This is a blog entry by guest contributor (and, yes, alter ego) Youkali. She wrote this paper in November 2013 when she was asked to participate to an anthology on Leather families. The anthology was never published, and the article stayed dormant for almost two years. But she remembered it recently when a dear friend and leather brother, who had been ill for more than a year, announced that he was dying. The family he created, nurtured and helped grow is one that is dear to her heart. This text is not entirely about this Leather family, but it is informed and inspired by it. We hope you will like it.


My Own Private Leather Family Metaphor

by Youkali Youkali

To Marc Vajra

Were you around in May 2011 during the last Canadian federal elections? Have you noticed how everything was about family? Both the Liberal Party and the NDP’s electoral platforms had the word “family” in their titles, and the Conservatives’ first paragraph insisted on the fact that they were working for “your family”. Everything about the political programs of the three major parties, from strengthening health care to advocating for renewable energies, was directed to families. During the debates, I quickly quit counting how many times the f-word was mentioned. It sounded as if the smallest common denominator of the Canadian society was suddenly the family and not the citizen, and that it was the family unit and not the single electors who went voting.

The way the notion of family and families were put forward during the elections could be perceived as a reflection of the importance of the family structure in our Western societies but could as well show a fear of its decline – call it Freudian denial. Maybe our society is so frightened to see the family structure as we have known it disappear, that it makes a point in (over)reaffirming its existence?

Twenty-five years ago, in Disturbing the Nest, David Popenoe analyzed the decline of the Western nuclear family in its heterosexual, conjugal, nuclear, and domestic sense. In the meantime, no matter how loudly and frequently defenders of the family model reaffirmed it, signs have shown that he was right, that tendency was maintained and family as we had known it was slowly disappearing or at least reshaping itself. But where have we known it from, exactly? As Judith Stacey pointed it out in her critic of Popenoe a few years after his essay was published, “family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics” (Stacey, Good Riddance to « The Family »: A Response to David Popenoe 1993, 545). For instance, family as conceived by Westerners, with its hierarchy and gender roles, is much closer to the image that has been fabricated and disseminated by the twentieth-century media (Father Knows Best, anyone?) than to its etymology (from Latin familia, “servants of a household”). It is among the many means to reinforce a normative structuration of society. Not only “one does not choose their family”, but, although the model may change from place to place, one does not choose the type of family that it socially imposed on them.

But what if you could, in fact, choose your kinsfolk, the structure of your family, and who your siblings will be? The concept of “fictive kin”, that used to be popular among anthropologists for relationships that were foreign to European models, was an attempt to identify close relationships outside blood connections. It fell in obsolescence in the anthropology field when it became obvious that any kind of kinship actually implies a certain level of social construct. Similar to the idea of “fictive kin” but with a more deliberate connotation, the notion of “chosen family” became popular in the late sixties among hippies, with the Olompali Chosen Family commune as a paragon[1]. In the seventies and the rise of the gay and lesbian movement, the notion of chosen family took a new political meaning in a world where people not following heteronormative models were symbolically (or sometimes literally) excluded from the traditional family circle. Kath Weston, in her 1991 essay Families We Choose, questions the sanctity of the blood family and shows how, through a new definition of family, kinship and gay/lesbian identity can cease to be mutually exclusive. Family then ceases to be something queer people have to give up when embracing their full identity: “when lesbians and gay men can present themselves as fully social persons capable of laying claim to families, their distinctive sexual identities need no longer sharply segregate them as members of a species unto itself” (Weston 1991, 205). Again, in a LGBT context, the mere existence of chosen families challenges the essentialist heterosexist notion of kinship by underlining the fact that it is a construct: “The ways in which lesbians and gay men negotiate such reinscriptions make explicit not only the contingency of these symbols but also – equally important in theorizing kinship – the dynamic, mutual construction of gender, generation, kinship, and sexuality.” (Hayden 1995, 57). In a short essay called “Communauté de sang” (“Blood Community”), Catherine Mavrikakis goes as far as to say that AIDS contributed to creating blood communities, i.e. a new kind of kinship based on HIV positivity. Considering that gays and lesbians have greatly contributed to the democratisation of family, Stacey put forward the notion of “postmodern family”, that is, one with tremendously variable structures, including single-parent families, same-sex couple families, and even couples without children.

