Leather Life: The Power of Sex and Memory
Guest columnist Jakob VanLammeren
Your humble columnist welcomes Jakob VanLammeren, the Archivist/Collections Librarian at the Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M) in Chicago, as this issue’s guest columnist. This column is based on VanLammeren’s presentation during the 2014 International Mr. Leather contest weekend.
Today I want to talk with you about sweat stains on the armpits of a bar vest, handwritten letters, dog-eared magazines, the iconography that shaped us, Étienne murals and Mistress Mir’s corset, porn films, used condoms, and oral history interviews. These are just some of the materials in the LA&M’s collections, and when viewed together they build a memorial, an institutional and communal memory, a site that allows us to experience our past through primary source documentation.
The LA&M is an institution built from the lives and hard work of a very large and nuanced community of practitioners and theorists: Leather revolutionaries and quiet collectors; clubs and organizations; contests; events; and museum, library, and archives professionals. For the past 18 years we have created in-house museum exhibits in which we select and arrange posters, toys and devices, photographs, artwork, ephemera, magazines, films, fibers, Leathers, and banners.
When Chuck Renslow founded the LA&M in 1991, he wanted to create a place where leather history could be treasured, preserved, and made accessible for future generations. He wanted to take away the threat of Leather history ending up in dumpsters. He wanted to create an institution that would highlight a history that bigoted society never wanted to be remembered. The Leather Archives helps preserve the historical and physical memory of those who fought, lived, died, rallied, formed a global community, and fucked their way into creating a subculture of sex.
The artifacts and records at the LA&M are drawn from what author Gayle Rubin calls peoples’ “sexuality estate.” Consider the example of a donor who is preparing to send their personal collection to the LA&M. If this donor has the ability to send their archives themselves without an intermediary, then the physical, psychic, and emotional process of packing the boxes; putting files and papers in order; flipping through photographs; re-reading an old Xeroxed porn story from a mail-order catalog; invoking nights spent at the Leather bar—for the donor, the very act of remembering becomes a sexual act.
Then the donor sends the collection to the LA&M. As the archivist, I too physically engage with the documentation of an individual’s or organization’s relationship to sex and kink. I make decisions about how a collection is organized, remove paper clips and staples, re-house papers in acid-free folders and boxes, and transfer photographs to archival-quality sleeves. Through these archival practices I become a participant in the sexual memories, identities, procedures, and rituals through the physical evidences of the creator’s sexual life.
Similar to the experience of the donor, the act of archival work at the LA&M is also inherently sexual. I interact with sex daily, whether it’s in the form of a short fiction piece about a hot fisting scene, a series of twelve Polaroid photographs of a man in various stages of wax play, or a painting of two women—one pressing the spike of a stiletto into the other woman’s crotch. I am inundated with fantasies and fetish that comprise our collective sexual history.
These are the materials that are representative of what we collect. Our existence as a museum, archive, and library disrupts and challenges the notions that 1) explicit materials should not be embodied in traditional repositories, and 2) that these materials are too inappropriate to be “on display.”
So my relationship to these sexuality materials is truly unique: I am at once both an archives professional and a BDSM participant. The materials themselves, combined with the charged sexual energy of the archives room, the museum and the library create a feeling similar to a play space, a Leather bar, or a dungeon. Each time a new archival collection is processed, we encounter a unique relationship with “play,” and we bring that knowledge and presence back into the current conversation about Leather culture and community.
The dialogue between, on one hand, the materials collected by the LA&M and, on the other hand, our professional staff, visitors, and even social media followers, creates a highly sexual and sexualized work environment, which is very unique to a museum and archive space. From the offices, to the archives room, to the visitors touring the museum, we all participate in kink simply by entering the building. We all become part of it.
The LA&M is sexuality materials, and as an archivist I experience how the sexual subject and physical object are collected and curated. The spanking bench from Galleria Domain 2, titleholders’ sashes, innumerable matchbooks—as Richard Meyer writes in At Home in Marginal Domains, “No small part of the historical appeal of such objects is that they were never intended to bear historical meaning in the first place.” These are objects that you write your phone number on in a bar, use for a scene at a play party, or win at a contest. Some of the most significant traces of Leather culture and community are embedded in the emotional and cultural meanings of objects that were never meant to fill a museum. Evidence and documentation of Leather history is often difficult to fully recover or reconstruct due to the marginalization of BDSM communities, and particularly of kinky GLBTQ people.
Our collections are not just passive, idle objects—they are sexual objects, memories, records, and histories that double as museum objects. So it’s no wonder that these materials contribute to the feeling and experience of the LA&M as a play space or dungeon. Record-keeping at the LA&M means engaging intimately with the legacy of sex and sexuality artifacts inherited from past generations, maintained in the present, and preserved for the benefit of future generations. This commitment to kinky cultural heritage creates an archive where we are not only engaged in the collections themselves, but also the sex acts that are contained within them. Collectively, we are able to experience the bodies, language, fetishes, scenes, and desires of our Leather ancestors. When I was discussing the idea of the LA&M as a play space with my Leathersister, LA&M volunteer, and producer, director, and editor of the documentary High Shine: 15 Years of International Ms. Bootblack, Christina Court, she said, “I find mentors and lovers amongst the dead at the LA&M . . . because, in an odd and very cerebral way, I have played with them and engaged in a very intimate experience with them, and they have ‘fed’ me much like an outstanding Dominant or Sadist feeds me in play.” And I agree with her.
Archival work at the LA&M is emotional, physical, and cerebral. It’s serious work, and I am very serious about it. I don’t just work with history, I feel it. Of course archives are about documentation, preservation, history. But they’re also about nostalgia, the weight of memory. I believe that my work comes with great responsibility—a responsibility to you all, members of the Leather community, to preserve a history that has been systematically and systemically ignored and kept out of traditional repositories, museum, libraries, and archives. I also believe it is the responsibility of the LA&M to have a well-organized, inclusive, and innovative space that operates using archival and cataloging best practices and standards while also maintaining a strong digital presence.
The voices, lives, artifacts, memorabilia, papers, and collections should continue to be representative of the breadth and scope of the leather community, particularly those of us who have been underrepresented within this community, such as people of color in leather, women in leather, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in leather. As theorist Ann Cvetkovich has so brilliantly articulated, an archive doesn’t just hold materials, things—but also the emotional and affective traces of life, trauma, sorrow, joy, and regret. I consider it an important part of my job as the Archivist/Collections Librarian to unearth these interwoven complexities and present the stories of Leather and kink history with dynamism and with as much variation as I can.
I am asking for your help in bringing some new voices to the LA&M. As Steve Lenius asserts in Life, Leather, and the Pursuit of Happiness, “You can help preserve history. Spend an afternoon, or even longer, getting your own stories down, whether on paper, audio, or video.” If you have a friend’s leather vest, for example, consider telling the story of that artifact. How did it get into your hands? What bars and runs has it attended?
Record the story of your leather family, your first fisting scene, your favorite bootblack. Become a member of the Leather Archives & Museum, become a volunteer, ask to take a tour of the archives room, or take the self-guided tour of the museum. Look online and view our digitized material, send us an email, give us a call. Know your history, inform your present, and anticipate your future. Experience the archival collections at the LA&M, and come bear witness to our Leather ancestors and the marks these ancestors have left on the body of the world.