Black Leather... In Color

Black Leather In Color, frequently written Black Leather... In Color, and sometimes referred to as B.L.I.C., was the first SM/Leather magazine in the world written by and for people of color (and their friends), and to date remains the only publication of its kind. Based in New York City and started by a collective led by Michele Buchanan, S. Guy Giumento, Lidell Jackson and Darrell Perry, its first issue appeared in Winter 1993/1994. A total of 8 is- sues were published, the last appearing in Fall/Winter of 2000.

The magazine, rich with its erotic fictions, poetry, personal reflections, political analyses, and hot photographs, made visible an important segment of our community. Since it has ceased publication, Black Leather... In Color has yet to have a successor among leather periodicals; however, this is not meant to imply that B.L.I.C. has had no offspring. In giving visibility to those living at the intersection of leather and race, B.L.I.C. helped to make it known to people of color that leather is a viable lifestyle for them as well. As such, it has helped to carve out a space allowing many people of color to come out into leather and kink in the last two decades. B.L.I.C. has helped to create a distinct voice for people of color in the kinky community. Further, it has made the larger leather community realize that this voice merits attention. While, B.L.I.C. itself temporarily served as that voice, it also paved the way for organizations such as ONYX.

BLACK LEATHER… IN CONTEXT

It is no coincidence that Black Leather... In Color appeared when it did. For a long time and for a variety of reasons, there had been few people of color visible in the leather world. Viola Johnson recalls that when she came out into leather around 1974, she knew of only 5 Black people into SM/leather in the entire USA (this included herself and her longtime lover, Jill Carter). By the early 1990s, things were beginning to change. Ron Moore had won IML in 1985 and, in 1991, D Cannon became the 2nd African-American man to win the same. In September 1993, Graylin Thornton became the first Black International Mister Drummer. Things were not just changing internationally and nationally, but also locally. In 1992, Gregory Adams (who would become a contributor to B.L.I.C.) and Graylin Thornton organized “Ebony In Leather I,” the first leather contest organized by and for African-American men, in Northern California; in 1993, Queen Cougar was the first Black woman to win Ms. San Francisco Leather, and Orlando Diez, a Latino man, became Mr. Leather New York.

Of course, it was not just leather contests that made people of color more visible: in New York City alone, a few months before the first issue of B.L.I.C., for the first time since their founding in 1981, GMSMA members elected Dennis Lee, an Asian-American man, as their Vice-President. He would go on to become a contributor to B.L.I.C. In the spring of 1993, 4 Black men, including one founder of B.L.I.C., Darrell Perry, and regular contributor Don Perry helped co-found Brothers In Leather, a social group for SM/Leather men of color. Thus, the early 1990s were an important moment of transformation within the leather community. A new generation was coming out into leather, one that was far more racially diverse than earlier leather generations. This changing climate both created a problem as well as ways to address it. One effect of the greater diversity in leather was that it highlighted the disconnect between the actual diversity in the leather population and the public representations of the community largely drawn from a Tom of Finland esthetic. This was likely not the first time that there were people of color (among others) who felt that the portrayed whiteness of leather iconography failed to do justice to the diversity of everyday kinksters. But in the 1990s, the number of people of color in the community rose to the point where, for the first time, their dissatisfaction mattered, and that they could do something to combat this. Black Leather In Color was arguably the most significant response to this “race issue” in the leather community.

BLACK LEATHER… IN 8 ISSUES

In the context of increased visibility for kinky people of color, a special seminar took place during a conference hosted by the Leather Contingent at the March on Washington. Approximately 40 people attended and decided to create a network for kinksters of color as well as a newsletter. After the March, S. Guy Giumento and Darrell Perry sent letters to their gay, lesbian, and bi friends of color in the leather community. The opening to these letters read: “We’ve talked about it for months. It’s time to make it happen. A nationally distributed puB.L.I.C.ation specifically for People of Color and their friends involved in, or curious about, leather/SM/radical sex/fetish practices and lifestyles.”