Fictionalised, chosen, extended, democratised, postmodernised… Family is not as it used to be, or was it ever what we thought it was? Marginalised groups have often taken over derogatory words to load them with a more positive, empowering meaning (for example, the LGBT communities have claimed epithets such as fag(got), queer, dyke, etc.). Even words with a generally positive connotation can be appropriated and reactualised, challenging sometimes the established order, as showed the recent debates on same-sex marriage. The notion of family, however, seems to have been extended in two different and sometimes mutually exclusive ways. On the one hand, the concept is used metonymically, to describe structures that keep an element pertaining to the old idea of family: individuals, bonded or not with other individuals, raising children, or managing a household (or, sometimes, a pet!). Same-sex couple families fall in this category. On the other hand, the use of the word “family” is sometimes almost metaphorical and only preserves the idea of a group sharing the same interests. Blood communities as described by Mavrikakis and other groups of adults that are based on a metaphorical sense of kinship belong to this category.

Leather families are usually adult communities of the second, metaphorical kind. Leather, as explains Jack Rinella in the chapter on “Groups and Families” of his book Partners in power: living in kinky relationships, has no leader or at least no official one; there is no centralised organisation, only the will of energetic individuals to reunite people sharing the same passions and visions; no predefined structure, only ad hoc grouping of like-minded individuals. As time went by, some organisations stayed and became tradition, others sank into oblivion or only now exist in a few lines at the Leather Archives (of which the most mythical ones have been promoted to an elusive “Old Guard” status, but this is another story). The fact is Leather people are not different from other people and feel the need to team with those with whom they share affinities, although some the said affinities are different from other people. Conferences, clubs, munches, are popular means of getting together – hence, no doubt, the creation and perpetuation of a Leather family tradition. According to Rinella, family is one of the oldest modes of grouping among Leather; Leather is certainly older than its contemporary expressions, and the need to form groups is probably as old as humankind is. Leather families can generate naturally or more deliberately, around a lover or a group of lovers, a partner or a node of partners, or friends, or dominants, or submissives, or a common interest, etc. It could be founded as a discrete way to create private gathering, or as a safer way to prevent STIs, or as a way to formalise existing relationships, or it does not have to be formally established at all and could just start to exist on its own, generated by relationship dynamics.

Families are fluid and develop not necessarily of their own accord, but rather in response to the demands of the work environment and changing personal movement might be. For that reason I have repeatedly called it a subculture. It is vibrant and viable. Its evolution is apparent. Its growth is demonstrable. Its popularity is increasing. These conditions pose unique opportunities and challenges for each of us, since there is no single guiding hand that directs us as a community. (Rinella 2003, 139)

* * *

I do not exactly recall the first time I came across the notion of family as applied to a Leather group, but I remember that the idea first triggered some mild discomfort for me. It was not necessarily the concept as much as the word per se, though. As a dyke, although I might have been witnessed singing “We are family” at Pride, I never really claimed the word to apply it to the groups of people I hanged out with on a regular, intimate basis. Being from a Catholic culture like most people from Quebec are, I am always endlessly amused when this friend of mine jokingly says of a presumed lesbian that she is a “paroissienne” (a “parishioner”); however, obviously, it never occurred to me to create or join any parish of dykes! Maybe because of the same background, “family” never had such a positive meaning for me: family was something that you did not choose, that was imposed on you by a higher authority, and whose dinners you had to suffer through on a regular basis. Or maybe because I come from a very small family (mother, father, and only child), or because I was in boarding school as a teenager, and in spite of being in relatively good terms with my parents, I forged my stronger bonds outside my biological family and never had the reflex to turn to my family to seek support and comfort. Instead, from a very young age, my greater source of affection I found through a growing, changing network of friends – a chosen family if you will (but I would not, back then).

