to admit to being gay or, for that matter, kinky.
I was kinky before I had words for it. Looking back, I played D/s games with my boyfriends. Tease and denial. Sensuous torments. I would play games like gin rummy or backgammon for points. It would start with every point was worth a minute of massage, and then I would up the ante so that every point was worth a minute of slavery. I didn’t care who won. I just wanted to play the game.
I had a tough time sexually with my boyfriends. Some complained that I was too rough in bed. Why couldn’t we be gentle? That confused me. I did not have a answer for that. Rough felt good to me. But I just felt bad about that. As if I was doing it wrong.
I was looking for something sexually and I fucked a lot of people. Hundreds. I felt like I was always searching for something but I did not know what.
I remember going to see the movie, Story Of O with my boyfriend. Afterward I was so excited. This was amazing. I said, “Let’s play Story Of O!” I thought this was a brilliant idea. He squashed that pretty quickly. “No, silly, that’s just a movie.” Once again it left me with that feeling that what I wanted was bad, invalid and wrong.
But I always had these BDSM fantasies. When I was little, before I even knew about sex, I imagined being the captive princess being forced to do things. I would cooperate because I needed to stay alive until the king’s men would rescue me. These are still, to this day, my favorite fantasies.
I continued to have sex and the fantasies would continue for me. And I tried to share them with my lovers. I remember talking dirty with a lover. We had been together for a while. One day, I began to talk during sex. “Use me, fuck me!” He stopped and told me not to talk that way because it was degrading. Again I was being made to feel that what I wanted was bad, invalid and wrong.
So, why didn’t I stick up for myself? Why didn’t I just say that these were harmless bedroom fantasies and activities? Because I did not have the tools. I did not know how to say that this was something that gets me hot and that it was harmless. I did not know how to say I wanted to be used during sex but not in the rest of my life. I felt like a freak (not the good kind of freak). Like a misfit that did not do sex right, that wanted things that no one else wanted.
When I tell people this now, many of them ask me how could I be so clueless. Why did I not find info and books? Well this was well before the Internet. I could not just Google it. I also had no clue that any community existed around BDSM. It was not even called BDSM at that time. What about adult bookstores? No, I was a sexually repressed girl who did not go to those seedy porn stores in Times Square. Porn stores were filled with creepy people. I was not creepy like that. The only representation of BDSM I could see was in the newspapers.
There was no safe loving BDSM portrayed. It was all sensationalist horrible stories. I particularly remembered the Crispo story. It happened in 1985. Andrew Crispo was a millionaire art dealer. He and Eigil Vesti, a handsome young fashion student from Norway, met at the Hellfire club. Crispo and another man shot and killed Vesti during a sado-masochistic sex ritual. Vesti’s body was found hooded and handcuffed. Oh, the tabloids loved this story I was titillated by the photos of the handcuffs and the hood (now favorite toys of mine), but I was disgusted and frightened by the fact that the bottom died. I was a nice girl. I did not want to die. I just did not think nice people, people like me, did BDSM or S&M or B&D or whatever they called it back then.
And there were very few books. Ties That Bind was not published until 1993. SM101 was not published until 1998. I did not find the earlier books, Leatherman’s Handbook, Coming To Power and Macho Sluts, until the late 80’s. Because I did not know about the gay bookstores that carried them.
I am still kind of ashamed at how clueless I was. There was no one to guide me. I had no role models.
In the 80’s my favorite books were the Gor series. I found them in used bookstores in the science fiction section. These are the books that later everyone in the scene made fun of, because they were so poorly written. But they were my porn then. They portrayed a D/s fantasy world. It was all I could find. And I devoured them all.
I explored the lesbian scene while I traveled to San Francisco in the late 70’s. Everybody seemed so masculine with their short hair, flannel shirts and blue jeans. I felt like I did not fit in. The community seemed also very separatist at the time. Womens cafes and womens bookshops, womens pottery and womens poetry. My favorite activity was going hot-tubbing with small groups of women. A very California thing to do. I enjoyed it, but I was overwhelmed by the womens community and actually missed men. And each time I was there, after several days, I felt relieved to leave and come up for air.
The lesbian scene in NYC seemed not much more welcoming in those days. I only knew about one lesbian bar called the Dutchess and when I finally worked up the courage to go there, no one would talk to me.
