~ History of Leather Women’s Groups in San Francisco ~
Cardea ~ Samois ~ Outcasts ~ Exiles
I think those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a place where we have access to leather clubs often take that for granted. Try moving to a city where there are no leather clubs and you will soon realize the importance of having a peer group. Leather clubs provide a sanctuary where we can be ourselves, learn new skills and share knowledge with one another. Presenters give us ideas, spur us to creativity, and teach us about safety so we don’t have to find things out the hard way. Clubs also serve to validate our existence and experiences. The world at large doesn’t validate us. I know it doesn’t validate me for being gay or for being a butch, and it sure as hell doesn’t validate me for being kinky. We turn to ourselves for that. But perhaps the most important function of a club is to be a gathering place to meet like-minded women, potential play partners and mates.
Our clubs are organizations that go through developmental stages . As you read this history, whether you are from the San Francisco area or not, I suspect you will see some similarities between the struggles faced by clubs today and those faced by our predecessors. At five years old, The Exiles has just entered a major evolutionary change as the leaders who began the club begin to step down and new folks come on board. It is quite normal to have tension and conflict as the members question, explore and revise organizational goals and structures. Boundaries and definitions are reviewed as we ask ourselves, "Is this still who we are?" "What is my place?" "What are the expectations here?" As I stated, these are not new situations or questions. The Exiles and other "women only" leather clubs across the nation are examining whether to be inclusive of FTM’s and how to define "woman". Back in 1978, Samois struggled with whether or not to include bisexuals and with the definition of "lesbian". More on that later.
Clubs struggle with burn out, old versus new ways to carry out tasks, and difficulty finding committed volunteers, especially ones who will take on leadership roles. We are basically a group of rebels who play with power and control for fun. It’s preposterous to believe that these issues won’t be reflected in a fringe organization. As clubs get larger, members may also feel a loss of intimacy. Earlier clubs were smaller and more intimate. Smaller groups should be encouraged to form to meet those needs. Successful clubs are ones with a balance between structure and flexibility, mutual respect, and where members give each other lots of grace to not be perfect.
In San Francisco, our history begins in 1975 with the founding of the Society of Janus by Cynthia Slater. This was (and still is) a mixed gender SM support and social group. In 1976 Cardea was formed as part of an outreach effort by Janus to attract more women. Its original intention was for Cardea to be a women’s "rap group" and an entry way to Janus.
The name Cardea was based in Goddess worship. "In The White Goddess by Robert Graves, he explains that the Latins worshipped The White Goddess as Cardea. ‘White’ does not refer to a race but to a primacy as in, from which others are derived, like the full moon at Her midnight zenith" .
Meetings were held in members’ homes. The "rap group" idea was short-lived as the participants found that to be boring and soon started doing demos. Attendance increased! When the volunteer leaders burned out, no one wanted to take it over, so Cardea was discontinued. It was from Cardea that a core group of dykes formed who would later become Samois.
In 1977, SF dykes began to go to a men’s fisting bar in the Mission called The Catacombs which had a women’s night once a month. Alcohol and drugs were a common part of the scene in those days and when you walked into The Catacombs there was a full bar and there were seats where people could be found smoking pipes, joints, cigars, and partaking of various other drugs. There was a giant waterbed which often had a handful of people fucking wildly on it. Large tubs of the lubricant of choice, Crisco, could be found everywhere. Slings hung from the ceiling, there was a cage, lots of beams with hooks and a shower. There were mostly no safewords, no (public) switching and not a lot of toys – but ask anyone who was around then and they will tell you there was always a lot of fucking.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, there was not a lot of information about safe play or safer sex. One of my favorite quotes in regards to learning about safe play is from an article that Fish did in 1993. She quotes Raelyn as stating, "We were just kind of doing it, and finding out as we went along. You know, some people did get hurt some, and it was like, ‘Oh, well, can’t do that again’" . Much was learned by trial and error. Drugs and alcohol were sometimes problematic as people were too stoned to make safe decisions. The mid-80′s saw a change in that behavior as people began to see that substance use and play didn’t always mix. And as far as safer sex, how safe can a community shared tub of Crisco be? The AIDS crisis in the early 80′s forced us to reconsider our sexual practices.
1978-1979 marked what is referred to as the beginning of the Lesbian Sex Wars. You basically had the feminist anti-porn movement against the s/m women. The anti-porn movement, "did everything they could to keep SM Dykes out of their bookstores, conferences and meeting places" . Lesbian feminists thought s/m was akin to violence and battery against women, the result of unresolved sexual abuse issues, a disease, and even rape. In 1980 the National Organization of Women passed a resolution condemning s/m.