But as much as I remember being uninspired by the word, I recall being impressed by the idea of forming a group based on kinky or Leather relationships. It sounded so grown-up, Leather-wise, so beyond my young level of experience, so out-of-reach! And I am not talking about virtual families that, back when I started exploring online, were as proliferating, as labile, and as unstable as the web itself! No, I am thinking of this specific “real” Leather family that I eventually heard of, that had survived break-ups, moves, weddings and what have you, and was and is still up and running, not perfect, probably, but stronger, it seems, than the individuals that shape it.

Although Leather as a lifestyle became a reality for me only in my late thirties, I approached the whole thing the same way I had approached my first friendships and, later, my love relations: adding new relationships to existing ones, rarely parting with older friends, exes and sometimes lovers unless it proved inevitable or the other person seemed to desire it, slowly building around me a web made of people who also shared relationships together, of people who vaguely knew each other, and of people who had never met, and also joining my friends’ and lovers’ networks as well, as intimately or as loosely as it seemed to be comfortable for all of us. The common denominator in this case being Leather and bdsm, it also happens that friends can be playmates who can be lovers, alternately or all at the same time, in two or more directions – and often, just to make things even easier, in more than one city!

I guess one could call a family the relationship I have with my two partners, and other people I know do in similar situations. Our triad, that actually equates to four distinct relationships (our geometry includes a triangular one and three linear ones) and also involves power exchange relationships and equalitarian relationships, may spread over three cities (our geography, however, is much more variable than that), but it is a strong one, and one whose dynamic non-polyamoury people do not always understand. Our relationship is an open one, but, when it comes to us, it is the center from which other relationships and commitments are discussed, and our calendars, commuting, and trips are managed. If we lived in a medieval world, maybe the regular exchanges we have with other groups like us, be it play or social gathering, could be considered as alliances between families…

I also have a sense of family – one that maybe is not as intimate as the one I described above, but that creates a strong impact nevertheless – with various Leather groups with which I am involved. The Montreal-based Unholy Army of the Night is one of them. I have been on its Board of Governors for five years but the group (you could call it a club, but it does not function like your regular Leather club) has existed for a decade. We do not sell membership cards nor do we call general meetings. Our board does not hold elections nor are its decisions based on consensus. Everyone is invited to bring their best energy and ideas to the group, and since all board members have approved upon including any new member to the team, we usually agree upon the nature of the activities we organise. We insist that our members show up to our activities to be introduced gradually to the lifestyle through gatherings, workshops, and play parties. We also make sure that our events do not remain user-oriented play parties; we make a point in encouraging people to get involved as volunteers and integrated as participants. Our main annual event, Spring Fling (in French: Malmenage du Printemps) reflects the spirit of our organisation and invites participants to a collective reflection that goes beyond the mere play party (without diminishing it, mind you!). If I wanted to push the family metaphor, I suppose UAN events could be seen as big seasonal gatherings reuniting smaller family units, some closer, some more remote, as well as welcoming newbies and lone individuals and offering a positive environment where everyone, ideally, should feel comfortable.

An Unholy Harvest, that was founded in Ottawa but moved to Toronto two years ago, is also a place where Leather dykes and trans people can find a family structure and spirit. The event was created by Jacqueline St-Urbain and Andrea Zanin, two of the earlier members of the Unholy Army (one being its funder) after they both moved away from Montreal, so not surprisingly it is inspired by the same principles. People who have been attending since the first edition, seven years ago (among which I am), as well as those who joined later, repeatedly say how the whole weekend feels like a family reunion. It is not a coincidence, but the result of constant efforts on the part of the organiser to keep the event a human size, to engage the participants in the organisation, to solicit and offer workshops on inclusiveness and the multiple ways and means of being kinky, to do everything they can to make it accessible physically, financially, and, somehow, affectively.

