2015 Keynote Brunch!

Sin in the City is honored to announce our 2015 Keynote Speaker:
Patrick Mulcahey!

Join us on Sunday morning for a sumptuous brunch, sexy entertainment, and a scintillating talk...

 2011 Bay Area Leather Alliance Man of the Year
 Leatherman's Heart Award Recipient
 Robert Davolt "Spirit of Leather" Award Recipient
 2013 Pantheon of Leather Northern California Regional Award Recipient
 2014 National Leather Association Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Patrick Mulcahey speaks and teaches on leather, SM, and Master/slave topics,
and writes regular columns for Leatherati and Growing Pains, the Society of Janus newsletter. He is past program director of the S.F. Leathermen’s Discussion Group, chapter director for MAsT-San Francisco, and has served as a judge for the International Master/slave, International Leather SIR/boy, and International Mr. Leather contests. Patrick was named 2011 Bay Area
Leather Alliance Man of the Year and has received the Leatherman's Heart Award, the Robert Davolt “Spirit of Leather" Award, the 2013 Pantheon of Leather Northern California Regional Award, and the 2014 National Leather Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Patrick lives happily in San Francisco with his slave, patrick mulcahey, in a same-sex, same-name marriage.

Sin in the City's 2015 Keynote Speech:

I seem to have reached that inevitable stage of living when I am, not obsessed, but fascinated by the question of how my life turned out the way it did, rather than some other way.

I’m not unhappy. I’m the happiest person I know. But when the first digit of your age becomes a six, it’s possible to discern a shape to the meandering road you’ve taken and irresistible to examine how your choices and the times you lived through led to this person you understand as you.

I’m aware of social strictures and structures that influenced me, some still with us, some not. Fat sissy kids, then as now, resort to a classic array of defenses against ridicule and rejection. Piano lessons, the Black Stallion books, anguished poetry, revenge fantasies: things we can do by ourselves. Thankfully, though, it’s not so frequent anymore that LGB teenagers are thrown into psychiatric hospitals, as I was (but it might be more frequent these days for trans teenagers).

I’m aware too that ambition led to some questionable choices, and lack of ambition to even more. The twin evils of money and not having it shaped my body, my teeth, my conscience, my looks, my health, my sense of safety in the world and of how safe I needed to be. Fear helped to build me, and sorrow, and loss. And recognition, flattery, insults, scorn, praise.

But when I look back, it’s clear nothing has driven me more consistently, more powerfully and confoundingly than my quest for sexual fulfillment. A moralist might say empty pleasure compelled and ruined me, but I suspect my pursuit of erotic and emotional union accounts for what is best and wisest and most decent in me.

I’m willing to bet that the same is true for you: that your pursuit of sexual completion has shaped your life — your health, your body, your feelings and beliefs — more than any other single factor. Well, if there are any single factors. It’s our habit not to talk about our lives in a very integrated way. We like sex, BDSM, love, cognition, and the rest to stay in separate imaginary chambers. But the fact is that our drive to connect sexually is also an emotional, psychological, even spiritual drive, leading us to each other and to our own natures by way of desires rooted so deeply in us that neither science nor religion can say how they originate.

When I was a kid — this would be the late 1950s — I was mesmerized by “Cheyenne” and “The Rifleman” on TV and movies with Tarzan or Hercules. What did these entertainments have in common? Big musclebound heroes who were frequently shirtless and tied up or chained to stakes, chairs, trees, pillars, railroad tracks, or pagan temples, to my secret little-boy gratification. The images brought on a pleasant state of physical arousal, familiar enough now to all of us in this room, but not something experienced as sexual by a five- or six-year-old. Still, I did understand it could not be displayed or discussed, like so many things that happened in my pants.

Where did it come from, this boyhood fascination with male bondage — which in a shifting array of forms became more or less a lifelong pursuit, leading me ultimately to M/s and my slave-slash-husband? Was it specific to the images I saw, with their explicit threat of violence? Would I have felt the same way if instead I’d come across decorative, unthreatening, macramé-like bondage? What if I’d never come across images of bondage at all, ever?

Or was there something in the social conditions of the time that urged erotic images of bondage into the collective mind, and rendered me susceptible to them? These aren’t questions I have answers to, just elusive recollections.

