Looking for a Lion in a Phone Booth: thoughts on BOLDcon 2013
I have been asked by many people “So, Gray, what did you think of BOLD?” It’s usually asked in a sort of secretive way, kind of like in middle school when a Penthouse was being passed around the guy’s locker room and you’d wink, nudge your buddy. I understand the need for secrecy; there was a lot of controversy and criticism around the first BOLD, and they had the temerity and audacity not only to survive but to thrive. It’s part of why I had the unusual experience, before the event, of meeting someone and having them say “Wow, Gray, I’m glad you’re an alright guy. I’d heard that you were presenting at BOLD, and that kind of made me wonder what kind of person you really are…”
Seriously. Presenters, have you ever had someone say something like that to you before an event? It’s part of why I’m writing this now. Apparently the criticism of the con is more of the group itself – which identifies as MDHL, or Male Dom Het Leather. By association, that means female submissives. The objections were many, ranging from incredulity that there might need to be a male het dom focus (apparently it’s believed that almost all kink events already have that focus) and, more violently, the concept of “het leather.” Apparently there is some feeling that “leather” is by definition queer, and therefore by making it het there was some kind of cultural appropriation going on.
This is NOT going to get into either of those arguments. I will simply quote Guy Baldwin at his keynote at the Los Angeles Leather Leadership Conference:
…the history of our own “leather”-erotic subcultural world seems to
support that idea. The renegade motorcycle culture of late 1940s California
spawned the first gay motorcycle clubs here in the mid-1950s, which then
proliferated across the nation. With only two or three exceptions, those
motorcycle clubs gave rise to our leather bars, where it became possible to
join networks of BDSM players — communities — to learn the craft of one’s
favorite kinks; and most importantly, to find suitable partners to get laid.
Get that? That “renegade motorcycle culture” was predominantly het – gay leather came out (sic) of them. So there should be no issue with het or bi or asexuals identifying with the same “leather”, and if you’re wondering what I mean by that, watch this.
That’s how I feel about that subject. You want to debate me on it, you will need to provide the alcohol and the cigars and preferably a bootblack so you can explain to my heterishness why I’m not leather.
But I digress (and fantasize a bit, I admit).
The short answer to the question “How was BOLD?“: it rocked. For me, at least, in terms of both celebrating my own leather identity and also in terms of identifying challenging areas of personal growth. I can honestly say that the classes at BOLD directly resulted in my changing several key elements of my life.
It also rocked in that it dispelled any of the rumors I’d heard about the group before the event. I had been given the impression that the MDHL ideal was all about “this is the natural order of things“, much in the way that enthusiasts of Goreans or UberFemDom may assign a role to a gender (or worse, to an action: You can’t be naked or on your knees and be dominant!).
There wasn’t any of that in the BOLD conference talks, or in the literature, or even in most of the discussions. Instead of “THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE” there was, instead, a dignified “This is how we like to do it, and we’re going to explore that in depth.”
I’ve been to bisexuality conferences. I’ve been to medieval conferences. I’ve been to rope conferences, sex education conferences, and almost got to a spanking weekend. If these kinds of specialized interests are entitled to have their own event…why shouldn’t MDHL? If you don’t like that dynamic, guess what: it’s not for you. Why you gotta harsh someone else’s kink?
I can give you a reason, actually. It’s the real reason I was a little biased against the event before I went.
There were three tracks of classes available at BOLD: STRONG MEN, STRONG WOMEN, and STRONG RELATIONSHIPS. You may note the common thread there: strong. If you are also surprised to see it applied to women, then you probably need to meet people like Susan Wright, Namaste, slave nadine, slave Tina…or hell, just let me introduce you to Jazz from Las Vegas or Mollena. Whatever, when your education is done, you’ll understand that from what I saw at BOLD, these male het doms share with me the belief that the submission of a woman is all that much more meaningful when she is acknowledged as a powerful, independent, intelligent and capable partner – who chooses this power dynamic because it fulfills her.
However, I was not happy to see the way the tracks were structured. For example, I was asked to teach a class on the Dominant Cigar. That would imply cigar play, right? Except…it was in the “Strong Men” track, and there were no women or submissives allowed in the class (note: this was later amended to have women allowed to observe, but not to participate). So…cigar play with no demo bottom, not even for me as the presenter. Add to that the fact that there was also no smoking in the hotel, and we end up with a setup something like this:
Yes, that’s right, those are carrots. They work pretty well when you’re talking about various techniques for cutting cigars. But that’s not the point. The point is that I was well aware of the ludicrous nature of this challenge – in fact, it’s what appealed to me (If I can teach this class, I can teach anything!).
But the fact is, I’ve always hated “separate” spaces. I get frustrated enough at the lack of communication between groups; in my experience, separation tends to lead to a reinforcement of stereotypes, a spreading of misunderstandings and misinterpretations (Well, they said this, and that means that they…).
So I was skeptical about that particular setup. And even a little miffed when the presenter after me was able to present with a demo bottom of the female submissive variety (though I took solace in the thought that it was simply because he hadn’t been clever enough to think of carrots). More to the point, though, by the end of the event, having attended several of the Strong Men and Strong Relationship classes, I had to admit:
I was wrong.
