I was invited to one of my favourite Leather events last year, and was happy to say yes. I respect the way the folks at Leather Reign do business, and I salute the honor they did me in inviting me to speak to their guests. When they invited me to speak at their dinner, I was happy to say yes.
Then I spent the next nine months gently freaking out about what I was gonna say. I do not, for myself. enjoy delivering pre-written speeches. For me, as an actor, it becomes me delivering a monologue, and while it is a deeply effective means of communicating ideas, I feel more centered when I can stand before my People and let the things that need to be said manifest in that moment, and flow.
I feel I managed to do that tonight, and I offer my humblest gratitude to the Leather Reign folks for honoring me with a very sacred trust.
Please be advised: I do talk about my own sexual assault. If this might be difficult for you to hear, please exercise whatever self-care you deem necessary. Thank you.
Full Text of Speech
Leather Reign 2013: On Silence & Service
by Mollena Williams
OK first, uh, I want to extend the thank you again to the folks here at Leather Reign.
I attend dozens upon dozens of events every year, not just in the US but also up in Canada and in Europe, and this is one of my favourites. And I’m not just saying that to blow smoke up your ass.
I’m saying that because it is actually genuinely true, and I will outline some of the reasons I believe that. (Argh, this is gonna make too much noise) [Moves Water Bottle]
There we go! (audience laughter)
I do before we start – because I feel like it is extremely important – because in addition to the loss of Tim Starkey, Bootblack Tim, Mister Boston Leather David Durman passed away this week, (murmurs) and these are both very sudden losses. And so I would like for us to just take a moment, if we can. I’d like to light a candle for Tim, in remembrance of the people who are the heart and soul of our community, who are the bootblacks… so much respect.
And to David, who I didn’t know very well but met several times while I was on the road during my title year. And what a sunny and bright and wonderful presence he is. I do not say “was” because part of my crunchy “woo” is that we carry with us the people who have gone before us. And that is definitely a part of what Leather means to me, is to carry on what has gone before.
This is the second time I have spoken at Leather Reign. I don’t remember what I said last time I was here but luckily it was taped, so if you look at my podcast feed it’s there. So it’s available to you. (link)
And I’m not known necessarily for being quiet.
(laughter & murmurs)
I’m not known necessarily for holding back.
I’m known for being pretty straightforward. And I’m known for putting shit on the table, and laying the cards out for you and being transparent and honest.
That is part of what I hold to be very true.
And so tonight I am here to apologize. I’m here to apologize for the points where I have not been transparent, for the places where I have held back, for the things I have not said.
Part of what I hold to be very valuable in my Leather, is my commitment to service.
As an un-owned slave, my service basically turned around and became something I was giving to all of you. Sometimes it’s hard ‘cause sometimes y’all aren’t always the best Master.
But I held in there because that is my cornerstone. Service is – very much who I am. But it’s lonely sometimes. It’s hard to be out on the road, as I am right now, I’m winding up 2 months on my own, it’s very difficult.
And thankfully, part of my transparency — which is attached to my sobriety — is that I never hold any secrets, and I vow to be as honest as I possibly can, and I push that honesty even when I feel ashamed.
Even when I feel saying “I’m sad, I am lonely, help me” is a sign of weakness.
Even when I feel as though people will not be there for me. I push through it anyway, and I share that pain, and what is amazing is that the community rises up like an invisible set of arms to reach out to me.
Vi Johnson, who is one of my heroes for many reasons, not just because she is an amazing Leather woman, but because she is Black. She was the first woman of colour I saw. I was searching for people who looked like me. When I was coming out in the community, I was not seeing that. I was seeing, pardon me, white people I love you very much, but I was seeing a lot of white people.
I was not seeing myself reflected in that.
So when I discovered that one of the persons who was the cornerstone foundation of what we do, looked like me, I felt so empowered to take that step forward. It was validating. And the – the…the bar that she sets is a bar that I strive to every day.
Every once in a while, Mom Vi will send me a message, and it’s always when I need it the most. And I was having a really hard time a couple of months ago, and she sent me a message, and she said “I’m going to be sending you a package”. I was leaving for a two month trip, and I hadn’t gotten the package, and I was like “Well fuck I don’t know…the thing…” I was walking out of the door to go to the airport and there it was on my front door. And I took it on the plane and opened it, and in it was a note from her, and in that note was this collar, (audience murmurs) as a symbol of my service to the community.
