Mark Thompson Interview

Interview with Mark Thompson:

Regarding the reissue of Geoff Mains’ Urban Aboriginals

By Sensuous Sadie

SENSUOUS SADIE: You were a good friend of Urban Aboriginals author Geoff Mains. Please tell me a little bit about what motivated you to get Geoff’s book reissued.

MARK THOMPSON: Geoff Mains was a good friend who entrusted me with his literary estate after he died of AIDS in 1989. Although he wrote three books, I think Urban Aboriginals is the one he will be most remembered by. It is a classic work, very much reflecting the hope, passion, and intellectual fervor of not only its author but of the times in which he lived. I convinced the book’s original publisher, Gay Sunshine Press, to put it into a second edition in the early 1990s. When all those copies sold out some years later, they gave me permission to take the book elsewhere. So I approached Daedalus Press, which kindly agreed to put the book back into print for a 20th Anniversary edition.

“As by now all the original photos and printing plates were lost, we had to electronically rescan every page and hire a researcher to go through thousands of negatives left behind by photographer Robert Pruzan (who also died of AIDS) at the San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society to try to match the original images. It was an act of devotion to the legacy of a very important writer and very dear man. All proceeds from this edition will go to help maintain the papers of both Geoff and Robert, which are housed in the San Francisco gay archives.

“Plus, how could I do anything less? The code of ethos that Geoff very movingly attests to in Urban Aboriginals is one that I personally subscribe to. If a man makes a promise to a dying friend, he keeps it. I have kept my promise to Geoff in good faith over the years. I believe the book belongs on the reading shelf of every seriously committed leatherfolk.”

Sadie: You wrote that Geoff “stressed the importance of instilling tribal-like awareness and values within the loose-knit leather subculture.” I’m thinking that this refers to the title Urban Aboriginals. Can you explain he meant by giving his book this title?

Mark: “What Geoff, myself, and many others have pointed out over the years is that the gay male leather experience that emerged from an underground subculture post World War II was about a lot more that just wearing black leather. It represented an entire attitude about life, and, if you were a man, masculinity itself. Don’t forget that most gay stereotypes prior to that period were excessively feminized as a means to oppress and co-opt our true power and identity as natural, loving men. Being a leatherman meant accepting certain responsibilities for one’s relationship to Self and others. The bonds of trust established through the commonality of leather encompassed a lot more than sex. Concepts of community and caring for one another were also very ingrained in many leathermen in San Francisco and elsewhere. It was like being a part of a secret fraternity then, indeed, a kind of tribe–a culture of men living on the edges of regular society with its own rules, codes of conducts, rites of initiation, and honor.

“And while I think the ideas and practices of sexual liberation should be available to anyone, sexual liberation should not be confused with the sort of cultural revolution that the men in Geoff’s book were forging and finding. SM in the suburbs is fine for those who want to explore it the relative safety and comfort found there, but gay leathermen in the ’50s through pre-AIDS ’80s were creating a unique identity and a culture of their own as well. This nascent culture was particularly hard-hit by the early days of the plague–so Geoff’s book is not only a testament to those days but an artifact from them.”

Sadie: Clearly the BDSM community as a whole was radically different in 1984 when Geoff first published this book. What do you think he would have made of the changes we’ve seen in these two decades?

Mark: ” I imagine that he’d be pleased that more people have come out of the closet around these issues and practices. He’d still be concerned with ongoing questions regarding the authenticity or core value of the experience, however.”

Sadie: In my book review of Urban Aboriginals I came from a standpoint of being a woman in the pansexual Vermont scene looking at Geoff’s viewpoint as a gay leatherman in 1984 San Francisco. Do you think that he and I have more in common that may appear on the surface? If so, what?

Mark: “Perhaps what you and Geoff share is an intellectual curiosity about the status of being an outsider. Most people in the scene back then felt like they were cultural outsiders. And I imagine that many players in the scene today still feel the same way. Back then, gay leathermen were outcasts from regular society as well as from burgeoning mainstream gay culture. And still today, I don’t think it matters how many SM conventions you attend at some Holiday Inn, you are still an outsider at some level. If all people imagine is that they are participating in some new trendy lifestyle, then they’re going to be missing out on the core of what the leather experience can mean.

