A Leather Conversation with Sassafras Lowrey and Sinclair Sexsmith
Sinclair Sexsmith runs the award-winning personal online writing project Sugarbutch Chronicles: The Gender, and Relationship Adventures of a Kinky Queer Butch Top. Sinclair has contributed to many anthologies, was the guest judge for Best Lesbian Erotica 2012 and is the editor of Say Please: Lesbian BDSM Erotica to be released this spring. Sassafras Lowrey is an international award winning queer author and artist. Sassafras edited the Kicked Out anthology which was a Lammy finalist and twice honored by the American Library Association. Hir first novel, Roving Pack will be released this autumn, and ze is currently editing Leather Ever After, an anthology of BDSM fairytale retellings. Lambda invited these two authors for whom kink is a key focus of their work, to have a conversation about queer leather writing, and their perspective and experience with the genre:
SS: So I have a book coming out, Say Please: Lesbian BDSM Erotica from Cleis Press, and you just put out a call for submissions for the book of leather fairy tales that you’re editing. it seems we’re both adding to a genre that almost doesn’t exist on its own. We have such a lack of queer BDSM out there.
SL: It’s true, it’s somewhat of this little genre into itself.
SS: Is your new leather book explicitly queer?
SL: Leather Ever After will be a sexually pansexual anthology of leather folks.
SS: Oh interesting. How’d that choice come about, doing it pansexual instead of queer? Did queer seem too limiting? It does have the added layer of fairy tales, which gives it yet another sub-genre.
SL: Well, I believe that leather is inherently queer. With that in mind, I personally consider it to be a queer anthology. And your anthology is specifically lesbian, yes?
SS: Yes—well, the title has ‘lesbian’ in it, but I consider it queer. There are characters who don’t identify as women and whose orientation isn’t exclusively toward other women, but it’s still important to put “lesbian” on the cover for marketing purposes. In fact, a review I just read of Best Lesbian Erotica 2012, for which I was the guest judge, just pulled out a story with a trans guy narrator playing with a genderqueer sub and critiqued it by saying that it wasn’t really lesbian, which is kind of true, in the strictest sense.
SL: That’s so interesting. I’m really fascinated by the ways in which our bodies and identities are policed. Leather Ever After is through and through a Leather text so I consider it to be queer. It hadn’t really occurred actually until we were talking that it could be considered any differently.
SS: I’m also interested in broadening what ‘lesbian’ means, especially when the “lesbian erotica” genre is all we have to represent any sort of queer sex in print. Where else are dykes or trans butches or genderqueer bois or queer trans women going to go to find erotica? This seems to be the best offering out there, so far.
SL: Definitely. What do you think have been canonical texts for you, thinking about kink/leather/BDSM?
SS: The canon … well, the Best Lesbian Erotica series was certainly a huge influence, and the Herotica series that Susie Bright edited, I think there were 6 of those or so. Neither of those series are explicitly BDSM and Herotica wasn’t exclusively queer, it was erotica for women. The Marketplace series taught me a lot about BDSM, but that’s not explicitly queer. I read everything I could get my hands on by Pat Califia, which wasn’t much, considering this was mostly before the abundance of Amazon marketplace.
SL: Finding books pre-Amazon was its own challenge! That’s true, I suppose, in terms of The Marketplace not being explicitly queer, though I think I’ve always considered it a very queer text(s). I think for me, that’s where leather and queerness come together.
SS: The Marketplace is very pansexual in content—and of course Laura Antoniou [the author] is queer. So it isn’t not queer.
SL: It’s just interesting to hear your perspective because I always shelve it literally in my home, as well as in my brain, as queer. But, I guess you’re right, there is an argument to be made that it’s not explicitly so.
SS: I think for years as an erotica consumer, I’ve been queer first, always thinking that that was the most important part. But to be honest, lately, I can re-write the character’s genders—even their body parts—in my head, and I find myself seeking more complicated writings about sexual or leather dynamics. The depth of understanding of BDSM or leather culture or kinky sex has become more important than the character’s genders or orientations inherently. Did you say The Marketplace is where leather & queerness came together for you?
SL: No, no not where they came together, but more so an example of how I see leather as queerness, so I never really saw the series as anything but queer. It never actually occurred to me until you and I started talking today that folks did—clearly my own bias.
