by Gayle Rubin

This is a commentary on the historical account of leather women in San Francisco provided by Drake, offering some additions and corrections. 

With all due respect to Drake Cameron’s wonderful article on the early days of organized lesbian SM in San Francisco, it does contain a few errors of fact and some overstated contrasts between SM “then” and SM “now.” I also would like to add some context and a different perspective regarding some of the events about which she has written.

One problem with online texts is that they tend to exist in a kind of undated timelessness. Drake’s essay originally appeared in three parts of the Lunatic Fringe in May, June and July, 2007. The version on the Exiles website is somewhat revised, although I do not know when those revisions were done. My comments were written in 2014 but were slightly edited in 2017.

I. Factual Matters

The Society of Janus began before 1975. Dating the origins of the Society of Janus is tricky, as Janus formed and reformed several times. However, the first iteration goes back to 1972, and the first major reorganization was accomplished by 1974.

Cardea, the women’s SM rap group that was affiliated with Janus, was indeed very important to the founding of Samois, the first lesbian SM organization. However, it is not quite correct to say that the core group who founded Samois came out of Cardea. Some did, but most of the early Samois members were never in Cardea. The sources of Samois’ early membership were diverse.

The Catacombs was not a bar, much less a “full bar.” It was a private club and sold no alcohol. The sale of alcoholic beverages is tightly regulated, and operating a bar requires a liquor license. In California, sex on the premises is one of the legal grounds for revoking a liquor license. Because of these legal parameters, in California there has been a fairly rigid separation between bars that sell alcohol but limit sex, and venues such as bath houses and sex clubs that facilitate sex but do not sell alcohol. There have been exceptions, particularly during periods of lax enforcement of the alcoholic beverage codes, but the Catacombs was not one of these. The Catacombs had a bar– like area, but it was strictly BYOB. No alcohol was served.[1]

The male presenter who did the program on rope bondage in April of 1998 was not Hal Slate. It was Hal Heller, a much beloved local figure who was a bondage enthusiast and the owner of the motorcycle safety training school. Hal Slate was also a venerated community figure who had been one of the owners of the Caldron. He was a member of the gay chorus and a psychotherapist.[2]

II. Similarities, Differences, and Anachronisms

While there were certainly differences between the local women’s SM community in the late 1970s and in the late 2000s, it is easy to exaggerate the discontinuities. It is incorrect to state that there were mostly no safewords in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or that there was little information about safe play. Safewords were a well-established aspect of Bay Area public kink culture by the late 1970s, and there was plentiful information about how to do SM safely and responsibly.

Knowledge of SM technique and concern for safe play were deeply embedded in local kink culture well before the establishment of Samois. Samois emerged in a community that emphasized communication, negotiation, and the dissemination of technical expertise. While the body of kink knowledge has grown in the interim, the biggest changes are probably less in its substantive contents than in its forms of circulation. In the 1950s and 1960s, most transmission of SM information had been verbal, and was largely from one individual to another. Over the course of the 1970s, the emergence of organized groups such as Eulenspiegel (circa 1970), Janus (circa 1972), and Samois (1978) established the classroom format of “programs.” It was mainly in the 1980s that the accumulated knowledge of SM technology was written down and published, and the 1990s brought about expanded access via the Internet.

One possible source of this confusion about the earlier states of SM knowledge may be the terminology of “safe sex” itself, which tends to blur the distinctions between “safe” SM and “safe sex” with respect to AIDS transmission. While safe SM play was a well-developed corpus of knowledge by the late 1970s, the concept and terminology of “safe” or “safer sex” did not emerge until the early 1980s, when people began to cope with the threats posed by an as yet unidentified but lethal and sexually transmitted pathogen. “Safer sex” in this latter sense came about as a response to the AIDS epidemic, when any number of common practices were retooled to cope with a new set of problems. For example, the lubricant delivery system was redesigned even before the 1984 announcement of the identification of HIV. It did not take long for shared cans of Crisco to be replaced entirely by individual doses of Crisco in small disposable paper cups. “Personal” lubricant quickly became truly personal. Even before AIDS, outbreaks of serious and intractable infections such as hepatitis B and intestinal parasites caused the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to start a campaign to change sexual behavior. These kinds of efforts quickly morphed into the early AIDS safe sex guidelines.

