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March 29, 2015

Honor History, Don’t Copy It

This speech was delivered on March 29, 2015 as the keynote address at the Colorado Leather Fest event held in Denver, Colorado.

Good morning. I’ve had a really good time on this maiden voyage of this new Colorado Leatherfest event. I hope you have also. Thanks to everyone involved in creating and running this event. You’ve done a great job. And thanks to all of you for taking the time to listen to what I have say. I truly appreciate it.

I was originally told by the organizers of this event that there was going to be an overall theme of “standing together” for the weekend along with three tracks of classes that can be categorized as lifestyle relationships, leather history and traditions, and service skills.

Standing together is generally a good thing since when a collection of people have to work toward a common goal, there is power in numbers and collaboration.

As for lifestyle relationships and service skills, while I certainly have some opinions about those, they don’t resonate with me quite as strongly since I consider what’s an appropriate lifestyle relationship or service skills to be entirely unique to the individuals involved. Who am I to judge another’s relationship or how they choose to provide service to others.

Which leaves us with leather history and traditions. Now that’s something I can wrap my head around a bit better because, ostensibly, the history of our scene is a relatively absolute and documentable thing. Same for traditions.

So I’d like to talk to you today about two aspects of our history and the traditions within that history. First, I’d like to highlight the tenuous ground upon which “some” of our supposed history is built. And second, I’d like to offer to you why I think referencing history and past traditions isn’t always such a great way to inform how you currently should lead your own life today.

I have long been a champion of the efforts of institutions like the Leather Archives & Museum or the work of dedicated individuals such as Dr. Gayle Rubin. They, and so many others, rightly want to gather, preserve, analyze and make available our collective history and any traditions that might have been part of that history. We should applaud them for those valiant efforts along with everyone who makes it part of their individual mission to accurately record what we leatherfolk and kinksters have been up to.

However, in spite of such valiant efforts, two things seem to keep happening that, for me, entirely disrespects those efforts.

First, regardless of how often or in what manner people are told that some of the leather history and traditions often promulgated throughout our scene are incorrect, some still believe them. And they not only believe them, but they are so mired in them and dedicated to them that they become rabid proponents of such false histories.

Perhaps they do this because they’ve built their entire leather and kink identity upon the foundation of such false histories and to challenge their veracity would threaten the entire way of life they’ve created for themselves within the leather and kink realms.

Second, and without a doubt worse, some people just simply make shit up. They literally pluck some historical fact or tradition out of thin air or embellish an approximate truth, promote it vehemently, and defy anyone to challenge the shit they just made up.

Of course, the Grand Poobah of historical inaccuracies is the constant drone of people espousing old guard history and traditions. By no means are these the only falsehoods we hear often amid our ranks, but they are perhaps the most common.

I am going to shamelessly poach some words from my friend Guy Baldwin’s brilliant “Old Gods Die Hard” speech that he delivered in Tacoma, Washington in September of last year in which he tried to set the record straight regarding old guard. Guy came of age, by the way, right here in Denver around 1966. I don’t think I could say what he said about old guard any better.

In the part of his speech from which I’m about to quote, Guy was explaining how the scourge of AIDS starting in the early 1980s impacted the gay men’s leather community and how that might have played into the creation of false histories and traditions. Here’s what Guy said:

“Crucially, AIDS left the older guys who had been deemed unfit to join the underground leather networks. It left, as teachers, the guys who had wanted into the inner circle of kink knowledge and experience, but who had been excluded for reasons of questionable character, poor social skills, unfriendly personalities, poor impulse control, excessive drug and alcohol use, shaky morality, and so on.”

“And, I’m very sorry to say, some of those people made a lot of stuff up, most probably based on anecdotes they had either heard or read about in porno stories. And they combined the stuff they’d made up with some bits of lore they’d heard, probably too some fantasy thrown in for good measure, and called it “Traditional Leather” — or, you guessed it, “Old Guard.”

“In general, much of the stuff they made up was about high-Leather formalism, formalism to the point of being “Masonic,” when as far as I could tell, from playing with men in Denver and San Francisco through the 1960s and into the 1970s, very few first and second generation guys had a style dominated by formalism.”

Now my experience in the scene, starting in the early 1970s in Chicago and then New York, backs up what Guy said. The scene I experienced back then bore little resemblance to the highly formalized and rigid old guard structures that we so often hear about.

Also, if you think about it, formalism flies in the face of what I believe we inherently are. At our core I believe most of us are sexual radicals and erotic mavericks. Or at least we aspire to such status. If we are truly the folks who march to the beat of our own sexual and erotic drums, then why embrace such formalism as a guiding principle in the lives, sexualities and identities we adopt?

