2014 Leather Hall of Fame Inductee
Cynthia Slater (1945-1989)
Pioneer - Founder - Organizer - Bridge Builder - SM and
HIV Educator - Fighter - SM Player - Dominatrix - Lover - Friend
Born August 7, 1945 - Died October 26, 1989.
“The more I’ve gotten in touch with my S/M fantasies, the stronger a human being I’ve become. Even a bit of a humanist.” Cynthia Slater: Drummer Magazine Issue 27
Cynthia Slater was a courageous leather pioneer in the truest sense of these words. We remember her principally for her life and work in San Francisco of the 1970’s and ’80’s. In the early 1970s, she and her partner, Larry Olson, founded the Society of Janus (SoJ). Janus was the first West coast organization devoted specifically to the support and education of anyone interested in SM, and after New York’s Eulenspiegel Society, it is the second oldest surviving SM organization in the United States.
Cynthia was also a boundary crosser, and moved among what were then very distinct sub-populations of kinky people. Cynthia made her way into the gay leather bars and clubs of San Francisco in the late 1970’s, and helped pave the way for other women to participate in the gay male scene. She forged personal, social, and political connections among the different populations of local kinky people, creating some of the earliest examples of mutual cooperation between gay and straight, lesbian and bi, men, women, and transfolk. She was active as a sex educator. She brought SM to sex education institutions, and progressive sex education ideas back into the SM communities. She was among the first people to articulate SM safer sex practices in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and became a major figure in local AIDS activism and education before she herself succumbed to the disease.
Society of Janus
While working as a professional dominatrix in the early 1970’s, a client’s spouse asked Cynthia for more information about her husband’s interest in BDSM. Sensing that there might be a widespread interest in such things, Cynthia and Larry Olsen started the first version of the Society of Janus in 1972 by running a classified ad in the back of a counter-culture newspaper, The Berkeley Barb. About ten people showed up for the first meeting of what became the Society of Janus.As she recalled in a 1983 interview, “There was this isolation pressing in on me, and I felt the need to get together with people with whom I could exchange information, and get a little support from besides.” These early meetings provided “First, a chance to share information and learn more. Second, a chance to meet partners. And third, a chance to be in a supportive, validating environment.”
Cynthia also explained the reason for naming the Society after the Roman God, Janus: “There were three basic reasons why we chose Janus. First of all, Janus has two faces, which we interpreted as the duality of SM (one’s dominant and submissive sides). Second, he’s the Roman god of portals, and more importantly, of beginnings and endings. To us, it represents the beginning of one’s acceptance of self, the beginning of freedom from guilt, and the eventual ending of self-loathing and fear over one’s SM desires. And third, Janus is the Roman god of war--the war we fight against stereotypes commonly held against us.”
In a 1979 Drummer article about Janus by Jack Fritscher, Cynthia observed that “Anyone who’s a member of a sexual minority in this country, no matter how much work they’ve done in their head or how much external support they get, always carries a remnant of the crap that society has laid on them. You never get 100% clear of it. I have my moments when someone looks at me funny, and it pushes those buttons for me. But I can deal with it now because I have something that balances it out. I can walk into a Janus meeting and be surrounded by great people who validate me.”Cynthia was always critical of sexist assumptions about SM roles, and adamantly insisted on active consent as a requirement for ethical and mutually satisfactory S/M activities. In the same interview, she complained about other SM environments at the time: “These people didn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘consent.’ It was like, if you were a Dominant, you were dominant over everybody, and if you were Submissive, you did whatever you were told by just anybody who came in. Etiquette was, how shall we say, lacking somewhat. No finesse. No respect. And I really bridled at that. I don’t give a damn if I’ve got a collar on, nobody’s gonna tell me what to do unless I give ‘em permission first!” Cynthia saw SM education as a way to promote responsible behavior in the SM community: “Because every person we don’t get to, (with education) is one more person who will use SM in a non-consensual manner, or out of anger, or in some other way that will reflect badly on us as a whole community.”Gayle Rubin wrote of her: “Cynthia always insisted on the validity of switching, the dignity of bottoms, the
necessity to nurture tops, and the need for S/M to be both a pleasurable experience and a fair exchange. She was dedicated to the craft and the art of S/M. She imbued in others appreciation for the mastery of technique and for the nuances of experience. She demanded respect for the magnitude of the forces with which we play and for the formidable responsibilities those powers entail.”
In the first phase of Janus, Cynthia did almost all of the work for the organization. She put out a newsletter, held the meetings at her home, provided food, and cleaned up after. Two things occurred as a result: first, as Janus took shape, it was infused with Cynthia’s overall approach to the theory and practice of SM. Second, she burned out. She put Janus into hibernation, where it stayed until 1974, when a new group of people got involved and reorganized the organization into a more formal structure with assigned duties.