For instance. I was not interested in pictures of tied-up women. I found it exasperating when the bad guys tied up Lois Lane instead of Superman. But I know there was a connection in my head between bondage and my mother’s station in life. With a husband and five sons, was she so trapped by obligation that she felt like a kind of captive? Did I read that in her? All I know is that when we played “house” or “house”-related role-plays with the neighborhood kids, whoever was The Mom usually ended up tied to a fence or a pole struggling to get free, to no avail.

Was I seeing, even at some level comprehending, what Betty Friedan later called “the feminine mystique”? Meaning the popular idea, promulgated by the men who published women’s magazines, that only by devoting herself to a husband and children could a woman find true happiness. There had been an upswing in careerism among women in the 1930s and the war years, but for the fifteen years following World War II, social messaging held that a woman in the workforce was doomed to be lonely and unhappy. The only good reason for her even to go to college was to find a husband.

By the mid-60s, when I was 11 or 12, I was drawing my own bondage porn (without any idea that such a thing existed): big muscular hairy guys tied up, not half-naked but all the way naked. I had no artistic talent, but nobody rescued the guys I drew. They stayed naked and tied up for as long as I wanted them to. After they had served their frenzied purpose, I tore them into a million pieces, until the craving arose again in a week or a month.

By then, yes, I had an awareness that these clumsy images and the self-induced pleasure they led to had something to do with sex — but were not sex. I knew by then, from my father, that sex was when the man lies on top of the woman and God puts a baby inside her, and oh yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. Consequently for me, sex was a hand-me-down idea that didn’t include the real objects of my desire, namely Hercules and the Rifleman.

In a few years I found out sex with girls didn’t work quite the way Dad suggested. That was okay though, since high school was just for practice, right? But then I hit that speed bump I mentioned, in the form of my first time with another guy, which got me locked in an adolescent psych ward for two years — a little series of psych wards, actually. Luckily only one of them favored shock treatments. (Never been a big electro fan since.)

So it wasn’t until I was 21 or 22, forty years ago, that my sexual circuitry came to completion, late at night on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, to which I’d escaped. I was walking home from work, tired and smelling of clam chowder, and being dogged by an especially persistent tourist from London, Ontario, pleading that he was desperate to have me. I was a tall, skinny blond kid. Nobody believed I was a top and nobody was ever desperate for me but older guys like this one — he must’ve been 32. Finally he said something that stopped me cold:

“Please, please come back to my hotel. I want to tie you up.”

What? This was something people actually did to each other in the context of sex?

Yes, being tied up by a stranger had some potential risks. But then, he was Canadian, how dangerous could he be?

So I said yes, and he tied me up, and I had two immediate reactions. First: this is very hot. Second: he’s doing it all wrong.

We spent that weekend tying each other up with these weird bungee-like cables he favored. I think we even wrote a few letters. But I wasn’t moving to London, Ontario. So how was I going to find that experience again?

It took a couple of years, but I did, this time in New Orleans. (If you don’t have great sex in New Orleans, you never will.) This wasn’t a formal leather or biker club but a bunch of guys, some with motorcycles, who liked to drink and get rough and dirty, when possible with amyl nitrite. Today we would call them kinky sex pigs, which still feels like my natural peer group.

We didn’t wear much leather, and not just because it was hot. Back in the 70s, for one thing, it wasn’t so attainable. Yeah, some big city bars had leather shops in them, but even when you could find it, the stuff was expensive. And for another thing, we really didn’t care. A lot of us had leather jackets and boots, but a lot of us also wore Western gear, or nothing special. There was no uniform, contrary to what you’ve heard, and apart from the kind of informal seniority system any workplace or social circle defaults to, the only unwritten “rules” proceeded from the common-sense understanding that we were on our own. Whatever happened, nobody was going to the police or the courts and dragging us all into it. If you had a problem with somebody, it was your damn job to figure it out.

We had no dress code, but a sharp observer might’ve deduced a code of things we didn’t wear. We didn’t wear shiny disco shirts or beads or platform shoes. We didn’t wear pink and didn’t wear scarves and never tied sweaters around our necks. You know why. In the New York leather scene, I found a more elaborate hierarchy, but oddly, at the same time, more conformity. I still wouldn’t say there was a uniform, but the list of what was allowable was shorter, and the list of what must not be worn was longer.

