Tips For Building Community in Your Leather Community or Club

By Connie Cox, Defenders NY, and Ron Meshanko, MOD DC

Learn the skills necessary for facilitating communication within your leather group; revitalizing your club to create new solutions; overcoming obstacles to working together; making consensual decisions; accomplishing specific tasks; and achieving realistic goals.

'It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is. " (Hermann Hesse)

What is Leather Community?

A leather community is a collective of leatherfolk who have fallen in love with each other as brothers and sisters. We not only respect each other as ourselves, but have great joy and a sense of being fulfilled in each other's presence. We have a collective experience of falling in love with each other en masse, as a group of leatherfolk. Leather community isn't so much about fulfilling a mission or completing tasks, nor responding to crises or issues. It is about the collective of leatherfolk who share the common experience of falling in love with each other unconditionally. The members of a leather group who have achieved genuine community delight in themselves as a collective. They know they share something together and have collectively discovered something of great value. The "spirit" of community, which is love, pure and simple, cannot be forced, or controlled by any individual. It cannot be captured, cannot be replicated, but only called forth from the group of gathered members.

Group sexuality is unleashed where leatherfolk love each other collectively and the spirit of community is present. That is why each community needs to be a safe space where the members can freely communicate with each other, reveal their innermost selves, and stand naked before the gathered members. You have probably experienced "phila" or brother-love most intensely during a group SM scene or ritual, or perhaps your initiation. Phila is the pre-condition, the cause and the affect of our group rituals and SM work together, as well as our times together outside the dungeon or the ritual circle. Each community is a safe space because you can be yourself! We trust that our brothers and sisters will not try to heal or convert us, to "fix" us and change us to fit some pre-determined mold. As brothers and sisters in leather, we can cry in front of each other, we can express our hurt and anger, we can communicate freely and be our true selves knowing that our brothers and sisters will accept us just as we are.A mold or template does not exist, for each community creates the definition of WHAT it means to be a member of your leather group. Sure, your leather group might have finely woven philosophies about the meaning of commitment, discipline, unity and membership in your leather group, but these are merely guideposts. The leather group determines, here and now, what it means to belong to this community every time it meets, for Community is fluid, just as the spirit of community, PHILA, is ethereal and fluid.

In community building, we learn the skills necessary for effective communication appreciate and respect differences revitalize to create new solutions locate resources and knowledge within the group overcome obstacles to working together effectively make remarkably effective consensual decisions accomplish specific tasks or goals, and experience personal and group empowerment.

Some Questions:

1) What are the major experiences of community for you in your leather group or organization?

2) Are you truly yourself when you are with the members of your leather group? Do you hide your desires and real needs so you can "fit in" and "be like everyone else"? Are you honest in your communications with each member and at every meeting?

3) Do you feel safe at your group's functions? If not, why? What needs to change to help you feel safe to be yourself?

4) What is your experience of group sexuality in your leather group? Do you feel sexual with the members? Can you be intimate with the members?

 

How To Create Community in Leather Groups

 

Community and communication come from the same ancient word "communis" for the principles of community are the same as the principles of good communication. As leatherfolk and perhaps, SM players, we all the need to communicate honestly with each other. We have to be comfortable enough to remove our masks and personas in each others presence and be our selves.As members of the leather tribe, that is know for attracting "rebellious spirits" and people who "live and play on the edge," this can seem like a daunting task, particularly when some leatherfolk equate leathersex as "rugged individualism", "marching to the beat of a different drum", competitiveness, power exchange, and a focus on hedonistic pleasures of the flesh. The leather tribe, particularly the "Old Guard", does not have a stellar history in stressing interdependence, sharing, common weaknesses or a focus on "us." How can your leather group appreciate each member as an individual and evoke an understanding that we cannot be truly ourselves, truly leather men and women, truly individuals, until we are able to share freely the things we have most in common: our weaknesses, our brokenenness, our incompleteness, our lack of self-sufficiency, our lack of wholeness, our sense of inadequacy? Military bootcamp and religious formation programs "break" a person to reveal these sides of ourselves that we like to keep hidden under our masks and personas. These formation programs stress "team-building" and interdependence. Leather groups that desire to promote a spirit of community and foster greater community within the leather tribe, must do the same in the formation of new members IF there is truly the desire to foster the spirit of community. Leather groups must develop rituals to keep the same spirit of interdependence alive among all the members in the communal group. In the past, leather runs were envisioned as the annual reunion of all the members of that leather community to keep the spirit of community enkindled. See Tips on How To Keep Members. Leather groups are formed when a group of members declare themselves to be a communal group and sometimes incorporate or register as unincorparated associations. This is the legal mechanism that gives status to what should already exist, that is, phila, or the spirit of community. What needs to transpire between a group of leathermen/leatherwomen who want to declare themselves a community? How does your leather group facilitate the creation of this spirit of community?

