Used by permission from Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by T Fleischmann.
I rent an apartment with my partner Jackson, a couple’s home after we’d each spent the past decade in anarchist collectives and punk houses. The apartment is in the furthest north neighborhood of Chicago, Rogers Park. One block away from us is the Leather Museum and Archives, and a couple more short blocks is my favorite leather bar, which is next to another leather bar I’ve never been inside. I guess it’s a leather neighborhood? To go toward them I walk down the alley a block from my house, which is a grocery store alley. Sometimes people shoot up in the alley, and I carry Narcan with my keys. Our apartment is in a courtyard building, with a stone gate with decorative stones at the top that look like butt plugs, and our building management company is called S&M. Down the road is our friend Vicente and then just a little more down the road in different directions are some other friends. Vicente is a performance artist and when I talk to him about this one question I’ve been asking lately, “Why aren’t we supposed to be next to each other?” he makes in response a performance where he fists a leather daddy in a gallery with the lyric “You make me feel mighty real” looping from the song. The grocery store next to us has a sign outside that says, “Everyone Is Welcome Here.” Jackson and I have the front unit in our apartment building. The sun comes through all the windows at different times of day, and sometimes on a Sunday he and I make a large brunch with vegan options and muffins like it’s the early 2000s again, and people come and go.
Inside the apartment Jackson and I have sex like my body is taller than his but his body is stronger than mine. And then we have sex like our thighs touch. The kind of sex we have in the apartment is on the couch, kissing, after the last time we had sex was also on the couch, but we didn’t kiss much that time. Jackson uses his hands to rub my shoulders and I use my hands to rub his shoulders, also his feet. When we have sex I look at my ribs, and when we have sex his mouth is open. He uses his fingers to pull on his nipples, and I grab his tits, and when we have sex his hands go from a part of my body that is closer to my feet up toward the middle part of my body. Inside of our apartment sometimes we come. There are sometimes other people there and Jackson turns so that I am behind him and our bodies each have two points where they bend at an angle. I was scared that I didn’t know, actually, how to have sex with the same person all the time when that person is always there, but Jackson and I keep having sex, and it turns out I do know how to do that.
Inside the leather bar there is almost never anyone until very late. In a row on the street outside there is my favorite taqueria, the leather bar I love, a fetish store, that other leather bar, a police station, and then the health center where I get my hormones and stitreatments and all that. Inside the bar it’s quiet, often just me and whoever I go with, and then at the bar a few regulars who I sometimes kind of talk to, and the bartender who is always kind. I really like him. “No more bitters in the soda anymore; it’s too much for me now,” I had to say to him one day, after I developed an insensitivity to alcohol from long-term use of testosterone blockers. Before midnight or so, the only people who pass through the back of the bar are people going to fuck or do drugs in the bathroom. The pool table is next to that bathroom, the green fabric of which is loose, and cues that feel hollow and like a hard thing inside of them is loose, too. Also they are all bent. On a back porch and around a little corner into the alley I sometimes take someone to fuck. I press my hand against a brick wall when I do and there is one light. It’s always like I might get caught. If someone came outside, he might say, “Hey, go in the dungeon if you want to fuck.”
I don’t really play with my trauma in sex, just sometimes with control a little bit. I understand that people all the time use sex to engage their trauma, and this is good for them, but I’ve never been drawn to process like that. I did convince myself that I should, though, for a while, like how I thought I had to bottom for years. I really believed I would fail my radical queer ethics if I didn’t shove stuff up my butt. No one actually told me this or pressured me but I believed it anyway, and it was all my choice, which I got from somewhere else. So I leave my own, personal traumas off the table, and I never developed any real kinks, but my formative years in queerness gave me relatively stable, safe opportunities to try out all kinds of freaky sex shit anyway. I was always curious, and eager, and down for everyone else’s perversions. Like I would never have shoved a needle in someone recreationally except that I found myself spending a lot of time with some people who shoved needles into each other recreationally. And although no kinks or real fetishes ever did take hold, I sometimes felt new desires shaping themselves out of my experiences, the roaming that also accustomed me to sometimes having unpleasant, painful, or psychologically convoluted sex. A foot up a friend’s ass, or face-fucking someone in a kiddie pool filled with piss, electrocuting and punching and getting beat, none of which is really my thing—so what, a bad blow job, or some stranger trying to fuck me up out of nowhere, I was prepared for it.
