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Protecting Those Outside Our Backyard
The Importance of Regionalism and of Free Erotic Speech
By Dusk Peterson
One contributor was Jack Fritscher, who was kindly permitting me to reprint his interview with New Orleans photographer George Dureau. I had been impressed by George Dureau's work when I first saw it in a 1986 issue of Drummer, especially his photo of a classically-posed man of middle age, mustached, handsome, with a look of intense concentration on his face, as though he were staring at something beyond the viewer's vision.
On the evening of August 29, Dr. Fritscher sent me a long e-mail with his comments on my version of his interview, adding, "I've been so concerned about George for the last two days what with the hurricane that hit New Orleans."
"Hey," I said to a family member the next day, "do you know anything about a hurricane in New Orleans?"
He gave me that long-suffering look he always gives me when I reveal I'm woefully out of touch with the rest of the world. "Of course," he said. "It's been in all the news."
"Oh," I said. I had been through hurricanes here in D.C.; one of them had caused a week-long power blackout. I went back to preparing my issue.
New Orleans was a foreign country to me. What little I knew of it came primarily from leather news articles written for the New Orleans GLBT magazine Ambush Mag. Wally Sherwood and other leather journalists at that magazine described a world that seemed alien and odd to me, one where parties appeared to take place nonstop, and where the Mardi Gras season overshadowed Christmastime.
The pictures of New Orleans that I had seen in travel books made the city seem attractive, but I had never given much thought to its leather life there. Nor did I think about such matters as I pasted the words "French Quarter" from Drummer's introduction to Mr. Dureau's work.
Working on my August issue caused me to be backlogged in reading much of my e-mail. One of the e-mail lists I neglected was Leather Titleholders, my usual source of breaking news in the leather world. On September 2, I wearily paused from my nearly finished issue and opened up the first Leather Titleholders list digest awaiting me in my inbox. A September 28 post caught my eye. It was entitled, "WEATHER in New Orleans."
I skipped down to the post. It read, "I'm sending this last email from my computer, not knowing what will be left of my home when I return. . . ."
It was thus that I learned that a hurricane hitting New Orleans is a very different matter from a hurricane hitting D.C.
I got hurriedly to work, sending out news bulletins, gathering Web resources, compiling lists of missing persons and survivors. Not until several days later would I learn, quite by chance, that one of the leathermen missing from New Orleans was the handsome model whom George Dureau had photographed for Drummer in 1986.
* * *
The model – Ambush Mag journalist Wally Sherwood – turned up alive soon afterwards in Texas, and he ended up writing a news column for True Tales during the crisis. Likewise, George Dureau managed to survive the devastation in his city. But that episode reminded me of what I should not have forgotten: regionalism is important.
It is easy to think that the only important events in leather life happen in our own backyard, and that what happens to leatherfolk in faraway places is unimportant. But Wally Sherwood writing leather news in New Orleans produces work that is very different from Dusk Peterson writing leather news in D.C., just as the effects of a hurricane on New Orleans were very different from the effects of a hurricane on D.C. We are shaped by our environments, and the variations in leather life throughout North America are proof of that. Each region is important, and the loss of any one region – as the near loss of New Orleans demonstrated – can tear asunder the fabric of the leather community.
This issue of True Tales looks at regional writings and photos about gay men who have lived during the past seven decades. In publishing these works, I hope that the magazine can show some of the ways in which different locations have shaped and molded gay men's lives.
The issue starts with a contributor whose offering epitomizes the overlap that can take place between regions. Ulli Richter, a German photographer living in England, provides a gritty sequence of fantasy photos about an encounter between a captive and his keeper.
The first story in the issue is a speculative account of what life might have been like for some gay men before leathermen began to gather together. Parhelion, who has specialized for several years in writing stories about gay life in Southern California between the World Wars, offers a tale about a 1930s deputy sheriff who is searching for something he thinks he can only find in badly written pulp fiction. As Parhelion puts it, "No one was publishing instruction guides for these fellows, and the few books that were out there on the subject were kind of, well, nuts. And no one was handing out hankies, either, to keep all the roles clear. So I tried to imagine what some of the guys were like who first forged private rituals that eventually would link together to become the legendary chain of leather training."
