The first time I watched the 1995 leatherdyke documentary Bloodsisters was sometime early in 2017. My ex, who was a collector of leather books and zines, brought some DVDs over for date night. I distinctly remember choosing Bloodsisters over Preaching to the Perverted (1997) because I was drawn to the cover art on the DVD. There was black block letter text on an appropriately deep red background that read Leatherdykes + Sadomasochism. What stood out to me the most was the image of the back of a naked woman bound tightly with thin twine from head to toe. The tightness of the twine caused the bursting and bulging of her flesh around the taught wraps, which is an erotic affect of rope bondage I like to call “sausage tie.” I just knew it was going to be good! Bloodsisters delighted me so much that I was upset I hadn’t heard of its existence before that night. I’ve watched it about five times since then, taking in what I’ve come to know as my erotic lineage.
At the rate that queer identity shifts and evolves, a documentary about dyke sexuality from the nineties should feel a lot like a time capsule. I cringe just reading books that were written even ten years ago because our language and how we think about gender and sexuality has changed so much. Bloodsisters interviews eight or so major players (ie leather famous) in the San Francisco scene including Patrick Califia, Robin Sweeney, Tala Brandeis, Wickie Stamps, Queen Cougar, and Skeeter, among many others. There in my living room, twenty two years after its release, I was watching leatherdykes face the same challenges and have the same conversations we’re still having today. They talked about being outcasts from the larger lesbian community due to their SM lifestyle. They talked about losing friends and family members for either being queer, or into leather. They talked about political issues and how they can’t trust politicians to keep them safe. Except for the mullets (ok maybe the mullets too), it felt current and pertinent.
Leatherdyke is a sexuality, and those of us who identify with it are automatically associated with perversion. When you’re turned on by filth, blood, and pain, no matter how hard you try you simply cannot bring it back from the margins. You cannot make dyke SM sexuality respectable in the eyes of society, and for many of us that’s even part of the appeal. The risks and the stigmatization of waving your freak flag have only moderately improved in the last twenty-five years. The watered down, mainstream ideas of kink have only moved the needle so far. Leatherdyke sexuality carries an inherent politic of anti-respectability and for that it has always been ahead of its time.
Bloodsisters premiered at NewFest in 1995 at a time where it was accepted, but not with open arms. The Christian right and anti-porn feminists, many of whom are also lesbians, have had a common goal in the censorship of sexually charged media. In fact, Bloodsisters was dropped from distribution due to the American Family Association’s pressure on Congress to ban funding for artists whose work was sexual or homosexual in nature through the National Endowment for the Arts (Ron Athey and Robert Mapplethorp were also targeted). Bloodsisters has come back around to screen at NewFest again in October 2020 on tour for its twenty fifth anniversary. In a Q&A with NewFest, Director Michelle Handelman spoke about her motivation for creating the documentary. She went to an International Ms. Leather (IMsL) contest in 1992 and was enamored by what she witnessed— a community where sexuality and politics go hand in hand. She described the draw of leatherdykes combining erotic pleasure and political activism.
What many outsiders don’t know is that leather is more than just hot sex. Leather communities and organizations have a long history of activism, mutual aid, charity work, and dedication to education. For example, the world famous Folsom Street Fair is known as a public display of hedonism but it was actually founded to raise funds to fight gentrification in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. There is a scene in Bloodsisters where Skeeter is teaching a workshop on pervertables to a captive audience in someone’s backyard. Pervertables are common household items that can be used in SM, like clothespins and plastic forks. When you don’t have the money to spend on fancy toys because you’re a poor, working-class dyke, this is a small but life-changing political action. Having community leaders welcome you in and assert that you don’t need to wear expensive leather or have a bag full of pricey gear to be part of this scene opens doors for a lot more dykes to enter. Education with class consciousness really speaks to the larger community values.