Samois was founded in 1978 and defined itself as "a lesbian feminist s/m organization." Cardea folded soon afterwards. "The name Samois came from The Story of O. Samois is the estate of Anne-Marie, a lesbian dominatrix who pierces O and brands her. We wanted a name that would suggest lesbian S/M without saying it in so many words." 
Samois was all about political activism and standing up for what they believed in. Samois challenged limiting ideas about lesbian sexuality and misinformation about what s/m is. These women were radical! They kept pushing the edges and pushing the edges, and sadly, they had to fight against other women. They fought the Women’s Building to get a space to meet, who despite having a "For Rent" sign in their window, refused to allow an s/m group to meet there. They fought the Gay & Lesbian Freedom Day Parade (now called the Pride Parade) to let them march. Their first appearance at the parade was in 1978 with members of Janus. They were harassed by parade monitors who tried to expel them because they were supposedly depicting violence against women. They were booed, hissed and spit at by the crowd, some of them shouting "Nazis" to the marchers .
They also fought with bookstores who refused to carry their publications and against censorship in the media. Attacks on lesbian s/m were appearing in publications such as the Lesbian Connection, The Body Politic, Sinister Wisdom, Off Our Backs, and Sapphistry. Samois responded to the press but often their views were not printed and anything pro-s/m was censored. It wasn’t until 1981 that other views slowly began to creep into the media. Both Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia were instrumental in getting articles published that countered the narrow views of sexual expression being pushed by the media.
Samois published a 44 page pamphlet in 1979 entitled What Color is Your Handkerchief? Bookstores refused to carry it. When they finally caved to petitions and pressure, they put the book on an obscure shelf with a card stating that "s/m is anti-feminist". Along with that publication was their Hanky Code for Women. Notably, there are no colors to represent age play (Daddy-girl/boy) or cocksucking as those would have been considered aligning with the patriarchy.
Switch to the bar scene. There was a lesbian bar in Oakland called Ollies and in 1981 the members of Samois decided to focus on having a little fun. Their first leather dance as well as the first Ms. Leather contest was held at Ollies with 300 in attendance. There was also a bar called Scott’s in SF which Pat Califia describes as a place where "role playing dykes, punk dykes, black lesbians and lesbians in leather" hung out . Some other places worth mentioning are the Sutro Baths which had a women’s night every Wednesday and it quickly became a play space for women . Amelia’s was a popular lesbian dance bar in SF. Samois held a book party there and about 200 woman attended . Bacchanal was a lesbian bar in Albany that had a Sex Month in November. This event provided a forum for viewing lesbian erotica and hearing lectures about sexuality, including some by leather dykes.
Now we come to what was has been said to be both the pinnacle of achievement and the demise of Samois. In November of 1981, Samois published the book Coming to Power. It is currently out of print but if you can ever get your hands on a copy (I picked mine up at a leather Swap Meet) it is well worth reading. What a work of art! The committee from Samois that was working on the book took out ads seeking writings about women & s/m. Writings poured in from all over the country. Of course, then they had the challenging job of trying to figure out which writings to select, what message they wanted to portray to the media and so on. When the book was finally finished it sold out quickly. Why? Women were hungry to have their sexuality validated. This book screamed, "You can’t put my sex in your little box!" Samois was not ready for the labor involved in this effort. It was a strain on the club causing much tension and conflict . Samois existed for 5 years (78-83). By 1983 the group was splintered and drained. According to Gayle Rubin, Samois ended in "an orgy of bickering, psychodrama, embezzlement, and assault" .
After Samois came The Outcasts. The Outcasts was founded in SF in 1984 and lasted an amazing 13 years (84-97). An advertisement was placed and 80 women showed up at the Valencia Rose. They began to discuss a new lesbian s/m group and guess what conflict came up? How to define lesbian? The strictest criteria was to exclude bi and trans women and they wanted "only those lesbians who had sex only with other lesbians, presumably unto the tenth generation of fuck partners" . Gayle Rubin states that she stood up at this meeting and invited all the "faggot-identified dykes, bisexuals, transsexuals and other weirdos and perverts who wanted a more inclusively defined organization to gather together" . A group came together and identified themselves as the lunatic fringe, which eventually became the name of their newsletter and is now the name of The Exiles newsletter. This group became The Outcasts. They met and decided not to ever publish a book. Their first program was a "toy show and tell" attended by about 30 women in July 8, 1984.
