By: Rob Perez-
Movieboozer made its way to the “kinky film festival” CineKink recently, an event that draws a kink-friendly crowd, and the best in tasteful, erotica-themed films and documentaries.
As it does every year, the festival didn’t disappoint as it featured a great lineup of films that catered to all types of erotic and kink-friendly audiences. The weeklong festival ended its run with Crashcourse, a workshop on how to make a porno (of course) presided by Shine Louise Houston, one of the most important directors and voices of queer porn films.
While CineKink featured many amazing films that ranged from X-rated, short stories, drama, comedy, and everything else (with an erotic twist), its documentary offerings are what really makes CineKink stand out, as they show a side of people willingly tell their stories, obsessions regarding their sexual vices. Other documentaries also do justice to a history of a sexual movement or time or place forgotten by all except to those who lived through them. Director Christina Court’s in-depth look at The Leather Archives & Museum in her film, “By the People: 25 Years of Community Archiving At Leather Archives & Museum” is the definitive look at the museum that is the definitive location of the history of leather and alternative sex culture. Additionally, the documentary won CineKink’s Jury Festival’s Best Documentary Short award. More importantly, the mission of this important institution is to put an end to the stigmas mainstream society often places on those who have a preference for this kind of lifestyle.
Movieboozer interviewed Christina Court about her amazing documentary and why a documentary like this and why a place like the Leather Archives and Museum are needed, especially in these times we’re living in.
What are the overall goals you have for the documentary?
As a filmmaker for the Leather community, my primary focus is upon enhancing the visibility of Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish communities and attempting to educate others—within and outside of these communities—about their resources and the fact that they are not alone with their desires. As mainstream media begins to capitalize on the kinky and BDSM aspects of alternative sexuality, it is important for those of us within the community to try and maintain some control of how we are perceived and presented to others who remain outside of the community or who still see the community as “naughty” or “perverted” or “sick.”
So, one goal I’ve always had for the By The People documentary is to highlight for folks in all walks of life that there is longevity to BDSM and kink practices, there are communities and community spaces organized around Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish practices, and, most important, that Chicago-based Leather Archives and Museum (LA&M) is a 25 year old professional and academic institution that compiles and preserves materials specifically about the community and its practices—and it’s there for everyone from the post-doctorate cultural anthropologist to the kink curious. Through the By The People documentary about LA&M, I am hoping to show that, since the 1990s, sex and sexuality are increasingly being researched and seen as subject matter worthy of academic studies; through the documentary, I’m also hoping to show that it is essential for researchers and those potentially interested in engaging in kinky activities to learn about specialized sexual practices like BDSM from the people who engage in the activities… not from those like the torso-only pictured “Dominant” who private messages on OKCupid! or the non-practicing novelist who, perhaps, dabbled a bit in light kink and then attempted to write a world centered around her recollections of her personal experience and fantasies.
Thus, I’m hoping, via the documentary, to whet the appetites of the curious and to encourage them to visit LA&M or, at the least, visit its website to learn more about what kind of rare and unique materials LA&M works to make accessible to the public. As one who has done research in LA&M’s collections, it is kind of amazing just how many things LA&M has that no other institutions across North America seem to have, and that’s both cool and something worthy of support.
My other goal with the By The People documentary is to remind viewers that, oftentimes, research and research spaces for subversive topics require community assistance should we wish to learn more about those parts of the human condition that have been “in the closet” or considered “private matters” until recently. Creating the space for researchers of new scholarly topics takes heaps of social activism and the donations of time/volunteerism and money. Community-based archives like LA&M are political arenas: regardless of the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and the fact that Rihanna’s song “S&M” plays on radio stations across the globe, the government and corporations still don’t want to fund institutions and programs centered around alternative sex and spaces that collect adult films and “porn.” So, in order for a space like LA&M to survive and be around, it requires a heap of fundraising and reliance upon the generosity of those who buy memberships and give financial donations. In the end, I hope also to show how saving history—any kind of history, but especially the histories of marginalized and underrepresented communities—is a collaborative process that requires nonstop vigilance and patience, and, as cultural anthropologist and founding LA&M board member Dr. Gayle Rubin notes in the documentary, a community-based archive like LA&M is not something we can take for granted (lest it disappear).
Is there a specific audience you’re aiming for with this documentary or are you hoping it will be appreciated by all audiences?
