Robert Davolt, Author of Painfully Obvious

Painfully Obvious: An Irreverent and Unauthorized Manual for Leather/SM, first book by San Francisco author and columnist Robert Davolt, has been nominated for the 2005 Stonewall Book Award for nonfiction.

The annual award is given by the American Library Association through their Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) Roundtable and is the oldest book award given for “outstanding works about GLBT issues or by GLBT authors.” Two awards are given each year, one in Fiction/Literature and one in Nonfiction.

Mr. Davolt, who identifies himself in his book as a gay leather former titleholder, contest judge, sponsor and producer, a former member of the United States Navy, a professional journalist, and a publisher and editor of now-defunct leather journal Drummer (where many of his essays first appeared) agreed to be interviewed by reviewer Jean Roberta.

JR: Do you think the slogan “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” is still useful?RD: “Safe, Sane and Consensual” was very useful and very important when first introduced. You must remember that we were up against the wall in the early phase of a major health crisis. “SS&C” was an emergency measure, a primary response to answer our critics.

However, taking the most reasonable catechism too literally, too long can run into problems: What is “safe” is not considered by everyone to be “sane” and some have a rather low threshold for “sane.” Even “consensual” can be a fluid thing—consent can be withdrawn or modified, “consensual non-consensuality” can be part of the scene, etc.

Hopefully we (as a community and as a society) have achieved more depth, balance and sophistication about safe sex and risk assessment.

JR: You have warned readers about dangerous anarchy within the leather community in the form of criminal predators and irresponsible journalists. Do you think the community (broadly speaking) needs more organization with more rules, or less? Can you think of any fictional or theoretical model of a BDSM organization which could be implemented in the real world?

RD: First, this community needs real-life solutions to its real-world problems. I like science fiction and I enjoy reading it as recreation – but under no circumstances would I use sci-fi in any way as a model for my life (and that goes for Star Trek, Gorean fantasy or Scientology). In my mind, it’s a good way to screw up one’s enjoyment of both reality and fiction.

Leather relationships are inherently unequal. Their strength is in recognizing that one partner is dominant and the other submissive. Why, then, do we expect to run our community like a harmonious cooperative or a democracy of equals when the structure of our culture (when there is structure) is largely autocratic and authoritarian?

“Anarchy” (which I’m rather fond of at a certain level) is not the problem. The problem is our expectations. They are totally out of whack. We somehow expect an anarchic, rebellious, outlaw underground to function as a PTA meeting. We are surprised when dominant personalities tend to dominate an organization. We don’t hold leather journalists accountable to the same professional standards we would hold any local reporter, and we are shocked at the results. We expect titleholders—chosen because they looked good walking across a stage in a leather thong – to be adept event planners, fundraisers and activists. We are surprised when someone (whom we didn’t bother to check out) ends up walking off with the cash.

Trying to illustrate this, the people attending the annual Folsom Street Fair come to mind. Some folks bring their dogs and children in strollers to the largest BDSM/leather/fetish event in the world. . . then complain about the crowds and that what people were doing offended them. Uhmmm, what the hell did you expect?

The “leather community” has no structure, no laws, no central authority. We can’t even agree on 30-40 years of history. Some see that as a disadvantage, some as an advantage, but none can deny: There is no “there” there.

When I came to the leather community it was an act of rebellion against society, against the concept of gay men as effeminate, against the police raids, against harassment, against sexual repression. . . against a lot of stuff. When I say “rebels and outlaws,” I am not being metaphorical. We were breaking the law and we were rebelling against a whole society, not a nebulous and accidental “leather community.”

JR: Your own icons of the Old guard (loosely speaking) seem only to have been given “titles” in the court of community opinion. Do you think leather contests do more good than harm, and is there a better way to choose leaders?

RD: There are different sorts of leather titles. The titles I have held were not calendar boy, beefcake contests. No thongs, no jockstraps. Both were Leather Daddy Contests—the Irving Thalberg/Lifetime Achievement sort of leather title. The next-to-last leather honorific available just before your eulogy.

Contests do not choose leaders. We can be rather shallow, but we do not pick our leaders by how well a strap of leather dental floss rides up their ass. Many people are confused on this point, most of them leather titleholders.

Contests are wonderful gathering places. Before the internet, they were great excuses to get together and compare notes, tie each other up and network. But it was the gathering that was important, not the annual by-products. Unfortunately, over the years these events have generated more spent fuel than a nuclear power plant and we are running out of safe storage for titleholders who seem to have a radioactive half-life of centuries.

