Sensuous Sadie interviews Stuart Norman the Leatherfaerie Shaman

SCENEprofiles Interview with Stuart Norman AKA Cyrwyn, The Leatherfaerie Shaman: Author, Activist and Founder of Tarheel Leather Club

Stuart Norman is a gay activist, a leader in the Leather/SM subculture for more than 20 years, and founder of Tarheel Leather Club. He describes himself as a Leatherfaerie Shaman, exploring the connection between BDSM and spirituality and bringing that to our community through his writings, lectures and workshops. His writings have been published in a variety of magazines, the best known of which is “I am the Leatherfaerie Shaman,” published in the now classic anthology, “Leatherfolk.”

Sadie: The first piece I read of yours was “I am the Leatherfaerie Shaman” in Mark Thompson’s anthology, “Leatherfolk.” Now in it’s tenth year and being reprinted with an updated forward, I wonder how being published in this classic BDSM book has affected your life?

Stuart: “It hasn’t changed my life tremendously, after all, the leather/SM community is a very small one and my fame in it is only a minor blip on the radar screen. There are many more worthy and famous people included in the book. However, I have received many appreciations of the chapter over the years and I’m very proud of it. It’s wonderful that ‘Leatherfolk’ has remained in print for so long and is in a second printing. Mark sent me a prepublication copy of the 10th anniversary edition a few months ago.”

Sadie: You write that, “Shamanism is not a religion, but a spiritual way of living in and seeing the world. It is a very individual calling.” And in fact, you describe yourself as a cybershaman. For our readers who might be unfamiliar with being a shaman, much less a cybershaman, could you please describe what this means?

Stuart: “A shaman can be many things. One description I like very much is ‘A person of knowledge.’ This means very special kinds of knowledge, usually broadly spiritual or that of healing, both physical and mental/spiritual. Common identifications of shamans are witchdoctor, medicine-person, berdache, etc., all part of a tribal system, I think the leather/SM community is in many ways tribal. Shamans walk on the edge of society and sometimes step off to the other side to work with the powers of the alternate world and to bring back knowledge to the tribe. Shamans are outsiders, somewhat strange, never regular people. They have powers of perception that most people don’t. However, any field, even science, can be a body of knowledge for shamans. One may be born with the potential to be a shaman, but there’s a lot of hard work to get there.”

“I’m a cybershaman because I use the Internet to communicate a lot. I was one of the early adopters of the Internet and I’m also a computer guru – it’s all part of the mix of knowledge.

“I want my readers to understand that being a modern shaman isn’t quite like the shamans of old. I have the advantage of living in a scientific civilization and intimate familiarity with the anthropological literature concerning shamanism.”

Sadie: On top of the shaman thing, you are also a leatherfaerie. While the gay leather community is probably pretty familiar with what this means, the more heterogeneous readers of my interviews might need a little more information however. Can you give me the short version of what a leatherfaerie is, and how this term plays out in gay history?

Stuart: “I’m a Radical Faerie, as well as a leatherman. Faeries are difficult to define because if you ask a group of 10 faeries you’ll probably get 12 definitions! They are alternative and usually countercultural people, mostly men and mostly gay, but anyone can be a faerie; it’s what’s in the heart that matters. Faeries originated from the 1960s countercultural movements, so there’s a lot of alternative beliefs: Goddess and pagan worship, very free sexuality, many prefer to live in rural areas or at least have an attachment to natural land. They’re certainly not mainstream gay. In the early 1980s, some of us in separate parts of the country put Faerie and leather consciousness together and created Leathefaeries, one of those ideas whose time had come.”

Sadie: They say that “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” meaning that if you meet someone who claims to be a mystic, they probably aren’t. Do you think this also applies to calling yourself a shaman? There is a fair bit of co-opting of Native American rites and beliefs, and some feel that it is not cool either on a historical or a spiritual level to be calling oneself a shaman. What are your thoughts on this?

Stuart: “Killing the Buddha on the road can be interpreted in many ways. One alternative is not accepting the authority of the mystic over your life – it may not be the right path for you. Many self-proclaimed mystics were mystics. They needed to advertise. There’s no law out there that makes this identification suspect. Shamanism isn’t just Native American, but a part of ALL so-called primitive tribes going back far into prehistory. Shamanism is identified by perceptions and acts and doesn’t have to be the particular belief system of any specific tribe. Mine isn’t. If I called myself a shaman for a particular native tribe, then I’d be in trouble.”

Sadie: Your passion is writing about BDSM and spirituality. How did you come to explore these two paths together?

Stuart: “It came out of a lifetime of spiritual exploration that led me to become a shaman. When I came out gay at a rather late age, I realized where my spiritual preparation had led me. Because many shamans have been bisexual or homosexual, which may give us alternate perceptions, I realized that my calling was to be a shaman for the gay tribe, but already being countercultural, I was attracted to Faeries and the rituals of leatherfolk and found that these groups were more tribal and had aspects of shamanism, Their ways have become my ways and my family.”

