This past weekend I attended International Mr. Leather, one of the biggest leather and fetish events in the world, held every year in downtown Chicago. I was in attendance both as a member of the media and as curious spectator. IML had granted me media passes for Full Disclosure, the sex-positive podcast I host, meaning I was granted a lot "behind the scenes" access to events.
If you've never been to IML, it's a four-day long event that features kink-friendly parties and social gatherings, culminating in a beauty pageant-esque competition of leather title holders from across the world to be International Mr. Leather.
Much like the leather community in general, IML is overwhelmingly represented by gay males. While leather fetishes are by no means exclusive to gay men, the amount of women I encountered at the event could more or less be counted on two hands, as compared to the thousands of men I saw.
But the more time that I spent at the event, the more I had to question whether or not the ratio of men to women I saw was truly representative of those within the leather community, or whether or not there was some sort of institutionalized segregation of women.
The majority of the events at IML were headquartered at the Marriot's downtown Chicago location. Security was positioned at every entrance to the hotel along with signs that warned any passerby that the hotel was closed for a private event. As many of us stepped outside during the weekend to use our cellphones, at no point did I ever see security stop a man, be he dressed in a leather harness, t-shirt or peacoat.
But I did very clearly see security stop a woman, admonishing her that this was a private adult event taking place.
"Yeah, I know. That's exactly what I'm here for," she replied.
Most of the debauchery doesn't take place at the IML-sponsored events, but rather in the private hotel rooms of guests at the Marriot. While some of the parties I was invited to were private, closed-door events, others literally had an open door policy, allowing people to wander in and out of the room freely.
I was with my female friend at the time when we were invited to one such party on the 46th floor (the top floor) in a massive suite. Upon entering we found encompassed in near complete darkness, illuminated only by the glow of the city night's lights which the room overlooked. It was also exceptionally humid -- I'd estimate there were about 150 bodies crammed into the suite, doing pretty much everything your imagination will let you.
But despite the relative anonymity that darkness afforded, it only took five minutes before my friend was asked to leave.
"You can't be here. You're a woman," she was told.
My friend is a naturally shy and reserved person who's recently expressed an interest in the kink and BDSM community. While IML seemed like an opportune time to explore these interests, she was nervous about doing so -- intimidation, internal struggle and fear of rejection are frequent barriers when it comes to people openly exploring their own sexuality.
I stepped in, approaching the man who was kicking her out. It was unclear whether this man was the actual tenant of the suite or one of the hundred-plus strangers who had entered into the room and felt threatened by the presence of a woman.
"She's not causing any trouble. She's with me," I said.
"This is a party for men. Women aren't allowed," he retorted.
"We'll leave. But I'm just curious -- how do you define a man?"
"Someone who's obviously a man."
"What about gender queer people? What about trans people? What about femme men?"
"This isn't a party for trans people or anything in between, it's a party for men."
As we left, several men inside the room apologized on behalf of the man who had kicked her out, and several outside the room refused to go in as a result of it. It was clear that in this particular instance, the presence of my female friend was not upsetting to most of the men who noticed her. Still, it was a private party, and if the tenant of the suite didn't want a guest in their room they had every right to ask someone to leave.
But a conflict exists in the leather scene and within the LGBT community as a whole: How do groups that have traditionally been marginalized create a safe-space for themselves without simultaneously enacting the same exclusionary policies they've been fighting against?
The man who kicked my friend out of the party said that only people who were "obviously men" were allowed inside. How was he defining what makes an "obvious man" and how was he planning to enforce it? Was he proposing a gender police that went around examining the genitals of the attendees? As our country is making phenomenal strides in the fight for LGBT rights and understanding of queer identity, to proceed with a policy of stringent gender binary seems exceptionally dangerous.
"Misogyny is a real part of the gay community, and it's really exemplified within the gay leather community. It's always been a problem for those of us who don't adhere to binary sexual orientation dichotomies," said queer-identifying dominatrix Miss Erin Black.
Black goes on, "In male culture as a whole, if you're not worthy of being fucked, you're not worthy of much."
It's a conflict that's rearing its head more and more as the fight for LGBT inclusion progresses. Most queer individuals have spent their entire lives trying to assimilate to heteronormative culture. What happens when suddenly a queer individual has straight friends that are willing to accompany them to a gay bar for a change? Are queer people "allowed" to socialize with their straight ally friends?
We are at a pivotal moment in history in the struggle for equal representation and protection under the law. It's a time when unity, inclusion, and understanding are paramount.
"I believe anyone is allowed to define the terms of their gatherings in any way they want. But those terms aren't immune to critique. What makes a space safe for one person may make it unsafe for another. In defining 'safe space' we must get crystal clear on what defines safety and for whom," said feminist author and queer-identifying sex educator Allison Moon.
What happens to my friend who was kicked out of the party? What message does it send to potential allies both outside and within the LGBT community that your place within that community is directly related to your gender, sexuality, or what's between your legs?
Right now we need people like my friend.
Moon continues, "Solidarity isn't about genitals, it's about how we move through the world, how we experience discrimination, and how we support one another."
For more from Eric Barry, follow him on Twitter or Facebook, and be sure to listen to the Full Disclosure sex podcast. This week's episode features IML 2013 winner Andy Cross, International Mr. Leather and bad rap lyrics.