IPAHW 2017 KeynoteJuly 11, 2017
By Justin St Clair
Anyone who has ever heard me speak knows that I most generally fall back on the foundation of “be kind.” I just find it to be the foundation that I need to be constantly reminded of, so I assume that it is the message that others need to hear as well. Today is going to be just a little bit different. Today, my opinionated asshole might come out. Three months ago, I set out to write a speech that encompassed the gravity of what I am feeling about our community. The highs and the lows. I put together a wonderful (in my opinion) speech on…and I use this term loosely…Unity. I say “loosely” because I can’t help but to notice that most people who throw out the term unity are generally ‘the majority’ trying to tell ‘the minority’ to quiet down; that life was easier when they kept their opinions in the closet. That’s not the kind of unity that I meant. I meant the kind where we can work together for common goals…while still acknowledging major differences of opinions. I had planned to have all of our ‘subculture flags’ around me, with a rainbow flag in the middle…to illustrate my point that it’s ok to be a proud person of leather, rubber, or even a puppy…but not to forget that we are all still fighting the same fight under a flag that represents all of us. A month or so ago, an uproar in Philadelphia over the more traditionally accepted pride flag meant that flying any flag up here today would have been making a political statement that would have overshadowed any speech that I would be giving today. I don’t want my choice of a flag to make a political statement. So, I trashed that speech. And honestly, I’m still a little pissed off about it. So today, I give a speech to our community, about our community, recognizing that (to the outside world) we are a community even if we don’t like each other. We live in a world of micro-chasms. 30 years ago, we didn’t separate ourselves into the drag queens, the twinks, the bears, the leather folk, and the ravers. We didn’t do that because we didn’t have that luxury. Our survival depended upon our support for each other. The political climate required us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with oddest of bed-partners and fight for every right that we earned. And those rights WERE earned. Nothing was given to us for free by the political system. And honestly, I think that we forget that sometimes. We take for granted that there are gay bars that we feel safe in. We take for granted that we can walk down the street of our gay districts, holding hands, with limited harassment. We take for granted that we even HAVE gay bars and gay areas of town. We take for granted so many things…and I think it’s because we haven’t had to really fight for a while. For the past several decades, the tides of progressive thinking have been on our side…and that’s a good thing. Thankfully, the last 30 years have shown us incredible favor. While we still have a long way to go, the strides that have been made in the past 30 years are incredible. But I’ll be honest…we could lose that in a heartbeat if we’re not careful. And we are NOT being careful…not when considered by the outside world. It’s been said that if you want to know someone’s future, find out their thoughts. And while I am not a mind-reader…I don’t HAVE to be, because I have Facebook…and I can say with certainty that we have gotten lazy in our fight. Worse than that, we’ve decided that it’s more fun to fight each other over petty preferences than to unify against a common enemy over real threats and oppression. This division has allowed for the oppression of our under-represented community members to actually come from within our community. I am thankful that our political and social climate have allowed us to stop fighting for fundamental rights and have allowed us to break off and fight our individual, heart-felt battles. And those battles NEED to be fought…. But battles are not fought, much less won, overnight. And they are certainly NOT won without allies. But we’ve become impatient with each other. We have lost our tolerance for people who need education. In some cases, we’ve become assholes. We somehow think that being loud and obnoxious and aggressive to each other is helpful. And worst of all, we attack people amidst their evolution on topics…and I’m not talking about the outside world, I’m talking about within the confines of our own community. It took DECADES to get an openly gay character on TV. It took DECADES to sway public opinion on things like marriage rights and medical rights. But now, we’ve gotten so used to the momentum that we want to order up public opinion changes the way that we would order a fast-food hamburger: I want it now, I want it hot, I want it done MY way. And waiting 30 seconds is too long of a time-period to invest. We are trying to fight against systemic bigotry that has existed since the dawn of