I cannot tell you what that meant, to someone who was un-owned, to have someone I respected so strongly say “I see your service, I see you.” To have a tangible thing, an item to hold onto, as much as talismans mean to us, as much as Leather means to us, as much as boots mean to us, as much as that whip means to us, to have the person who inspired me say “I see you, and you are valuable”, was a gift I can’t – I don’t even know how I’m ever gonna fuckin’ pay that forward…you guys [ audience laughter] that is huge.
And I started thinking: “where do I need to achieve more?” “Where can I step even further into this?”, “Where can I have the transparency?”
And I started looking back, and I realized that for all of the transparency I believed that I was displaying, I was still not saying things. There were the injustices that I was witnessing, that I did not repeat. There was the bad, nasty shit that was going on, the stuff that people dismiss as “gossip” and “drama”, that no one wants to talk about because no one wants to be “that guy.” No one wants to be dismissed. No one wants to feel that no one believes what they have to say.
This year has been incredibly trying for me. I’ve taken a lot of hits from people I previously respected and trusted as friends and as family. Earlier this year in February, some of you might know, there was a Leather bar in Portland (Oregon) that booked a blackface comedian act, a gentleman by the name of Chuck Knipp, who has a character that’s Shirley Q Liquor, he puts on blackface, and a wig, and does the worst, exploitative, imitation of the “welfare mama” you could possibly see. And this was booked into a Leather bar, in Portland.
And I’d like to say “well, that’s not us”, and that’s what so many people said, “Well that’s not us!” “That’s not our community!” “They don’t represent us!”
Yes they do.
This was not the first time this gentleman made an appearance. I looked up his calendar. He was appearing at kink and leather events everywhere.
This pulled the lid off of a big, nasty can of bigotry, racism, and passive bigotry, that I felt had no place in our community, and I had no awareness that this was true. I saw people who called themselves Leather tell me “you need to get over it, it’s just comedy. What’s wrong with you?” [audience murmurs] And I said “I’m not sure you fully understand what pain this is.”
I had an assumption that people who were Leather, that people who were queer, that people who were gay, would understand and have a compassion, and I realized they did not.
And I put my heels down and I started fighting. And I found some support. I found people to this day I will walk over broken glass for because they did what allies do when they stepped up to the plate. On days when I was literally face-down, crying on my bed, they stepped up to the plate. My evil Jewish Lesbian Landladies. [audience laughter]. My wonderful, wonderful roommates Laura Antoniou, and Karen Taylor would be there for me and like wake me up and bring me soup and say “yes, white people are terrible, have some soup”. [audience laughter]
And as disappointed as I was every time I got that punch to the gut of someone dictating to me what Leather meant, and that I was or was not Leather based on my reaction to other people’s comments, I said “this doesn’t feel right”, “that is not ok.”.
We’ve had several examples of people behaving rather poorly in our community. We have had people steal. We have had people lie. We have had people abuse other people and then be shamed into silence, the victims, as people who were seeking drama.
The idea that someone can be sexually assaulted our community, and be told that sharing their name is not permitted is unacceptable. The idea that we are somehow protecting the predators because we value privacy over honesty and transparency, makes me physically ill. And I felt as though perhaps I was the only one who felt that way because I would put up a post on Fetlife and get a thousand “likes”, and that was really fantastic, but nothing is changing. Nothing will change until we see that it impacts us on a personal level.
So please let me tell you, it impacts me on a personal level. And each of you in here tonight, as the boss of me, have a responsibility to me to step up to the plate.
It is a fearsome thing to speak your truth, I know this. Believe me, I know.
In the aftermath in this battle against bigotry and racism, I lost people who I considered family, because they did not understand why blackface was a problem. There’s only so much explaining I can do.
I had people I had to step back and re-analyze when they were taking a look at someone having defrauded a community institution, and defending it. “Everyone makes mistakes”, “oh, well, it was an accident”, “forgive and forget”, “let go and let’s move on”.
Personal responsibility is in my opinion one of the very pillars of the community. We all have our own pillars. We all have whatever it is that brought us to this place where we are today. We all have the reasons that we identify as Leather. Go back to those, and look at those, and see if silence and protecting the guilty is among your core values. I seriously fucking doubt that it is.