If some variation of formalism works for you and yours, awesome. But please, realize it’s for you and yours alone, not for others necessarily. The imposition of such formalism on others and the scene generally has, in my opinion, led us into an era where many in our scene can now be legitimately charged with being much more the conformists than the radicals or mavericks. Many of those conformists within our ranks look externally to formal constructs and erotic pasts of others, even when those pasts are more mythology than reality, in order to piece together the self-identity that fits into the “condoned” formalistic ways that are too often espoused and revered.

Later in that same speech Guy sums up his sound argument about how a generation of men’s history and traditions were perverted (and not in a good way). Guy said:

“At this point you may ask, ‘What’s the harm, really, in promulgating one or another greatly oversimplified Old Guard story?’ Myth, after all, is so much more attractive, more coherent, more comforting than truth, which always bristles with contradictions and loose ends.”

“But off-the-rack identities and hand-me-down answers are crappy substitutes for the self-exploration required to build one’s own, personalized identity, from scratch. And the blind embrace of a counterfeit ‘structure’ to escape having to make our own choices is — in my opinion! — antithetical to our paths as erotic seekers.”

“Consequently it is my fondest wish that everybody would shut up about the ‘Old Guard’ and do what feels right, as long as it does no harm.”

“Bottom line: There is no one right way to do anything in our world. As is true of all other kinds of fundamentalism, erotic fundamentalism is the real enemy here.”

The reason the old guard mythology is the Grand Poobah of our scene’s historical falsehoods is that so much of what people hear that they should be and do seems to emanate from the old guard mythology. It’s a beautiful flower of an origin that’s morphed into a twisted weed that has spread to infect the very ground we walk upon.

I recall a time many years ago when I was standing amid a crowd of guys at the International Mr. Leather weekend in Chicago. Most of the guys in the gaggle I did not know. They were mostly quite young and they were engaged in a lively conversation about our scene.

At one point a young man said something like “well I heard that Race Bannon once said…” and they went on to describe some historical recollection I had supposedly said at some point.

A few of the guys in the group who knew me looked my way and smiled. Of course, the historical tidbit that the young man had ascribed to me was not true. I’d never uttered those words.

During a break in the conversation I reached out my hand to the young man and said “hi, my name is Race Bannon, and I’m afraid that I never said what you just said I did.”

The young man was mortified and I quickly put him at ease that I wasn’t at all offended. But that moment was a life lesson to me. I had no idea where he had heard what he had heard, but clearly someone just made some shit up, attributed it to me, told it to this young man, who was now telling a group of guys the same false story. And those same guys, had I not been there, might have started replicating the story elsewhere.

It was suddenly made quite clear to me that this is how historical falsehoods happen. One person makes something up and that falsehood percolates throughout the scene from person to person until it cements itself into our verbal, and sometimes written, historical record.

And once something cements in, it’s very difficult to dislodge such inaccuracies. They linger and infect our history, spreading like a cancer. And cancer is an accurate analogy in my opinion because I believe such falsehoods do, indeed, damage our scene as a whole, and individuals within our scene, considerably. I’ve witnessed the damage firsthand far too many times.

I defy anyone to spend some time doing research at the Leather Archives & Museum and come away with any conclusive proof that an old guard, as it’s often mythologized, actually existed in the form that’s usually attributed to it.

Your trip through the Archives will bring you great joy in seeing the “actual” history of our scene, but I don’t believe you will find any proof of some ubiquitous, rigid, formalized old guard ever existing.

Even Rick Storer, the Executive Director of the Leather Archives & Museum for the past 13 years, at a recent San Francisco Leathermen’s Discussion Group presentation, alluded to little substantiation of the type of old guard so often touted when he was discussing his research into the contents of Drummer Magazine, the magazine many consider the documentation of record for the gay men’s leather scene from 1975 to 1999. He said “I’ve looked at every single page ever published and I never found evidence of European houses, elaborate covering ceremonies, secret societies or rumors of sealed documents.”

Prominent people, such as a Guy Baldwin who I just quoted, and many others, who were actually part of some of that history will state, unequivocally, that such mythologies are false, but people will still believe the falsehood. Why does this happen?

In a June 2011 article in Mother Jones magazine titled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” the writer, Chris Mooney, described a study done by Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger. In that study Festinger and his colleagues had infiltrated a religious cult called the Seekers.

And let me just say that I attribute much of the information in the next few paragraphs to that fine article by Mr. Mooney. He’s also the author of some great books including the New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science. He knows his stuff.

