and now they press to tell me that I am brave.
how sharply our children will be ashamed.
taking at last their vengeance for these horrors.
remembering how in so strange a time
common integrity could look like courage.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Shifting her weight nervously from one leg to the other, she fumbled to get the cash out of her purse. Something was clearly bothering her. She was tall, had thin dirty blond hair, and was dressed rather plainly for someone who had clearly made an effort to dress up.

It was a party night at the San Francisco Citadel a couple weeks ago in late May. I volunteered for an hour-long shift, which allowed me to attend the $20 party for free. I was to “work the door,” a position I’d never held at this venue before. When I arrived, the coordinator introduced me to the volunteer who was to “work the cash register.” While my volunteer buddy would sign people in, check their membership, and collect admission fees, I would make sure the line was smooth, that no one got rowdy, and that accidental walk-ins were turned away.

The name for my position was “bouncer.” This is funnier if you’ve met me in person. I’m a short, scrawny white kid with a big nose and a frizzy Jew-fro (and that’s on good hair days). “Bouncer” makes you think of a tall man, probably Black, who’s got a shaved head and huge arms. Apparently this venue requires every event there to have a volunteer fill this role, but I’m no bouncer.

Having “bouncers” at BDSM club nights encourages Scene volunteers to do everything wrong when it comes to creating an atmosphere of safety, trust, and mutual acceptance. Having bouncers, especially bouncers with my physical traits, is absurd security theater that panders to the emotional insecurities of venue owners and Scene regulars. It is not thoughtfully designed to address the fraught, fragile reality of the community’s most valuable constituents: newcomers. Worse, the notions of exclusivity it exemplifies are antithetical to the BDSM community’s stated goal of warmly welcoming newbies, betraying either the community’s inexcusable hypocrisy or its rulers’ idiocracy.

“Bouncers” are just one example. This past Friday, I attended another regular party called Bent, a party I found deeply distasteful, billing itself as being for “youth,” by which the organizers mean people who are “18, 19, 20’s, or 30’s.” In the organizers’ defense, “youth,” in BDSM Scene parlance, does generally mean “under 40,” but that’s some fucked up bullshit in itself.

The following night at the SF Citadel was the inaugural Luscious party, billing itself as being the first BDSM party at the SF Citadel “to welcome people of all shapes.” Inexplicably, the theme of this first event was corsetry. Let me make this perfectly fucking clear: it’s awesome that people of all shapes and sizes can and do enjoy corsets, but the fact that the first party expressly welcoming “people of all shapes” asks you to change your shape is just one more example of how deeply BDSM Scene power brokers have internalized and then re-express overculture oppressions, in this case equating hourglass figures to beauty.

We don’t need to buy that bullshit, nor Scene double-speak. We don’t need “bouncers.” We need “bus drivers.” In 1995, Daniel Goleman showcased a bus driver’s transformative power in his book, Emotional Intelligence:

It was an unbearably steamy August afternoon in New York City, the kind of sweaty day that makes people sullen with discomfort. I was heading back to a hotel, and as I stepped onto a bus up Madison Avenue I was startled by the driver, a middle-aged black man with an enthusiastic smile, who welcomed me with a friendly, “Hi! How you doing?” as I got on, a greeting he proffered to everyone else who entered as the bus wormed through the thick midtown traffic. Each passenger was as startled as I, and, locked into the morose mood of the day, few returned his greeting.

But as the bus crawled uptown through the gridlock, a slow, rather magical transformation occurred. The driver gave a running monologue for our benefit, a lively commentary on the passing scene around us: there was a terrific sale at that store, a wonderful exhibit at this museum, did you hear about the new movie that just opened at that cinema down the block? His delight in the rich possibilities the city offered was infectious. By the time people got off the bus, each in turn had shaken off the sullen shell they had entered with, and when the driver shouted out a “So long, have a great day!” each gave a smiling response.