The Stages of Community Building

Every leather groups will experience a cycle of six stages in its development, from the initial gathering of the charter members and the founding of the club, community , group or organization, through community maintenance. The path to getting there is difficult and each member must accept that he will have to walk through the chaos and emptiness of storming before enjoying the fruits of true community .

1. Gathering

The genesis of communities is usually through crisis, accident or design. Alcoholics Anonymous forms "communities" throughout the nation around the crises facing alcoholics who attend the 12 Step Meetings. Other people come to together and form community to respond to a crisis facing them as a collective, which is easily seen in war-time or times of natural disaster. Everyone seems to work together to respond to the crisis and true community is formed. People go outside of themselves to respond to the need and "feel" part of community and have a sense of "belonging" to a group. However, once the crisis is over, usually the spirit of community fizzles out. Communities form by accident when a group of people coalesce into a collective usually around shared interests and associations. I started a community by accident before forming the Men of Discipline DC that we called the "House of Limoges". Communities are formed by design when a group of persons choose to enter into a collective, as is the case with the Men of Discipline. Men choose to enter MOD because they want to experience community with gay male BDSM players in a military-style setting. This doesn't happen by accident, for we recruit men to join our ranks, nor do we form around a crisis. A leather group creates community by going through the following steps.

2. Pseudo-Community

Pseudo-Community is just what it sounds like: fake community . The members all want to appear agreeable and happy, and avoid disagreements and confrontation. Instead of stating how we really feel about an issue, we keep it to ourselves because we don't want to rock the boat. Instead of telling a member that a certain behavior annoys us, we try to look the other way and foster "denial" among the ranks. "Pink elephants" are common at leather group functions. Everyone sees this big pink beast, but everyone chooses to ignore it. Instead of sharing who we really are, and revealing the true desires of our hearts and the urgings of our loins, we present ourselves as something else. We lack trust in each other to reveal our innermost selves completely, for each of us fears that our brothers might hurt us in some way.

"They might laugh at me if they really knew what I got into! They're always snickering about SCAT and I really like it! "

"I can't play around them, I don't want to hear them criticizing my technique."

"I'm not in shape enough to play now. I don't feel comfortable."

"I'm afraid I will not be able to take too much pain and nobody will want to play with me."

"They don't understand me."

"I can't play with any of the members, we are too close and I don't feel comfortable having sex with my friends."

You can probably add to the above list of statements that your group's members have made over the years about their lack of participation in events and communal activities. Every statement harkens back to trust and respect for each other. "They" statements are probably the most severe indicators of pseudo-community , for the person is already talking about himself as outside of the community : me against them. PseudoCommunity is conflict-avoiding; true community is conflict-resolving. The pledge or new member formation structure can subvert the fostering of community and conflict-resolving because the pledges do not communicate their true thoughts and feelings, but tell you what they think you want to hear so they can be initiated or get the leather experience they want. Pledges can often feel like they must like or do certain things to "fit-in". Most leather groups don't want clones, but members who enjoy leathersex in community , with each of their special gifts and talents, as well as their bodies, personalities, energies and quirks. The basic pretense of PseudoCommunity is the denial of individual differences. The members pretend to have the same belief in SSC, in the mission and purpose of the leather group, in the current strategic plan, let alone common believes in God, apple pie and motherhood.

In pseudo-community, a group attempts to purchase community cheaply by pretense. It is not an evil, conscious pretense of deliberate black lies. Rather, it is an unconscious, gentle process whereby people who want to be loving attempt to be so by telling little white lies, by withholding some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict. But it is still a pretense. It is an inviting but illegitimate shortcut to nowhere.

The avoidance of "I" statements and speaking in generalities is the major diagnostic indicator for this. The other diagnostic indicator is letting members get away with blanket statements. Instead of stating how we really feel or think, we simply let the blanket statement go by unnoticed to avoid confrontation or the revelation of individual differences. At its worst, we keep a tight lip when the generality or blanket statement is made, and then complain about it later to others, because we were afraid to make a fuss or appear to cause conflict at the more appropriate time. We like the mystique of being a "community", "fraternity", or "close-knit group" and try to perpetuate it even when it is false community or brotherhood. Once individual differences are not only allowed but encouraged to surface, the group immediately moves into the third stage of community building: storming.