So while the practice of leather, what it looked like, differed from place to place, the contours of the substructure undergirding it were the same in New York, New Orleans, Denver, L.A., San Francisco, everywhere.

Recall that the gay leather subculture came into being alongside and contemporaneous with the “feminine mystique.” Gender roles and their expression were more sharply differentiated and policed than any time since the Victorian era, when married women had no legal existence apart from their husbands.

You could say the founding impulse of gay men’s leather, very much in keeping with the time, was to trade in one stereotype — sissy Mr Bruce, the hairdresser — for another: the über-manly man, as epitomized in the Marlon Brando screen persona. Johnny, Brando’s character in “The Wild One” (released the year I was born, 1953) is independent, contemptuous, emotionally remote, crude, tough, uncomplaining, a fighter not a lover, but fundamentally decent, a protector of the very old, very young, and very weak, a category which included the handicapped and women.

“The Wild One” spurred the sale of millions of black leather jackets, and it wasn’t only gay men buying them. American men stampeded to embrace the same avatar of masculinity, represented also by James Dean, John Wayne, even occasionally by, oops, Rock Hudson. Rugged iconic male heroes existed as far back as Achilles, of course. But once medical science invented the homosexual, that brand of maleness was made to seem unachievable by men like me — until gay leather.

We rarely hear anyone admit that the bedrock of leather was, I won’t say misogyny, but a flight from all things female. I’ll stick my neck out and say that was also true among the (admittedly few) leatherwomen I knew early on. Butches were the leaders of the pack. Femmes were prizes, subject to domination, possession, sometimes even violence, just like real wives.

It may not be a pretty picture, but this is the chassis upon which we built leather. Sure, other tropes migrated in from pre-existing heterosexual kink, notably the whip-wielding Dominatrix who took no shit from men. You would think that would have confused things, but there just wasn’t much social overlap in our Venn diagrams of gender and orientation. So our standards and our fashions stayed mostly undisturbed, allowing us to feel we could best express our authentic selves by all dressing the same way in the same places competing for the same things: attention, sex, approval.

There was much we took pains not to express. Leather was born in the age of the closet. The Brando brand of macho was, obviously, a boon to closeted gay men who could pull it off, and with a little study and practice most of us could. Even as late as 1980, leathermen I tried to engage with in New York’s vast complicated community would not tell me what they did for a living, where they lived, or their last names.

You have heard many of us insist that we were “born this way.” I don’t think so. But I do think it’s fair to say we are made this way, by factors we could not have controlled: our parents, our class, our race, our gender, our era, the imagery diffused through our environments. And we ourselves have been collaborators in our self-generation, unwittingly perhaps, below the level of intention, but some responsibility clings to us even so.

Both gender and sexual orientation appear to us these days with a fluidity I can appreciate but not participate in. My sexual orientation and my sense of myself as a man are tied deeply, in ways I don’t know how to sever, to that early gay leather paradigm, or at least to that kinky sex pig paradigm.

The men’s community in San Francisco, where I’ve lived for over thirty years, has been home and family to me. The work I’ve done in leather organizations has never not been meaningful and nourishing. I love my leather friends, but I must ask their pardon to say something out loud that I have wanted to say on and off for years: that I’m sick of leather and that leather is sick, terminally ill. If kinky young gay men want nothing to do with its folderol, its affectations, its internal contradictions, its sexist roots, then good for them.

I can’t sit through any more leather events that fetishize preposterous, supposedly Old Guard practices and protocols and attire, and practices and protocols about attire. It’s like being at a Civil War reenactment. Our clothes never looked that good, people! Our posture wasn’t that straight, our muscles weren’t that big, we didn’t have processions of silent submissive boys kneeling at our feet. We reveled in stereotypes, racial and otherwise. We objectified black men as big dicks pulsing with plantation rancor. We tolerated inexcusable contempt for and language about women. I loved my kinky sex pigs, but they’re all gone, and leather as a fossilized theme park and a fountain of counterfeit nostalgia needs to go too.

We have changed, friends. We talk about “community,” and we know what we mean when we do, but we also know that we are not just divided but fractured into many, many pieces. And you know what? That’s the way it should be. The sooner we stop trying to follow fuzzy or fictional codes and concepts of what is leather “correct” — the sooner we stop pretending we all want the same things — the better off we will be.