From there, we move on to Los Angeles in 1965, when a young man named Troy walked into the darkly enticing world of a leather bar. Today the Rev. Troy D. Perry is best known as founder of the largest GLBT denomination in the world, but he has never turned his back on what he learned that day.
Jack Fritscher, in an excerpt from a new edition of a nonfiction book originally published in the same year as The Leatherman's Handbook, carries us back to Greenwich Village in the very month of the Stonewall Riots, when a Satanic SM Mass took place. Then his memories of his early years leap forward to the 1970s, in his factually-inspired fictional account of a heartbroken man's visit to a notorious San Francisco bathhouse.
Dr. Fritscher is known, among other things, as the original editor of Mr. Benson. The author of that master/slave classic, John Preston, surprised his leather readers in 1984 when he produced a novel about a drag queen living in Preston's beloved gay vacation spot, Provincetown. But leather was not absent from his thoughts even then, as shown by this excerpt from a new edition of Franny, the Queen of Provincetown. The editor of that edition is a former staff member of Little Sister's bookstore in Vancouver. His reasons for choosing to edit this particular author will become clear later in this editorial.
Next comes my own story about leather life in suburbia – readers will discover the evil uses that Tupperware and Jell-O can be put to – and then True Tales returns to New Orleans.
Under his pen name, Michael Agreve, Max E. Verga was published in the same issue of Drummer as the George Dureau photographs. In later years, he interviewed George Dureau about his photography of Wally Sherwood and other Drummer models. Ironically, when Hurricane Katrina arrived, Mr. Verga was just finishing work on an erotic novel set in New Orleans. In this issue he offers a first preview of that novel.
Wally Sherwood's home publication, Ambush Mag, became a major source of news about the effects of the New Orleans flooding on that city's GLBT, bear, and leather communities. The only reason the magazine was able to provide this news is that its publisher, Rip Naquin-Delain, managed to escape from New Orleans. But that was a close call, as is shown by his tale of what the city was like during its worst days of the flooding.
Another New Orleans resident to have escaped alive was Master Sade. On September 9, when all around him were mourning the apparent death of a city long tied with sensuality and kink, he began to produce for his fellow New Orleans evacuees a series of erotic and evocative poems about life in New Orleans. True Tales has the honor of reprinting the entire sequence.
My own experiences as a journalist last month churned up in me many thoughts about leather coverage of current events. Cathy Jacobowitz, writing in Bay Windows about GLBT coverage of Hurricane Katrina, scourged the GLBT press for poor coverage of the disaster. A positive way to encourage better journalism, it seems to me, is to commend journalists and other information conveyers who have done good work. That is exactly what I have tried to do in the first annual True Tales Leather Journalism Awards.
All of the above contributions to this issue testify that writings and art on masculinity and power continue to flourish in every region of the country. But such works are now under heavy threat.
* * *
Several of the New Orleans GLBT, leather, BDSM, and bear Websites were on the forefront of providing news about survivors and missing persons from the flood. In early October, members of these groups began to return to New Orleans.
Around the same time, I received an anxious e-mail from the Webmaster of one of these sites. "Should we consider moving the site out of the country?" asked the Webmaster. "Should we go through and take anything down that might under any circumstances be considered obscene?"
The Webmaster's concern came from news reports that the FBI had begun a new anti-obscenity campaign, and that, according to an FBI memo obtained by The Washington Post, law enforcement agents would be targetting Websites which included SM or fetish material.
As BDSM commentator Darklady wryly put it in her blog, "After all, having stabilized the Middle East, conquered poverty, balanced the budget, cured both AIDS and cancer, restored New Orleans, and raised a generation of infamously healthy and well-educated children with glorious employment potential, it's only logical that we should take some of those idle tax dollars and direct them toward something as vital as wiping out 'obscenity.'"
It is tempting in such situations to argue – as this particular New Orleans Webmaster could easily have argued – that what one publishes is erotica, not obscenity. But that sort of drawing of the line, between one's legitimate activities and other people's illegitimate activities, ignores the history of how censorship works.