Dialogue sets up the conditions of community . In so doing it helps create the safety necessary for a high level of openness and disclosure right from the beginning. This can help give members a reference point for community . While members may still deny having major differences (a hallmark of pseudo-community ), with dialogue they may be able to go very deeply into sensitive issues.

Essential Guidelines For Dialogue:

In community building, there has to be a kind of tension between caring and a terrible dedication to reality.

3. Storming

You might be envisioning storm troopers, and you probably should be! Storming is the group process of falling into the chaos of conflict and confrontation. The comfort of pseudo-community collapses into fighting. Individual differences among the members are right out in the open. Only now, instead of trying to ignore them, the group is trying to obliterate them. Underlying the attempts by members to "heal and convert" each other, is not so much the motive of love as the motive to make everyone normal - and the motive to win, as the members fight over whose norm will prevail. Groups in the storming phase usually attack each other and their leadership. "We wouldn't be fighting like this, if we had effective leadership!" The chaos can easily be circumvented by an authoritarian leader or dictator, who assigns the members specific goals and tasks, but a group led by a dictator is not, and never will be, a community . The group president is not a dictator, but the prime facilitator of community building. The obstacle to building and maintaining community is not structural. It's political. If the group president and officers are not willing to relinquish the structure, even temporarily, or if they have to dominate everything, there's no way you can have community . So the members in the community , particularly the president and officers, have to be willing to temporarily lay aside their role.

Dialogue helps make the inevitable chaos stage seem not so " out-of-control " and fearful. As strongly held differences begin to be felt and disclosed, judgment is suspended, assumptions identified, all views expressed and listened to. As members continue to dialogue their way through this stage, something often shifts: a new alternative may unfold; attitudes toward communal differences that felt irreconcilable begin to dissipate; chaos becomes a source of creativity instead of something to avoid. Fighting is far better than pretending you are not divided!

Emptying

Emptying is the process of suspending rigidly held positions, attitudes and mindsets. In community , emptying is present right from the start and is continually deepened during each communal or communal encounter. Individual members agree from the beginning to suspend rigidly held positions. If they do not, there can be no dialogue. Emptying can also be about healing. Leather groups often find it painful to move on to new ways of operating. For change to take place, the members have to mourn what they are giving up. Dialogue helps by allowing emotions to be shared around the pain of letting old ways die. This speeds the ability of members to move on and assures that difficult emotions are expressed in a timely manner and not allowed to fester. During the emptying process of the Storming phase, members realize that the most common barriers to communication in community building are

Expectations and preconceptions: Most new members have false expectations and preconceptions about your leather group that need to be overturned.

Prejudices: How often have you heard homophobic, heterophobic, misygnositic, racist, and other prejudicial or bigoted comments at your group's meetings?

Strongly held ideologies, theologies and solutions: All of us come from different backgrounds (political, religious, socio-economic) and we must learn humility in emptying ourselves of our strongly held ways of perceiving reality and try wearing our brother's and sister's boots and eyeglasses so we can see the way they see, and walk the journey with them.

The Need to Heal, Convert, Fix or Solve: Most members will try to heal, convert, fix or solve another member's problems, not out of genuine concern or love for the leatherperson, but because they want stability and performance, and don't like seeing their brother or sister in pain, let alone sitting in chaos. The most common motive to heal, convert and fix is to feel good oneself, which is a self-serving and self-centered motivation.

The Need to Control: Members will constantly do things ; manipulations or maneuvers - that will ensure the desired outcome. But the desired outcome - community - cannot be achieved by an authoritarian leader who calls the shots. It must be a creation of the group as a whole, the work of the community . An effective leader must spend most of the time sitting back, doing nothing, waiting, letting it happen. This calls for emptying oneself of personal agendas and opening oneself up to the possibility of failure.

4. Norming

After the community has moved from pseudo-community and through the darkness of storming, and the members have experienced the pain of emptying, the group experiences a little death and is now open to true community . Norming is the stage wherein the members determine the norms for group behavior. How do we communicate with each other? How do we resolve the interplay of leathersex or SM roles with the needs and business of the community ? What is normative for us as members of this particular leather group and members of the greater leather tribe?

Decision making by consensus, while a much longer process, is the most effective way to keep the spirit of community alive. The members in each community must learn to live with disagreements. Each leather group should strive to get agreement on the big picture, then turn to action. Don't exhaust yourself trying to achieve consensus on details. The group should focus on setting the policy and not the details of implementing the plan, which should be left to the CEO (chief executive officer) or the group officers or the person who volunteers or is appointed to spearhead the initiative.

