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Traces: A Leatherwoman’s Journey into the Past, Present and Future (Toni Solenne’s South Plains Leat

Let’s take a journey back in time… to the place where we began our journey into leather, BDSM, and kink…

To that time where something happened- a thought, a fantasy, and a time where you learned a word, saw a picture, read an ad in the back of a magazine, accidentally picked up the phone on a party line and heard a kinky conversation, (for those younger here- did a google search) that landed you in a place where the light bulb went off and you knew who you were and what you wanted. For the first time, you may learned a term, seen a photograph or acquired some language to describe your inner most feelings and fantasies.

At South Plains Leather Fest this morning- in this place and at this time- we will start our journey together by looking back to the traces that were there for us to discover … it was a time and place of our innocence —- and we all know that time is long past for some of you! At the vantage point of being in the here and now, it now all makes sense. The fixation with candle wax … the attraction to feet …. For me, it was fantasizing about being a giant and placing hot, small women in a cage for safe keeping….. to play with as I wanted and when I wanted.

This morning I am going to share a little bit about my journey, but also the journey of 500 leatherwomen in the USA and Canada. Specifically, what they have experienced, and invite you to reflect upon your personal journey as we celebrate those that have come before us, those who sit beside us today, and those that will come after us after we are gone.

I want you to sit back and imagine what the topography- the landscape of Leather or BDSM- looked like after you discovered that picture, article, language that was your entrance way to finding your kinky identity. There were traces of others that you may or may not have noticed and understood- at the time- all around you.

For me, I came out as gay in the late 80s. I lived in a small bubble in Pennsylvania while having the traditional husband and house in the country in rural America. When I left that marriage and uncovered my gayness, I moved to the Bay Area to attend graduate school and I spent some of my free time getting laid (now I know that I was finding “tricks”) in gay bars on the Castro. I saw the posters for womens play parties but I was afraid to go because I didn’t know anyone and what the heck is a “play party” anyway? I was a musician and toured the womens music circuit, picked up stage hands and fisted them but never asked what that hanky stuff was all about or why someone would ask me to put my whole hand inside. I read and masturbated with Macho Sluts and On Our Backs magazine but never put it all together that I was most attracted to the bondage and domination. These traces were all around me- but I did not recognize or understand the footsteps right in front of me that I would eventually fit into and follow.

In the late 80s/early 90s, the term I would use to describe my identity during that time was “closeted horndog”. I didn’t recognize those traces of leather all around me because 1) I was blinded by my libido into finding quick & easy tricks in isolation-my fantasies were about me not a community, 2) I was geographically isolated and economically limited, and 3) I came out and was very aware and uncertain as to how to negotiate the political and cultural conflicts present in my region during an era now known as the feminist sex wars.

You see, we all “came out” into kink during a particular historical period and in a particular region- no one period or region is better than another- they’re just different. Some of us have different levels of income, gender or sexual identifications, and/or cultural backgrounds which provided paths that may look different from one another.

I was coming out and learning about my newly uncovered gay identity by visiting gay and lesbian bookstores, vacationing in Provincetown, playing softball in the city league and attending Holly Near concerts. Women’s leather clubs were forming in my region- in 1981 in NYC, Lesbian Sex Mafia, and in 1989 Philadelphia, Female Trouble. They sounded scary. During this era of the Feminist Sex Wars, I saw 2nd wave feminists challenged concerning their negative views about using sex toys, BDSM and sex work. This is also the time when Female Trouble, a womens leather backpatch club, came out with their report on domestic abuse in same sex BDSM partnerships. These debates took place in journals, books and public forums in community centers and college campuses. These were the times-there was dissent, drama and in-fighting. Sound familiar?

When I hear stories from Janet Ryan, Jo Arnone and other leatherdykes who strongly stood up to the politically correct feminists of the time, I am humbled by their strength and ability to understand who they were and what they strongly believed in. I was not that secure in my own identity and had not discovered “community” yet. I know exactly where I was- I was somewhere in a vanilla lesbian back room bathroom stall fucking someone up against a wall. I hadn’t found them and they hadn’t found me yet.

As you can see, when we look back at history- in this case, herstory- there is never one story, one path, there are tracks laid down by so many individuals and groups with Both common and competing interests. Where was I in the late 80s and 90s? Not liking the “policing of my sexuality” by the second wave feminists and not understanding leatherdykes wanting to beat on one another. I was a closeted horndog with a leather jacket who fucked frequently, and in unconventional ways.