Sadie: You offer workshops in becoming a shaman. Say, for example, a suburban white girl like myself wanted to go down that path. Where would I start? Would I need to go out in the desert, chew on cactus leaves and pray to the sungods, or is it possible to explore these things in my warm and comfy home in Vermont?

Stuart: “Sure, it’s possible to explore shamanism from the comfort of your home, but there are also needed experiences to get one out of the everyday self. Shamanism can’t always be comfortable. It’s hard, sometimes perilous work. It’s not the physical place that matters, but the psychic space. Physical places can be conducive to altering psychic space, especially if the physical place offers a strenuous environment. First, you need to read a lot of literature on shamanism, some from shamans, but also the anthropological literature to get a broader understanding of shamanism. Then, comes the practical work. As in SM, you’ve got to have real, practical experience. You can’t do either just by reading books. It may be best to apprentice self to a shaman.”

Sadie: We’re all familiar with the ascetic concept of Ghandi wandering in the desert, eschewing clothing, food and comfort. I believe that God gave us physical bodies in order to appreciate the sensual aspects of life – i.e. soft clothing, delicious food, warm blankets on a cold Vermont night. Did you mean that I might need to suffer a la Ghandi, or is it more like going to emotional and spiritual places that may be uncomfortable? Is suffering necessary? Is not the spiritual path within?

Stuart: “It’s not necessarily uncomfortable, but that we experience something intense, which can be either pleasurable or uncomfortable, to create internal change. You MUST have something to knock you out of the mundane. The sensual is also a good way to do this. That’s why I’m pro sex as a path to spirituality.”

Sadie: You write that, “Sex energies can be rechanneled in many ways to create unique experiences that will be as individual as the persons experiencing them. This is Sex Magic.” What are some of the practical techniques you use to bring Sex Magic into your scenes?

Stuart: “SM itself is Sex Magic. I think the drive underlying it is primarily erotic. We SM practitioners do so much more than sex and we work with sex to heighten and prolong its energies and create experiences far beyond a good fuck. So, any technique that does this can be termed ‘Sex Magic,’ whether it’s whipping, CBT, TT, abrasion, bondage, etc. Of course, Tantra and other sexual yogas are also Sex Magic practices.”

Sadie: You write that, “Our bodies are our best toys, and we are not our bodies. Often, S/M has been referred to as an Apollonian way of reaching the Dionysian state – in other words, a controlled, skillful, and thought-out process for reaching the intuitive/ecstatic state, or a left-brain approach to triggering right brain experiences.” I think there’s too many ten cent words in there Stuart. Are you saying that BDSM is a catalyst to bring us into subspace, or some kind of meditative state?

Stuart: “I like ten cent words, even some dollar ones; I have Champagne tastes (grin). There’s a good reason for that: I prefer precise definitions to communicate clearly. (There’s always a dictionary) Sure, BDSM can bring someone into greater subspace or topspace or even a meditative state, but it can bring us into other states of awareness and understanding of ourselves that are far beyond subspace. I would hope that people come to an SM scene already in subspace or topspace, or how could a scene work? Being in the scene may increase the depth of either space.”

Sadie: You’ve said that “S/M can be considered a sexual yoga.” What do you mean by this?

Stuart: “Yoga is a ritualistic and meditative exercise that is integrative of body and mind. Certain sexual practices, such as Tantra, can be yogas. Tantra is a meditative sexual yoga in which cumming is not a goal, but to direct the sexual energies toward union with god. Yoga means to yoke with God. SM is also ritualistic practice and can be considered a yoga, except that it takes two (or more) to entwine.”

Sadie: You write that, “SM is capable of producing the altered states of consciousness, catharsis and intense psychic bonding between two or more people that makes it a viable shamanic practice.” Is this the particular quality that makes BDSM something that can be a transformative spiritual practice?

Stuart: “Yes, exploring spirituality requires that one experience alternate states of consciousness to break the illusion of the everyday consciousness. The intensity of SM to force one out of the everyday self-consciousness is transformative.”

Sadie: You also wrote that, “Most western practices leading to spiritual enlightenment are ones of physical denial: fasting, asceticism, hermitage, poverty. But an intelligent indulgence of sex is just as valid. Building up an erotic charge and keeping it without release is one of the great spiritual secrets concerned with personal power. For sexual energy does produce changes in consciousness and body chemistry, and when directed in specific practices, such as S/M, it becomes more than just a good fuck.” This resonated with me because of my own interest in chastity. Are you referring here to simply not orgasming as much or something else? What are some of the practices you use to build up and keep your own erotic charge?

Stuart: “SM practices usually take a longer time than a quick fuck. Most of us don’t want to cum quickly or the driving energy underlying the scene would be lost. We want the scene to last. There’s a build up of tension/energy and letting it plateau or subside a bit, then building it up a bit more to a higher level than before. The particular practices I think are the preferences of the individual practitioners – what works for them. My own interests and practices are fairly diverse and depend on the person I’m with. Many SMers don’t care to orgasm in the scene, but possibly afterward. Sometimes scenes go so far beyond genital sexual stimulation that orgasm is irrelevant.”