I found another type of leather family during my title year as Ms. Leather Toronto 2013. It is true what they say that bonds with your fellow titleholders are different. Robert Miller Mr. Leather Toronto 2013, Peter Rex Mr. Rubber Toronto 2013, and Dan Pupego, Toronto Puppy 2013, have a special place in my heart. I heard that some titleholders have rough years, loaded with fights and bankruptcies, but it was not my experience or ours. On the contrary, we worked hand in hand, raising funds for our organisation Heart of the Flag Federation and for our charity the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, we survived bar nights, official functions, meetings, marches, and parades, and we supported each other when time came to compete at the international level. I was always delighted to know that one of them would be around and even as the only Leatherwoman and dyke among this bunch of Leathermen, I always felt supported… and was always happy to hug them as the brothers I never had, and kiss them and grope them as fellow kinksters. And just as any family, their partners and mine became part of the extended family too. Also included in the family, but more like “great ancients”, were former Toronto titleholders and members of the board of Heart of the Flag. When I went to International Ms. Leather, Master Jack Pearce International Community Bootblack 2008, Mcg McDowell-Dinsmore International Mr. Bootblack 2009 and Jake English Bootblack Toronto 2011, just to name a few, were all there helping me, sharing their experience, offering their advice and bootblack service. Now that my title year is over, it is important to me that I remain close to this family, which has now grown bigger with new titleholders.

Another element that created a sense of family during my title year and beyond was to feel surrounded, nurtured by a community that more than ever felt like home. They say that the Toronto Leatherdyke community is not easy to approach – but don’t they say it from any Leather community from the outside? Being born in Montreal and still close to its queer kinky and Leather community, I can see some differences, but what I know is I received tremendous support from my Toronto Leather friends, and when we went to IMsL, we really did it as a family. It was amazing to have my partners and treasurable people around me, up to the stage where a bunch of them participated in my fantasy scene. Others also held a special event to promote the Canadian family – complete with maple leaf shaped leather crops. It was amazing to be a smaller Canadian Leatherwoman family within the bigger US family.

Did I find a family environment with the other International Ms. Leather contestants? I would say no, but this constitutes in no way a critic of the ties that bound us during the weekend. I actually felt that Bikkja Amy, our Contestant Coordinator, more familiarly called Den Mommy, was, indeed, the head of our little undisciplined den of hypered cubs. However, because the duration of the contest is so short, and with so few opportunities to really connect with the other contestants who are all so busy meeting the judges and leaving a general good impression, to me, the circumstances were not conducive to creating family-like bonds. Still, I realise that, even six months later, I did create strong connections with my fellow contestants, and I am looking forward to meeting them again at upcoming Leather events.

TheVajra first time I was invited to join an official Leather family was not so long ago. It was during my Ms. Leather Toronto title year. I remember very well where it happened: I was at the book launch of Leather Heights, Toronto, Canada. Kinky Tales from Hogtown (the anthology I edited as a fundraiser) on April 16th, 2013, somewhere in the Church-Wellesley village. Contributors to the anthology were present, members of the Leather community were present, some of my friends were present, and it was already a pretty exciting moment for me. And then, my brothers Sir Marc Paquet-Decker and Farrell Collier (now Mr. Leather Toronto 2014) presented me with this pin, the Vajra family pin. I was told I had been chosen as a Friend of the Family because, in my own way, I had helped build the Family. And this, never mind what I think or feel towards family, made me tremendously happy and proud. And profoundly touched. My sisters Patty MsLT 2014 and Dee, my owner Sarah Pie, many other great Leather folk, in short, some of the best people I know in the world are members of this family, so I am touched to feel part of it. For the record, “Vajra” is a Sanskrit word that means thunderbolt or diamond, so something very strong and that cannot be easily cut. The Family crest includes a double Vajra thus with double strength, both at the relational and the spiritual level; the center of the crest contains a Sunyata (a sphere that refers to the primordial state of the universe) from which are emerging two lotus flowers: the Samsara (“circle of rebirth”) and Nirvana (“perfect peace of mind”) that illustrates “the unity of Doms and subs, whereby one cannot exist without the other”[2]. The Family is comprised of more than 100 members across North America. Just as it happens with any family diaspora, I have not met them all, but I am always delighted when I see the Family crest pinned to someone’s leather vest.