Fun and pleasure are productive places to start building resilience, which is good because the work of resisting should feel good when it can. I don’t think it’s coincidence, this horrible placement of the police station among the leather bars. The Chicago police are murderous; they are trauma, white supremacy, death. I know enough about corruption in this city, and gay bars and police and money everywhere I’ve lived, that I assume some man is giving some other man something here. That they meet up sometimes, and they give each other what they want, and that this is why the bar can stay open until sunrise, crime and sin flowing. This is probably a continuation, years of this collective agreement redefining itself, that began in a time with slightly different laws and codes, different bars and men. I don’t think there’s some deep conspiracy between the leather daddies and the cops, just that they’re certainly not distinct groups, not entirely, and a shared aesthetic can be a fucked up thing.
The basement of the bar, where you’re supposed to fuck, does look just like the alley. It’s called the Hole and there’s another bar down there, but they don’t even open it until eleven or twelve, when I’m already asleep. Only rarely because of drugs or a party I stay up late enough, and when I do I stand in the middle of the room and I am surrounded by gay dudes and I try to will myself to want to gorge like I used to but it’s really just not there anymore. Whatever my first desire was, the one that drove me bursting away from what I knew, toward blow jobs and drag queens and something different, that one is gone and now other desires are there instead. The desire for a transsexual orgy and then a nap. The desire for someone who already knows how to have sex with me right. The desire to not have to talk about it actually. The desire I’m working with now is a thing that I shaped, rather than an inchoate mess, a clumsy what. When I fuck in the Hole I top but I’m not a daddy or a Sir or a boss lady. My desire is about what I’m doing, and what the other person is doing, and we’re really not doing a lot, just fucking.
But a lot to do. The leather world in Chicago is, like most of the leather world, good at sometimes activating their community into political and charitable action. The Leather Archives are filled with stories of this, and of course meticulous documentation of organizational finances, which has something to do with doming capitalism, I think. The archives, in their documentation of organizations and community leaders, include important information like Where did the money go? Who was present and who was in a leadership position? How much cash was raised by this fund-raiser, how much of that cash went to provide services for people living with aids, and how much of it went to fight domestic violence in gay communities? Mostly, who got what? This kind of thing tells you a lot—who got what—which is why it should be written down and everyone should know it. Open accounting is a power play too, I guess.
Although saying the right political thing and giving some money, that can just be part of the pageant so no one knows how awful you are. Like a leather daddy Jackson meets, a community leader, who was a torture expert for the United States military during the Vietnam War before shifting into what, a similar costume? A similar power position? Whatever the horrors of the United States should be called, they never lack for disguises, new ways to hide in plain sight. Sometimes the people saying the right things, leading the community, and giving a little money to someone who needs it, they can be the last ones you should trust.
Thursdays the museum is free, which would be a nice way of approaching it, except that the building is not wheelchair accessible, so it’s actually bullshit. I attend on some of those Thursdays, take the alley and go into its basement. There I sit in an armchair and read magazines, part of the exhibit on women and leather and, on the other side of a floating wall, trans people and leather. On display is the one-year anniversary issue ofOn Our Backs, the pro-sex lesbian magazine started in 1984, the year after I was born. It is easy to imagine myself into this world. The photographer Honey Lee Cottrell reflects on being featured as the first centerfold in the magazine a year earlier. “Bulldagger Self-portrait,” she begins the column, a reflection on her body. “I wonder about butches and nudity as well about aging and nudity. Would you think butches would be more or less willing than femmes to take their clothes off publicly?” She writes about fearing her accumulating experience, “like being permanently bitter over the losses suffered in broken relationships.” Alongside is the photo, short hair and an open dress shirt and that look, kind of leaned forward and cocky—if you know that look you know that look. She imagines straight men looking at the photo and getting turned on, and wonders if that would make a guy queer. The Q&A says the she was born not far from where I was born but in 1946. I google to see if there is a copy of the magazine online I can access but only find an article questioning the ethics of reproducing the magazine, taking it from its original and more secretive context and making it available to everyone, so instead I take pictures of it with my phone. A few pages before “Bulldagger Self-Portrait” there is a review of a porn film in which a butch person packs a meat sausage from the fridge and runs around the city as a gay man, as well as an advertisement for a store with “X-rated videos for lesbians,” World of Video, in Manhattan.
The letters and the personals are beautifully inconsistent, no dominant experience or politics emerging, just some related and incompatible ones. People canceling because of the S&M content, people praising the S&M, people reporting back that everyone at MichFest is trash-talking the magazine. It’s all people who know what they want, regardless. “I like menstrual sex, dildos, and fisting. Especially love anal sex. Attracted to virgins, women who do not shave, small tits, and bodybuilders,” says one woman. “In heat if you’re butch enough to sweep me off my feet—.” Another, “Rhinestones are truly you and I know exactly where they should be placed.” There are a lot of ads from Chicago and many of them say “no butches.” One particularly femme ad ends, “Must accept heterosexuality.”
