How Respectability Politics Threatens Queer Leather Culture

For many years I have heard comments from some in the LGBTQ community about those in the leather/kink community. Many accuse those in the leather/kink community of falling directly into the stereotypical boxes that many cishet people like to try to put queers into. Basically, they think the kinksters are all nasty, perverted, sexually promiscuous, morally bankrupt sluts. To these people, the leather kinksters validate everything the heteros think about queers, and they do so by acting like sexual deviants with no decency or control over their sexual desires.   

Usually, the ones making these comments are usually the more “respectable gays”; the gays who try to follow societal norms as closely as possible in order to pass in a culture that greatly values heteronormativity. They graduate from university. They find great jobs. They get married. They buy houses.

They wear Santa hats and take photos with their husband/wife and dog, and print them on the front of holiday postcards that they mail out to everyone in their address book. They have/adopt children. They then bring those children to gay pride marches all over the world, and brand those in the leather/kink community sluts for walking around in jockstraps and harnesses in front of their family. 

Obviously there are other types of queers  who fall somewhere along this spectrum. Wearing a Santa hat and taking a family photo does not automatically brand someone a “queer sell-out”. Queers are allowed to do such things and still be very much so queer. However, these two extremes represent the opposing sides of many arguments I’ve witnessed in the past few years, especially when they concern whether or not leather people should be allowed at pride events.

How awkward and problematic is it for people to try and police an event such as pride that was started as a rebellion in the first place? And what is it with these queers that are so heavily driven by their need to be accepted that they seem to have forgotten what it truly means to embrace their queer identity?

Many attribute this distaste for leather culture in the queer community to “progress” – marriage equality and civil acceptance seemed to have taken its toll on the hyper-sexualized queer expression of the leather and kink communities. 

“Many factors, like gentrification and the fight for marriage equality, have contributed to the rise in homonormality,” said Jeremiah Moss, a writer who journals the evolution of New York City in his blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. “This is a very American melting pot phenomenon: If you assimilate, if you give up what makes you different, you can have rights.”

It seems like those groups of people in our society who are most discriminated against always face this reality at some point: In order to progress, you must sell your soul in some way. In order to move closer toward actual acceptance, you must give up another aspect of your identity. In order to win, you must lose something. In the end, being accepted ends up having absolutely nothing to do with acceptance at all. It’s simply just allowing yourself to be converted.

It’s quite normal for humans to want to make things easier for themselves. Struggling gives us an edge, and makes us resilient and strong in the face of adversity, but no one wants to struggle forever do they? At some point, don’t we want to gain access to all the things that others have? Sure we do, but at what cost?

Recently, while walking around London with my partner, we talked about some of the old queer spaces in cities like New York and London that have since been converted into luxury flats and apartment buildings. And the ones that haven’t been closed and bought out are heavily straight-washed. 

How many of us have seen groups of cishet women coming into a gay establishment for a bachelorette party and rolled our eyes so far back into our heads at the thought of having our space completely taken over that we’ve almost passed out? Everyone wants to vogue. Everyone wants to watch Drag Race while snapping their fingers and saying “Werk, queen!” Queer culture is either being completely eradicated or heavily gentrified and commercialized, and all in the name of progress. “Progress is good, but the other part of me wishes it was all still underground”, my partner said.  

Is this to say that I feel progress is a bad thing? Not at all. I believe that there is a balance between making progress and sacrificing important aspects of your identity. Leather/kink culture, though not without its faults, is at the core of queer culture. Being a slut in public is at the very core of what being queer stands for – daring to expose the truths and desires that others keep concealed, and refusing to live in shame and silence for the sake of being “normal”. To deny those in the leather/kink community that right is participating in the policing and ultimate destruction of queer culture.  

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Kyle Jackson

Kyle Jackson (He/Him) is Senior Staff Writer at Gray Jones Media, and additionally works as a writer, editor and theatre artist/actor. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied at Dillard University, received a BA in Theatre from Morgan State University, an MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, and completed the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford Programme in 2017. Having lived in Baltimore, the Washington, DC area, Philadelphia and New York City, he now resides and works in London, United Kingdom.

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