It’s difficult to speak the truth, but when you do not? You advocate for evil. When you do not say “this has happened to me, I have witnessed this, I will stand behind my words”, you create a fertile ground for people to stalk and prey and tear apart other people.
Folks come to us thinking that they are finding their people, community, safety, networking, a place to be who they are. And what they are finding out is that you may ask someone for references, and you might have some terrible information that might steer them away, but you’re not gonna say anything because you don’t want to foment drama.
In 2010 when I was International Ms. Leather, I visited, um, Ireland, which is a lovely, lovely country. And while I was there, I was there for about a week or so, and I met a guy who I thought was super cute, and we had a little bit of chemistry, I was like “oh he had the accent…oh my god” [audience laughter] I had to sadly downgrade the British accent from the #1 Hottest Accent, and elevated the Irish… They of course were high fiving each other (laughs) [audience laughter]…
And so I met this gentleman, and I did a bit of due-diligence, I talked to local folks. I said “so, this guy Anthony, you know him?” they’re like “Oh yes, he’s wonderful, fantastic”. I went out and had a dinner at one point with a bunch of other kinky people from Dublin. I met a woman who had been one of his former partners. And she and I chatted and had a lovely dinner, and then this guy and I started having this really great encounter. We had two and a half days together, and it’s all the hot play, and it’s all the sexy stuff, and then we get to the point where the fucking was going to happen. And I said “well, you know, as we discussed earlier, I’m all about safer sex practices”, and he said “oh don’t worry about it”. [groans from audience]
Now, the thing is this: I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman, and I consider myself to have very strong boundaries; but I’m also a human person, and what I discovered in that moment was that coercion and pressure works no matter how tough and strong you think you are.
And it took me a month to realize that after he had penetrated me without a condom, that I had been sexually assaulted.
I have to thank my higher power that at the time I was in submission to someone who was a former rape crisis counselor. ‘Cause that’s how my. shit. rolls. And when he looked me in the eyes and said “you were sexually assaulted, and it’s not your fault”, I broke down. How could this happen to me? What could I do?
In the next 24 hours I received 2 emails. One was from a guy who said “a woman I know is now sitting on my couch crying because she said he did the same thing to her”. I got an email a day later from the woman who I had sat next to at dinner, his former play partner, who knew we were going to play, who had said he had done the same thing to her. She did not feel empowered to turn to me and say “hey, let’s have a chat”.
This happens every day. This is happening on our watch. It’s not acceptable. People who steal, people who break vows, people who abuse other people, are able to do so with impunity because we spend a great deal of time worrying about false accusations. That’s like saying that cars are now illegal because people die in car accidents. I’m not ignoring the fact that bad shit happens, that false accusations are made, but we have to find a better way. We have to take personal accountability. We have to put ourselves out there.
Anyone come here to be safe? Anyone come here to – like – sit on your fucking ass and do the comfortable thing? Or did you come here because of the rush and the heat and the energy and the passion and the risk? Extend that to your pillars. Dig inside and say when you see the injustice happening, when you are aware of something occurring that is not alright, what do you do? What do you do?
When you’re sitting in a class and the instructor says something that is patently unacceptable, i.e. “negotiation is where the dominant tells the submissive what’s going to happen in the scene.” [audience laughter and groans] “Suspension cannot be done on women who are fat, it is unsafe.” “Breathplay is ok as long as the person is standing up.” [audience laughter] This is not stuff I pulled out of my ass. This is stuff that people in positions of authori-tah have said in front of rooms full of people. And the first question I ask when I hear this is “what did you do?” And inevitably the answer is “nothing”.
Those of us who are old hats, old farts who go to these conventions and are bored out of our fucking minds, and we don’t want to go to the 101 classes – go to the 101 classes. Check yourselves. We need to be checking ourselves, making sure the information that’s going out there is viable and real and authentic. We need to make sure that people we are putting in positions of power are accountable.
I had a very distressing situation with an event where a person had been accused multiple times of consent violations and sexual assault was hired to teach. The person who runs the event was confronted about this several times. His response was, and I quote, was “It’s not my responsibility to police the community.”
Whose fucking responsibility is it?
