Friday 10 April 2015

The Leather Women Return

Two years ago I wrote a brief history of the International Ms Leather (IMsL) contest. Reading it again recently I thought it could do with being expanded upon. So, to celebrate this year’s IMsL contest taking place this week in San Jose here is a bit more about it’s origins.

In 1987, in the run-up to the first IMsL contest, lgbt bars and clubs in major US cities held their own contest to choose their representative for the new title. Many of these were held in men’s bars as there were not that many female leather bars around at that time. What there WAS around at the time was a growing sense of identity and community among female leather/SM enthusiasts.

Several members of the IMsL steering committee were no strangers to the world of title pageants. Chuck Renslow was owner of the International Mr Leather franchise, and Patrick Toner had been International Mr Leather 1985. Another committee member, Gayle Rubin, was involved in the organisation of perhaps the earliest female leather contest.

Gayle Rubin was co-founder of Samois, the first women’s leather/SM group in the USA, formed in San Francisco in 1978. I only mentioned Samois briefly in my earlier article, and because Samois and its members have been such a significant influence on the development of the female leather and SM communities, let’s take a closer look at its history.

Samois was formally founded on 13th June 1978 when a group of lesbian leather enthusiasts met in San Francisco. Most of the founder members had attended a previous leather group called Cardea, including the leading lights of Samois, Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia.

Gayle Rubin is a cultural anthropologist. Throughout her university studies she wrote and spoke on feminist and women’s issues. In 1970 whilst at the University of Michigan studying for her doctorate, Gayle co-founded a feminist group called Radicalesbians.

In 1975 Gayle wrote an essay titled “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, which was to play a large part in feminist debates during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In particular the essay encouraged female SM practitioners to define their own identity and place in SM culture in the face of opposition from radical feminists who denounced SM as degrading to women.

With this background in feminist theory Gayle moved to San Francisco and began to study the leather culture among gay men for her dissertation. She joined the female leather scene just as the Cardea group was disbanding and she met Pat Califia. Between them they came up with the idea of the first independent female leather/SM group that became Samois.

Pat Califia had been active in the SM community in San Francisco since the early 1970s. Just as Gayle’s “The Traffic in Women” essay was creating debate Pat was urging lesbian SM practitioners to stand up for their rights to express themselves. There was no female-only SM bar or club in San Francisco, and out of the debates arose the female support group called Cardea. Pat became one of its first members.

In 1978 Pat and Gayle co-founded Samois. Their aim was to create a social, support and activist group, and to raise awareness of SM practice. Education was part of this programme of awareness and Pat and the Samois group wrote several articles and books detailing lesbian SM practices.

Three years later, still battling against the anti-pornography feminist lobby, Samois decided to emulate their male counterparts by organising the first female leather contest. This was held on 5th September 1981in a lesbian bar called Ollies and attracted several hundred attendees. Unfortunately, I can’t find any record of the winner’s name, the first Ms Leather.

Samois was at the height of its popularity. But just a few months later and the pressure began to take its toll. The unexpectedly high production costs (in both money and time) of publishing a ground-breaking book of SM writing by group members, the pressure of combating constant anti-SM criticism, and internal differences within the committee, all contributed to the slow demise of Samois.

Fortunately, by now Samois had created a large network of female lesbian and supportive members that ensured that lesbian leather/SM would continue. The community was now becoming a nationwide movement and new local groups were being formed.

This was a crucial time for the whole leather/BDSM community. The emergence of AIDS was to effect them as much as anyone. A lot of SM practitioners were reluctant to adhere to safe-sex messages that its most prominent members were promoting. Most practitioners were straight and they saw AIDS as a “gay man’s disease”. The gay male SM community quickly adapted to the new threat and led the promotion of safe-sex practices in BDSM.

In San Francisco the community was fundraising for AIDS charities since the early days of the epidemic. In 1986 nurse Joann Lee and Alan Selby, owner of a popular leather store, gathered together a group of enthusiasts to form the first committee for the International Ms Leather contest. Gayle Rubin, co-founder of The Outcasts, the successor to Samois, agreed to become a member.

As with the earlier Ms Leather contest held by Samois a full list of entrants of the first IMsL is difficult to locate so I’m unable to name the pioneers of either contest. Only the winners’ name of the first IMsL is known – Judy Tallwing McCarthy.

Whoever wins IMsL this coming weekend she will join a distinguished and diverse group of women whose work for the SM community will always be respected.

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