There is a series of photographs of swollen clits, “The Family Pearl,” and an instructional breakdown of biological tissue: “Our new definition of the clitoris helps to explain and validate all women’s sexual experiences,” which is kind of true—there’s a way to squint at its gender language that I like, the word “penis” repeated across the article, a diagram of genitalia that dissolves some binary distinctions. Also inside is a photo series by Cottrell, of “Rachael and Elexis,” with Rachael being the first Ms. Leather in 1981, and the first black person to win a national leather title in the United States. The photos close with Rachael and Elexis catching out of a train yard, matching butch and hard-femme leather outfits, an anarchist Aspray-painted on a car behind them. “Desperate Caboose. Lady of the Eighties seeks bad butch for fast action on the tracks. Coast-bound train leaves tomorrow. Be there . . .”
Behind the magazines, on the lesbian-themed wall, there’s a flyer for “Powersurge 1992,” an all-women S&M conference, and a little informative placard that explains the group was torn apart internally with arguments over their policy, which stated, “You must be able to slam your dick in a drawer and walk away without causing great physical harm to yourself.” Next to it is a flyer with the number and address of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, with a drawing of five dykes on it. Four of them look just like different people I know, all guys. On the other side of the wall there is a celebration of Tyler McCormick, the first trans man and the first person using a wheelchair to win the International Mr. Leather title, in 2010. There’s a nice picture of him, at the top of the wall, sexy in a white t-shirt, and he’s celebratory. “It is true that I am trans and I have been well received by other trans people but the core of my identity is as a gay leather man,” he said in an interview after the win. There’s also a boot-blacking station nearby with a looping video so every now and then I hear some daddy, lacing up a boot, joke that “I can’t find the hole. That’s never happened to me, ha ha.”
This is not about inclusion, I don’t think, or representation. One night at the leather bar, events are already happening as Vicente and I leave kind of late, and a guy on the stage is drunk: “You all know about the incident,” he begins and picks up after a pause to summarize his take on whatever the incident was. “But I think every person should be part of our leather community, whatever her gender.” Inclusion is sometimes just more people performing labor to hold up the bullshit. I care more about detailed and welcoming instructions to explore anal sex, which are laid out in one of the dyke magazines, or S&M brunches where everyone brings money for a prisoner support group. Like remembering that Chicago is first and foremost a city of movement work, and that everyone here lives in the legacy of the Black Panthers, of the Rainbow Coalition Fred Hampton established. What people do, who has and had what, what they say about themselves—all of that mattering, including who is there.
Anyway, I try not to be scared of violence. It’s ceaseless and unavoidable, and you don’t want to be scared of something that you’ll probably need to use to save yourself. Being scared is no way to live. A lot better, I think, is to remind myself that I’m a fucking badass, and to summon the full power of my imagination, which proves the world malleable, and that the better world is possible. That there shouldn’t be a police station at all, not there or anywhere else, and if we all came together we could in fact get rid of it. I guess every time I fuck and I’m happy and I do what I want I would like to call that an anti-state action. The people I love and I alive—yes, we weaken the state. But also every time after I have felt pleasure and played pool with a bunch of transsexuals and smoked weed and then eaten a taco and gone home, when my body is at its best, then I need to set myself to contributing to the coalition, which is already underway, which has kept me alive, the work of liberation being one of the ceaseless things. That’s what I think about, mainly, in the basement of the Leather Archive, surrounded by people yelling about dicks, or outside, on the street again.
And I do my best to join that work as a person who has taken the time to heal, because you help other people better once you’ve helped yourself. This is back in the apartment, Jackson teaching me to put my feet flat on the ground and to breathe and to identify where my strength is inside of me. Healing includes talking and crying, until I feel like I understand what has happened and what it means to me, and sometimes I talk about things from a long time ago, and sometimes from now. Jackson draws from his practice as a body worker, and sometimes I sit and I think of all the people who have survived who I did not think were going to survive, and then I think of myself alive. Some nights we gather all the houseplants and put them in the bathroom, then we run the shower all the way up to get everything steamy and light candles, and then we run a hot bath and sit in it together, what Jackson calls a Jurassic Sauna. And after that I eat some homemade kraut out of a stone crock, and then I’m ready to be a person doing something in the world again, and doing it with someone else.
T Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay. A nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and contributing editor at Essay Daily, they have published critical and creative work in journals such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, and others, as well as in the anthologies Bending Genre, How We Speak to One Another, Little Boxes, and Feminisms in Motion.