Sunday, May 8, 2011

What's In A Name?

Guy Baldwin, an iconic figure in the Leather/BDSM community, has been making waves recently, first with a speech at the Leather Leadership Conference, and then another keynote for the National Leather Association International. There's been much discussion and debate about the remarks he's said at those events. This post is a respectful disagreement to one of his statements.

At the annual meeting of NLA-I, Baldwin pointed out that none of that organization's founders used a Scene name. He then remarked about the number of people he'd seen at leadership events who did go by Scene names, and posed the question: "How can you lead from the closet?"

Now that's where I have a problem -- the automatic presumption that the only motivation for taking a different name is shame or fear. And since no one who is ashamed or frightened can be a leader, then soon we'll be disqualifying for leadership anyone who prefers to be known by a name other than what's on their birth certificate or driver's license.

Let me offer a counter-example. A woman given the birth name of Miriam Simos is well-known as an author, speaker and activist in Pagan, ecofeminist and social justice circles. Thing is, she prefers to be called by her craft name: Starhawk. And while one of the reasons why many Pagans adopt craft names is protection from discrimination, she doesn't hide her legal/birth name. She has simply chosen a name which reflects her spiritual and political identity. She's hardly in the "broom closet" -- but the logic of those who insist on "legal names only" for leaders would reject that reality.

Similarly, many in the BDSM community embrace Scene names to affirm the sense of transformation they experienced. Some people's Scene names were simply nicknames bestowed by others. Meanwhile, I've also known folks who never took Scene names, but who are definitely closeted about their kink. And let's not forget people who change their legal names out of genuine fear for their safety, or shame over being related to someone nefarious.

Not good enough for other kinksters, however. To them, you're either completely out or you're totally in hiding. There's no continuum, no freedom to choose -- it's as simple as black and white. Which, unfortunately, is the same mentality of those who oppose us. Just as right-wing religionists would deprive us of civil rights for not adhering to strict rules about sexuality, so there appear to be some in our own community who would deprive others of the opportunity to serve for not adhering to their own narrow beliefs about names.

I understand the need for our leaders and spokespeople to be honest and unashamed. But one can do that and embrace a new identity as well, just as Starhawk has done. To reduce leadership qualifications to a simplistic "either-or" test, without any concern for the person's actual talents and energy, sounds too much like the employers who would fire or refuse to hire someone just for being kinky. In our fight for freedom and dignity, the last thing we should be doing is behaving like our opponents -- especially towards our own people.


  1. I very quickly moved from being "out" to having an "open door". To me being out means publicly confirming and spreading your identity as a gay man/lesbian/kinky guy etc.. Whereas having an "open door" means it isn't something that I push into the public spotlight, but one of those things that I don't lie about and often will allude to.

    Sex isn't always relevant..

  2. Nicholas, I applaud your being open. As to being "out" I think you're looking at just one end of the continuum. "Out" simply means that you're not going to hide who you are; how you choose to reveal that can range from quiet to noisy. And while sex isn't always releveant, being gay or kinky often means more than just what goes on in your boudoir; it also means identifying with a particular community or sbuculture.