The Seekers was a small Chicago-area cult. Members believed that they were communicating with aliens including one entity who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by a Dianetics devotee who had supposedly transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

I know it’s amazing that people believe such bullshit, but the desire to believe in something, anything, is a powerful urge for many in order to make sense of their life.

The aliens, speaking through the leader, had evidently given the exact date of a monumental Earth cataclysm. Some of the cult leader’s followers quit their jobs and sold their property because they believed they were to be rescued by a flying saucer when the cataclysm transpired.

Yes, wacky views perhaps, but these people had deep-rooted beliefs that all of this was true.

Of course, the cataclysm never happened. Yes, in spite of what the cult’s leader had said not coming true, the believers still continued to believe. What set in immediately was a quickly constructed set of rationalizations that allowed the believers to keep believing.

At one point a new alien message arrived, through the cult leader of course, announcing that they’d all been spared the cataclysm because they had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.

They not only continued to believe in the cult leader’s pronouncements, but actually ended up using the incident as proof that they needed to evangelize and proselytize their cult’s message even more.

Does this not sound familiar in terms of what we often hear around old guard stuff?

So why did the cult believers continue to believe, and why do some still believe in the old guard and other such mythologies and inaccuracies that continue to flourish in our scene today in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.

The reason is likely that discoveries in the fields of psychology and neuroscience demonstrate that our preexisting beliefs, far more than any facts presented, skew our thinking processes.

This is often referred to as “motivated reasoning” and such reasoning can explain why seemingly otherwise sound thinking people can disagree over things like vaccines or climate change, even when all facts point to the contrary.

So how does such motivated reasoning come about? Turns out that our reasoning is suffused with emotion. Reasoning and emotion ride the wave of our thought processes together. Our positive or negative “feelings” about something arise much more quickly than any conscious thoughts about whatever brought about those feelings in the first place. Emotions literally gets a jump start on our rational thinking about whatever the topic might be.

And what could be more emotionally charged for us than our sexualities and erotic identities. It is my contention that this is a large part of the reason why untruths and falsehoods about our history and traditions continue to thrive even when running contrary to all known facts and reason. The world in which leatherfolk and kinksters meander is chock full of spouting geysers of emotional states that can help to usher in and maintain an untruth and falsehood when it’s presented.

Reasoning comes later and functions much more slowly than the emotional influence that already has a head start on reason.

Any information that threatens our belief system is pushed away while friendlier, nonthreatening information is readily embraced.

We literally reason as a means to a predetermined end in an often convoluted mental process riddled with biases. These include commonly accepted biases such as “confirmation bias” and “disconfirmation bias.” Our brains work overtime trying to grasp at a straw, any straw, to hold on to a belief system, facts or reason be damned. Facts or reason regarding old guard and similar falsehoods in our scene be damned.

I’m not going to dwell any longer on why some of the histories and traditions often proliferating throughout our scene are inaccurate, if not outright fabrications. For the sake of moving on in this speech I’m simply going to say that I hope everyone listening to me today will think twice about blindly accepting anything you read or hear about our leather and kink past. And please encourage others to do the same. Challenge people when you hear bullshit coming out of their mouths. You can do it kindly. You can do it gently. Many of them don’t even realize they are regurgitating bullshit. So we don’t need to be mean about such corrections. But correct them we must.

And if people do intentionally make stuff up and we catch them at it, those people must be held accountable because their intention is likely one of self-aggrandizement and unfounded self-importance and we just shouldn’t tolerate any of that.

Now, while there are indeed false histories and traditions, there are, of course, the vast majority that are indeed true. I want to thank again the work of institutions like the Leather Archives & Museum and the work of people like Dr. Gayle Rubin, and so many others I am not mentioning, and I apologize for that, who work hard so that much of our history is accurately documented and preserved.

I’d also like to thank everyone here who, on an individual basis, tries to encourage the dissemination of accurate histories and traditions and not false ones. Please, for those of you doing that, continue that good work.

But even when a historical fact or tradition is indeed true, it does not necessarily mean that we should be copying such history or traditions in order to craft or configure our current leather or kink life or identities.

This brings me to the second point that I’d like to make today, that while accurate histories and traditions are important to preserve, analyze and honor, that does not necessarily mean that we should use them as a template for the present day. In fact, I’d like to argue, doing so actually doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Let me point out here that much of the history and traditions often touted as guidelines for how we should live and be today are grounded in gay male leather culture. I come from that culture. It’s a great culture. But it’s a gay male culture. As such, I see no reason why lesbians, heterosexuals, or anyone not identifying as a gay male should look to it as some idealized path to leather or kink bliss.