The letter invited interested community members to attend a meeting on August 15th, 1993 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York City. Among those who came to the meeting were Michele Buchanan and Lidell Jackson. Together, along with S. Guy Giumento and Darrell Perry, these four would become the driving forces of B.L.I.C. These were also the four founders of B.L.I.C.: 1 bisexual woman and 3 gay men; 3 African-Americans and 1 White man. 

At this initial meeting, the collective chose a name for the magazine. It would be called Black Leather... In Color. They also decided on a subtitle: Leather On The Cutting Edge For People Of Color And Their Friends. On the first two issues, this subtitle appears at the top of the cover page, directly below the title, and is written in a roman type font. On all subsequent issues, the subtitle is moved to the left margin of the cover page and the font is changed to a handwritten style. 

In opting for this subtitle and positioning it on the cover page, the founders made clear their intentions for the magazine. First, despite its initial conception as a magazine for kinky gays and lesbians of color, B.L.I.C. emerged as a magazine for people of color. In other words, it was not a magazine for gays or lesbians or heterosexual men or women, but a magazine for gays and lesbians and bisexual and heterosexual women and men. The magazine strove to bring together and to represent SM and Leather folks across boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. Each of these tribes were represented from its inception. Second, the founders wanted the magazine for people of color. In other words, not just for African-Americans, or Hispanics, or Asian-Americans, or just for Native- Americans; B.L.I.C. sought to represent all people of color. Third, B.L.I.C. was a magazine for people of color and their friends. When it first appeared, inevitable accusations of reverse racism were thrown at the publication. However, the editors and contributors remained adamant that White people with progressive politics and antiracist beliefs should feel that the magazine was also for them. In fact, White people counted among the founders, the contributors, the artists, the subscribers, the readers...not to mention the numerous White people appearing in the personal ads!

Of course, Darrell, Guy, Lidell and Michele were not alone in keeping B.L.I.C. running. Many others provided their time, work, knowledge and skills. Most important among these was Leonard Dworkin, Michele’s partner. A White man, a prominent member of The Eulenspiegel Society and, being bisexual, also a member of GMSMA, in addition to hosting the B.L.I.C. meetings in his apartment, where he and Michele lived together, he shared the knowledge he had gained when helping to transform Pro-Me-Thee-Us from a newsletter to a prominent national publication. Other key contributors included Efrain Gonzales, a Latino photographer whose art would grace the pages of many issues of B.L.I.C.; Karen and Naria Bullock-Jordan, whose writings on lesbian politics in the magazine; Cain Berlinger, whose fictions appeared in almost every issue; Don Perry, whose piece in the second issue will make you want to spend your life in the NYC Transit System; the Dr. DeSade, who answered people’s health and safety questions; Madam X, who seems to spend her life going around town to the most implausible stores and who shows B.L.I.C. readers how, even when on a budget, with a bit of creativity, they too can get very high quality per- vert equipment! And, of course, Viola Johnson who joined B.L.I.C. for the third issue, and who, although not based in New York, became a regular contributor, offering B.L.I.C. some of her most provocative writings.

Several gay men were very active in Black Leather... In Color, three of the four founders being gay men. Yet, likely due to Michele’s involvement and insistence, the magazine never became a gay, or gay and lesbian, magazine. Gay and lesbian eroticism featured in the magazine, so that gay and lesbian readers would never feel alienated. But the magazine contained too much non-gay material to qualify it as a gay publication, too much non-lesbian material to be a lesbian publication; and way too much non-heterosexual material to be a straight publication.

Similarly, there is no denial that African-Americans constituted the numerical majority at B.L.I.C., and that issues of Blackness were central to the magazine (“Black” was, after all, the only color that appeared in the title). And yet, “in color” never became a more acceptable way of saying “Black and just that.” A continual effort was made to attract contributions from a more diverse set of people (more Latinos, more Asians, more Native-Americans, more Muslims, etc.) For example, an interview in the first issue with Dennis Lee, an Asian-American leather man, signaled to other Asian-Americans into kink that the magazine was also for them. The article “SM and the Native Spirit” by Sheila Wahsquonaikezhic, Ms. Leather Toronto 1994, which appeared in the 4th issue of B.L.I.C., was a way for the collective to seek input from Native Americans into leather. 