The memory of that encounter has stayed with me for close to twenty years. When I rode that Madison Avenue bus, I had just finished my own doctorate in psychology – but there was scant attention paid in the psychology of the day to just how such a transformation could happen. Psychological science knew little or nothing of the mechanics of emotion. And yet, imagining the spreading virus of good feeling that must have rippled through the city, starting from passengers on his bus, I saw that this bus driver was an urban peacemaker of sorts, wizardlike in his power to transmute the sullen irritability that seethed in his passengers, to soften and open their hearts a bit.

With this in mind, I mentally said “fuck that shit” to my volunteer role and instead of acting like a “bouncer,” I acted like a bus driver, or a KinkForAll greeter.

The Bus Driver

“Hi!” I’d chirp from my seat on the stool, swinging my legs in the air like a little boy. “Here for Transmission?” That was the name of the party: Transmission, the San Francisco Citadel’s party for trans, and generally queerer, people. Stacks of my own business cards bulged in my pockets. A pen was tucked neatly behind my right ear. I held a hand stamp and an ink pad which I offered to use on anyone who went out for a smoke.

Like many of the other party goers I greeted, the nervous woman nodded her head quickly and replied with a soft “yes” at my inquiry.

“Great!” I said. Then, gesturing to the short line ahead of her, added, “We’ve got a bit of a bottleneck, but you’ll be inside in a jiffy!” I smiled at everyone, but I felt it was especially important that I smiled specifically at her, now.

“Okay,” the woman said. She looked towards the fliers next to me, then at the wall, then the ceiling. She looked anywhere but at me.

“First time at the Citadel?” I asked. She shook her head. “Been here before?”

She nodded. “Mhm, but not for a while.”

“Oh? How long has it been?” I probed.

“6 years,” she said.

“Wow,” I said. “Welcome back!” Stay enthusiastic. Smile. Look directly at her, but not piercingly. Be the bus driver. The woman gave me a half-smile and looked away again. “I’m maymay,” I said, extending a hand for her to shake.

“Joyce,” she said.1

“Hi Joyce! So, what kept you away from here for so long?”

“Oh,” she started, slowly, as if dipping her toes into a cold pool, “treatment.” I waited, still smiling, looking at her expectantly. “And transition. This will be my debut as a woman,” she said.

“Oh wow.” Then, in a much lower, softer voice, I said, “It can be really, really hard to come out to a party after 6 years.” She nodded again. She wrung her hands together. I put down the hand stamp and ink pad on my thigh and pulled the pen out from behind my ear, a card from my pocket. I wrote my website address on the card as I continued, “I remember how hard my first party after a year of being overseas was for me. It felt really scary to be around people I remembered but to feel so different, myself. But y’know, all it takes is a little work and things will get easier.”

“Yeah,” I heard her say as I finished writing. I looked up at her with my expectant face, holding out my card. She took it. “I’m meeting someone tonight,” she said. “I don’t know where he is. I hope he’s inside.”

“Awesome!” I said. “There are a bunch of people in there.”

By now the small bottleneck of people had cleared and the cashier was ready to help Joyce. She spoke to me while looking over her shoulder. “I’m excited but I’m nervous. We’ve never met.”

“Aw, don’t worry,” I said. “You look great. And that’s what parties are for!” She blushed, stammered a thank you, knocked a small sign on the cashier’s desk over with her purse, and apologized to my volunteer buddy more than she needed to. As she headed inside past the curtained entrance, she turned to me, now smiling, and said she’d let me know if she found her date.

“Okay!” I nodded vigorously. “Have fun!” I called after her. Then, without skipping a beat, I turned to the next party-goer, smiled, and said, “Hi! Here for Transmission?”

I lost track of time—and I was running low on cards. At some point later in my shift, I heard my name. “Maymay!” It was Joyce, holding the curtain open. “He’s here!” she said with a big, radiating smile.

“Wonderful!” I called back. “Go enjoy!” She nodded and disappeared.