Sadie: According to one of your articles, shamans are “often identified in childhood by their proclivities: sensitivity, artistic, empathic. They are often gay or bisexual.” It makes sense that the artistic temperament might be more spiritually minded, but what does one’s sexual orientation have to do with it?

Stuart: “It may be somewhat of a cultural thing, meaning learned rather than inherent, but if that’s so, why were so many shamans of isolated, so-called ‘primitive’ tribes of alternative sexualities? Shamans were usually strange children, having some gift of the gods of alternate perceptions and behaviors. Those were often linked with bi and homosexuality.”

Sadie: You also say that, “I can’t accept the assimilationist views of many of my brothers and sisters… Anthropological research has shown that the majority of shamans from diverse cultures have been homosexual or bisexual… We are different because of an inborn androgynous balance, a sensibility and perceptiveness.” In a similar question, what does androgyny have to do with a greater perception of God? What do you mean by assimilationist views?

Stuart: “I’m not sure that androgyny gives a greater perception of god, but it does give one different perceptions from the mainstream. Most of the wider gay community today wants to be just like their straight neighbors except what they do in bed and buys into the consumerist ideology. I don’t. I think gays are a different people, not better or worse, but different and those differences should be celebrated for the richness they bring to society.

“The original gay movement wanted to free society of its sexual repressions – a radical change. As far as I’m concerned, it has fallen from grace.”

Sadie: You’ve been very active in the gay movement for many years. Can you give me a snapshot of what kind of work you are most interested in, and involved in right now?

Stuart: “My work is primarily spiritual and cultural. I want to alter perceptions and lead all people to see other possible ways of being and living. Especially, I’d like to free sexuality from the restrictive and poisonous views of Western culture.”

Sadie: You were trained by an “Old Garde Master.” As you know, there’s quite a bit of discussion about what the old guard is, and is not. How would you describe your training?

Stuart: “The Old Garde is a myth, but an important myth based in truths. It was not the monolithic conception that many people think. There were distinct variations of behavior and beliefs all over the country in the early days of the leather subculture. My training was not as a slave, but as a free bottom by agreement bound to a top who was old enough to be my father to train me in the arts of SM. I needed experience. He gave it to me, lovingly and with discipline, and I had to obey him to get that, although it wasn’t always easy because it conflicted with some of my beliefs and upbringing. Those preconceptions had to be broken. I’m glad I did. For many years I’ve been able to pass that knowledge on to others.”

Sadie: What beliefs were your training in conflict with? How did you resolve the conflict?

Stuart: “Being a countercultural person and inherently antiauthoritarian, my beliefs at that time allowed me to obey no one and to refrain from calling anyone ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. I’m still extremely antiauthoritarian, but now I know the difference between real authority that need not demand obedience and the all too common false authoritarians who can’t even control themselves so they want to rule others. I learned that it was my decision to obey or not. There was no coercion. Any pain or hardship was my choice and it taught me that good can come from them. That is the most important difference in consensual SM that separates it from violence.”

Sadie: You actually describe yourself as “middle guard,” when it comes to BDSM, saying that “Not all of the Old Garde tradition is good for our time, for example, that one was either a top or a bottom and couldn’t switch roles, some of it was regional or personality based and downright silly.” I can imagine some of the old guard hard liners cringing at those words. Considering that so many of the people who claim that they are old guard have such chips on their shoulders about keeping it unsullied, how did you come to this modified approach?

Stuart: “The modified approach comes from observation of all the differences and the contradictions of the many ‘One True Way’ (TM). No one has an exclusive handle on how leatherfolk should behave and believe, and new ideas should be welcome, tested, perhaps adopted. We don’t want to be stuck in the past or with any one individual’s particular, exclusive concept of how leather/SM should be.”

Sadie: You make your own BDSM toys, and in fact spend a fair bit of time in this pursuit. What does this add to your overall experience?

Stuart: “The toys are mine. I’ve put the labor of love, design, building and testing (Oh yes, the testing!) into them. They are built to enhance my particular fetishes, always a good thing. I know how they will work and can take pride in them.”

Sadie: One friend told me that I am a shaman through my writing, meaning that through this gift I validate and help others on their own BDSM and spiritual paths. Considering that you’ve broadened the concept of traditional shamanism to include your own “cybershamanism,” what do you think of using the word broadly to include other kinds of ways of helping people across to spiritual places?

Stuart: “One can practice shaman through writing. I do. But do you challenge others and facilitate changes? Are you pushy in wise ways? Shamans are shamelessly manipulative because they may be able to see what needs to be done to facilitate changes whether the subject likes it or not.”

Sadie: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Stuart: “I’m always available for a chat or consultation. I love teaching and helping others to realize their potentials.”

Sadie: Thank you for chatting with me!

Stuart: “You’re welcome!

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