I paint this picture for you this morning to challenge you to ponder the political and social landscape of your kinky coming out process. Not the one story that you tell folks to condense your conversation into a manageable length but the whole story. When you look back, I bet there were traces of footprints and existing kinky paths that you did not see nor did you walk upon. Those paths, perhaps, were not for you to find yet or travel upon.

But, we are all here. We did take a path that led us here to this moment in time with one another in this room right now.

At one time or another, we found and decided to walk in the footsteps left by those who enjoyed similar kinks, type of relationships and/or leather lifestyle that you now enjoy. Those tracks were left for you to discover. Again, you came out into kink with a thought or an idea and found similar others in existing groups, organizations, clubs, bars, or perhaps a bathhouse where folks engaged in practices that you found hot, sexy and somewhere you wanted to be. None of us here are old enough to have been the founding member of – “all things kinky”! We looked for, and found, similar others who found kinky sex hot.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with over 500 leather women in over 50 locations in the US and Canada during the last six years and would like to share with you some of the paths that have been taken by others. As you hear their stories, think of your own path and how your trajectory from hot fantasies turned into hot realities for you.

Judy discovered Leather as a teenager after meeting a gay Leatherman. This is where she learned about kink and power dynamics in 1959. She would become very active in the womens community in Seattle many years later and eventually become our first International Ms Leather in 1987. Judy’s introduction to leather came after cross-dressing as a young boy and exploring under this Arizona gay leatherman’s mentorship in the 1960s. She would later emerge as a part of the women’s community in Portland in the 80’s. Judy’s story is unique in that she moved through two different communities to find her path- first, the men’s leather community and then the women’s leather community.

Other leatherwomen also found kink and/or leather first through the gay male leather community.

Dama and Lynette, both no longer with us and a part of the Northeast M/s community, described their leather path as moving through the gay male leather community. While both of these women identified as heterosexual, their paths took them through the gay leather bar and club scene. Dama in the 1970s through a Wisconsin MC, motorcycle club- not as a member, but as someone who served the club as a cook-however, learning leather by immersing herself in the culture of that club. Lynette described wearing poodle skirts to leather bars in Oklahoma in the 80’s to find burn marks deliberately marking her clothing. She learned to dress like the men in jeans and vests and was left alone to make friends, immerse herself and learn from inside gay male spaces.

Lisa, lesbian-identified New Jersey Leatherwoman, dressed boyish in the 1980’s and drank, stayed in a dark corner and watched in men’s leather bars- infrequently interacting with the men but drinking up the energy of the room. I would come to discover a few Lisa’s – gay women who very quietly, appearing androgynous and/or masculine of center, unassumingly hanging out in leathermen spaces, reading Drummer magazine and practicing BDSM with leather folks regardless of gender identification. These individuals are usually not remembered by the gay leathermen in the bars- these leatherwomen passed as men and their histories are seldom recognized or told.

A few bisexual women told stories of joining gay leathermen clubs and preferring the men’s community over the Womens leather community. Paula told me that she felt welcomed by the Trident Knights in South Carolina. They had had one female member and after some time, she pledged the club, was assigned the Leathermen’s handbook, quizzed on the book, hanky code and earned the privilege of wearing the club’s colors after becoming a full member. When gay male leather bars refused her entrance in the 1990s, her club mates would refuse to enter unless Paula was allowed in as well. She learned about loyalty and what it meant to have someone’s back.

Glenda, as a part of attending a National Lesbian Conference in Atlanta in 1991, found a session on BDSM where a whole new world of kink opened up for her. She wanted to set up spaces for women’s play and described going to the Shipmates and Command clubs in Baltimore for help. She and others mimicked men’s leather dress with jeans and vests and she attributes the men’s clubs for helping both she and Sarah in creating their own womens clubs and spaces in the Baltimore area.

And while some leatherwomen told stories of finding their first kinky community through the men’s community or women’s community, there were just as many who found kinky comrades through heterosexual SM communities including swinger clubs and BDSM organizations like the Eulenspiegel Society, and professional Dominatrix houses. Vi described the evolution of the term, “leather” in New York City. Folks asked one another if they were in the “scene”? She described the calling card for Dominant women as “leather boots”-high-heeled in particular. One could identify leathermen on Christopher street by their motorcycle gear and leather jackets. Women bikers, members of Siren for example, were also out and about in leather wear. Vi learned from ProDommes, fellow society members, in the Hellfire Club and in private dungeons about “the scene”.