Even more recent is my becoming a member of Mama’s Leather Family as “Mama’s Canadian Youkali”. The date was August 3rd, 2013, and I remember it very well because the pin was presented to me the day when they held a roast for the 2013 Toronto titleholders during Toronto Leather Pride. It is an honour that has been paid to other titleholders in the past and, again, some of my good Leather friends are proud members of the Family, and yet it came as a delightful surprise for me. At IMsL, I had met Mama Sandy Reinhardt for the first time backstage, as I was a nervous wreck and as she was patiently waiting to get on-stage to play in Cherries Jubalie’s (one of the amazing 2013 contestants whom I had the chance to meet when I ran for the title) fantasy scene. I thought it was very kind of her to support Cherries. I am fully aware of the importance of this family, and the Mama’s Leather Family golden pin[3] now sits next to the Vajra Family pin on my leather.

* * *

So, have I finally made peace with the f-word? Well, we were never at war, were we, only distant acquaintances, and I was not uncomfortable with the notion attached to Leather family as much as I was with the old-fashion, stale concept of traditional family, the one that introduces a vibrato in the voices of right-wing politicians when they say it. Family took different shapes through centuries and cultures, and it also adopts various forms in modern communities (hippies, queer, kinky…). It is not a static but a multifaceted notion and, more important to me, one that has great meaning and power in our Leather community. So instead of rejecting the whole concept, it appears that I have begun to integrate the idea and to claim it too. After all, the point is to express and relay this sense of community, of belonging, finding and recognizing like-minded people and people who will understand you beyond words. Andrea Zanin in her Sex Geek blog describes her Leather family as a reassuring presence in the room.

I was surrounded by people who are blood-related to me, but the sight of my leather family people struck me really strongly, in a way that made me realize how I knew exactly who my family was in that room, and my definition didn’t necessarily line up with that of many others present. (Zanin 2009)

That is an allegory that I can relate to.

Peterborough, November 2013

Work cited

Collective. Mama’s Leather Family. July 17, 2013. (accessed November 2, 2013).

Fernandez, Elizabeth R., and E. Breck Parkman. « The Commune Era of Olompali: Challenging our Assumptions if the Hippie Lifestyle. » SCA Proceedings. 2011.

—. « The Commune Era of Olompali: Challenging our Assumptions if the Hippie Lifestyle. » SCA Proceedings. 2011.

Hayden, Corinne P. « Gender, Genetics, and Generation: Reformulating biology in Lesbian Kinship. » Cultural Anthropology, February 1995: 41-63.

Mavrikakis, Catherine. « Communauté de sang. » In Résonances: Dialogues avec la psychanalyse, by Simon Harel, 147-166. Montréal: Liber, 1998.

Popenoe, David. Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988.

Rinella, Jack. Partners in Power: Living in Kinky Relationships. Oakland: Greenery Press, 2003.

Stacey, Judith. In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

—. « Good Riddance to « The Family »: A Response to David Popenoe. » Journal of Marriage and Family, August 1993: 545-547.

Weston, Kath. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Youkali, Youkali. Leather Heights, Toronto, Canada. Kinky Tales from Hogtown. Toronto: Cuir Queer, 2013.

Zanin, Andrea. « Queer and the Family. » Sex Geek. Thoughts on Sex and Life. November 16, 2009. (accessed November 3, 2013).


[1].     Founded in 1967, the Olompali Chosen Family is a famous Bay Area hippie commune “associated with the Grateful Dead and certain other San Francisco musical legends of the1960s (Fernandez and Parkman, The Commune Era of Olompali: Challenging our Assumptions if the Hippie Lifestyle 2011).

[2].     Elements in quotation marks are details borrowed for our Family’s official mission statement.

[3].     Mama’s Leather Family, with Sandy Reinhardt as a leader, has more than 1500 members, mainly in the US and Canada, but in a few other countries. It started originally with 10 members whose effort Mama wanted to acknowledge, but gradually more people were taken by surprise with new golden pins (and sometimes honorary funny functions in Mama’s Family). If you want to learn more about Mama and the charity she created, the Leather Walk with SF AIDS Emergency Fund as beneficiary, please visit her website (Mama’s Leather Family).