Perhaps gay male leather history rose to prominence because gay men have typically been very out and open. Perhaps this is what happens when much of the scene operates in a clandestine and not out manner. You end up referencing the one history that has a reasonably accurate foundation attributable to actual verifiable people.

I am going to guess that a large chunk of this room today is comprised of folks who don’t fall into the gay male camp. My request to you is to look to your own histories too as much as you can.

Sarah Humble is the Chair of the Women’s Leather History Project that is collecting artifacts, stories, and other items that represent the experience of all women. The resulting collections will be featured in exhibitions at the Leather Archives & Museum.

Another ambitious project is Michael Shorten’s, who is also partnering with the Leather Archives, to create a guide for folks who visit the Archives and want to find or connect with “pre-Internet” heterosexual leather/kink/BDSM history.

These, and others, are great projects that I hope will lead to a historical record, and access to that record, that covers the full swath of leather and kink folks regardless of orientation, gender or any other such collective identifying characteristics.

Perhaps because I am a member of the Board of Governors for the Leather Hall of Fame [] and we actively seek out historically notable people from all walks and eras of our scene, I see firsthand how the history of gay male culture is often placed front and center even though gay men account for a relatively small percentage of the overall leather and kink scene. The Board tries hard to make sure the entire spectrum of our scene is historically represented in who we vote into the Leather Hall of Fame, but it is surprising how often gay male history seems to be the default when people in our scene begin to discuss leather history.

Anyway, back to my point. History and past traditions are a wonderful thing to know about and to reflect upon. Sometimes we can even select a few morsels of such histories and traditions and make them a part of our lives. If that’s something you do, great. But I hope that you’re doing so consciously.

What I mean by that is I hope you fully realize you’re copying something because it resonates with you personally and not because you’re under the mistaken assumption that because leatherfolk were a certain way or acted a certain way or socialized a certain way or played a certain way, that this means you should do all those things today.

And remember as Jean Chretien, the Canadian statesman, once said, “You have to look at history as an evolution of society.” History is an evolutionary thing, not a static one. Hopefully both the scene overall and individuals within it evolve over time.

History is ostensibly a fixed record of what transpired. Yes, further research can amend or revise that history, but the idea is that it’s a hopefully verifiable and trustable record of the past. But it is just that, the past. It is not now. It is not the present.

If you do what in my opinion is a mistake, and without much thought simply copy the ideas, ways and mindsets of our predecessors, where does that leave you? Where does the unique person that is you come out and play when you’re patterning the essence of your kinky self on what someone else said or did?

Even when you consciously decide to be a Master, or a sub, or a boot fetishist, or a god damned independent, always remember that you are doing so at a specific point in time at which you are exactly who you are for but a brief moment. You will wake up tomorrow not being exactly the same person you are today.

If history and traditions are created by people, and those people are constantly changing, then why should the histories and traditions they create not also change over time.

Progress in our scene, indeed in all of life, requires change. And no matter what someone might tell you, that applies to everything except the most basic of life’s guiding principles: honoring people’s individuality and uniqueness, doing unto others as you wish they’d do unto you, honesty and integrity, and so on. Everything else in life moves on, and so should our scene.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is not possible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

There is absolutely no logical, moral or ethical reason that you should be or act in any particular way as a leather person or kinkster as long as you do no intentional harm.

Yes, there are practical considerations. If you walk into a leather event dressed entirely out of context, you’re likely to get some stares and maybe even some harsh words. But in truth, there’s nothing inherently wrong with what you’ve done.

Same goes for relationship configurations. If your version of Master, slave, Dom, sub, Sir, Mistress, boy, girl or whatever looks and functions differently than how someone else does it, awesome. Is everyone having a good time? If yes, that’s all that matters. We simply have to get past the notion that our scene is supposed to churn out cookie cutter versions of people who have come before.

Let me end by emphasizing that nothing in this speech should be construed as implying that our history is not important. It most certainly is. We should support the efforts of every institution and the people working with them to capture and safeguard our history. No culture will survive without the survival of its history.

But as I’ve said, history is not a straightjacket into which you must squeeze your sexuality or erotic identity. It is but an honored reference point. Your today and your future need not be constrained by it.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” I like our scene’s future too. I really do.

Love each other. Be kind to each other. Connect and bond with each other. Have sex and play with each other. Be the kind of kinky person you want to be. And never forget to have fun along the way.

Thank you for your time. I love you all and wish you a happy, healthy, kinky, and fun life. Which is exactly what you deserve. Good afternoon.

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