2018 Beyond Leather Keynote: Future and Fire

Posted: April 29, 2018 by Isaac Cross in Advice, Current Events, Events, Learn Something, Philosophy

(The following is the keynote address delivered at the Beyond Leather convention in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on April 28, 2018)

Egbert van der Poel - Fire in a Village

Egbert van der Poel – Fire in a Village

There is an African proverb that says if a child is not embraced by the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.

When I attended my first play party at age 21, an older gentleman remarked to me that young people like myself were ruining the kink community, a sentiment I’ve heard echoed more times than I can count within my own story and that of nearly every young kinkster I know.

Many of us young people are feeling a bit cold and we can’t help but notice how flammable the village looks these days.

Of course, this isn’t just a kink problem, which is why there are proverbs about it.
I started taking a leadership role in my church when I was 19, I began delivering the children’s sermon. I was in the church band and choir, I even served as the musical director for a time. I had grown up in this church, I literally spent my entire life in it.
But it was governed by a committee of elders. That committee chose their own replacements for any that stepped aside. There was no formal election process.

At age 22, when I left that church for good, the majority of members on the committee of elders had been a part of our congregation for less time that I had; almost all of them, in fact. They were also, without exception, over the age of 65. They objected to the modern sounds and styles we were using in the worship music I selected, preferring the traditional pipe organ and familiar hymns. They were newer to the congregation, but they had the number next to their name that made them an elder and that was all that mattered. So they won.

I eventually got tired of fighting to be embraced by the village and surrendered, giving up direction of the music to someone they preferred and I left, as did many, many others. Their membership declined for years before they reinstated the contemporary worship service. I did not return, not even just to say I told you so.

At age 23, I was selected as the chairman of a statewide student advocacy group with thousands of members. For years, I endured older people incorrectly explaining the workings of our state budget to me at nearly every event I attended.

I was once trying to get a particular bill sponsored which would hopefully constrain rising higher education costs and I was told by my 71-year-old state representative, in a moment of brutal honesty, that they didn’t prioritize the needs of young people because we don’t vote.

Once again, I felt the village turning it’s back, but this time, I didn’t just walk away. Later that year, I successfully led the campaign to replace that representative with a a young person who then named me their chief of staff. Together, we moved the damn bill ourselves. And we haven’t stopped setting fires since.

We could have been embraced and included, we could have been allowed to work together to find solutions. Instead, we were turned away, and we came back with torches.

In 2010, at age 25, I took over as the Dungeon Monitor Director for Beyond Leather. During my first year, after a minor incident with an older gentleman, that person complained to Top and bonnie saying, and I quote “Who does this kid think he is?”
In the 8 years since I took over this job, I have observed attendees happily complying with the requests of my older staff members while bristling and resisting similar requests from me. Of course, this has also meant that I can catch them at things they shouldn’t be doing because I don’t look like an authority figure to them.

In fact, two evenings ago, when I was confronting a person about their behavior in the dungeon, they told me that they would prefer to speak to someone in charge and repeatedly made reference to the behavior of the “kids” in the room that they didn’t approve of. By the way, this was his first kink convention, while this is my 33rd.

In moments like these, I am able to keep my lighter in my pocket because I know, without a doubt, that the event owners have my back, that Sir Top and slave bonnie have always defended my position in the face of criticism over my age. I knew in this moment, that I could do my job with confidence that the decisions I made would be supported. THIS particular village has embraced me, and as a result, I have taught and staffed and worked hard to support it for nearly a decade. I have embraced it back and invited others to join me. In fact, I am one of four young educators from Colorado teaching here this weekend.

And look, I get it. We millennials are arrogant little shits sometimes. I’m guilty of it and I often find myself exasperated by my own peers. That older gentleman that I encountered in my first year at BL, it turned out in that situation that he was actually right and I was wrong. And I apologized to him for it, but I also told him that, right or wrong, if he disobeyed the directions of me or my staff in the dungeon again, that I would kick his ass out in heartbeat.

I’m going to pause here for a moment and speak to the young folks in the room. I hope that the first few minutes of my little talk has been enough to convince you that I know how you feel. I understand your frustration. I stand with you and I will fight alongside you when there are battles worth fighting. But not every disagreement is worthy of torches and it is critical to understand that even those who embrace and respect us may still disagree with us and choose not to do everything we want them to. We are not always right and we do not always have all the information. If we are listened to, respectfully, and our request is declined, the answer is to keep learning, keep working, keep arguing, and, hopefully, find a compromise. We need to resist the urge to escalate when there are still other options on the table.

To put it another way, y’all need to put down your fucking torches before there’s nothing left to burn and we all freeze to death.

Too many of us have become purists. If you spend the majority of your time attacking the people nearest to you on the ideological spectrum for the 1% of issues you conflict on, you are doing advocacy wrong.

