Hale, Bergstedt, and Gender Performativity within SM Subcultures

An Analysis of C. Jacob Hale’s ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies’

Written for a coursework essay for a sexual history paper (History 102) at Auckland University in June 2014.

In ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies’, originally published in a 1997 issue of Social Text, C. Jacob Hale outlines specific gender performativities in specific SM contexts, and ways performances in these contexts can be used by assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) transgender people, specifically trans men, to explore masculinity in a way that contributes to their transition.

Hale is writing primarily from and about his own personal experiences as a trans man who transitioned from leatherdyke to leatherfag – he is able to bring a kind of subjectivity which is important and common in queer theory, as Stephen Whittle once pointed out.[1] However, Hale also references an interview with another trans man who went through a similar process, Spencer Bergstedt, along with academic references to Rubin and Garfinkel throughout the text.

Inherent to this function of gender performances and play in SM contexts as a way to explore masculinity is the distinctive blurring of gender across social and cultural contexts and situations. Gender and its construction often rely on performance (though this is perhaps a contested point). Hale points out that “since leatherdyke boys’ masculine performativities often occur in contexts separate from interactions with” others in all other realms of their life – work, legal family, et cetera, they are less constricted by social and cultural expectations and constrictions of masculinity.[2] They are not as impacted by intersections of class, power, race, et cetera. In fact, the queer SM leather context is distinct enough from the dominant culture to be considered a culture of its own, with its own constructions and expectations. It is this factor that allows genderplay within this context to be not only possible, but effective enough to potentially construct a self-identity which can be accepted, developed, and extended beyond this sphere by the transgender individual.

Hale relates three ways he sees in leather SM play to explore masculinity: “the conception of submission, especially to pain, as the most masculine SM position,”[3] exploring masculine dominance more fully and thoroughly than is otherwise possible in alternative aspects to one’s life, and through the exploration of boyhoods not present in the lives of those who lived through female pubescent development. Bergstedt exemplifies the second method, as he had trouble expressing masculine dominance in other aspects of his life – while serving on the Seattle City Commission on Lesbians and Gays, and still identifying as a dyke, Bergstedt encountered resistance from women on the way he expressed leadership – “the way I was expressing my dominance and my personality was inappropriate for the gender role that those people perceived me to be in.”[4] Hale himself exemplifies the third example, and describes his transition from curiosity to play as a leatherboy to internalising a masculine self-constructed identity – for him, “SM as gender technology allowed me to experiment with masculinities as part of a process of self-construction in which I became more masculine, in embodiment, in self-presentation, and in identification.”[5] This is in opposition to Bergstedt’s experience, in which his SM play allowed him to explore a pre-existing identity.

However there are critiques of such play and exploration. Seeing as gender performativity “must occur within social constraints to be intelligible,”[6] it often relies on constraints and ideals that are viewed by others as negative. For example, though Hale makes explicit note of the fact that in his interview with him, Bergstedt is “aware that dominance can be feminine and did not simply equate masculinity with dominance,”[7] in a later article for the journal FORGE, Bergstedt himself equated femininity with weakness and expressing emotion (and avoided doing to so prevent damage to his own masculinity).[8] In relating the way his attitudes to sex also changed, Bergstedt implies a sort of inherent masculine demand and dominance, almost a greed.[9]This is, however, a heavily contested issue, seeing as societal – and often medical and psychological – expectations of transgender people is that their outward expression match their internal gender identity, while at the same time much of queer theory, gender critics, and feminist theory heavily criticises us for relying on constructed stereotypes and signifiers to do so.

While genderplay within leather SM contexts often relies on masculine-coded clothing such as Boy Scout or school uniforms, it also utilises less reliant, more subversive techniques such as the remapping and resignifying of sexed bodily zones found in trans contexts. Such remapping often involves decoupling “genital sexuality from bodily pleasures”[10] and phenomenology. A leatherdaddy’s dildo or strapon becomes his penis, a leatherboy’s vagina can be remapped and called neutral terms like “fuckhole”. A similar phenomenon is found in Bergstedt’s FORGE article – prior to transition he was a stone butch – that is, a top butch who has an aversion to her genitalia being touched. He relates this to us: “I could not stand the caresses of another on my breasts or worse yet, my genitals.”[11] However, after transition (it is important to note that nowhere in the piece does he make reference to bottom surgery, and he relates a concern that sex with femme women would look like lesbian play – both of these indicate to me that he, at least at this point, has not had bottom surgery and retains the genitalia he had while identifying as a stone butch) he discovers “that I really did like being touched, so long as my partners saw me and treated me as a man.”[12] This is an extremely important point, and links to something Hale relates to us: “I needed to know that my gender identification could be enacted legibly to at least one other person for it to be convincing enough to me that it could transform from a self-identification fully contained within my fantasy structure to a self-identification with a broader social sphere of enactment.”[13]

By having their gender identities validated within a sexual context, both Hale and Bergstedt were able to take that identity from that small isolated sphere and transfer and project it across to other aspects of their lives. To both, their experiences as leatherdykes and the freedom to experiment and explore within a safe and accepting context and community was integral to their transition.

 

 

[1] Whittle, S., ‘Gender Fucking or Fucking Gender?’, in R. Elkins and D. King, eds, Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-Dressing and Sex-Changing, London, 1996, pp.198-202

[2] Hale, C.J, ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies: How to have Sex without Women or Men’, in K.M. Philips and B. Reay, eds, Sexualities in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, p.423

[3] Ibid, p.424

[4] Ibid, p.425

[5] Ibid, p.426

[6] Ibid, p.423

[7] Ibid, p.45

[8] Bergstedt, S., ‘Diary of a Leatherman’, FORGE, 5, 4, 2000, p.16

[9] Ibid

[10] Hale, p.427

[11] Bergstedt, p.16

[12] Ibid

[13] Hale, p.427

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