Initially, the founders of B.L.I.C. had the ambitious (and somewhat unconscionable) plan of publishing a quarterly magazine. However, they were unable to follow this plan. The second issue appeared in Summer 1994, and the third would come out in Fall 1994. The collective would publish at this rhythm of one to two issues per year until its 7th issue in Spring/Summer 1997. The final would come out three years later, in Fall/Winter 2000. In this interim, on June 5th, 1998, Michele would come home to discover Leonard dead from a heart attack. His death left her bereft and, because the two were never officially married, she was forced to deal with a series of legal issues. Leonard’s passing, Michele’s grief, Guy’s departure from New York, and the team’s general exhaustion all combined to delay the publication of the 8th issue for three years. Though never planned as the last of B.L.I.C., no other would appear after it.

BLACK LEATHER… INTERSECTIONAL

B.L.I.C. was born out of a need to address the issues of representation and visibility faced by people of color in the SM/Leather community. But these issues were hardly unique to the leather tribes. The lack of visibility and recognition of minorities, the lack of diversity among community leaders, the tendency of community resources to be unequally allocated had all been faced in other communities (women, gay, lesbian) and in the nation as a whole long before they appeared, in more or less the same terms, in the SM/Leather community.

Encountering the same problems in the leather community that people of color encountered in other communities, SM/Leather men and women of color unsurprisingly employed the same tactics they had used in those other communities. At times, the strategy involved appealing to the mainstream leather community to hold it accountable for its (conscious or unconscious) exclusionary practices. For example, protesting the lack of diversity in the models appearing on the cover of magazines or criticizing the failure of press articles of major contests to include photographs of the runners up (who were often people of color). At other moments, leather men and women of color decided not to focus on the mainstream leather community, and instead organized among themselves to develop and make heard their own voices. B.L.I.C. wisely pursued these two strategies at the same time.

A key question for leather men and women of color, and one that appears regularly in the pages of B.L.I.C., was always: “Where are the kinky people of color?” The same question is asked by gay people of color when asking: “Why is the community so White?” Numerous kinksters of color recall a meeting or a social function that marked their coming out into kink. These frequently mention the emotions they experienced, the pure joy that arose from feeling liberated and having found likeminded people, a home, and a tribe. But in many accounts, a second feeling is described when this joy is immediately sullied, when they notice the conspicuous absence of non-White faces in this newfound home. Such situations leave leather men and women of color feeling that their coming out into leather requires a rejection of their race, that they need to ignore a part of themselves in order to be kinky. It also leaves them more vulnerable within their racial communities, where their sexual practices could be seen as something that could not exist within these communities and thus renders them outsiders from within. It is therefore vital that kinky people of color change that situation by diversifying representations of leather, and in making visible the kinky practices people of color. Understandably, leather can can make some of them uncomfortable (as it does some White kinksters too). B.L.I.C. speaks to these issues in many ways. For example, there is something extremely moving in an article by Dennis Lee, in the second issue, when he recounts his discovery of Japanese artist Sadao Hasegawa’s homoerotic paintings. of muscular men fucking each other or tying each other up; and finding out that some of his Asian friends engage in breath control but don’t think of themselves as SM (which they associate with leather, and whips, and chains). B.L.I.C. as a whole can be seen as a way to solve that very dilemma. 

BLACK LEATHER… ON THE EDGE

These issues are not specific to SM and leather. However, B.L.I.C. made a crucial intervention. What made this intervention unique was not its content, but rather the people to whom it was addressed. The content was more or less the same that had appeared in other publications. The novelty was that it was now addressed to the leather and SM communities. 