Your figurative guns need to be pointed at the enemy that wants us in a jail or in the ground, not the other kinky or queer people who were rude to you that one time a few years ago.

We can all be better. We will all fuck up. And there’s nothing wrong with calling IN our colleagues and correcting problematic behavior. But scale that shit appropriately. The call-ins belong BEFORE the callOUTS. And we all deserve the chance to course-correct before the public shaming begins.

Every ally you destroy for petty bullshit is one less person at your back when the actual nazis show up. And they are coming. Militant, radical extremism is surging, emboldened by a political environment that doesn’t care to denounce or combat them. We have real enemies at our door.

So learn to recognize that enemy and distinguish them from someone you simply disagree with. It’s a crucial difference. Recognize the difference between someone you don’t like and someone who is a bad person. That difference matters. Recognize the difference between someone who isn’t nice to you and someone who hates you. Because only one of them is dangerous.

We are all working to stand up for ourselves, to make this community someplace that feels like home; that feels safe. Many of us are struggling to overcome obsolete ideas propagated by the powerful and predicated on the myths of an old guard that never existed. And the new kinksters of every age endure a constant barrage of judgement, condescension, and elitism that makes it hard to feel any kind of communal warmth.
But this is it. It’s all we have. We’re family and we’re going to fight sometimes. And we’re going to go off and have our own parties for people who are like us. The young, the old, the feminine, the masculine, the queer, the people of color, we all need our own room on occasion. We need fellowship and camaraderie. We’re going to form our own groups and establish our own etiquette and that’s all fine. Every evolution of the community does things their own way, especially in a community so deeply rooted in rebellion.

However, the right and the desire to go play our own tunes and march to them in whichever direction we wish does not mean we don’t owe something to those who built the spaces we inhabit. We are walking on paths paved in the blood and sweat of those before us. And with this sudden rise of fundamentalism and sexual oppression, we would do well to learn from and listen to those who have faced it before and survived. Even if they don’t use the exact right words. Even if they aren’t in tune to our issues and the unique way that we experience them. They’ve seen things we haven’t seen. They know things we don’t know. And we need them.

Neither of us can thrive without the other. We simply aren’t a big enough community to afford to let everybody have their own neighborhood kink club. We have to share. That means that young people like me need to pick our battles and let the little shit slide so we have the energy and the CREDIBILITY to fight when it matters most. And it means the older folks need to get on board and evolve a little.

We all showed up at our first party because something about it appealed to us. We were all there for fun or fellowship or both. And somewhere along the way, we forget that. We can’t allow ourselves to take this stuff too seriously. At the end of the day, we’re all playing pretend and trying to have our own version of fun.

We’re clustering together in groups because there’s a hostile, dangerous world out there and people in it that think we deserve death before sexual freedom. For that reason, our clubs are sanctuaries. And they’re sacred.

So young folks, put down the fire. That tool should be a last resort, not a first impulse. Be patient and be kind. Learn the history. Adopt the customs that are meaningful for you and discard the ones that aren’t, but respect them either way. Your homework, tonight and tomorrow is to find a person who’s been around for a while and see if they’ll tell you a story about what a kink party was like in the 80s or 90s.

Older folks, quit starving us out. There’s room at the table for everybody. There’s enough kink to go around. And nobody is ruining your steak by having theirs cooked differently. So quit saying that shit. Young people, their volunteer hours, and their money are keeping our clubs open. And if you chase us out, there won’t be any clubs left to be an elder in.

So adapt and make space for the new. Keep your traditions, but don’t expect us to follow them. Hell, hold events that celebrate those traditions. You might win some of us over, because a lot of formal leather protocol is hot as fuck. But you’ve layered so much bullshit over it that it feels more like our parents’ religion rather than a radical rebellion. Your homework tonight and tomorrow is to find a few young people and ask them what would make the community feel more welcoming to them. I think you’ll be surprised how simple some of the changes could be.

These events, these family reunions, as Top and bonnie like to call them, are such a precious opportunity. Don’t waste them by only talking to people like you. And don’t forget to have fun. Because this isn’t church, it’s a raucous celebration of individual freedom and a thunderous rejection of conformity.

We all have a passionate flame that fuels us. It can be used to chase away the arrogant youth. It can be used to burn down the old, restrictive walls. Or, if we learn to appreciate one another, we can use it to build a contained blaze that will warm the village and protect us all from the monster outside the gates.

That’s my choice.

  1. Otter says:

    *leaps out of chair to applaud*

  2. Ruby Ryder says:

    So. Well. Said.

  3. Vendamn says:

    Never underestimate the ability of some to turn something that’s supposed to be fun into work. All of this is stupid, all of you are trying too hard. Leather conferences are not fun. Keynote speeches are not fun. Tie up your girlfriend/boyfriend/whatever and fuck her.

  4. […] my keynote speech at Beyond Leather earlier this year, I talked a little bit about leaving the church that I was raised in because of […]

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