Leather Life: Are We There Yet?

Photo courtesy of BigStock/Maria Argutinskaya
Photo courtesy of BigStock/Maria Argutinskaya

With 2021 mostly in the rearview mirror, and with 2022 approaching, I’d like to begin this column with a memory of the road trips of my childhood—the kind of road trips that, because of COVID, I haven’t been able to take for the last two years.

I remember, when I was young, the thrill of setting out on a family car trip to visit grandparents on the east coast. The back seat of the station wagon was folded down and the whole back area was covered with quilts. That’s where we kids spent the trip—napping, snacking, sightseeing.

However, the back of the car eventually felt confining. The trip out east took three days, and by day three I was asking, “Are we there yet?” “When will we be there?” “How much longer?” I wanted to be done with the “getting there” portion of the trip. I wanted to be able to move around freely, rather than feel trapped in the back of the station wagon.

The above memory seems like a good metaphor for what we’ve all been through during the last 21 months. We’ve been trapped and confined, at least psychologically and often physically. We have wanted to get out, but it hasn’t been safe. We have asked, “When will things get back to normal”—which is a variation of my childhood question, “When will we be there?” 

With my childhood car trips the destination was known and the arrival time could be estimated. With the pandemic, at this point, we don’t know when we’ll “be there”—“there” being normal life, life as it was before the pandemic. The destination and the estimated time of arrival keep changing. A viral mutation, a new variant, another wave of infections, and our destination of “normal” is suddenly pushed farther down the road.

But if our idea of arriving at “normal” and being able to say we’re “finally there” means, for example, “going back to the office” as if nothing had happened, or partying like it’s 2019, or holding events like it’s 2019—for many people, that’s not going to work. It’s not 2019 anymore. It’s soon to be 2022. Time moves forward. It doesn’t move backward.

To just go back to the way we’ve always done things, the way we did them in 2019, is to ignore the past two years and the dislocation that was, and continues to be, forced upon us by the pandemic. The experience of going through the pandemic has changed us—and, by extension, has changed our community.

Wrenching events have a way of profoundly changing people. Many people who lived through the depression of the 1930s never trusted banks again, and also often became loathe to dispose of anything because “we might need it someday.” People who go to war and survive—whether WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or any more recent war—come out of the experience changed. (In the same way that some soldiers suffer from PTSD, I wonder whether some of us will suffer from COVID-induced PTSD.)

More recently, the golden decade between the Stonewall rebellion and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic could be seen as the gay male community’s version of the “Roaring 20s,” and the AIDS crisis was our community’s version of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many people who lived through the AIDS crisis, whether or not they were infected with HIV, approached intimacy differently—perhaps more soberly—than the way they approached intimacy in the AIDS “before times.”

AIDS also drastically changed the focus of the gay and lesbian communities. AIDS even changed leather contests, transforming the role of leather titleholders from “king of the party” into community leaders and representatives involved in political action and fundraising.

So when the COVID pandemic finally ebbs, we shouldn’t just go back to doing what we used to do, the way we used to do it. That likely won’t work, and certainly won’t work optimally. It also won’t work very well for us if we spend time bemoaning the fact that we can’t go back to the way things were.

Instead we, individually and as a community, can embrace the changes brought about by the pandemic. We can see the experience of coming out of the pandemic as a rare opportunity to make some changes, to make some different choices, and to hit the reset button on things that weren’t working before.

At this point let me introduce the person who inspired many of the thoughts I have shared above: Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters (Riverhead Books, 2018). Parker has thought—a lot—about how and why groups of people gather, and how we can make our gatherings better and more satisfying. (The paperback version of this book was published just as the COVID pandemic was getting underway and gatherings were primarily forbidden, which Parker says was “awkward.”)

Parker calls this moment in history, as we look forward to the ebbing of the COVID pandemic, a “threshold moment.” In a New York Times article (published Aug. 20, 2021) about the question of “when should we go back to the office,” Parker offers the opinion that this is asking the wrong question. Instead, she suggests we ask ourselves four other, deeper questions that can help us point a way forward:

1. “What did you long for when we couldn’t physically meet?”

2. “What did you not miss and are ready to discard?”

3. “What forms of meeting did you invent during the pandemic out of necessity that, surprisingly, worked?”

4. “What might we experiment with now?”

This episode of the Leather Life column was prompted by a discussion I heard between Parker and Krista Tippett on Tippett’s “On Being” radio show of Sept. 30, 2021. (This episode is also available as a podcast at <onbeing.org>—search for “Priya Parker”.) During this discussion Parker said the above four questions apply not only to work gatherings and the question of when to go back to the office—they can be applied to anything. I would submit that these questions could profitably be applied to the leather/BDSM/fetish community, our many organizations and events, and all the things we haven’t been able to do for the last 21 months.

To return to my road-trip example at the beginning of this column: Asking “Are we there yet?” as we wait for the COVID pandemic to ebb is the wrong question. It would be better to ask, “Where do we want to go, and how do we want to get there?”

Whenever the pandemic ebbs, and we start thinking about a “return to normal,” I hope we don’t just return to normal. I hope we put more thought into our restarting and resetting process, both individually and as a community.

I will let Parker have the last word. Speaking of “threshold moments,” she ended the above-mentioned New York Times article with the following: “We have an unusual moment to experiment . . . These moments don’t come along often and don’t stay open long. Let’s seize this occasion to reinvent.”

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