mankind. This does not happen overnight. This takes investment and this takes time. But we’ve become the activist-equivalent of toddlers. Most of us have become social-media slacktivists. “Of COURSE it’s important to me! I SHARED A MEME ON FACEBOOK.” Or better yet, I got offended! Or the most common: I bought a raffle ticket! (but I waited for the cute guy (no fats, no fems, no black guys) to do boots-to-balls and am still pissed off that I didn’t win the prize…but dammit I’m an activist!). That is not activism. Activists march. Activists get out and share their passions. Activists get angry at the oppression and fight the oppressors, showing the blind world that oppression exists. And equally important, activists also understand the power of allies. How to build them, how to encourage them, how to teach them, and how to turn them into activists themselves. Most of all, activists understand who the enemy is, and stay the course. That doesn’t happen by accident. It is intentional and it is work. Sharing a meme on facebook and writing an angry tweet tells me that we care…but not enough to actually do anything about it. The scariest words that I have ever heard are, “If you’re not for me, you’re against me.” This is not how allies are built. Strategic alliances require education and education requires investment. In other words, we have to be committed to the long-haul. If we tell people to pick a side on an argument that they don’t even fully understand, it is US who looks like the aggressive asshole. What we need WITHIN our community is love. What we need in our community is the desire to understand those who are fighting a different fight. What we need WITHIN our community is acceptance. What we need WITHIN our community is true tolerance for each other’s’ differences on the most basic of levels…and sometimes that means tolerating people who are not-so tolerant. When did we stop treating misunderstanding as an opportunity to teach and start using it as an excuse to turn on our own? We throw around the word tolerance when we want others to see our point of view, but tolerance is often the LAST word that can be used about us when someone has a differing opinion…or even a lack of education or experience. We want people to be “open-minded,” but by “open-minded” we generally mean “see things my way” …when we aren’t willing to try seeing things from their perspective, through their experiences. I’m not gonna lie. I’m old. (there, I said it) And when you get old, you get set in your ways. Not because you’re trying to be a dick, but because you’ve had a lot more time to establish habits (even bad habits). But beyond that, you’ve survived the winds of change many times. The older you get, and the more fads you’ve lived through, the less likely you are to immediately embrace all change as permanent. You watch and you wait. Not because you’re trying to be stubborn, but because you’ve been ‘round the block a few times. Plus. We’re old. We’re grey. Get off our lawns. It took me YEARS to be able to get my head around certain aspects of our community. Others, I was able to embrace immediately. Calling a dominant leather woman “Sir” came natural as hell, because I was raised to respect people. Calling a gender-queer person “they” has been hard as fuck for me wrap my head around. And I still fuck it up from time to time. We say, “how hard is it (to make that change)?” and we cheer because we know the changes should be made, but if we’re honest with ourselves, those changes are hard…especially when it’s not your own passionate fight. Change. Takes. Time. There are environmental and societal backgrounds that cause us all to process change at different speeds. I live in Chicago. And Chicago is racist as fuck. You can’t walk through the Chicago scene and not easily see the systemic oppression. But I moved there from a liberal college town, where I didn’t even know what “systemic oppression” meant. It took me time to learn, and grow, and adapt. I was still an ally. I was just ignorant of the extent of the damage. We all have differing backgrounds and experiences. And this leads to changes happening at different paces. Going back to my own struggles…And before I even get started, let me say to everyone who holds this issue dear, that it is always best to assume good intentions until someone proves themselves an asshole. And some people ARE assholes…. Anyway. Back to me. As has been *painfully* made clear, I’m old. And while that may not seem relevant to anything other than jokes, Viagra, and an AARP membership…it really is relevant in terms of allies. I’m also a middle-class white male with an education…which is also relevant in terms of allies. As I stated earlier, It is hard for me to remember to call someone who is biologically a male, but gender identifies as gender queer or non-binary, ‘they’ or ‘them.’ I have to FIGHT to remember to do this. And it’s not just my memory. It’s the world that I was raised in. Now, I know that sounds like an excuse, but hear me out before you dismiss me. Outside of having, we’ll call it 29 years of experience on this earth (just let me have that one), the culture shifts have been dramatic. When I came out, if you referred to an effeminate guy as “she” you were being an asshole. If you referred to a lesbian as “he” you were in danger of getting your ass kicked. While the current culturally-political climate is that someone is being disrespectful if they use the sexually correct pronoun in favor of the preferred, gender-correct pronouns, there are those of us who are having to unwire (we’re going with) 29 years of being told that doing that exact thing is disrespectful. (Stop and re-read that for understanding). I try…and my friends will attest to this. The culture is changing…and that’s a good thing! I try, but if I’m honest with myself, I occasionally fail…and I don’t mind being reminded. I do mind being told that I’m not an ally because my brain hasn’t been fully rewired yet. My point is that not everyone who says the wrong thing is doing it to be a dick. Not everyone who makes an error is living in their privilege. I’m an ally, but it IS possible to make an error and still be an ally. Some people are still figuring out how and why the change is important, and they need time, understanding, and education to get there…not a verbal attack. They may have spent years learning to be respectful to the last monumental changes in chivalry. PLEASE give them time to adapt before you marginalize them. As my grandmother used to say, “never pull out a sledgehammer when a flyswatter will do the trick.” But far often,that is exactly what we do. I’m offended, so I’m going to go off on a Facebook rant about how much of a victim I am and what an asshole they are…and then I force people to take sides because ‘you’re either for me, or you’re against me.’ The world is NOT always that cut and dried. And truth and acceptance of an idea takes time, and physical changes cannot happen until the acceptance happens. Work on the acceptance first and the actions will follow. We get that backwards sometimes. And for those who think that this is a veiled swipe at Gender-identity or me denying my support regarding the systemic oppression of persons of color, I want to CLEARLY say that it is not. My friends will back me up that my actions confirm my words. This whole speech could have revolved around any issue in our community: PrEP, gifted leather, or gear pups. My point is NOT what we disagree about, but rather how our entire community reacts TOWARD our own community when we disagree. I am gravely concerned that our community’s FIRST reaction is to choose to get offended and go on the attack rather than to educate and attempt to make someone an ally. (and let me be clear again…I am talking about people who are making honest mistakes…not people who are clearly and intentionally being assholes…They have NO room at my table). I’m going to change gears for just a moment and then bring it back. Whatever the current issue at hand is, we have gotten so concerned about the issue WITHIN the community that we have lost sight of the true enemy. We are so busy fighting amongst ourselves over whether colored leather is flagging, or if purchased leather is “real,” or if a pup can be a pup without gear, that we are at the precipice of losing major rights…and we’re not willing to band together because of petty disagreements…even though the issues that we are disagreeing about are about real issues. I’ve got news for you: There will ALWAYS be disagreements. I disagree with MYSELF 47% of the time (or is it 48?)! This is about our survival, not ego. I know that this will come as a shock to some people, but not getting your way is not always a personal attack! There could easily come a day when an event like this could be raided and we would be imprisoned and sent in for shock therapy to try to fix us. And they will NOT give a rat’s ass about your opinion on gifted leather, flagging, or gender fluidity. Sadly, they probably will care about your economic status and the color of your skin, but that is a WHOLE different speech. This oppression has happened before and it could happen again so fast that it would make your head spin. DO YOU FULLY UNDERSTAND THAT OUR VICE PRESIDENT BELIEVES-IN AND PROMOTES CONVERSION “THERAPY”? In the recent past, we have had the general freedom and the luxury to “only” go to leather/kink BDSM bars if we choose, when within MANY of our own lifetimes, going into ANY gay bar meant taking your life into your own hands. We have had the freedom and the luxury to look down on people because they bought their own leather, when a few decades ago, you would have had your ass kicked for letting anyone know about your fetishes at all…hence the hanky code. We have had the freedom to argue about whether play spaces should be exclusively male, when