david stein: tribute to a slave, writer, publisher, and friend

[Note: This post includes not-safe-for-work links.]


I cleared out my leather life this fall. Technically, all I was doing was donating my leather library – hundreds of vintage leather/BDSM magazines and a few books to the Carter/Johnson Leather Library, a travelling historical library that I had volunteered for in the 00s. But this was also a way for me to say goodbye to the period – 2004 to 2007 – when I'd belonged to the leather community. I proved to be a square peg there in a pentagonal hole, but I'd never had the opportunity to formally leave the community. This would be my opportunity.

At a certain point, I passed on some books by david stein (his name is lowercased) to my apprentice, who is a member of the leather club La Garou. It occurred to me then that I ought to drop a line to david. I'd fallen out of touch with all my friends this year, but I knew that david was ill with cancer, which made it especially important that I stay in touch with him.

Then the urgency of my current task – I was cutting back on my belongings because I faced an imminent inspection by my landlord – caused that thought to slip out of my mind.

I donated the magazines and books. On Twitter, I thanked the Leather Library, as well as the Leather Archives & Museum, which had originally sold me most of the magazines. Then I tweeted, "(*Quietly closes a door on that chapter of my life.*)"

Seventeen days later, I emerged from the bathroom to find my apprentice standing with his smartphone in hand, looking grave. "I think you should sit down," he said.

Thus I learned of the death of david stein.




david stein


SAFE, SANE, AND CONSENSUAL

History is likely to remember david stein because he coined the phrase "safe, sane, and consensual." He had mixed feelings about the phrase, as I think pretty much anyone would who discovered that a phrase they'd thought up in a spare moment had suddenly been turned into a pledge of allegiance. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that the kink world would be a much poorer place today if david hadn't come up with that phrase. The biggest problem that the kink world has always faced is educating its members in the difference between fantasy and reality. SSC (as the phrase was eventually abbreviated) provided the kink world with a convenient way to convey that roleplaying that you're harming another person is very different from actually harming a person. What exactly constitutes harm is something that people in the kink world continue to debate, and as david pointed out, the phrase "safe, sane, and consensual" was meant to promote that debate, not stifle it. But not thinking about that topic at all was always the greater danger. By coining SSC, david saved the kink world from a lot of well-meaning practioners who might otherwise have been blithely oblivious to the dangers of what they were doing.


COMMUNITY

If david had done only that one deed, he would be remembered. But he did a great deal more.

In 1980, he helped to found New York City's Gay Male S/M Activists, which was one of the first open-membership BDSM groups. (In the late 1970s, david had suffered from the problem of how to join the closed membership of the leather world when he wasn't yet part of that world.) In 1997, he edited for the International Leatherman magazine an issue about the emerging practice of Master/slave relationships. In recent years, he co-wrote the first book interviewing gay men in M/s relationships, which won the National Leather Association International's Geoff Mains Nonfiction Book Award in 2010. He followed that up by publishing a nonfiction anthology that traces the history of M/s.


PUBLISHING

Which naturally raises the topic of david's publishing. His Perfectbound Press (the most apt name I've ever encountered for a publishing company) only published eight titles, three of which were his own. But among other things, david brought into print the writings and art of Thom Magister, one of the few leathermen still alive who witnessed the early years of gay leather in the 1950s. I well remember, when I was doing my own research on leather history, how incredibly difficult it was to locate information on pre-Stonewall leather history. The sad fact is that most of the leathermen who lived then have died, many of AIDS. Thom Magister had contributed an important memoir to the classic nonfiction anthology Leatherfolk, but it was david who published Mr. Magister's The Slave Journals and Other Tales of the Old Guard, a collection of fictional love stories that trace gay leather from 1948 to the 1980s. He also published Mr. Magister's witty yet sexy collections of leathermen "paper dudes."


ROMANCE

But david's own fiction deserves recognition too.

"I don't understand why so many women read my novel," david once told me.

"That's what you get for putting 'romance' in your subtitle," I replied.

It was always a matter of bemusement to david that most of the feedback he received about Carried Away: An SM Romance was from women rather than men. ("i truly appreciate my female fans, but it's been disappointing how few men, comparatively, seem to have enjoyed the book – or at least been willing to say so." But later he added, "i realized that the vast majority of readers of fiction of any stripe in the U.S. are female – and always have been, back as long as any kind of records have been kept.")

I was never puzzled by his popularity with female readers of romance novels (and, presumably, male readers of romance novels). Carried Away is a bridge between gay porn and gay romance, with graphic kink scenes alternating with ethical discussions between the master and slave, as the two men seek to establish their relationship. The book is (as david put it) an antidote to John Preston's classic Master/slave story Mr. Preston, in which an infallible master demands unthinking obedience. Not so in david's novel.

"If I give myself to him, I'll be slave to a man, not a fantasy – a fragile, imperfect, fully rounded human being, not Robotop. Can I handle that? . . . If he's willing to take on all of my shit, why the hell not? . . . Why do we make it so hard for ourselves, anyway? Why can't we love each other without working through all these issues of power and control? Another puzzle piece suddenly clicked into place. Maybe working through them is how we love each other."