Things began to change for me in the mid-80’s I found the phone sex lines. Still searching, looking for what was right for me. Nothing was connecting with me until one night, I was on a private call with someone I had “met” on a sex line and he said, “Hey, let me three-way us onto this other line. It’s really wild.” I waited as he dialed and we listened as a sexy woman said “This is 976-2222. Welcome to the B&D line where all your bondage and discipline fantasies come true.” I listened expecting to hear creepy people, but was surprised to hear people who sounded intelligent, personable and fun. My pal, who had three-wayed me on was saying “Isn’t this a hoot? Can you believe it?” I was like “Uh-huh.” Yeah.” And as soon as I had disengaged with him. I was calling 976-2222 on my own. I still remember that number! For weeks I called and listened to all the personalities that inhabited that line. Just listening, not speaking. Racking up a huge phone bill. I was fascinated. Here were nice people who did not sound like creeps or murderers and they were talking about the things I was so interested in.
Eventually I began to talk to them and even met some of them (one of them being Laura Antoniou – you know, she wrote the Killer Wore Leather – go buy it now) So, I met people privately and I bottomed and topped for the first time. I learned from both the tops and the bottoms whom I met. And I began to go to the NYC clubs, Paddles and The Vault and I played and I met people who taught me how to top. I finally found my people. I was out at the clubs every weekend.
I had heard about TES, New York’s Eulenspiegel Society, but the people on the phone lines and the people I met at the clubs warned me away from that group. I did check it out once and it was creepy. I went to one of their meetings in a dark strip club. It was mostly single men. The scheduled speaker had to cancel and someone else spoke about his journey in the scene. He spoke of his mistress who bound him to a stool and started pushing it. He cried out in fear that the stool would tip over. She did not heed him and continued pushing. The stool did indeed tip over did and he wound up with a broken collarbone. Yet he remained with the mistress. I found his story revolting. I thought the mistress was reckless and uncaring. But what bothered me most was that he remained with her and continued the relationship. This was not what I was looking for. I left and it was years before I returned to TES.
In 1990, I decided to try out TES again, I had met a man named Hilton while he had staffed an outreach table at The Vault. He sold me on trying TES again. Hilton became a close friend and mentor and he’s now my boss.
Anyway, TES was still in the same building as before but now they met upstairs in a bright white loft. It seemed that more people were going and they seemed non-creepy. I went to a party, had trouble meeting people. I was a bit of a wallflower. It was hard because it seemed people knew each other and I was not part of the clique. So, I volunteered for the next party. I spent an hour selling sodas. And I was noticed by the group’s organizers. They are always extra nice to people who volunteer. But also the partygoers felt comfortable talking to me, figuring that I was one of the people who made things happen. And I guess, in some small way, I was. (Oh, and I am still volunteering! Yesterday morning I was moving dungeon equipment downstairs at 7:30 in the morning.)
After that, I felt like I was a part of something. Something clicked. I was talking about what I was into; I was meeting people who were into similar things. I stood in a space where I could talk to people, without judgment, without any care about my history and how I got here and instead just be. It seems like such a small step, but it was so huge, I can’t even explain. I guess that’s when I truly blossomed.
I was very happy at TES, got more involved. I liked the education that TES did. And there were program people there who encouraged me to teach. I ran for the board in 1991. Part of my platform was to change the price structure. Men paid more than women for meetings and parties. I got heavily involved in making TES a better place. Membership was in the 200’s when I got there and by 1994 we had over 1100 members.
Things were very different back then. Ya know, safe words was not an old guard thing. I first heard about safewords at an NLA:Metro New York party in the early 90’s at Belle Du Jours. It was explained to me by one of the leaders that a safeword was an out of context word, like “Strawberries.” When a bottom uttered their safeword, it meant that they wanted to stop the action. However, I was instructed to hit them once or twice more, just to show who was in control, and then stop.
It was not until I attended GMSMA 10th Anniversary Leatherfest in 1991 that I saw my first Leatherdykes. I attended the only all womens class on Clips and Clamps by JD Rabbit. It was there that I learned that there was a group called Lesbian Sex Mafia. You had to write to their PO Box and get invited. They did not always write back and when they did it often took months to get a reply. We were not living in the instant Internet age.
SM Leatherwomen were very underground and hidden in those days. Some women were even scared to wear their motorcycle jackets. We were at the tail end of the sex wars. Militant feminists would attack Leatherwomen, sometimes physically. It was dangerous to be a dyke into leather. Sex with men was considered violence against women (according to feminists like Andrea Dworkin, even penetrative sex with a husband was rape.) Women’s sex shops like Eve’s Garden in NYC were edgy and sold dildos, but only carried ones that were pink and purple and shaped like dolphins. They did not carry anything realistic that looked like a man’s cock.