SS: Ohh. That makes sense though! I think a lot of folks think of leather that way, and a lot of leather folks face serious sexual discrimination in similar ways that queer folks do. Actually Kate Bornstein just tweeted yesterday this definition of queer that I love: “NYC Theatre Askew defines #queer: ALL those who stand outside of, challenge, or reject mainstream consumerist models of gender & sexuality.”
SL: Yes! I saw that. Definitely genius.
SS: What else do you think is in the queer BDSM canon?
SL: For me, it’s been a lot more about narratives than about books that are explicitly erotic. For sure at the top of the list for me has to be Leather Folk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice that was edited by Mark Thompson in ’91, Coming To Power edited by samois, Laura Antoniou’s book Leather Women.
SS: Those are good ones! But they’re mostly non-fiction yeah, not erotica?
SL: Yeah, mostly non-fiction. Though there’s also The Leather Daddy and the Femme by Carol Queen, Doing it for Daddy edited by Patrick Califia, The Marketplace series by Laura Antoniou that stick out in my mind as other key canonical texts.
SS: I love those three. I don’t mean to say non-fiction doesn’t count—I guess I tend to gravitate toward the smut anthologies more than the theory books. I love the theory, but most of the time the books about BDSM are so lacking.
SL: For me it’s always been about stories and narratives. I’m not really interested in the theory, and I see erotica as a related genre but not one in the same. For me, leather isn’t really necessarily about sex.
SS: That is interesting, I tend to intertwine them completely. So leather is more of a lifestyle than about sex, more about D/S and power and community, yeah?
SL: Yeah, that is much more about what speaks to me, and often what I find the most interesting in books about leather. I want to see the connection, the power exchange and the intensity of that regardless of if “sex” itself is present.
SS: That makes sense. I think the sex part was the entrance into leather for me, especially because the explicitly queer lens on all of this was so important for me.
SL: I’m so interested (again me and the stories) in those beginning journeys for folks. My beginning in leather was explicitly queer also, but sex was never a primary component. I came into leather as a gutterpunk kid where everyone was leather and sure, there was lots of sex, but the emphasis was really on the power and dynamics and exchanges.
SS: I think seeking out this sub-genre of erotica or books about sex/leather can often be the only access we have to seeing what other alternatives there are.
SL: I talk a LOT about that in my novel that comes out this fall, Roving Pack, which is very much queer leather fiction.
SS: Oh that’s exciting—I can’t wait to read it. The excerpts I’ve heard so far are awesome.
SL: Thanks! I’m very excited about it. I think you’re right about books as important gateways. I think they are often policed, too. I remember being heavily involved in the feminist bookstore in Portland as a young queer leather punk and the S/M books were routinely vandalized. It was a constant battle for them. I remember, too, working at the leather shop in town and how we all would during our shift borrow copies of The Marketplace off the shelf. Then someone would buy it and we would all borrow it from her, so hungry for those kinds of explicit stories about the lives we were living.
SS: That’s awesome. I used to sneak the copy of Best Lesbian Erotica 1998 similarly—and I’d shove it behind the other books so nobody would buy it, so I could keep reading it, at the bookstore where I worked.
SL: I love that! I think there is often this intense power in seeing yourself, or some aspect of who you are reflected in print. That is extremely powerful.
SS: That’s a good point. What sort of stigma do you think does or doesn’t exist around this type of written work? How has that impacted or not impacted your decisions to write it?
SL: I think a lot of stigma still does exist especially depending on who you are and the other work you do. For me coming off of Kicked Out and all the work I do with youth connected to that, I was very nervous about having some of my next work be so explicitly leather and the concerns about judgments from the community.
SS: Have you had much response about that yet?
SL: In terms of community response, so far I’ve been very lucky. Though I did receive feedback from some presses that I should cut the leather content in Roving Pack. I refused to do so, making the decision to put the book out through my own press.
SS: The leather content seems like such a key component to that story.
SL: In many ways, I was intentionally closeted during the production period of Kicked Out, I didn’t want there to be judgments on that book because I’m heavily leather involved, but now I feel with the American Library Association honors and being a Lammy finalist that the book really speaks for itself. leather is a key component of the story of Roving Pack, and I couldn’t in good conscious cut it even though folks thought it would be safer to do so. How about for you—what do you experience or see around community judgments?
SS: I think writing online for the last 16 years, since 1996, has really influenced what I put out in the world, especially in the last 5 years or so. The Internet is an incredibly intense place to be putting forth any sort of opinion about queerness, BDSM, kink, power dynamics. I’ve learned a lot about what to put out there, and how to couch it, and what not to put forward, and what to expect. There is almost always someone very angry.