And the narrator's new master says, "Masters need to be reminded that we're not gods and aren't exercising power in a vacuum – or in a social structure that supports what we do."

Later, the narrator says, "We smiled at each other – equal partners in an adventure of inequality."


FRIENDSHIP

Which brings me to david as a friend.

I first ran across david stein in 2004, through an online bibliography he'd compiled about leather-SM-fetish history; I was working on a retro leather novel at the time. By the time I joined a leather history list at Yahoo Groups, I knew that david was a major figure in the kink world, so I was awestruck to find him on the list.

Then he sent me a fan letter.

He'd followed the link in my sig-text to my website. There he had read a short story I'd written, which happened to be on bondage, a topic he enjoyed. "i wanted to convey my respects," he told me, in what has to be one of the all-time exercises in humility.

Always eager for a beta reader who knows his subject matter, I sent him the beginning of my retro leather novel the following year. (I would end up dedicating the novel "to david stein, who was there for me at the beginning.") "i hate you," he told me by return e-mail. "i stayed up last night until i'd read the whole thing. i hate you. ;)"

He followed this up with a scathing beta report that reduced me to tears. His comments were honest because he respected my writings, he told me later. That was david: very generous, very warm-hearted, and very blunt.

Over the years, I've had people who stayed in close enough touch with me that I considered them my friends – never more than about half a dozen at any given time. For thirteen years, david was one of those friends. I don't suppose that, on his side, he considered me to be an intimate friend. But he once contemplated adding me to his web page where he listed his "fellow travelers," only to worry that it would place the current columns out of balance, which might cause his complex html coding to end up in a mess. ("You do know, don't you, that that line is a classic?" I teased him. "'Oh, no, I can't add them to my dinner party, because they're a single person, and that would make everything asymmetric.'" He laughed at that.) When I left the leather community, I expected my friendship with david to end; in my experience, people stop talking to you once you have left their community. But david kept sending me e-mail, and when he was in my area for a conference, he'd sometimes drop me a note beforehand, asking me whether I wanted to get together.

"We seem to be at a similar crossroads, so i wanted to share ideas or at least commiserate," david told me once. That was so often the case. A gay BDSM slave, he spoke of how difficult it was to find a master when he was old. I spoke of how difficult it was to find someone to mentor when I was genderqueer. Thankfully, both of us lived long enough to find what we were looking for.

By 2008, we'd moved on to talking about publishing. I was beginning to self-publish; he was thinking of doing the same. His plans would eventually morph into Perfectbound Press.

"You did know that i did my own design and typesetting for Carried Away?" he wrote to me. "And being as much of a dinosaur as you [g], i hand-tracked almost every line to achieve an even 'word color' throughout. Plus, of course (!), rewriting on the fly to fix intractable loose lines, widows, and orphans. Do ordinary readers of the novel notice or care? i don't fool myself that they do. But i know it's done well, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction."

I had a family background in book design; soon we were settled down to some mutually satisfactory conversation on Very Important Topics.

"Regarding favorite typefaces," he wrote to me, "one of my favorites – and the one i used for Carried Away – is Stone, either Serif or Sans; there's an Informal, too, but it's neither fish nor fowl and i've stopped using it. Even if there weren't the coincidence of the name, it's a great face, designed by Sumner Stone, one of the best digital type designers; very readable and pleasing to the eye. It doesn't offer all of the bells and whistles, like old-style figures, but i've never gotten the knack of using that kind of extended face anyway. If i did, i'd use Adobe Garamond Pro, another favorite, which has every nicety you can imagine. . . . As Bringhurst points out, faces like Garamond and Galliard really need high-res reproduction; at 300 to 600 dpi, they lose a lot of their distinctive detail. Stone is designed to look as good at 300 dpi as at 2700 dpi. One of my favorite faces is Optima, but i stopped using it because of how it looks in low-res printouts, which means most of my output."

Later, he informed me with great cheerfulness, "The three books i've published so far are things it gives me great satisfaction to have in print even if no more than a few hundred folks actually buy them."

Soon he was considering writing a sequel to Carried Away. (He would end up including a sequel short story in his collection Boots, Bondage, and Beatings.)

o--o--o


my slavery has to mean something beyond scratching my, or my Master's, sexual itches, or it's not worth the trouble. And i know many other ownerless slaves who feel the same way. It's fine to idolize your Master, as long as it's for His achievements and service to the community and whatever higher powers He recognizes, and not just for a big dick or skilled hand with a whip or a rope. Somehow i need to work that into the sequel of Carried Away, and i don't yet know how. i spent most of the day working on it, and i keep falling into the same pattern of talk-food-s/m-sex as in the first book. i need to bring their respective work and worship into the story somehow.