The Outcasts sponsored community events such as Butch Fashion Shows, the first SF Dyke Daddy contest (which was won by BC Cliver), many dances, and even a night to "take the perverts bowling". They began promoting safer sex in 1985. By 1986 they were having newcomer orientations, had officers, bylaws and a logo. In an effort to prevent Samois from meeting there, the Women’s Building had adopted a policy in 1981 that banned s/m groups from using their space. In 1989 a formal petition by The Outcasts got the policy officially revoked.
The Outcasts did not have an official policy on FTM’s but it is worth noting that their practice was to allow people in transition to decide when they did or did not fit in. Their philosophy since the beginning was to always err on the side of inclusion.
Eventually the club imploded. I have talked to many women about the break up of the club and of course everyone has a different opinion. It seems to pain them to talk about it. I do know that The Outcasts gave The Exiles some seed money to help them get started. There are letters to the Editor in the first edition of The Lunatic Fringe that The Exiles printed and these women were upset about the lack of a "democratic process." Perhaps it was this bitter ending that caused the Exiles to delineate in their new Articles of Association exactly how the organization should disband .
The Exiles began taking applications for membership in July of 1997 and by October had 71 members. The club defines itself as a social and educational group. Note, they are specifically not a political group. Membership is currently open to "all women who are over 18 years of age, and who have a personal and positive interest in S/M play or fantasy with other women. All individuals who self-identify as women and who live as women" . The Exiles currently has about 200 members. We have met the entire time at the Women’s Building and our history is archived at the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago .
We have a program once a month that is attended by between 100-175 members and non members. For the most part our program format is that the first half is educational instruction and the second half is demo and Q&A. We have been fortunate enough to have had some of the most prominent women in s/m speak for us including Midori, Dossie Easton, Carol Queen, Sarah Lashes and Cleo Dubois, to name a few. We have had one male presenter, the late Hal Slate, teaching us about rope bondage in April of 1998. We are always on the lookout for new talent but women seem to be intimidated by the idea of talking to a large crowd. We began having our programs sign interpreted for the deaf and hard of hearing in September of 1998.
Our club, like many others, has been affected by our increased visibility. The increased availability of internet access, classes, and books, along with columns in newspapers and munches make the leather community easier to find. I suspect this increased visibility will cause us to continue to grow. Within the Exiles, our outreach has changed dramatically from spending frugal amounts for tiny ads and flyers that were hand delivered to local kink-friendly shops to doing most of our outreach via program announcements on internet lists and web calendars. Our website serves as a contact point from many in the community, new and old, and we have added Web Manager to our list officers.
We sleep together, we play together, we have feelings beyond friendship which color our interactions. Like the clubs before us, we are made up of a lot of powerful women. It takes an enormous amount of behind the scenes work to pull this off and I’m amazed it all comes together as well as it does. It’s like a play with everyone running around until someone says, "Places everyone!" and it works.
Cardea, Samois, The Outcasts – this is the thread of our roots. We can trace the way our business meetings are run, the name of our newsletter, the fact that we do orientations, and even where we meet to these roots. When we attend national events like Ms. World Leather, it gives witness to the fact that we are united on some level with our sisters across the nation whose clubs have shared many of the same joys and challenges. We can learn from each other and from our past. It may not be a perfect place, but it’s our space. Claim it, participate in it, enjoy it, but most of all be thankful for it because not everyone in the country has the luxury of having a club to belong to.
Special thanks to Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia for having the foresight to write down some of our history. Thanks to Sal Hopkins for encouraging me, quite some time ago, to explore this history. Thanks to the many women, too numerous to name here, who have talked to me over the years about their experiences within this community. I loved hearing your stories, please continue to speak them out!
1. Tuckman, B & Jensen, M. (1977). Stages of Small Group Development. Group and Organizational Studies, 2, 419-427.
2. Fish. (1993). "History is Just Good Gossip: Fifteen Years of Dykes Doing SM." Brat Attack: The Zine for Leatherdykes and Other Bad Girls, #4, Summer/Fall.
3. Weymouth, T. and Society of Janus. (1999). "Society of Janus: 25 Years". http://www.soj.org
4. Califia, P. (1981). "A Personal View of the History of the Lesbian S/M Community and Movement in San Francisco". Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M, 2nd & 3rd edition, edited by Samois. Boston, MA: Alyson Publications.
5. Rubin, G. (1996). "The Outcasts: A Social History". The Second Coming – A Leatherdyke Reader, edited by Pat Califia and Robin Sweeney. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Publications.
6. The Exiles’ Articles of Association. (1997). http://www.theExiles.org
7. The Leather Archives & Museum, Chicago, IL http://www.leatherarchives.org
Drake Cameron © Dec. 2002
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent any groups to which the author belongs.