Eventually my shift was over, so I headed into the party myself. I had personally invited numerous people who hadn’t ever been to the Citadel before. Most had shown up, perhaps encouraged by the wording of my invitation: “I’ll be working the door for the first hour, so come by at, like, 8:55 PM and you can see me the moment you walk in.”

Once inside, my friends asked me for a tour. “Well,” I said, “this is the social space, where people talk. I mostly just hang out here. There’s a downstairs with play equipment but I don’t often go there.”

“Show us?” they asked.

Grudgingly acquiescing, I lead them downstairs. “So, these are the pictures in the hallway of women looking bottom-y,” I said as we descended the stairwell. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven….” I looked around, “The 7 pictures of women looking bottom-y, to be precise.” I pulled my pen out from behind my ear and wrote down a big “7” on the back of my hand, then continued downstairs.

“And this is the main play space,” I told them. Someone I’d met while greeting people earlier was standing near the entrance to the play space. He had an orange handkerchief tied around his arm. “Oh,” I said, walking everyone towards him, “and this is Uncy Val. Hey, Val, you’re on DM duty tonight?”

“Yup,” Val said.

“Great!” I said. “You can give my friends a way better tour than I can. Would you show them around? This is their first time here.”

“Well, sure!” Val said, jumping into action after a quick glance to another DM nearby.

One of my friends grabbed me by the hand. “Come with us?”

“Nuh-uh. I’m gonna go upstairs and talk to people.”

“Oh, come on. Do that in ten minutes?”

I clucked my tongue and shook my head, pulling my hand away. I’d helped prepare dungeons (including this one) for parties in the past. I didn’t want a tour. I ditched them in the trusted hands of the Dungeon Monitor and went back upstairs.

I can’t stand BDSM play spaces anymore. They make my skin crawl and my blood pressure dangerously high. Too often, they’re lined with men topping and women bottoming or, if I’m lucky, men-dressed-as-women-who-are-bottoming. This is what I’ve come to call “the wall.” At this point, their human bodies look to me like the upholstery for the equipment itself. When I get too close to “the wall,” adrenaline courses through my veins, priming me for fight-or-flight.

I used to find BDSM clubs at least cursorily comfortable spaces. Now they’re a reliable trigger. It’s foolproof, and personally tragic.

The Gadfly

I spent the party itself putting all my energy into being a social butterfly. That’s not something that comes naturally to me, although you’d never guess if you met me at a party. I spoke with more people than I could remember names. I gave away every last card I brought and all the BDSM Workshop Bingo boards I had printed.

I used the BDSM Bingo boards to start some conversations, to end others. (Print your own randomized boards and take them to your local meetings.) Some of the trans people at the party encouraged me to change “demo bottom is a female-bodied person” to “demo bottom is a female-assigned person,” which I later did when I got home. I retold my experiences regarding the inspiration for each of the items on the board when someone asked, and sometimes even when they didn’t.

I wrote notes all over my arm because the SF Citadel doesn’t allow the use of mobile phones or PDAs at parties. By the end of the night, the “7” on the back of my hand had been scratched out, replaced with a “9” then a “10,” then a “12.” I paused my own and interrupted others’ conversations to keep this count updated as conspicuously as politely possible. Of the 12 images of people that I found, seeing all of them depict female submission is typical of these venues.

(Try keeping a count like this at your local play space. For extra credit, keep separate counts to record the presence or, more likely, the lack of racial, age, size, etc. diversity. You’ll probably be told that the art gets “rotated,” perhaps to “feature different artists.” Save your tally, come back when the next artist is featured, and repeat the process. See how long it takes before you get told to “make your own [damn] art.”)

Shortly after necessary pleasantries (“Hi. What’s your name? Where are you from? Have you been here before? What do you like to do?”) I engaged most of the people with whom I spoke in a conversation that could easily be summarized to ardent readers of this site as “See also: my entire blog(s).” Not everyone wanted to have these conversations, I didn’t find the right opening with others, and still others seemed tangentially interested but unable to grasp the most basic concepts, though they tried. I enjoyed making firmer connections—and made a point of exchanging contact information—with those who could and would grok why the BDSM Scene is a severely prejudiced place.