Filmed over ten years after the height of the feminist sex wars, we can still feel it heavy on screen. In the film, the cast heads to D.C. for the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, which drew over one million participants in April of 1993. Protest signs featuring the logo for the National Organization for Women flood the march as one of the leatherdykes explains that when NOW finally decided to show support for lesbians, there was a caveat. As one of the largest feminist organizations, they declared war on what came to be known as the “Big Four” issues: pornography, public sex, sadomasochism, and pedophilia. Both public sex and sadomasochism have always been integral parts of leatherdyke culture. By equating pedophilia with a list of consensual sex acts between adults, NOW was boldly stating exactly who didn’t belong in the feminist movement.
My absolute favorite part in the film gives me chills— the San Francisco leatherdykes rolled into Washington D.C. clad in leather and joined the march surrounded by the contingent from the National Organization for Women. They created a large enough gap in the march so that Tala Brandeis could wield her bullwhip that appears to be no shorter than twenty feet long (drools) on the back of a very willing bottom. This was public sex. This was sadomasochism. This was a political act of protest from a trans woman, leatherdyke sadist amongst a marching sea of feminists who had already decided that they weren’t fighting for her rights because she didn’t deserve rights. Her very existence was disrespectable. As Patrick Califia says in the film, “We can’t exist without activism.”
Another way this film has held up over the past twenty five years is through the way leatherdykes relate to both gender and sexuality with a sense of imagination that we can all stand to learn from. A lot of my personal writing and thinking is around queer imaginations, especially erotic and political imaginations. This is informed by my own leatherdyke identity where I can be a femme woman and a Daddy at the same time. In community this dissonance doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Something that several of the interviewees mention in the documentary is the distinction between a dyke and a lesbian, situating themselves amongst the former as it works to both reclaim the disrespectable (it is a slur after all) as well as encompass a larger spectrum of gender and sexual experience. Robin Sweeney, who has since transitioned, described himself in the film as “an effeminate faggot bottom bi woman.” While this may be confusing for a lot of people, the leatherdyke imagination is vast enough to embody this seemingly conflicted identity.
Many who play in leatherdyke spaces have come to appreciate it as a sort of gender playground. When we’re roleplaying, we’re fantasizing, we’re using our wildest imaginations for erotic pleasure. We can choose a persona and be validated instantly through engaging in scenes with others. In her Q&A with NewFest, Michelle Handelman remarks about the film being timeless, noting that this was an era before pronouns and yet people were changing their pronouns “by the hour.” The leatherdyke culture values our own bespoke identities over the ones we are forced to embody in society. As such, in Bloodsisters we are told several times that there are no rigid rules of gender or sexuality for who gets to be in the dyke club, or come to the dyke parties—what is referred to as ”non-separatist.” The cyclical discussions popping up weekly on Twitter of “Who’s allowed to reclaim the D slur?” or “Do bi lesbians exist?” seem misguided when my queer lineage is folks like Robin Sweeney who showed us exactly how a leatherdyke can be a “faggot bi woman.”
Art that spotlights leather subcultures chips away at the shame of exclusion imposed on us by our own larger queer community and supposed feminists, and makes people feel less alone. The impact Bloodsisters has had on uplifting and destigmatizing leather is hard to completely comprehend. I wonder how many young dykes have found themselves in this documentary over the past twenty five years, watching it in secret and dreaming of others out there just like them. What was perhaps meant to document a moment in history has proven every single time I’ve watched it that it hasn’t aged at all. This is both a testament to the lack of progress in the larger scope of American politics, but also affirms that leatherdykes have been forward thinking when it comes to sexuality and gender long before Bloodsisters was created. I am forever grateful for the spark that this film ignited in me, in my queer imagination, and in the connection to my erotic heritage.
Join us and NewFest for the virtual screening of Bloodsisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism, director Michelle Handelman’s enduring 1995 film that documents the queer outlaws of the San Francisco leather scene. Get a Festival Pass or tickets with a $2 discount at newfest.org/festival with the discount code AUTOSTRADDLE20. The New York LGBTQ Film Festival runs October 16-27 and features 120+ new films and events on demand. See you there!