“What Geoff was talking about was forging a new kind of identity with its own mythos, which is central to having a shared cultural experience. But where is that mythos in merely showing up at a BDSM convention at a downtown hotel? Sex is sex and you can arrange for it to happen many different ways, but becoming an authentic leatherperson means coming out to a new level within you. For many gay men, the discovery of leather and all that it entails was a vital part of their individuation journey–of becoming their own person. It wasn’t something you could just put on and off for the weekend. Leather, on or off, was like a second skin. I think that the pansexual BDSM community of today owes a big debt of thanks to the early gay leather underground.”

Sadie: Much of the book covers some of what appear to be foundations of the gay leatherscene: fisting, boot licking, and piss play. I think that generally speaking, the pansexual BDSM community thinks of those as just being another kinky activity on the list, but they seem to have take on almost an iconic status in his book. Can you help me understand what this difference in approach means, and why you think this difference has evolved?

Mark: “Aside from the fetish aspects of the things you mention, they can also be viewed as ritual activities for gay men wanting to be initiated into a certain kind of tribe. You are not a gay man and so this concept might be a stretch for you. But on one level, it’s about paying attention and paying respect to those who’ve traveled the path beforehand. It’s about teaching and learning and growing as a man. All men, gay or otherwise, are taught not to surrender to and trust other men. Our world is about learning how to dominate or eliminate other men, to be highly aggressive and competitive. Within leather sex, the opposite can be found. It can create a powerful and cathartic experience, on a teaching and receiving heart level, between men.”

Sadie: Your book Leatherfolk includes a photo of a room in the Catacombs Club filled with fisting slings and Crisco holders. I think in some ways this photo represents to me the world that Geoff inhabited, but one that I find somewhat alien to my experience. In other words, while the pansexual community has lots of play parties, I’ve never heard of a group of straight/bi people getting together to do fisting on a group level like that. Can you explain to me and our readers what this is about on the personal and political levels for the gay leather community?

Mark: “Women and men played together and side by side at the Catacombs. The emotional atmosphere after a good night at the Catacombs was so palpable you could put it into a bottle. The energy was that magical. People got a contact high just walking into the room. It was an extraordinarily special place and people came from all over the world to go there. But you had to be invited.”

Sadie: Geoff describes himself as a “Leatherman.” It may surprise you to know that many people in the broader community don’t really use this word, or even understand what it means. I myself don’t identify as a leatherwoman because I have a sense that somehow I don’t qualify for the title, although I’m not really sure what it entails. Can you explain what it all means?

Mark: “The word ‘Leatherman’ comes out of the gay male cultural experience that I’ve outlined. It’s an identity formation fairly unique to us, so it’s not something most straight men or women would probably want to use. Furthermore, where there is homophobia there’s no way that people would be able to fully grasp the core sensibility of being a leatherman. I always have to ask: How does homophobia get in the way of people having a more profound leather practice, which should be about increasing one’s sensitivity and landscape of vision, in my opinion.”

Sadie: I think of The Loving Dominant and Learning the Ropes as two of the classics that opened up BDSM to the pansexual community, although of course there were a number of books prior to those which focused on the gay and lesbian communities. When you’re looking at a book like Geoff’s Urban Aboriginals which focuses so much on the tight knit gay leatherscene of his time, what do you think is most transferable to straight or bi people in today’s community?

Mark: “The transcendental moments that happen in these experiences cut across boundaries of gender, sex, class, power. It’s like finding the pearl in the oyster or the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box. These moments take you out of your normal everyday world. When you have these moments, use the insight as part of your personal growth. That right belongs to everybody.”