While the material culture of SM equipment has expanded over the last three decades, there was no shortage of equipment in the late 1970s. There was public switching, although tops who bottomed risked some loss of status. Bottoms who topped gained status (and often dates) but generally did not reap the same levels of deference accorded to those who maintained a full time dominant persona. I wonder how much that has changed.

In her discussion of the Samois hanky code, Drake attributes the absence of “colors to represent age play (Daddy-girl/boy) or cocksucking” to concerns that “those would have been considered aligning with the patriarchy.” There are no data to support this claim, as no such motivation was involved in the production of the first hankie code for women. The earliest women’s codes simply modified the men’s codes already in circulation, and the changes that were adopted were primarily chosen to make a gendered statement about the existence of kinky women and female perversion. So cocksucking, a staple of the men’s codes, became oral sex, primarily to make the category inclusive of female genitalia. No one involved intended that oral sex be a euphemism, or to exclude dildo-sucking or any other expression of female masculinity. Although age play was certainly present at the time, it did not appear on any of the codes from the era, male or female. Age play did not yet have the kind of following it now enjoys and had not yet acquired a sufficiently distinct public presence to be included as a marked category. Nor did many other now common identities, preferences, or organized erotic constituencies. There were no colors for bears, puppies, or full-time slavery. The terms Master and slave were often used interchangeably with Sadist and masochist, as the specific Master/slave subculture had not yet consolidated. All the codes, including the men’s versions, have shifted as new fads emerge or new subgroups coalesce. They have reflected the times in which they were printed and could not possibly anticipate a future that had not yet occurred.

III. From the Outcasts to the Exiles

Outcasts did not implode. The transition from Outcasts to Exiles did indeed become bitter, but Outcasts had been slowly withering from apathy and lack of participation. The old leadership group was tired and ready to retire. Many of the younger activists were less interested in running the Outcasts, and instead were engaged in other worthy projects, including new groups like the Pervert Scouts and publications such as Cuir Underground and Brat Attack. The membership had been repeatedly warned that the Outcasts was teetering toward disintegration, so its dissolution should not have been much of a shock. Nonetheless, the termination of the group, exacerbated by some unfortunate personality conflicts, did provoke an eruption of rage.  The ensuing strurm und drang tended to obscure how much continuity there was between the Outcasts and the Exiles.

The Outcasts gave the Exiles more than “some seed money to help them get started.” The Outcasts gave the group that became the Exiles pretty much its entire organizational structure (with some exceptions noted below). This included enough money to fund membership services for the rest of that fiscal year, the mailing list, the PO Box, the contact phone number, the Lunatic Fringe newsletter, and a set of bylaws and procedures that could be and were modified to fit the needs of a new organization and prevent reruns of the old problems. The Outcasts rules had not included a procedure for dissolution, so the old officers had to improvise one based on the legal structure of the group rather than on its customary practices. This of course contributed to the general outrage, and one of the first priorities of the Exiles was to adopt a clause detailing a formal process for its dissolution should one ever be required.

The few items that were not transferred from Outcasts to the Exiles were the name, logo, and most importantly, the organization’s legal structure consisting of a DBA (“Doing Business As,” the officially registered name of the organization), a tax ID number, and the existing bank account. The DBA, tax ID, and bank account involved legal obligations for which none of the old officers wanted to be responsible if they were no longer in control of those things. In order to sever those ties and the legal obligations they entailed, the new organization was required to get its own name and DBA, tax ID, and bank account. This should have been completely uncontroversial.

The one material dispute was over the treasury, and who was entitled to the organization’s funds. This became the main point of contention, and the issue over which the most anger was articulated. In retrospect, this too should have been uncontroversial, but it was misrepresented and widely misunderstood. In the end, the contested amount was just slightly more than $500.

At the time of the Outcasts’ demise, its treasury possessed approximately $2500. This consisted of whatever membership dues had been collected for that year (1996-7), and some accumulation from 13 years of operation. The big dispute was over whether the entire treasury should be transferred to the new organization, or whether some funds should be retained by the old group. The outgoing Outcasts leadership felt that the membership was entitled to services for the rest of the year for which they had paid dues but did not agree that the then current membership was entitled to the small residue from previous years. More importantly, the outgoing group, the Outcasts, had to reserve some funds to pay any outstanding bills (an obvious requirement for which the Exiles dissolution procedure also provides). The only real question was how much to keep and how much to turn over to the group that would become the Exiles.