Well, I’ve sent the film to my Midwestern, suburban-dwelling parents, so I guess I’m hoping that it is a documentary to be appreciated by all audiences, right? Kidding aside, yes: it is my hope that “By The People: 25 Years Of Community Archiving At The Leather Archives & Museum” is appreciated by all audiences who are 18 years of age and older. I think tons of folks like to read and learn about sex (why else would Cosmopolitan have all those teasers on the cover of its magazine about tickling pickles and hour-long orgasms, stores like Lovers Lane sit in suburban strip malls, and gal squads go to 50 Shades screenings to drink wine and titter at the shitty dialogue that binds together the softcore sex scenes, right?) but these same folks also often have a fear of going and checking out a swingers club, a BDSM dungeon, a Leather bar, or a gay bath house because mainstream media doesn’t do a great job about teaching how these communities have foundations built upon consent. A “museum and archive” like Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M) is a much “safer” space because it is exclusively a learning space that has zero sexual expectations, and so it’s always been my hope that this documentary gives sex positive and sex curious folks who wish to learn more about sexuality, sex/bodily pleasure and its communities a beacon of light that inspires the documentary viewer to visit the museum or even a visit to the online resources on the LA&M website. The more the mainstream understands our communities and how their codes of ethics begin and end with consent, the more “alternative sex” will be seem less “alternative,” thus giving more people the opportunity to enjoy themselves and their bodies as they truly and fully desire… and, let’s face it: authenticity is badass and sexy as hell.
In making the documentary, I also learned about how many Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish community members hadn’t visited LA&M in quite a long time—and how, as a result, their perception of LA&M was based upon their last experience/last visit. What many folks never think about is how, when starting up a research institution focused upon an under-represented topic, everything begins from scratch. LA&M began in co-founder Chuck Renslow’s basement as a stack of boxes and art. It evolved to a bunch of stuff on shelves to an inventoried bunch of stuff on shelves to the climate-controlled, professionally archived stand alone building with a full-time archivist on staff. Essentially, in these past 25 years, LA&M has evolved at warp speeds. The more I talked with community members, the more I also hoped that my documentary was seen as a love letter to the early volunteers and visitors… and that they saw my documentary as an invitation to return to LA&M and see the fruits of their labor and early devotion to preserving the community’s history and historic objects.
Finally, I tried to make this documentary in a way that also created space for those Leather, kinky, BDSM-playing and fetish folks who live in more remote areas and struggle to locate community or even to “see” someone who resembles them or reflects their sexual hungers. I live in Chicago; I am a female-identified Femme Leatherman who predominantly locates community within the gay Leatherman communities found at the Leatherbars and Leather contests. Chicago has a thriving alternative sex community: we are the home of three large Leather and kink contests, IML (International Mr. Leather Weekend, which is 39 years old), ABW (American Brotherhood Weekend—a gay/lesbian Leather contest), and MIR (Mr. International Rubber); we have three Leather/gear bars in the city and many other bars that host Leather/gear nights; and we have at least three members-only dungeon spaces in and around the city that are open every weekend of the year.
Chicago is a city where it is easy for kinky communities to self segregate due to the enormous quantity of specialized alternative sex events occurring nearly every night of the week; however, as a social activist and documentarian, I am keenly aware that, across North America, my access to Leather, kink, BDSM and fetish events and community is a luxury and not the norm—and most kinky folks must fight very hard to locate space and folks like them. It is my hope that my documentary shows those in more remote locales that their hard work to create space and locate community is seen and that their actions are worthy of scholarly research and understanding. Thus, while those in remote areas may not be able to wear Leather gear or a slave collar in their geographical locale without risking their well-being, LA&M is there hanging art on the walls that celebrates their sexuality, sex practices, and underground clubs and communities, and it is there to save their names, faces, and documents so those in the future understand who helped pave the way.
What is your association with the Leather Archives and Museum? Can you tell us about the museum’s mission and why such a space is necessary?
My association with the Leather Archives & Museum is wonderfully unique. Currently, I’m starting my third year on its Board of Directors and my second year as the board’s Vice President. In that capacity, I assist with the long-term strategic planning of the institution and help review and create policy that helps to ensure the institution continues to evolve.
I am also the video producer for the IML (International Mr. Leather) contest that occurs annually in Chicago during Memorial Day Weekend. Because I enjoy sharing historic documents and footage with audiences, I end up doing research in the IML collections multiple times a month and pulling from and sifting through the rare and one-of-a kind hard copies of photographs and videos to make the video vignettes that open or appear during the three nights of contests/shows. So, I’m not just a board member, I’m a researcher who actually uses the collections on a very frequent basis.
However, when I was approached by LA&M’s executive director, Rick Storer, back in late 2015, I wasn’t approached as a board member, but rather, as a filmmaking volunteer who’d already done volunteer work that highlighted aspects of LA&M and as a filmmaker who’d just completed her first feature-length film on the Leather community, High Shine: 15 Years of International Ms Bootblack, and was winding down a year of screening engagements. While making the High Shine documentary, I spent lots of time doing research at LA&M and in its collections, and so the LA&M staff had the chance to see the behind-the-scenes of the ways I researched a documentary and organized my films’ workflows. Rick Storer, LA&M’s former archivist, Jakob VanLammeren, and I were always very careful to separate our roles within the institution (as a board member and, for them, as staff) from the film project and production—we wanted to make sure we didn’t simply create a marketing video framed as a documentary. LA&M is very important to me, so I am always honored to note that I am an active researcher and volunteer at LA&M as well as the LA&M board’s Vice President.
The Leather Archives & Museum’s Mission is “The compilation, preservation and maintenance of leather lifestyle and related lifestyles, history, archives and memorabilia for historical, educational, and research purposes.”