Terry [the master in Carried Away] designs prisons for a living – a conceit i thought was very clever because of how it ties into his bondomania. But he's an intelligent, humane man who can't help thinking about the context of his work. Should he simply refuse to be a party to the state's insatiable appetite for incarcerating the poorest, the blackest, and the least educated of its citizens? Or should he somehow dedicate his career to making prisons that will serve some of their original function, rehabilitation, even against the opposition or entropy of the bureaucrats and politicians who commission him? And if so, how would that be possible? You've written a lot of prison stories: can you recommend anything on progressive penology that i should read? . . .

What my muse really wants for the Carried Away sequel (i really need a name for it, other than "Carried Away Again," "Still Carried Away," "More Carried Away," etc.) is to convey the struggle and the joy of an ongoing M/s partnership in real life, but the problem, as always, is how to make real life as interesting as our fantasies! i've never enjoyed so-called realistic fiction. Unless there's a soupcon of fantasy, i get bored. And yet, the hardest thing to achieve in M/s is precisely that integration into all the aspects of ordinary life. Most people seem to find that too much reality kills the M/s dynamic. It's very rare to find a couple who can maintain their roles despite both working full-time jobs. It's much easier if one of them stays home and focuses on the partnership rather than a career – and that doesn't have to be the slave!

The way i've set up Carried Away, Terry has a career, while Matt just has a good job. It would make perfect sense for Matt to scale back his commitment to work in order to be more available to Terry, but the reverse is iffier. And if either scales back too much, they'll lose a good part of what makes them interesting to the other. Terry is obsessed by the idea of confining Matt full-time, but at the same time he knows better than anyone how self-defeating that would be. Where's the challenge in keeping a man in bondage if he has nothing else to do, nowhere else he needs to be anyway? So there's always this tension in Terry. The challenge for me is to maintain a similar tension in Matt and not let him give in too easily all the time – which is really hard, because what he wants is what i want, and getting even a little close to it always makes me want to dive in all the way!

One way i might work out your suggestion about getting them involved in the community is by trying to create a support group for Masters and slaves – except it can't be called that or it'll turn off the guys who think they're doing fine and don't need "help." i'm thinking it may start with a Thanksgiving gathering chez Terry where all of the other characters already introduced, plus a few more, come together. Not sure, though, whether there should be a formal M/s protocol or a loose one – guess it depends on how many guests are non-M/s.

The other thing i need to work out is how to increase the times when Matt is serving Terry in a nonsexual, but eroticized, way. So far, except for dickhead's boot-cleaning, there hasn't been much opportunity for Matt to serve because Terry is always controlling everything and doesn't leave anything for him to do. A common mistake? Or just in erotic fiction? [g]

o--o--o


We also chatted about our respective struggles with ill health. He said, "i've been extremely limited in how much i can go out by a tremendous increase in the routine levels of pain i have from the arthritis. i'm taking so much Oxycontin and Endocet that i'm dizzy, woozy, and constipated all of the time, and i still hurt so much i can barely get in and out of cab. You think the universe is trying to get my attention?"

We discussed the effects that our writing careers had on our lives. He said, "i've discovered recently in my own life that being completely open can bite you in the ass in terms of employers, et al. i wonder how many jobs i missed out on because they Googled me and found my Web site? Not going to remove it, though. Fuck 'em!"

And finally, there was ethics. Lots and lots of e-mail about ethics. He said, "i've always loathed above all Masters Who are arrogant and full of themselves. A certain amount of cockiness can be charming, especially in the young, but the best Masters, in my opinion, tend to be relatively humble men when it comes to Their opinion of Themselves. Master Steve, for instance, says He's just 'selling water by the seashore.'"

And on another occasion: "To me, M/s doesn't make any sense without love, and in my experience that's also true of most of the relationships i've observed. Only love can support the rigors of M/s for longer than a few weeks, and for it to work, both partners need to be 'wired' so that they love in the mode of Master or slave and have trouble forming intimate bonds otherwise."

And in what I think was his most telling comment: "i didn't have quite as severe a hangup as yours, but i was also preoccupied with the ethical issues from an early age – i'm an ABD in Philosophy, after all, and where do you think 'safe, sane, and consensual' came from?"

o--o--o


Carried Away, david stein once told me, is "a romance because i'm a romantic." He was also a good friend. I will miss him.


DAVID'S WRITINGS

"Wonder if anyone will still be reading my stuff after 30 years?" david mused after a fellow BDSM author died. I certainly hope so.

His personal website, with a number of articles and stories. (Cached by the Internet Archive.)

Perfectbound Press titles, with sample chapters. (Cached by the Internet Archive.) These books may not be available for long, so buy them now.

I posted a chapter from Carried Away at my old e-zine True Tales.

The still-useful bibliography of leather history by david.

His FetLife profile (FetLife members only), where he posted one of his final essays, "Ethical Principles for BDSM."


OTHER TRIBUTES TO DAVID STEIN

Some of the tributes are in the comments to these posts.


On the web:

Anne O Nomis.


At Twitter:

Yingtai.


At Facebook:

The announcement of his death, by a member of his leather family.

Andrew Harwin.

Laura Antoniou.

J Grant Anderson.

Andrea Zanin.


If anyone knows of any additional tributes to david or online writings by david, feel free to link to them in the comments.
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