So, I finally heard back from LSM and was invited to attend an orientation which was held in a private home. It was Betty Dodson’s apartment. I had no idea who she was. We were told all about LSM and we were interviewed in small groups by members. After we left, the members then met and decided who to propose to the the bigger group at the next meeting. At the meeting members would vote you in. Not everybody was voted in. Then you had to attend a safety lecture in order to join. Meetings were for members only. On the other hand, most of the parties were open to non-members.
I became more involved and joined the LSM board in 1995 as Outreach Coordinator and in 1996 I was chair for a year. One of the big changes, I made was that meetings were made open to non-members. I believed education was important to open up to everybody.
In 1995 at the Living In Leather conference in Portland, I met the people who are now my leather family. The family has evolved and changed over the years, but these are the people who totally accept me for who I am, support me in all I do and make sure there is always a spot for me. They encouraged me to attend my first Powersurge in 1996. I was wary about going because I had heard that they were unfriendly to bisexual women, but they insisted that I come and that they nobody would mess with me if I was with them. The bisexual issue actually wound up not being a big deal because that year everybody was much more focused on the trans men who attended. These guys passed the dick in the drawer test (you know what that is? It means that t was okay to have a dick as long as you could take your dick and put it in a drawer and slam it shut and walk away. But many women were distressed by their presence. These guys were hairy and scary. So, bisexuals became a total non-issue.
1995 was also the year I got a computer. I totally embraced this technology and started a weekly chat room on AOL and also became active on the Women Of Leather boards. I am still friends with some of the folks I met there. And I ventured beyond AOL and posted on ASB. I started a newsletter that grew to a list of over a thousand people each week. I spent a lot of time answering questions and putting people together. I can’t count how many times I sent out bylaws and dungeon rules to people who were starting new groups around the country. And answering questions that people had about BDSM. And connecting people to groups in their areas.
I went from searching for what I needed sexually and emotionally to getting involved in my community. I was playing my ass off and having the sex that I wanted and needed to have, and I was building community and helping others find it. I was happy!
I loved the computer then and the email and the boards and even nowadays social media like twitter. But, for me, it is just a tool to bring people together in the real world. We can’t forget that the real connections we can make are live and in person. That’s why events like IMsL are so important.
Nowadays, I’ve been working at Purple Passion in NYC. I totally love my job. And what I’ve found is that there are still so many people out there who are just like I was. Looking for something to explain their urges, to satisfy their curiosities, to explore that fantasy that they’re afraid to even mention to others out of fear.
I am still answering questions and helping people find their way. Whereas I had read those crappy Gor novels, people are now coming into the shop having read those crappy 50 Shades of Grey books. And they are hungry to explore and learn. Oh, and what does our community do? We make fun of them! We mock them! We call them weekend warriors, annoying vanillas, blah blah blah. This “scene” of ours isn’t the be all and end all to kinky sex. For every one of us sitting in this ballroom, there are 100’s more out there who are merely curious, or who still don’t know where to go, or how to say it, or are afraid of the stigma of BDSM. There are hundreds and thousands of people out there for whom 50 Shades of Grey has been the first thing that validated what they were thinking and who they are.And I’m happy to help them find their path. Just like I wish someone had helped me in my early days.
So, what about our future? We’ve won the battle with Gays in the military. We are making great strides with marriage equality. Not just state by state in the US, but all over the world! But now? Now we need to work to remove the stigma of BDSM. We talk about the people who mentor us in leather, who teach us skills and tradition, but just as important are those people who simply welcome us into kink. We may only see them once but that simple act of welcoming is often more important than all the training and teaching. It’s something a computer can never do for you, and I’m proud to be a welcoming face for beginners and questioners every day.
A couple of years ago, I did a photo with audio story with the New York Times One in 8 Million series. It appeared online and also in the printed Metropolitan section. Now, I had been out to a certain degree before that, but you are really out when you are featured in a photojournalism piece in the New York Times. The New York Times! This was a huge step for me. Very scary. I talked to the journalist a lot before I decided to do it. I trusted that the piece would not be sensationalist and judgmental and I knew I did not have to answer every question they asked me. I was very cautious and spoke only about what I felt I wanted people to know. I love the way the piece came out. I did it because I think we need to portray the normal. We need to show ourselves as regular people who also happen to do BDSM.
So, come out. Come out as much as you can! And remember that whatever path leads newcomers to you even if it’s the path of Fifty Shades, you can be the person to help someone step out of shame and into bliss..