Leather Life: They/Them/Us”: Kink, Pronouns, and Family on Film
Imagine a romantic comedy about two forty-something divorced people getting together and creating a blended family. Now imagine that the film’s storyline includes BDSM and kink, gender-neutral pronouns, teenage drug abuse, and conservative Christianity. And, rather than being set in New York or Los Angeles, imagine that this unorthodox romantic comedy is set in Columbus, Ohio.
“They/Them/Us” is that film. Co-written by Jon Sherman and Melissa Vogley Woods, and directed by Sherman, “They/Them/Us” is the first film in which I recall seeing “Kink/BDSM Consulting” listed in the end-of-film credits. The film’s BDSM consultants are Barak and Sheba, kink educators based in central Ohio, and they also are co-producers of the film.
As the film starts, we meet Charlie, a divorced father with two teenagers—one of whom is using drugs. Charlie, a film professor, is starting a new teaching job at a conservative Christian college. Charlie is not terribly acquainted with this kind of Christianity but tries to fake it. Awkward moments ensue.
Charlie meets Lisa, who describes herself online as “Single Mom. Artist. Sexually Adventurous.” Lisa also has two teenagers, one of whom is non-binary and uses gender-neutral pronouns. The four teenagers are not thrilled when Charlie and Lisa decide to live together and blend their families. Personality frictions ensue.
As Charlie and Lisa spend more time together, she introduces him to a few kink and BDSM concepts. Charlie resists at first, but then becomes kink-curious and undertakes some research. Unforeseen adventures ensue.
“They/Them/Us” is a very contemporary film in several ways. BDSM activities and the kink community are shown matter-of-factly, without moralizing, histrionics, sensationalism or salaciousness. As I was watching Charlie’s discovery of BDSM, I flashed back to similar experiences I had as I was getting acquainted with the BDSM community years ago. I imagine that, as others members of the kink and BDSM communities watch the film, they too will have similar flashbacks.
I have written a lot over the years about the continuing mainstreaming of kink. This film perhaps marks a turning point in that mainstreaming where BDSM and the kink community are just part of the story, part of life. I felt like I was seeing myself and people I know on the screen. We’re not villains, we’re not shocking, and we’re not the butt of jokes. We just are. And we’re respected for who we are and how we are. It was refreshing—I have waited a long time to see something like this.
I found myself comparing this film to another mainstream film I remember that incorporated BDSM themes. No, not “50 Shades of Grey”—I’m referring to “Exit to Eden,” a big-budget Hollywood film from 1994 with recognizable stars and creators. Garry Marshall, for example, was the director and co-producer, and Rosie O’Donnell, Dan Ackroyd, and Dana Delaney were among the film’s stars. But in “Exit to Eden,” BDSM was used for titillation and was presented somewhat sensationally as shocking and naughty, both for the characters in the film and for the audience. “They/Them/Us,” by contrast, is a non-Hollywood, low-budget independent film that does none of these things and is much better because of it.
The film treats other contemporary issues sensitively and respectfully, too. Example: The way the non-binary character is portrayed, and the way the other characters react to them, seems like a fair and accurate portrayal of today’s reality. The situations are sometimes awkward, and well-meaning people, sympathetic but clueless, can sometimes be unintentionally hurtful. But they learn. I thought there was good consciousness-raising here around this issue. Similarly, the character’s and family’s struggles with substance abuse are portrayed realistically and matter-of-factly, with both humorous and sad touches to the portrayal.
One part of the story I found both humorous and cringeworthy at the same time was the element of conservative Christianity in the story. I thought some of the adult conservative Christian characters in the film were portrayed as buffoons—although plenty of conservative Christians in real life act like buffoons as well, so there’s some realism there.
But some of the awkward situations that Charlie was put in—where he had to pretend to be something he was not, and where things threatened to blow up if he couldn’t be convincing—made me squirm. I actually had to stop the film’s playback more than once because I saw a train wreck coming and couldn’t bear to watch it right then. I enjoyed watching the dungeon scenes in the film, but I blanched at the conservative Christian attitudes on display.
Speaking of awkward: “They/Them/Us” was filmed during August, 2020, and was one of the first films approved for production during the COVID-19 pandemic by the Screen Actors Guild. Strict testing, social distancing, and cleaning and sanitizing requirements complicated the film’s production logistics. According to Sherman, “If we would have gotten even one positive case, we would have had to shut down production. It’s a miracle we didn’t. We were lucky.”
“They/Them/Us” had its premiere on Sept. 11, 2021, at the Dances With Films Festival in Los Angeles. To date, the film has won the “Best Low-Budget Feature Film” award at the Paris Independent Film Festival and the “Best Comedy” award at the San Diego International Film Festival. “They/Them/Us” is now widely available for viewing, rental or purchase, on many of the major streaming platforms. For more information, and to watch the film’s trailer, visit www.theythemusfilm.com. A final note: I had the chance to interview Sherman, Vogley Woods, and Barak and Sheba about the making of this film. You can read my interview with them on the Lavender Magazine website at