It is each of ours, yes, but when you are in a position where you are vetting and putting other people in charge, it is absolutely your responsibility to know who those people are, and to provide the support and to provide the background, and to say “I stand behind those people”. As individuals, it’s our job, when you see the naked person streaking up the hall, fucking stop them. When you see that there’s suddenly money missing from an organization’s coffers, ask the questions. Do not do as I have done previously and say “well, I can’t change it, I’m afraid, I don’t want to piss people off, I don’t want to get dis-invited from this event because I asked too many questions.”
I have since declared fuckruptcy on that. I am out of fucks. [audience laughter, applause and cheers]. I refuse to give a fuck about anything that puts me in a position where I am endorsing or standing behind a group, a person, or an organization who purports themselves to be upfront and honest, and I look and I do not like what I see.
That means I go to few conferences. Fewer conferences? That’s what it means, so be it. If that means my circle of friends shrinks exponentially, so be it. If that means I have to step into someone’s face and have them tell me “who the fuck do you think you are, you arrogant bitch? How dare you? How dare you? I have been doing this for longer than you’ve been alive, who do you think you are?” Also things I have heard.
It’s exhausting, you guys. (laughs) I can stand here in front of you today and say that on my sobriety I swear that I will be honest and transparent, and I invite you to do so as well. I invite you, when you are engaging with other kinky people, to say “Hi, nice to meet you, if you fuck me over I’m-a tell everybody.” [audience laughter & applause] Because in as much as silence allows for people to move under the cover of darkness, your one light spreads.
So many people, when this first blackface shit went down said “what difference do I make? People read you, people care about you, but I don’t have 2,000 followers, I don’t have 4,000 followers on Twitter, I’m not on Kinky and Popular”, and I said “do you know someone?” Say it. Put the words out there. As obvious as it seems, secrecy kills. Sexual assault is not acceptable. I will tell. I will speak. I promise I will. And in as much as that will gain you people who will stand against you as foes, it means that you will be a beacon of integrity for the people who are present, and focused, and know that you are standing in righteousness. And I don’t use that word lightly. But I believe that honesty and transparency is righteousness.
That’s the path we need to be following.
That’s the Leather that attracted me.
Those were the people who back in the day said “we do not care about laws, we do not care about society, we do not care what other people told us is alright, we are going to find our bliss and fuck all y’all.”
That’s the Leather I want to see today. I want to see some people who have the guts to step up when some shit’s popping off, and have people held accountable.
It’s scary, I know. I’m shaking right now as I say this because I’m now committed to being an even louder loudmouth (laughs) [audience laughter] than I have been in the past. But I’m going to swear on my own service to you collar, that you can trust me to do that. And you know that if I speak it is coming from the heart. And you know that if I am sharing with you, it is not for any… [voice cracking] any reason other than I care. It is because it is what I am drawn to do spiritually, it is my path. I don’t know what more I can give to the people I love than that.
That is my pledge. And I invite you to take that same pledge. And to look and to see where you can step up and be more transparent, and more open, and take bigger risks. Because all it takes is one person to pull open the curtain and to diminish the darkness with light, and with honesty and with openness.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to serve each and every one of you, and I hope that I am doing that well. And if I am not? Fuckin’ tell me! If you see me falling short, and there’s something you wish to express to me? I am not hard to find [audience laughter] I got every social media vector on the planet working, you can find my ass anywhere, and call me out, and call other people out, question, ask the questions, and do it from a place of love and compassion and desire for the community to grow.
One of the reasons that I love this event so much is that when I look at the people who have presented here, and I look at the staff and I look at what folks are doing, it’s not that they are perfect, flawless paradigms of humanity, it’s that they are invested, real human people, and that’s who they bring in, and that’s why the energy here is so fucking badass. I do not take that for granted, so thank you. [extended applause]
And thank you [more applause] more people could take a page from your book. Its an honor to be here among – among – you. And the… in the interest of transparency, I invite you to ask me, offline, any questions that you might have. If you are a presenter and you want to know what it’s like to work with certain events, ask me. If you produce events and would like to hear about presenters, ask me.
It’s not gossip when it keeps people safe.
It is not drama when it is someone’s story.
I despise the idea that story is diminished and dismissed, and as a storyteller, personally, the idea that someone has told me “you cannot tell your story because it might endanger someone else” means that you are denying me my humanity. Tell your stories, please. Listen to other people’s stories with a compassionate, open heart. That one light that you illuminate is seen. It might not be seen by someone you see, but they see you, every day, every day.
Thank you. [audience applause]
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