The larger portion of the money, approximately $1500, was in fact given to the Exiles to fund its operations and provide member services for the rest of that year. Approximately $1000 was kept as a reserve fund for the Outcasts “estate.” The final act of the old Outcasts officers was to adopt what amounted to an estate plan: a publicly stated program for the disposition of any remaining Outcasts assets. These consisted of this monetary residuum, and the official papers and insignia of the organization. According to the public statement of dissolution, all outstanding bills were to be paid. The official papers and records were to be gathered and placed in an appropriate archival repository. Upon the completion of this process, any remaining funds were to be disbursed equally among six organizations whose activities exemplified the kinds of social and political action Outcasts had always supported: the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco, the AIDS Emergency Fund (also in San Francisco), the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, the Spanner Defense Fund (in England), and the Little Sisters Legal Fund (Vancouver, Canada).

This process was followed to the letter. Approximately half of the remaining funds were used to pay a professional archivist to process the organization’s papers. These were then placed at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco, along with one of the Outcasts banners. The other Outcasts banner was sent to the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. The remaining funds to disburse amounted to a little over $500. Since there were six designated beneficiaries, one of the former Outcasts officers donated enough money to bring the total up to $600. This enabled the group to send $100 each of the designated organizations. Although the Outcasts never had the resources to incorporate as a non-profit, it behaved like one. This disposition is in effect what a non-profit organization is supposed to do in the event of dissolution: to turn over its assets to other non-profit organizations.

The Exiles procedure for dissolution calls for any residual funds to be distributed among the presumably then current membership, or “donated to other organizations by a vote of the business group.” Had the Outcasts distributed the funds to its membership, each member would have received less than $5.

In retrospect, it was clear that Outcasts’ lack of a procedure for dissolution was a definite shortcoming, and I commend the Exiles for having one. However, no plan is failsafe. What would happen should the Exiles sputter toward oblivion, and a quorum could not be assembled? Whoever was legally responsible for the corporation would then have to dissolve it by whatever standard and legal means would be available. Each of these three organizations– Samois, Outcasts, and Exiles– learned from the mistakes of its predecessors and tried to prevent their recurrence. Unfortunately, fighting the last war rarely prepares anyone for the next one.

IV: Continuities, Change, and the Commons

This brings me to my last points, one of which is how much continuity there actually has been between the Outcasts and the Exiles. Drake quite accurately notes that “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 predecessor organizations such as Cardea, Samois, and the Outcasts. I would add the Society of Janus to that list, but would also emphasize that much of the organizational structure initially assumed by Exiles was directly taken from, and given by, the Outcasts.

Drake goes on to comment that “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.” This is a point with which I completely concur and would like to reinforce. Organizations such as the Exiles function as a kind of commons for kinky women in the greater Bay Area (and beyond). They perform the functions of a leather bar, community center, and social club: providing a public space where one can meet new people, learn new information, network, cruise and conduct a kinky social life. And this organizational space is indeed a luxury. However, it is also incredibly fragile and must be maintained in order to continue to function. Organizations need time, energy, and money the way bodies need food and buildings need repair. Without maintenance, bodies die, buildings crumble, and organizations fail.

Scoop Nisker was a news announcer on the old KSAN radio station. He used to end every news broadcast with this admonition: “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” We all can gripe about things we don’t like, but we should never forget how precious it is to have the kind of public kinky space we enjoy in the Bay Area, and how much we owe to those who keep it going. If you don’t like the way an organization is working, do something to make it better. If you want it to continue, don’t take it for granted: do something to help it survive and thrive. At the very least, remember to appreciate and thank those who are doing it for you. You would miss it if it were gone.

San Francisco
August 2014
© Gayle Rubin

[1] For more information on the Catacombs, see my essay, “The Catacombs: Temple of the Butthole” in Deviations, Duke University Press, 2011.

[2] Obituaries for both Hal Heller and Hal Slate can be found online, at