Instead, let’s concentrate on what we really do have in common:

An interest in helping legal and medical authorities distinguish between non-standard consensual behavior and abuse. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance are probably the most important national organizations we can support. To make it a threesome, I’ll throw in the Leather Archives and Museum. As long as we fail to keep track of our deviant American history, we’ll be subject to the same make-believe and amnesia that plague us today.

We want smart, responsible, nuanced sex education for the coming generations. It’s crazy to send sexually mature young adults off to college, with no preparation but clinical terms and “abstinence,” and expect them to figure out from a student manual how consent works.

We need writers, publishers, craftspeople, artisans, makers of gear, lubes, barriers, toys and tools that allow us to explore safely the ways we desire each other. One of the unrealistic aspects of 50 Shades of Grey is that Christian acknowledges no connection to a larger BDSM community, even though his practices and his dungeon display the tools and motifs that only a developed kink economy can furnish. (Except for those damn neckties.)

Finally, we cannot be effective in pursuing our genuinely common interests without a common interest in ridding ourselves of the closet. Yes, not everyone can come all the way out — but facelessness is our biggest obstacle to free and happy integrated lives. The closet is a shield for bad behavior; that’s its reason for existing. We begin to escape it when we acknowledge to ourselves that our behavior is not “bad.”

There are risks to coming out, certainly, but the data are telling us that less and less are people like us losing custody battles or being charged with assault because of our non-missionary-position tastes. Millions more of us can come out safely: if we all rush the barricades at once, they can’t shoot everybody, right?

Coming out does not involve telling Grandma you like to fist friends and strangers. The erotic acts we enjoy can stay just as private as our parents’ sex lives were. An excellent place to start instead is with your name.

Back in the bad old days, homosexuality was both an illness and against the law. (Don’t ask me how the world managed to reconcile those two beliefs. Wasn’t it like declaring leukemia illegal? Our position as kinky people, a.k.a. clinical paraphiliacs, is just emerging from that same double-bind.) Anyway, those of us who were closeted, which was almost all of us, longed to go to a gay bar but would still feel panic at the prospect. What if we saw somebody there who knew us? What if we met somebody and gave him our real name, and he turned it over to the police or to our boss? Well — duh — anybody we saw in a gay bar was in the same position we were and taking the same risks. Which is true in this room as well.

*  *  *  *  *

Two weeks ago, in the scientific journal Nature, we read:

…new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body… 

Last year, for example, surgeons reported that they had been operating on a hernia in a man, when they discovered that he had a womb. The man was 70, and had fathered four children.

Gender, then, is more shifty than we ever thought. Trans folks may have introduced us to that idea, but guess what? It applies in some way to all of us. If gender is a potentially moving target, then so is sexual orientation. Which means that sex itself can have a malleability and a mutability very much at odds with the old understanding of what men and women do and the increasingly quaint notion that we are all strictly one or the other.

I’m pretty sure this information comes too late for me. I am made this way, by the times I lived through and how I lived them, and I don’t imagine I can mint new desires; I suspect Tarzan and Hercules cannot be dethroned from my libido. But I can appreciate and respect those who come after me with more various and exotic desires, spurred by anime and furries and Second Life and Buck Angel and, who knows, maybe Christian Grey’s gray neckties.

And if that is you, in all honesty I don’t think you can look to capital-L Leather for a home. You’ll either have to build one of your own or rebuild Leather — which some have already commenced, piecemeal, but leather’s antiquated presuppositions won’t go down without a fight. (The designation of kinky sex pigs, however, need have no expiration date.)

We who are or were identified with leather have much to pass on, in experience, in skills, in what we know about the internal work required to be aware and accountable in our dealings, in our play and in our lives. We have no special genius, there are plenty of non-leather people who know these same things, but us at least you know where to find. Take what you need from us and go your own way. That is your only obligation. You are not indebted.

The day will come, if it hasn’t already, when you ask yourself: how did my life turn out this way, out of all the possibilities of what I could have done and who I could have been? The answer, of course, is that you had to choose. We don’t get to invent the choices that confront us. We look at what’s on offer on the great shopping rack of life — big-chested he-men tied up, for example — and try to select what fits us best. Sometimes we outgrow it. Sometimes we are stuck with it.

And when that day of internal reckoning dawns for you, maybe like me you will say to yourself: “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d do it all again. But nobody else should have to.”

Thank you.