While, over the past few years, there is an increasing amount of academic and research institutions that are acquiring archives and artifacts related to Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish, the Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M) remains that only institution in North America that has a scope that exclusively focuses upon the preservation of this culture. As a community-based archive with no acquisition budget, LA&M consistently asks the community to actively participate in the preservation of its own history… this means that LA&M reflects heavy community collaboration and effort, all in the hopes that those who are in the community or who practice this type of sexuality have a chance to be seen as accurately as possible. One of the things I most appreciate about LA&M is how the institution unapologetically makes aspects of alternative sex and sexuality its priority and illustrates this by putting Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish-based art on the wall and houses paper-based collections on everything from meeting minutes of the Chicago Hellfire Club (CHC) to photographs of Leatherwomen competing at the first International Ms Leather (IMsL) contest using the same professional practices that archivists would use to preserve a U.S. president’s papers at the National Archives.
LA&M remains a “necessary” institution because the majority of museums and research institutions still remain shy about displaying kink and S/M-related items… and, thus, while they may bring those materials into their collections, the artifacts and materials often remain “closeted” or hidden unless requested for research purposes. Those researchers and scholars who wish to expand various disciplines so they include a broader definition of human sexuality and the human experience need a space like LA&M in order to streamline their research processes and get the scholarly works on Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish out and into publication, presentation, and conference session circulation. Someone needs to put this material out into circulation to show folks that some of what they’re doing in the bedroom isn’t all that “different” and, more, that what they’re enjoying is healthy, fun, and nothing to feel shame about. While LA&M does not write the history of these aspects of alternative sexuality and its communities, it is a vital institution because of all of the resources it provides to the researchers who use its materials to generate publications and discussions about Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish.
Was making this documentary a learning experience in that, there were things you learned/were surprised about the culture you didn’t know about before making this documentary?
I love making documentaries and educational videos because I love to research and to learn! My background is actually not in film—I have a Masters in English and Comparative Literature, and, in fact, I spent many years as an adjunct and part-time professor teaching college students research and argumentative writing. To me, documentary is an extension of the types of writing I most enjoy and enjoyed teaching to others.
Each documentary teaches me new things. In the case of the LA&M documentary, By The People, I think what struck me the most is the fact that a sex-positive institution like LA&M is less of a “sex museum” (as it is often portrayed) and more of a political museum and a political space where the work the staff and volunteers do is less about “nerdy” activities and more social activism that seeks equality for all. Having spent years already as a volunteer and researcher at LA&M, I understood aspects of this; however, it wasn’t until I interviewed the staff and the professional volunteers (ex. the folks who transcribed oral histories and served as volunteer professional archivists) that I realized how LA&M is an extension of the post-Stonewall Gay Liberation Movement and those activists’ quests to remedy revisionist history and end historical silences. In making this documentary, I learned that there are many Queerfolk and civil and social rights activists who are not in the kink community in any manner, yet they still give in terms of time and money to LA&M because they understand the negative social impact brought by silence, marginalization, ignorance, and stigma. Knowing those outside of our community also seek to help us be Seen—and Seen as accurately as possible—gives me great hope for our future and hope for our future generations.
What is the future of the museum?
The future of Leather Archives & Museum is actually quite bright and exciting! LA&M has reached a wonderful place where it is being recognized by scholars and institutions as a “go to” place for researchers of Leather, kink, BDSM and fetish subjects. An increasing amount of human sexuality classes and archive graduate students tour LA&M on a very frequent basis, and artifacts within our collection are being requested on an increasing basis for loans to other institutions for inclusion within formally curated museum exhibits across the globe. More, folks from all walks of life continue to visit our guest artist exhibits, apply to participate in LA&M’s annual visiting scholar program, and contact the LA&M archivist and collections manager with hundreds of research questions each year. Over the past five years of serving as a researcher or volunteer, I’ve seen an amazing increase in the amount of visitors who come to LA&M to tour the museum, many who do not identify as kinky in any way yet who wish to make a first time visit to learn more about Leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish.But, as we see baby boomers retire and begin to downsize their lives, LA&M also now faces a “space” issue, where there is lots of materials coming in via donations and lots of potential donors who are talking with the LA&M archivist about the compatibility of their collections with LA&M, yet the institution in its current formation is running out of space to house the materials. Thus, part of the future of LA&M includes the Board of Directors working with the staff and, ultimately, LA&M’s members and the larger community to raise money so we can increase space and increase the staff who can professionally process the materials so they are accessible to the public. I consider this a “great” problem: it means that the institution is trusted and desired, and it means that stagnation is NOT part of its future and, in fact, that LA&M will continue to grow and evolve, just as larger, mainstream society is growing and evolving in terms of its perceptions about sex and sexuality. While my documentary “By The People” celebrates LA&M’s first 25 years, knowing where the institution stands at this moment makes me quite excited about the next 25 years at LA&M, and, having made this documentary, makes me quite excited to think about where the institution will be, how it will look, and who will be utilizing the resources a generation from now.