In 1984, John Preston's SM story collection I Once Had a Master was published by the gay publisher Alyson. The book received, and continues to receive, praise for its literary quality.
When the Vancouver GLBT bookstore Little Sister's tried to order Preston's book from the U.S., the book was seized at the border by Canada Customs and burned because it violated that government body's obscenity rules. Eight other titles by John Preston received a similar fate.
In 1992, a major New York publisher issued John Preston's anthology Flesh and the Word. As Preston himself pointed out, many of the stories in that volume were taken from hardcore gay porn magazines and were much more graphic than any of the stories in I Once Had a Master. The book passed through the hands of Canada Customs without incident.
Little Sister's eventually took Canada Customs to the Supreme Court of Canada, which heard evidence, among other things, of the literary merit of I Once Had a Master. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the customs officials had indeed been selective in which books they deemed obscene.
It is impossible that an objective-minded court could have determined anything else, no matter which government body in whichever country was under trial. The fact is that, throughout history, the rich and famous have published pornography with impunity, while marginalized groups have been targetted for prosecution, sometimes for works that were much less graphic than the works that were permitted to be published.
There is a now-famous story about the New Orleans Convention Center. In the midst of the lawless chaos, a SWAT team arrived, armed to the teeth. The innocent people who were being terrorized by a handful of criminals breathed a sigh of relief . . . until they realized that the SWAT team only had one object, to rescue the wife and female relative of a policeman.
It is human nature to protect those who are close to you and to neglect or persecute those who are not. It was for this reason that America's Founding Fathers wisely decreed that the speech of the most despised minorities must be protected. As a result, in the United States, Neo-Nazis and Klu Klux Klan members enjoy the same right of free speech as the purest-minded citizen. And that is how it should be, for we have seen what the alternative is: the government decides which speech is acceptable on the basis of which group is politically popular. The only way to protect good speech is to protect all speech.
Yet the American government, like most governments, fails to see that the same is true of sexually arousing literature. If we decree that the government has the right to shut down a Website with pornography that promotes the idea that all women should be tortured, raped, and murdered, then we also give the government the right to ban Ulysses.
Government bodies cannot be trusted with such power; the history of censorship shows that. Literary-and-artistic-merit clauses are thrown to the wayside when a despised minority group produces the work being scrutinized. This is not because government officials are inherently bad people. It is simply because, as the writers of the U.S. Constitution realized, minorities will always suffer unless their free expression is protected.
It is time that the United States government realizes that this is as true for the producers and distributors of erotic works as it is for Neo-Nazis, Klu Klux Klan members, and that guy down the street who happens to hold a political view that isn't in fashion at the moment.
It is not necessary to believe that all forms of expression are good in order to want to protect all forms of expression. In 1999, a student group at D.C.'s Georgetown University invited pornographer Larry Flynt to speak. Under criticism for their decision to permit the publisher of Hustler to speak on campus, university officials issued the following statement:
"Although Larry Flynt is speaking on campus at the request of students, Georgetown does not in any way endorse Mr. Flynt or this event. Further, we believe that Mr. Flynt's active attempt to profit by the humiliation and exploitation of women is shameful and wrong. Nevertheless, as a Catholic and Jesuit university Georgetown stands by academic freedom and the rights of students and faculty to invite speakers to campus – even speakers who are controversial or potentially offensive. In a university and in a democratic society, the best response to controversial or offensive speech is more speech, not censorship."
That final sentence should be memorized by every government official.
LGBT Press Coverage of Hurricane Katrina. [Bay Windows]
Obscenity. Includes information on the recent FBI campaign. [Wikipedia]
The Facts on Recent FBI Obscenity Raids. [True Tales]
Recruits Sought for Porn Squad. [The Washington Post]
Dive Right In, the Water's Getting Hot. By Darklady. [YNOT]
John Preston vs. Canada Customs. [Topman: Online Writings by and about John Preston]
Public Square. Quotes Georgetown University's officials on Larry Flynt's
visit. [First Things]
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