Guy Baldwin, who had been helping Cynthia out with Janus during the previous year, reached out to his kinky gay friends. A number of them joined, and these highly skilled and dedicated players became core leadership and educators in the organization. This was Janus’s “gayest” phase. Janus has continued to evolve, and to serve new constituencies of kinky folks. But it has existed continuously in some form since 1974. The Society of Janus is now forty years old.
Kink Information & Sex Education: SFSI & Beyond
Around the time she relinquished some of her Janus responsibilities, Cynthia began to volunteer at San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI). SFSI was a telephone hotline whose purpose was to provide reliable sex education to the public. SFSI ran training sessions in order to insure that the volunteers who staffed its phones were themselves sufficiently informed to answer these questions accurately. After Cynthia noticed that there was no training on SM, she successfully agitated for SFSI to include SM as a regular part of its training curriculum. Along with some other local SM educators, she conducted many of these sessions on SM. Generations of volunteers passing through SFSI training thus obtained a basic familiarity with SM culture, norms, and techniques. In turn, much of the progressive sex education discourse promoted by SFSI was incorporated back into the local SM populations.
SFSI was also an incubator for bisexual activism. Cynthia was among several of the individuals who pioneered bisexual organizing. Many of them networked through SFSI and participated as
educators in the SFSI training programs.
Breaching Barriers & Forging Connections
Cynthia Slater was the first woman to establish a permanent presence at the Catacombs, San Francisco’s premier club for gay male fisters in the late 1970s. Steve McEachern had been involved in the early emergence of fisting as an organized activity. In 1975, he and some friends converted the basement of his San Francisco Victorian home into a dedicated fisting and dungeon space: he called this place the Catacombs. Private, invitation-only fisting parties were held every Saturday night.
After Cynthia and Steve became lovers, Steve began to allow Cynthia to attend these Saturday night parties. Although some of the men were upset by a female presence, Cynthia stayed, and earned the respect of most of the regulars. Peter Fiske watched her play many times, and noted that Cynthia was “damn good at sex, and a great player.” Once she had established her own place, Cynthia occasionally brought other women. Some of these women were added to the list of welcome guests, and by 1978, there were perhaps a half dozen women who could attend the Saturday parties.
Because these parties were only held once a week, the dungeon—one of the best equipped in the city — was mostly vacant the rest of the week. Seeing an opportunity, Pat (later Patrick) Califia approached Steve about renting the space for a women’s SM party. These occasional women’s SM parties were duly inaugurated in the summer of 1979. The Catacombs was still unused most Friday nights, and in 1980, Cynthia and her friend Susan Thorner rented the Catacombs for a big mixed-gender/mixed orientation S/M party. This is the first documented occasion on which significant numbers of kinky gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals partied together in the Bay Area.” This was a profound innovation, as it broke down significant social barriers between these groups and helped them find commonality in their shared passions and interests. As Carol Truscott noted in one of the many memorial reminiscences of Cynthia, “She created spaces where people of all genders and orientations could come together to support, learn from, and play with each other. She functioned as a bridge between many worlds. In this regard, she is a healer.”
Safer Sex and AIDS Activism
Even before she was diagnosed with HIV, Cynthia threw herself into AIDS activism and education. Early safe sex guidelines, which were developed before the etiology of the disease was known, were quite restrictive. Many of the local sex educators who were kinky realized that SM provided many ways to enhance erotic experience without fluid exchange, and also wanted to help prevent the spread of the disease among the SM and leather communities. So they began to develop programmatic ideas and hold workshops on how to have kinky sex in an epidemic. As information developed and the HIV pathogen identified, these kink-friendly guidelines were constantly refined and presented in work shops that focused on providing skills for doing SM while reducing the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission. Cynthia was a leader and key participant in this effort.
She was also involved in other AIDS fundraising efforts and service work. She put her experience with SFSI to good use on the AIDS and ARC Switchboard. Her involvement with the Switchboard was honored in 1989 by an award from the Shanti Project, then one of San Francisco’s key organizations providing services to people with AIDS, ARC, and HIV.
The WomanCynthia had the deep and gravelly voice of a committed and aggressive cigarette smoker. She had a wicked sense of humor and a sharp intelligence. Her psychological acuity and ability to read people contributed to her success as a pro domme. She was a spellbinding storyteller and skilled raconteur. Like many pioneers who stake out new territories, Cynthia was formidable, strong willed, and opinionated. But she would change her mind, if presented with a strong case for another view. She had presence: when she entered a room, she was noticed. And she had a rare ability to connect with a wide range of people, bridge disparate groups, and make a place for herself and people like her.
While most of her activities were local, in San Francisco, she influenced many of the people who later became active in broader contexts. They took her teachings, ideas, and lessons into regional and national organizations and events, especially in the late 1980s as these opportunities became more prevalent. By then, Cynthia had been diagnosed with HIV and was struggling with its challenges. Cynthia Slater died of AIDS complications in 1989, at the age of 45.989,