Perhaps pre-Columbian tribes had it right: they gathered, they celebrated, they selected their festival champion and at the closing ceremonies, they sacrificed him to the gods. Nice, neat. No left-overs.

JR: Could you explain what “Politically Correct” means to you, and how the term originated?

RD: “Politically correct” means nothing to me. It’s become a nearly useless term. Like “patriotism” or “justice,” it has 20 different definitions for every 16 different people.

The one remaining use for such words is to evoke a predictably irrational response; it is like using a grenade to kill a gnat; it’s a WMD (Word of Mass Delusion).

It comes down to: whose “politics” and whose idea of what is “correct” and what is not? What I tried to address is both my apprehension at the concept (or lack of one) and its complete inadequacy as a basis for leather community expectations.

How about this: “politically correct” may mean something but it actually defines nothing.

Why not address the issues that one really is concerned about? Unity? Equality? Access? Economic opportunity? Language? “PC” is often one of the general fogs one lays over the conversation to say, ‘Well, you know what I’m talking about . .’ We don’t.

JR: Have you been involved in the political movement for “gay rights” and/or for the legalization of BDSM?

RD: I have been involved in political activism most of my life. Since the 1970’s, I have been involved in servicemen’s rights and veterans’ organizations seeking to overturn the ban of homosexuals in the US Armed Forces. In the early 1980’s, I worked with fledgling gay business associations and as the AIDS era began, most of us were very busy caring and advocating for our sick. I have founded leather clubs and been involved in many organizations that educate about BDSM.

Peripheral to that has always been two causes: Sexual freedom and free speech.

In my experience, you can educate law enforcement and health care officials in the difference between consensual and non-consensual activity. You can consult (something like a “cultural liaison”) with the press for fair, educated coverage. You can make suggestions to local legislators so that laws do not target consensual SM along with malicious assault. You can speak to local civic groups, meetings and individuals.

I don’t know how many times I have fielded calls at 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 in the morning to come down and sit through a hospital examination with an injured bottom and to explain things to the cops. I can’t change the world, but I can point to a couple of scared subs who I have been able to help through that experience, a few irresponsible tops who will never allow that to happen again, and a few bigoted ER doctors and police officers who understand a little bit more now.

JR: Do you think it is desirable for men and women to work together in queer and/or leather organizations?

RD: I have lived in many different communities. In some small communities in the mid-west, we clung together with anyone who was even vaguely “queer.” If there was any “community” at all, we did not have the luxury of excluding women or leather or drag queens or whoever. In larger communities, organizations can specialize: men, men into leather, men into leather who ride motorcycles, men into leather who ride motorcycles and live in the city, etc.

So, I think it is mostly a matter of necessity. If two organizations have enough reason to work together, they do. The problems come when they are artificially forced together out of some misguided attempt towards “unity” or the structure is twisted into some ideal of “gender parity.”

JR: Do you think that erotic fantasies in printed or visual form are essential to the leather community?

RD: Essential? No. Natural? Yes, in that if BDSM erotica were suddenly not available, it would pop up again instantly in even greater volume. A human process would kick in to immediately start fantasizing and then find a media to record the fantasies in order to share them (or make a buck).

JR: Have you been involved in anti-censorship activities?

RD: The mere act of publishing Drummer magazine was often an “anti-censorship activity.” You can’t get much more in the trenches than that. The magazine is enshrined in pivotal free speech decisions of both the US and Canadian Supreme Courts.

I’ve signed my share of petitions in the past 20-25 years, even though I don’t believe much in petitions. Petitions, voting, educating oneself and making donations are the very minimum a citizen should be doing. As I mentioned above, free speech (and freedom of the press) often ends up as a component of every other political activity. . .and inescapable for a writer, a journalism instructor and a publisher.

JR: Any last thoughts?

RD: A couple of final points, the first one from James Baldwin who said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

I feel that way about both my country and my leather community. I want the best for my community. I insist that we can be better, smarter, happier… or at least a little less disappointed. Sometimes that means expecting more of ourselves and others; sometimes it means adapting more realistic expectations. The source of that insight has to be vibrant leather press that reports, educates, informs, critiques and comments in order to adjust the dosage.

The second is that I don’t tell people what to do. That’s not my job as an essayist. I do no one’s thinking for them. I don’t tell them how to run their lives. But I am also a sadist, therefore I simply present a rational, well-supported, tantalizing array of equally plausible, practical and lovely options. . . and force the individual to choose their own path. Then, wickedly, I insist that they take personal responsibility for their decisions. May the gods forgive me, I thoughtlessly treat them like capable adults.

That is infinitely and deliciously more cruel.

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