Narrower = Deeper
Here’s an example that might not surprise you: in one class, on dealing with your Inner Critic (excellently presented by Master Obsidian) when he posited a question about masculine ideals, a participant raised his hand and began to talk about the “…pussification of the men, starting with the women’s liberation movement and the ideas of the 60’s and 70’s”. You’re probably rolling your eyes as much as I was at the glorification of the Time That Never Was, when men were men (or, rather, emotionally repressed alcoholics) and women were happy homemakers (luded out of their minds). It was exactly the kind of thing that many of the MDHL critics would expect to see at this kind of “sausage fest” (as I’ve heard it also called). In a pansexual environment, I’m sure you can imagine the huge reaction and strong stomping this man would have been given by the the Feminist Hulks in the room, both verbally and quite possibly physically. I waited for Master Obsidian to rebuff the man’s statements in that royal demeanor that he has.
Instead, in a room filled with male het leather doms, the man was gently redirected. He was invited by many of his peers to re-examine some of his assumptions. Rather than a huge confrontation (as I’ve seen in mixed groups) there was a subtle guidance and mentoring and even some leading by example as other leaders in the room offered differing, more nuanced perspectives. I’ve never seen that particular kind of attitude dealt with in that way. But I can tell you that it certainly gave me a different perspective on how to deal with them in the future. Feminist Hulk is funny, and sometimes necessary…but let’s remember what the Hulk is: a caricature of masculinity, the counterpart to Betty Boop or Barbie. These were real men, in real relationships, dealing with real questions and issues about their identities and roles and relationships in a deep and authentic way.
Another example lay when the question was brought up about where to find role models for ideals like honor, integrity, family – identified as core leather values. One man suggested that we look to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, because they had proven their worth. I immediately objected: “In the years I was in the Corps, only two Marines – myself not included – actually lived up to the ideals proclaimed by those ‘few, proud’ commercials. I would willingly lay down my life for my brothers, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want them dating my daughters.” Another man began even stronger objections, talking about the crimes committed both in the field and back home by vets.
This became an active, three-sided discussion on the roles of the military in terms of values vs. reality and the effects of combat on the human psyche. It was stimulating. And I kept thinking, in the back of my head, “if this had been a pansexual environment, the discussion would have stopped at ‘Soldier’.” I’m only speaking from my experience at many pansexual events, but frankly I consider myself to be pretty well traveled, especially for someone with no leather title save runner up for Dark Odyssey’s “Dirty Pig.” If you disagree with me, I’d love to hear about it – see my discussion requirements (whiskey, cigar, bootblack) above.
In short, I found that the deeper focus on a single dynamic or role – a male dominant, a het M/f M/s dynamic – gave the class participants a chance to really explore in depth the issues that they had in common. In my case, that meant facing some uncomfortable truths about myself, my own past relationships, and my current identity. I came away with one fucking growth opportunity after another, and a notebook filled with great phrases, such as Master Obsidian’s definition of true love:
When you are willing to circumcise a lion in a phone booth with a fingernail clipper for her – then you know it’s real.
I also found that the questions that were discussed and answered in the classes brought out insights for myself which have grown and nourished many a thoughtful essay. Frankly, I haven’t been this stimulated and challenged on a spiritual and intellectuall level by a regular con in a very long time. Not that I don’t enjoy regular cons – but I have to think that by needing to attract and satisfy so many diverse identities, their educational tracks tend to be broad and unfortunately shallow by necessity. Please don’t flame me and list all the deep thoughtful classes you’ve been to at mega-events; this is my personal reaction.
I’ve long been a fan of the “unconference” model, because it allows people to identify their needs and passions and address them. I have to admit that this micro-focus model for a convention may also provide that kind of service. By not trying to include every perspective, the ones you do include get a deeper exploration. Sometimes that means they are reinforced, but from what I saw it also meant that instabilities and assumptions were identified, challenged, and often corrected. If you are going to a con for more than just getting laid, well, that’s a pretty awesome thing.
If you’re going to get laid, though, I don’t recommend BOLDcon, at least as a single het dom. It’s not a big “pick-up play” kind of event.
BOLDcon 2013 was a great event for me. I do identify as male, as mostly het, as mostly dom, and as leather, so it’s obvious to see why I would have liked it. But those “mostly”‘s are important; if this had been a “one true way” kind of atmosphere, I would have been the sand in the ointment, challenging it everywhere I could. But frankly that attitude wasn’t there. One of only three community awards, for example, was given to a female Master in attendance with her male slave and her husband. The closing keynote was delivered by slave Namaste to a tearful and standing ovation, and is well worth a read regardless of your orientation. I feel privileged to have been in the audience as she delivered it.
If you choose to criticize the event based on the narrow focus, then I hope you also criticize women-only spaces, queer-only spaces, or other hyper-focused groups that separate based on gender, role, or some other aspect of personal identity. This event challenged my understanding of the value of these kinds of events. Even better, it provided me with the tools and the opportunity to grow in terms of my personal character and beliefs.
Thank you for inviting me, MDHL. Leather willing, I’ll see you there in 2014.
You can read Obsidian & Namaste’s commentary on the event here.