There is a lot of discussion, pro and con, regarding “community” among the set of people that view themselves as “kinky”, or “into BDSM”, whether that means the leather community or some more general community. However there are a few fundamental difficulties that don’t affect more stable forms of community to the same degree. If it seems like I’m singling out the leather community that’s simply because it is a nameable group or set of groups that people identify with as being-part-of, as belonging-with, something that is more difficult when you’re talking about “people into kink”, where the notion is so indefinite (how does one pick out a kinky person in a crowd?) that the idea of belonging-with is too intangible. I also know a fair amount about the leather community, having been peripherally involved since my teenage years, without personally identifying as leather. Partly this lack of identification comes from my not being particularly community-oriented, belonging-with has never been a focus of the way I am and therefore behaving in any specific manner other than what I felt like in order to belong was never particularly attractive. At the same time I have consistently had friends who were very involved in the leather community, and I have no issues with their involvement, since it works for them.
One issue is the push-pull between inclusion/being included and exclusion/separating. This has been an issue in the LGBT community, particularly in terms of ‘acceptance’ politics, for years. I recently read a post by a leather dyke complaining about not wanting to be part of the “pansexual” play space because they prefer to be separated from het couples. Although the post had a number of self contradictions (the main one being the notion that gay women had more “right” to being part of the leather community than het couples, when in actuality gay women were only accepted as part of the gay male leather community at the same time as heterosexuals, and even then somewhat begrudgingly). There was also a snide comment about people “living based on fiction”. While I’m not a fan of the fiction being referred to myself, as far as leather goes, the look and the communities that followed were popularized by the film “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando, and as far as I remember it wasn’t exactly a documentary. Prior to that there was really only one major biker club that had a look anywhere close to the way Brando dressed in the film, and ironically even that club changed their logo to resemble the one in the film after its release. Gay leather and all the variations that followed came after the film and their dress code was based on it.
Overall, my feeling about that post and similar ones I’ve read, is that you can’t really accuse people of jumping your train when it isn’t yours, and it barely left the station in any case. The first women’s leather club was formed only 25 years ago, so even referring to the “history” of dyke leather (or any other form really as they’re all fairly new) is a pretty ersatz notion of history.
A more fundamental problem, though, is the lack of any praxis that is shared by the community as a whole. Other communities, whether religious, scientific, political etc. generally have, or believe they have, a set of shared praxes that foster the sense of community, however BDSM doesn’t involve any particularly necessary praxes that are therefore shared with everyone and determine at least partially who they are. One would think that, within the leather community, the shared praxis of wearing leather in order to dress in a way that evokes masculine power, which was the original point of the dress code, would be the minimal requirement since it determines who the person is at least insofar as their appearance goes, but even that requirement is not acceptable to many people that nevertheless claim to be part of the leather community. As a result the leather community, which at least appears to be more of a community than the kink scene as a whole, is in actuality a hodgepodge of clubs with very different praxes and ideas. Someone who recently attended a couple of leather conferences complained to me that those who take it upon themselves to “represent” leather are themselves a very small group that, because they travel to most conferences, give an appearance of representing a community that in fact is mostly mythical, and only exists in the appearance itself as appearance. Since I’m friends personally with certain people involved in that representation, there was a degree of trepidation in his saying it to me, but I think his perception is fundamentally correct.
This is true, though, in some cases more than others, of many communities that we still think of as actual communities. For instance scientific method as the shared praxis of scientists is only valid if you stretch the meaning of scientific method to include a wide variety of techniques that contradict notions such as the repeatable experiment completely, simply because that method is not particularly useful except in particular sciences. Yet even those scientists that fundamentally never use most of what is meant, strictly speaking, by scientific method, themselves believe that they use it in a modified form, and as such are members of the community. There are equivalents in most religious and political communities . In other words, the representation of community in those that represent it doesn’t necessarily represent any specific reality behind the representation, but instead gives a specific form to how someone in the community might appear and behave and therefore be known as belonging-with that community, and in turn at community events that form is more or less followed by most attendees. This appears to confirm the representation but in fact is post facto based on prior knowledge of the representation, such that the presentation of community as community mimics the representation, not the other way around. That many of the attendees don’t dress that way at other times doesn’t affect the situation, since it is only at such events that the community presents as a community.
This isn’t necessarily a negative judgment either on the community or those that represent it. It may be the only means of creating a sense of shared, social being in a situation where we are only ‘together’ in a negative sense, i.e. because we have a shared dislike of the lifestyle promoted in the mainstream, but no specific shared likes. In this sense the truth of the community is that it is a fiction, but truth often takes the form of fiction, the reality only appearing after the fiction has created its preconditions.
It can become problematic mainly if the fiction over-determines reality rather than simply determining a particular appropriate aspect, in the sense of normalizing practices and relationships that we specifically left the mainstream in order to not have normalized for us by others. The representation has to be seen as only one possibility that may even be purely fictional, but represents a myriad of realities that specifically do not want a normalizing representation.