a few decades ago it was still illegal to have gay sex in most of our states. It still is in some. (Riddle me this: There are states where it is legal to marry your same-sex partner, but there are still laws on the books saying that it’s illegal to have sex with them!) We have had the freedom to disrespect people who like leather and high heels, when a few decades ago we marched side-by-side to protect each other from the abuse of the government. We have the freedom to argue about PrEP being a “whore-pill,” when a few short decades ago we were burying friends on a weekly basis…had this pill been around then, there would have been no argument at ALL about it. We have had our freedom for so long that we’ve taken it for granted and we’ve forgotten that we are allies on the most basic of levels: we are people being oppressed because of something that we have no control over. Yes, that oppression is not doled out equally. When push comes to shove, if we don’t fight against the oppression of some…it will lead to the oppression of all. And sadly, we are leading that fight of oppression against some within our own community. Leather and Fetish folk used to be a band of rebels. We pushed away from the status-quo and accepted anyone and everyone: fat, skinny, female, socially awkward…. Our bond was deeper than our clothes and it was deeper than a dog mask. Leather was a lifestyle. Most of us were gay, but we had purpose and love and acceptance for each other and for those who supported us…and quite frankly, we gave leeway to those who weren’t quite there yet. We understood that our lifestyle was not for everyone. We also understood that we weren’t superior to others because of our leather, our bodies, our kinks, having a dick, our dick size, our choice in shoes, what gear was worn, whether or not we had a title, or our fucking club affiliation. How can ANYONE who has ever felt the oppression of the heteronormative world not accept someone because of the way they look or the color of their skin? I’m asking people to join with me as a community, not fucking marry me! So why does it matter if I’m old, bald, and fat? The answer is, ‘because we’ve stopped thinking with our heads, worrying about what is best for the community’ and we’ve started ‘thinking with our dicks, only worrying about how hot the guy is that I want right now.’ We used to be far more welcoming and supportive of diversity, because we cared about each other as a community. Kink and Leather had something for everyone and there was no judgment. What the fuck happened? Now we don’t see eye-to-eye on whether jello-shots should be red or blue and we rally the troops until we destroy events and groups and clubs and eventually people. We get butthurt because someone didn’t give us the attention that we think we deserve and go start new clubs and organizations, weakening the entire community. We fight each other over miniscule preferences and we ignore the fact that we fat-shame, body-shame, age-shame, gender-shame, dick-size shame, race-shame, and kink-shame each other…all of this done in the very space provided to us by the battles fought and won by fat, old, queer, transgender, not-the-same-race-as-me, and possibly little-dicked and kinky people. We’re selfish and we’re hypocrites. We’ve lost touch with our roots. We dishonor our history. We’ve lost touch with the fact that the freedoms that we enjoy today were not free. People fought and bled and died on city streets and in cornfields for these rights. And if we don’t learn to support each other in our differences, we’re going to lose those rights. But honestly, every time we get closer to equality, we seem to hate each other more…instead of banding together to fight the real enemy. We’ve stopped being intolerant of injustice and we’ve become intolerant of each other. The political and religious right LOVES to see that anger, hatred, and uprising that we are having amongst ourselves. To them, it justifies their actions and they know that once our resolve to support each other has weakened, we become easy prey, because we start to support the outside oppression: yup…stop those BLM people (even if they’re gay). Yup…stop those freaks from cross-dressing in public (isn’t it gross?) yup…stop those HIV+ people from spreading it. We have a president that wants to take every one of our rights away under the guise of religious freedom. We have a vice president who believes that we should be in mental institutions, receiving shock therapy for our lifestyle. This is the fight that is before us…and we’re soapboxing against each other over preferences. And while I fully believe in the individual causes that each of us hold dear…we can’t continue to fight against each other in the smaller battles and ever expect to win the war. And a war is coming. And honestly, maybe that’s what has to happen for us to start caring about each other again. Because I’m not sure that we always do.