Newly formed leather groups will focus on the norming phase, while established fraternities, clubs, and groups will slide in and out of this phase as necessary. However, each leather group must determine the general rules for setting policy within the group and determining what is normative for each member. Most groups have an original vision and defined mission statement, as well as protocols or group guidelines, which should remain fluid and open to change through the community building process.

5. Performing

Every group has a mission. After the members have built community together, they can start working on fulfilling that mission. A critical part of the art of sustaining community is integration of task and process. Task is working on your mission, and process is working on yourselves as a community. This art requires an enormous amount of practice. Remember, a group never becomes a community and stays in community . Leather groups continually fall out of community , back into chaos or PseudoCommunity . What characterizes a healthy, ongoing, sustained community is the rapidity with which it is able to say, "Hey, we've lost it. We need to go back and work on ourselves." Some groups, like the Men of Discipline and the Defenders, have a highly structured community with a clearly defined mission and philosophy. Again, many leatherfolk are "rebellious spirits" who tend to question authority and structure. Structure and community are not incompatible. To the contrary, they mutually thrive on one another. Actually, the greater the structure in an organization, and the clearer that structure is, the easier it is for it to build community . If a task-oriented leather group that is not well-structured builds itself into community, it will discover, I think, that their very next task is to define roles. Invariably, those roles are going to be in some sort of hierarchy. The purpose of community building is not to get rid of hierarchy or simply to sustain a bureaucracy. Again, part of the art of all this is for the community to learn how to function in a hierarchical and highly structured task-oriented mode, and learn how to function in a communal or group process mode.

It also needs to learn the technology of switching back and forth. The more clearly defined the roles are, the more structured the organization actually is, the easier this switching back and forth becomes. The more blurred the structure, the harder it becomes.

Be aware of the following community building performance obstacles:

6. Maintenance

The tensions between entropic laziness, pulling us back into traditional ways of behaving or well-worn defensive patterns, and that part of our nature that stretches toward the new, better ways of creating things or relationships are omnipresent in community . Because of this tension, community once attained is never obtained for all time. This is particularly true for leather groups who are always inviting new members and associates to join the communal group. The addition of each new member necessitates the recreation of community to incorporate the new member's spirit. Through the ongoing practice of dialogue with each new member and at every meeting, the community learns to renew its vision and purposes for being together and to mindfully surface emerging issues and problems. Because communal dialogue is meant to be an ongoing practice, it is an ideal medium for maintaining a fluid and growing state of community . If the community is able to maintain communal dialogue, the members will become aware of the profound impact their initial assumptions, false expectations and preconceptions had on the results they obtained. They will catch emerging interpersonal issues and problems before they became full-blown personnel " crises. " The members will feel a sense of community within the group, expressed as increased respect, trust, and caring.

Newly formed and maturing leather groups will experience tension most frequently in resolving issues around the following maintenance parameters:

 

 

Tips For Facilitating Community Building

The CEO's (or his delegate's) role is to facilitate group process and community . Good facilitating keeps a meeting on track and moving forward. The more members who learn to facilitate the better. If you accept the role of an officer you must be neutral. You should also try to:

 

 

Community Building Tips For Officers

Good Officers are the key to community building. They do not tell other people what to do, but help others to take charge. They do not grab the limelight, but nudge others into the limelight. They are not interested in being The Leader, but are interested in creating more leaders. They recognize that only by creating more leaders can the community expand.

 

 

 

Commitment to Community Building

Commitment is one of those invisible qualities that people sometimes have it's invisible, but even if you can't see it, you know it is there. You know who is committed to a project - and who it isn't. If you had to pick out the people who are committed to your group, project, or organization, in many cases you could easily do it.

People are committed to a leather group or organization when they act like it is important. They show up, follow through, and stick with it. They often give of themselves even when they feel uncomfortable or when they have to make sacrifices. They care about the goals of the group and they care about the people in the group. Committed leatherfolk hang in there when the going gets tough.

Why do you need to mobilize and sustain commitment?

Commitment is the backbone of every leather group. It is what gives the group, club, fraternity or organization its strength. And why is it so important? Here are four excellent reasons:

The more committed members are, the more effective they are influencing others. Have you ever noticed how a person acts when they are committed to a set of principles or a goal? Their tone of voice, their posture, and their words have the power to move others. People take note when someone speaks or acts with resolve. If a whole group acts with determination and commitment, great numbers of people can really pay attention.

Members who are committed are the ones who don't take discouragement seriously they don't give up. They set an example for those members who don't have the confidence or experience to go through the hard times and hold out for the rewards of success.