Sadie: I think most people associate the Old Guard with the world that Geoff inhabited. There is a contingent of contemporary players who call themselves Old Guard, but frankly I can’t help but wonder what the people who actually lived it would say about this. Certainly, there is a fair bit of criticism about that time period because of stories we hear about people being forced to serve any Dominant who demands service as well as other non-consensual type scenes. Can you address this?

Mark: “I was in the swing generation. I came out in the mid-1970s, so I associated with Old Guard people. My roots are in earning my black leather boots the old fashioned way. To do so, I had to be respectful and pay attention. Yet I think there’s always a temptation to go back to the time when we were in our glory years and to think that was the Golden Age. Things always change. Still, without an understanding and respect for the past, we don’t have a foundation to build a future on. I’m not going to agree with people who say what happened before us didn’t matter. It matters a lot.”

Sadie: Urban Aboriginals includes a large section on BDSM and spirituality, and in fact some consider him a pioneer in this area. What can you tell me about Geoff’s life that created this interest in this subject?

Mark: “I think Geoff would agree with my observation that anytime you are mixing tears and laughter/joy in the same experience–which is what happens so many times in a good SM scene–then you have a spiritual moment. What happens after that, or how an individual decides to deal or not deal with that opening of release and revelation is up to them. I am more and more convinced that spirituality means something different to every person–SM practice can be one more potent means toward personal awakening and enlightenment, but only if the beholder of the experience regards it as so.

“This said, let me also point out the means is only a way toward the final destination–which in my opinion is the bliss of non-attachment. People shouldn’t be too attached to their whips, costumes, toys or whatever. Real SM happens mainly in the head or consciousness of the person–which is what Geoff was trying to both discover for himself and affirm for others. I believe that Geoff was a not only a scholar but an authentic visionary within his community. He was a seeker of truth, and therefore had no patience with phony games or unexamined stances of any kind.”

Sadie: In your introduction to Geoff’ article The Molecular Anatomy of Leather you write that, “Mains was able to further correlate the experiences of leatherfolk in modern Western society with peoples in other cultures who engage in extreme physical or devotional acts. His hypothesis is controversial, to say the least.” Considering the work that’s been done in the area of BDSM and spirituality in the last twenty years, would you still consider Geoff’ beliefs about this controversial?

Mark: “It’s less controversial now because we understand the connections more. You can see this in the Modern Primitives movement, where leather-shamans such as Fakir Musafar point a way.”

Sadie: Geoff wrote “Successful leather play is nearly always sensualist and mutualistic, whatever the psychodrama of the roles started at a particular time. Without these real and very accepted limits, leather play would fail in its objective as a form of love.” This idea that BDSM is about love is not something I’ve heard very often in today’s community. Rather, I hear a lot more about the equipment and whatnot. I wonder if you could expand a little bit on what you think Geoff was saying here.

Mark: “Personally speaking, if it’s not about love then I don’t want any part of it. Love has many masks, many faces. And as we know in the leather scene, what appears one way is usually the opposite. That moment of supreme trust is an agreement forged between two people hopefully of like mind in the here and now, so outsiders can never really judge.

“The tighter the bonds of that trust, however, the better quality the interaction. This goes back to the ethos of the original leather community: Getting together to know each other as people– in bars and on runs, in backrooms and living rooms. It meant becoming involved in the regular community around you, being responsible caring loving adults. Not just needy greedy dysfunctional children with an enormous capacity to hurt others with their shadow business. Where there is love, there is light, even in the darkest corners.”

Sadie: Why do you think that BDSM grew up and matured in the gay and lesbian scenes so much earlier than it did in the straight community?

Mark: “I believe I have answered that question already. But again: To be gay or lesbian meant that you were other, or alien, even in your own family. That is a universally felt emotion to some extent, but it is undeniable that queer people have been cast against the fringes. Gay people have been more marginalized than most, so we are more likely to explore limits and boundaries of all kinds–included human sexuality. In so doing, we’ve expanded the boundaries for everyone. We are culture makers. In making our own culture, we have informed the larger culture.”

Sadie: Thank you very much!

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