My intent is not to give you a detailed history of leatherwomen but to give you some examples of how some trajectories into leather occurred. The stories I shared with you this morning were leatherwomen that followed paths that travelled through Gay Male, Womens, and pansexual communities. I wanted you to see the diversity of experiences of just this one group as you ponder the way that took you to the here and now. Leatherwomen’s herstory, as you can see, was and is not a story of one community, one type of sexual expression, nor one type of play.

The herstories I just described were a brief glimpse of the intersections that was their experience. These are some of the paths that have been laid down before all of us. These are their footprints in the snow and I am grateful for Judy, Lynette, Glenda and Vi for allowing me the privilege of knowing them and walking in their footsteps.

The paths we have chosen are hopefully hot, sexy and full of fun! After all, that’s why we started on this path in the first place. We were looking for similar others- well, now we found them…. And more of them…. And more of them…. Once we found a few others, our knowledge of other groups and a larger community was created.

We have had opportunities to experiment, learn from others, find teachers and mentors, get involved, and assume leadership roles. Some of us have taken the opportunity to represent a community through a title but that is not why we came to this place.

I asked the 500 leatherwomen in my round table discussions to describe their life in leather and the challenges facing them. I challenge you right now to listen to their voices. So many folks make fun of topics I am about to list- but the jokes are nervous laughter and the irony of folks behaving in ways that are very inconsistent in speaking the following words:

Leatherwomen voiced that they wanted to be with others that held to the Values of honesty and integrity. We want to be around folks we can trust and persons of their word. I hear there is no true way. For me personally, if you are here or anywhere else wearing a vest and identifying as leather- there are values associated with that vest and if someone is violent, a stalker, and/or consent violator, there is one true way and that way is out the door.

Leatherwomen overwhelmingly spoke about a Community with connection. Connection is built by being together- by suiting up and showing up. By relying on one another and having experiences together. This is why there are so many communities and not one large community. And, this is ok. However, take an honest look at “community”- who is here, who is not here and assess what you are doing personally to contribute to a positive, sexy environment for all of your community members. Racism, sexism, transphobia, and other isms are not my my idea of community connection and certainly do not lead to anything sexy in my world.

Leatherwomen came to the round tables to uncover Traditions to learn, express and carry forward to the next generation. We discussed the fact that there is no one true way, however women attending the round tables were eager to hear about those that came before them and the way they expressed themselves. They were eager to learn about folks from other towns, bars and communities and the way they expressed their kinks and leather. We feel connected by learning together as some of us have found new friends this weekend and appreciate that this event has been around for 30 years. Coming together, face to face, and spending time together is how trust is gained and how difficult conversations can take place. That means that leather is more than showing up at conferences, and much more than sending a quick post out from time to time. Take the time to sit and hear the stories of those that came before you, but also suit up and show up to be together in the here and now rather than using facebook or other social media as your primary kink. Our fellow kinksters and leather folk are reproducing the divisiveness we see in our political community online. I truly hope that incivility and spewed hateful words do not become a leather tradition.

Rough/Primal sex and play was also in the top few important characteristics to expressing a leather lifestyle for those attending the round tables. After all, so far I’ve mentioned values, community and traditions and those characteristics by themselves could describe a school PTA or church group. I’ve had conversations with leatherwomen in menopause or identify as asexual, and know that we all express our leather in different ways. However, leather is a highly sexually charged, flirtatious, and playful environment. When our lifestyle becomes very structured, with tons of commitments of labor and rule-bound, it becomes work, not play and I don’t’ know about you- but I have been and continue to be a sexual outlaw. Let’s keep it fun.

What I’ve shared with you this morning are bits of the first 10 pages of my book called, Women in Leather: Shaping Our Own Identities coming out this summer.

As we come to the end of this weekend, its time to Walk our own path forward. Our fantasies were something that we constructed inside our mind, felt inside our heart, existing both inside and outside of the dungeon and bedroom, and have shared with others in this room. While we all took different paths to get here, and have some common experiences, our kink and leather are as individual as each person walking through that door. We are not one community but a group of people gathered here in this moment in time, within a common political and cultural landscape, and each of us will tell our stories as differently as we experience it. We will never forgot those who came before us and appreciate their contributions to our individual paths. However, we all leave this room today with the potential of making the world a better place for those we cherish, but also for local, regional, national and international communities we have yet to meet.

I hope the journey we took together this morning through our kinky coming out process has been one of insight. I wonder what your legacy will be? I wonder what path each one of us will leave behind for others to follow.

Once again, I would like to thank the producers for inviting me here today and I will look for you and our opportunity to connect on my path as I travel forward to other sexy, playful and meaningful adventures. Thank you.


Photos of and by Boi Mitch

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