SL: That’s a good point about the Internet. And you’re right, someone will always be upset. At this point, I’m not willing to, and am privileged enough to not have to live my life in fear. I write dangerous stories in whatever queer genre I’m working.
SS: It’s a larger question maybe, but is art about being safe? Especially—is queer leather kinky stuff about being safe?
SL: There is nothing safe about trauma survival writing, and nothing safe about leather writing. I try not to shy away from the hard work.
SS: Yes, that. That that exactly. I agree so much. We have the whole SSC [Safe, Sane, Consensual] thing in the BDSM world, but—
SL: SSC never really worked for me. I’d say I’m much more of a RACK [Risk Aware Consensual Kink] person myself both in my leather experiences and my stories.
SS: Yes, me too. And, because I am used to getting smacked anytime for any edgy things I put out online, I have become very careful about the things that I put forward. I don’t think I’d say I’m censoring myself exactly, I am just much more intentional about it. It’s taken me quite a long time and many hateful emails to figure that out .
SL: Yes, I think we’ve all gotten our share of hate mail. How has that influenced your work on your book Say Please?
SS: I don’t think it changed the content of the book, but it changed how I put it together, because I can anticipate some of the feedback, maybe. And because instead of letting that stop me from doing something, I can expect it to be met with certain critiques or comments, and somehow it makes it easier when that then happens. Although that’s anticipation still—Say Please isn’t officially out yet and there aren’t any reviews yet, so we’ll see. I definitely think there’s a stigma though.
SL: Definitely—and I anticipate there will be more people who love it than those who hate. There definitely is still stigma though.
SS: Let’s hope! Thanks. That stigma can be highly discouraging.
SL: Has that influenced why you write under a pen name? I know I thought long and hard about publishing both Roving Pack and now Leather Ever After under a pen name, and decided against it, but I definitely understand the desire/need to.
SS: Yes, that’s influenced me, but my pen name was also because I write about my life in a memoir style, and when I started Sugarbutch I was trying to write myself into some new identities. Writing under a pen name or not is such a hard choice, especially because a writer’s name is their brand. It’s hard to go backward once you have one. How do you feel about those both coming out under your legal name—or, I assume it’s your legal name?
SL: It is my legal name, and ultimately I feel really good about the decision. I tried, when I started writing erotica and explicitly leather stories a few years ago, writing under a pen name, and it just didn’t feel right. For those who know me, or even follow me online, it’s pretty clear the way leather is a daily part of my life. Because my books truly are an extension of myself, I felt it was important to publish under my name. I’m also really bad at secrets and I would have just told everyone anyway.
SS: That makes sense.
SL: What do you hope folks will take away from the kink/leather focused work we’re doing?
SS: I think queer and leather books are more than entertainment—they can be a path to ourselves, an invitation to try on identities or ways of living or ways of having a body in this world that are not a given option in mainstream culture. I hope folks will take away the idea of more options, of open expansiveness, and of exploration that perhaps they hadn’t seen before. You?
SL: Like so much of my work, in my leather specific writing I find myself writing the books I have needed and couldn’t find when I was first coming into these identities. I write too, the books I long for now, that show the beauty and complexities of these dynamics. When I start a new project leather or otherwise, I usually find myself thinking about the types of stories that I’ve desperately needed at different points in my life. I’m especially interested in writing about power exchange, and leather as a way of life/lifestyle as opposed to a component of kinky sex. That’s the world that I, and so many people I adore call home, and I desperately want to bring it to the page. It is my hope that my work will help people to see pieces of their lives and community reflected upon the page. What do you feel like is missing and still needs to be written in this genre?
SS: Even considering how much is out there, and how much the genre is growing, there’s still much, much more to be explored. Everyone has a unique way of interacting with the leather and queer worlds, and everyone has different ideas about how these dynamics work. There is still so much more to be depicted and explained, so many more perspectives to be offered up in conversation with these communities. What do you think is missing?
SL: Everything! I don’t mean that to sound flippant, I just I mean that I feel like with the Queer Leather genre of writing there is a need for so many more of us to be telling our stories. There is such a strong foundation that has been laid for us with this genre, but now it’s up to us to move it forward, to show our desires and lives without shame or justification. There are so many voices that aren’t yet on the page, and I hope in some way the work that I’m doing encourages others to blog, write books, and submit to anthologies. Speaking of, please write me some really good BDSM retellings of fairy tales…:)