Aside from these “race issues,” however, there was another “race issue,” one that is unique and crucial to leather and SM, particularly in the USA. This other race issue raises the most sensitive and difficult questions regarding our self-understanding, and our understanding of our sexuality and its politics. These are questions we typically avoid, and yet they never cease to haunt us. We wish to avoid these questions because their answers may prove troubling, even scary. They could even have the potential the positive self-understandings that kinksters have spent so long creating. 

There are many ways of ask such questions. To give but a few: “What does it mean, in this country with its history, to eroticize the titles, and the roles, of slave and master?” “Can a White man call a Black man his “boy” without evoking up images that are anything but hot? Or can they actually be hot? Is that fantasy OK?” Anyone immediately tempted to respond with a resounding “NO” should also be asked get the next question: “What kind of justice is being served by barring a Black descendant of a Black slave from indulging in a fantasy that anyone else who wishes gets to indulge in? Isn’t that victim-punishing masquerading as justice?” “And what about the N- word? Can it be used, and can that be hot?”

To be sure, those are areas in which African Americans can say things that would be much less acceptable if a White person said them; this is not to say that saying them is easy when one is Black, but one can hope to at least be listened to. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that this type of questions surfaced with a certain regularity in Black Leather In Color. Twenty years later, those moments may be seen as the most extraordinary passages of the magazine.

The magazine did not have one position on these questions. How could it? But it did not fail to address them. In the very first editorial, on page 4 of the very first issue, Lidell Jackson, after reminding readers of his African American identity, writes that “various aspects of the leather/SM lifestyle leave me totally confused. For example, why, in a sadomasochistic relationship, or a master/slave one, would someone willingly choose to ‘exercise the privilege’ of being a slave? That seems to fly right in the face of all the horrors my Black ancestors had to endure from being forced to be slaves.”

A radically different approach appears a few pages later in the same issue, when Queen Cougar, Ms. San Francisco Leather 1993, denies that there is any connection between the two situations: “I cannot relate to the connection of the SM life- style to slavery. (...) In the SM community, people who play the scene mutually respect each other.” In the following issue, Don Perry playfully reasserts the linkage of fantasy and history when, in an article devoted to a scene he had with a young bottom, he speculates on the reasons why he ends up playing with White men most of the time: “perhaps it’s the tension of a possibility: that somewhere in this other guy’s ancestry, one of his male relatives, on his plantation, beat one of my male relatives, a slave, and that during this beating, my relative broke free, overpowered his captor, put him through the same punishment in that cabin out back near the swamp, and forced his captor to service him.” Of course, and not coincidentally, the reader learns later on that the bottom at the center of this story (which may or may not be fictional) is... “from Cape Town, South Africa”! 

But it is unquestionably Viola Johnson who makes the most provocative statements on this topic. The very first article she wrote for B.L.I.C., appearing in the third issue, deals with “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Playing With & Against Racial Stereotypes.” Recounting things she and her mistress did or said during their play, she writes: “I can’t help the fact that nice black Jewish little girls shouldn’t have Nazi fantasies. But I DO! Not only do I have politically incorrect fantasies, I’ve acted many of them out. Even worse, I’ve enjoyed them. They have tripped my trigger, gotten my rocks off, made me cum. Isn’t that what sex is all about?” 

Recounting a dinner conversation with friends who frown upon her fantasies, she adds: “I know the reality of the not too distant past, when the cavalry tortured Native Americans, the Nazis exterminated Jews, and masters oppressed and slaughtered slaves. BUT... that’s the REALITY. Leather is an eroticized FANTASY, and in that fantasy I can have it any way I want. That includes ignoring history altogether if that is the wish of myself and my partner.” 

Many people did (and still do today) find it shocking that slavery and genocides could be turned into sexual fantasy; that some individuals could turn such painful historical tragedies into sources of pleasure. They assume that in the feeling of pleasure lies a negation of the pain. 

Yet, in this most unsettling and provocative moment, we may be reading one of the most important lessons B.L.I.C. has to offer, one we tend to forget, implicitly reiterates here; as it turns out, it is also the lesson of SM itself: that pleasure is neither, as naïve people may believe, the negation nor the opposite of pain; pleasure is sometimes pain called by a different name.