Members cooperate at a higher level when they share commitment. Commitment fosters camaraderie, trust, and caring; the stuff each fraternity needs to keep it going for the long run.

If the members are committed to an effort for a period of time, they will learn what they need to know to be more effective. Members need time to try things out, make mistakes, and then figure out a strategy that works.

 

 

Who do you want to commit to your Leather Group?

You want as many committed members as possible. Committed members are the essential ingredient to reaching any goal; they are like gold. The more you have of them, the greater momentum you can generate to get the job done.

As you mobilize members to become involved in group projects, you may not know at the start who will become committed and who won't. Sometimes members will surprise you. There might be a quiet and shy member who tentatively volunteers to stuff envelopes; and who later becomes a dedicated soldier that inspires others to action.

 

 

Tips For Evaluating Community Building

 

 

Tips on Using Consensus in Community Building

 

A consensus process aims at bringing your leather group to mutual agreement by addressing all concerns. It does not require unanimity.

Consensus can take longer than other processes, but fosters creativity, cooperation and commitment to final decisions. Here is a sample outline:

The recorder lists concerns where everyone can see them. The group then tries to resolve the concerns. The presenter has first option to:

 

If concerns remain unresolved and concerned members are unwilling to stand aside, the facilitator asks everyone to examine these concerns in relation to the group's purpose and values. The group may need to go through a special session to examine its purpose or resolve value conflicts.

 

 

The facilitator checks again to see if those with concerns are willing to stand aside or cross off their concerns. If not, the facilitator keeps asking for suggestions to resolve the concerns, until everyone finds the proposal acceptable or stands aside. Often the solution is a "third way", something between either/or, black and white. If time runs out and concerns persist the facilitator may:

 

At the end, the facilitator states the outcome clearly. Consensus will not work properly if concerns come from ego or vested interests, or derive from unstated tensions around authority, rights, personality conflicts, competition or lack of trust.

 

 

Tips on How to Keep Members in Your Leather Group

People join a leather group for various reasons, including, but not limited to, the supportive and safe communal environment for leathersex; the experience of fraternity, sorority or community; to meet other leatherfolk and and increase one's leather network; to have fun, to learn new skills, to pursue their leathersex or SM interests, and to link their lives to some higher purpose. They leave if they don't find what they are looking for. Every leather group needs to ask more often: What benefits do we provide? At what cost to members? How can we increase the benefits and decrease the costs? Here are a some ideas on where to begin. Stay in touch with one another. Regular contact is vital. Face to face is best.

Welcome newcomers. Introduce new members to the group. Consider appointing greeters for large meetings and events. Call new members to personally invite them to events, or to pass on information. Help the men find a place in the group. The most appealing approach is to say, "Tell us the things you like to do and do well and we will find a way to use those talents." Invite new members to assume leadership roles. If the same members run everything, newcomers feel excluded.

Pay attention to group process. Like most volunteer groups , leather groups do not give adequate attention to the members and their communal work together. Decision-making methods are not determined explicitly nor are roles, or healthy behaviors. Some groups might consider making process a topic of discussion by appointing a process watcher. Discuss the group contract. Set aside occasions when members describe what they expect of your leather group and what the group can expect of them in terms of time and responsibilities. This information should become part of membership lists.

Act more, meet less. The great majority of members detest meetings; too many are the Black Death of leather groups. By comparison, activities, educational events, demos, BDSM play and fun group events that reflect the mission and ethos of your leather group are most appropriate. Keep time demands modest. Most members lead busy lives. Don't ask them to come to meetings if they don't need to be there. Keep expanding the number of active members to ensure everyone does a little, and no one does too much. Work out realistic time commitments for projects. Provide social time and activities. Endless work drives members away. Schedule social time at the beginning and end of meetings.

 

 

Select Bibliography:

The Community Tool Box, University of Kansas, 1999.

The Different Drum, M. Scott Peck, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1987.

The Joy of Community, M Scott Peck (Interview), 1991.

The Foundation for Community Encouragement

Charles Dobson / Vancouver Citizen's Committee, The Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Building Community in Vancouver, Community Organizing, Part 1-5, The Planning Department, East Wing, Vancouver City Hall, 453 West 12th Ave, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V5Y 1V4. Telephone: 604-873-7344

The Kiersey Temperament Website, David Mark Kiersey. 1999.

 

With gratitude to the resources listed in the Select Bibliography above, particularly to M. Scott Peck and the Vancouver Citizen's Committee, whose work is used with gratitude in this resource tool for leather groups.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Web Questions - Email our Webmaster