Naturally, many more people can grok these things than will grok them, and those who can but won’t are rightfully called “privileged shits.” Of course, I rarely uttered the phrase “privileged shits” in person at the party, instead opting to ask a lot of people a lot of questions. In a culture of essentialist conformity like the BDSM Scene, questions are disruptive—”you’re like an annoying five year old, always asking ‘why’ questions,” one male top told me at Bent—and being disruptive can be dangerous. Socrates was put to death for his questions, as Plato recounted:

Socrates likens himself to a GADFLY (a horsefly). Just as a gadfly constantly agitates a horse, preventing it from becoming sluggish and going to sleep so too Socrates, by (moving through the City) stirring up conversations in the marketplace, prevents the City from becoming sluggish and careless and intolerant (thinking it knows something when it doesn’t).

Of course, I face no danger of literal death, but rather a sort of social death: ostracization. As you can imagine, I’m not especially well-liked at parties. “Look, I came here to get into the mood to play,” the agitated male top eventually told me in an effort to step away from the conversation I had instigated.

Granted, it was a fair thing for him to say. Our attendance clearly had different motivations. He came to play. I came to collect data.

What I wanted, in that moment, was to tell him what a privileged shit I thought he (and his female submissive partner) is, how fortunate he (and she) is that he (and she) even has a place where he (and she!) can come “to get into the mood to play.” I wanted to express how furious I am that it seems so few in the BDSM community will lift a goddamn finger unless it’s to get their own rocks off, and how mind-bendingly hypocritical responses to my fury like “gosh, maymay really needs to get laid” are. I can only hope such responses come from a place understanding the relevance of those very responses in the bigger picture, rather than from a place that trivializes the sentiment.

Change The Game

As Transmission was winding down, I saw Joyce making out with an acquaintance I had met a few parties ago. Later, at party close when we were all on our way out the door, Joyce flagged me down. “I had such a great time!” she said, and I smiled back at her. “Way better than I ever bargained for!”

“That’s fantastic,” I said. I was genuinely happy to see her literally bounce with delight before scurrying off to collect her things.

Joyce could have had a miserable time that night. I didn’t make her night, but I like to think it was better than it might have been had I not greeted her. An enthusiastic smile from just about anyone can go a long way, but not as far as an empathic one from someone who feels a connection to a similar history.

I really do want to make the BDSM Scene a better place. Part of that means being the bus driver. And part of that means being the gadfly. What does it say about the community’s attempts to be inclusive when someone filled with as much contempt for it as I am is able to extend a warm welcome further and more reliably to its newcomers than they do? And what does it say about the community’s capacity for self-awareness when they spend years dismissing critical questioning?

Of the several different parties at the SF Citadel I’ve been to, I found Transmission to be the most accepting of the kinds of conversations I was starting. I think that’s in no small part due to the fact that the hosts are sensitive to these issues and they’re doing what they can to address them with limited resources. It probably shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to realize that even though I came away from my own gender exploration firmly affirming that I’m a cisman, due to the way the BDSM community supplants the hegemonic (man/woman) gender dichotomy with its own (dom/sub) power dichotomy, it is trans people with whom I feel most kindred.

This is my activism. I’m going to be at many more parties. I’m going to greet people warmly, genuinely wish them a good time, and politely excuse myself when I get triggered—because I know I will. But I’m also going to point out every last fucked up thing I see, and I’m going to name every shitty problem in BDSM spaces no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to anyone else. And this is me telling everyone that I’m going to do it very, very publicly.

This is what I do at BDSM parties these days. I’m not going to the party to party. I’m going to change the game.

  1. This name has been changed. []
Donate Bitcoin

flattr this!