Thursday, October 7, 2010

Leatherdykes and Beaver Dams: Unholy Harvest, A History of Ottawa's Kinky Thanksgiving Weekend

"It's funny, in our quest to find Canadian leatherdykes, we actually kinda made them."
-Andrea Zanin
Coming back for its fourth year, Unholy Harvest gives a little twist to your Thanksgiving weekend. As Canada's only annual leatherdyke and transfolk BDSM weekend, the event has been a foundation for the growing Canadian leatherdyke community. Twatterr catches up with co-founders Jacqueline St-Urbain and Andrea Zanin to talk about the upcoming weekend, the history of the event, and the nascent queer-kink communities cropping up in Canadian cities.

Twatter [T]: Let's talk a little about the history of the Unholy Army; the group you started in Montreal before Unholy Harvest. Why did you start the Unholy Army?
Jacqueline St-Urbain [JSU]: I started the Unholy Army because I wanted to laid. I'd just gotten out of this kinda disastrous marriage and I wanted to find the leatherdykes. I was working for a women-run sex shop in Montreal, and being an out leatherdyke people kept coming up to me and asking "where are all the leatherdykes? where can we find them?" Well, I didn't know, but I figured if I started it, then they would come out of the woodwork. I wanted to meet like-minded people; people who thought the way I wanted to fuck was feasible.
After the tenth person came up to me, I started collecting names and put them on a listserv which became the Unholy Army. I'd send out an email and we'd go to the Funhaus, where all the kink events were. The idea was we would have a critical mass at kink events. The names grew from seven to one hundred and fifty people!
Andrea Zanin [AZ]: I wasn't a co-founder of Unholy Harvest, that was really Jacqueline's baby; but, I was an original member. It was this weird exprience because we were hoping to find elders or mentors, people we could learn from, but we became them. I must've been 26...
AZ: Oh, that's right. 25. Way too young to be an elder. Just by virtue of starting it we became the elders. I wasn't an elder, but I knew more than others just because I'd been curious and poked around.
JSU: I never found the people I wanted to learn from; the crusty o'd leatherdykes. I had a membership to the local dungeon and knew, like, three people by name who were involved in the scene- and that made me experienced.

T: Do you find it's very different in the States? In places like San Francisco?
JSU: The wife and I went to this event in San Francisco [Ed: possibly Wicked Women, notes unclear]. It was three-thousand square feet and just packed with hundreds of women. It was a dyke play space for four days, and women were there who were fifty and seventy years old! Some of them had been on the scene since the seventies; the people who wrote Coming to Power*. They really started from scratch, I remember them saying: "We're so grateful to our bottoms, we learnt on them."
AZ: That's when you know someone is your very good friend: "Hey, just let me try out this really dangerous thing on you that I have no experience with!"

T: Why do you think there's such a huge difference between the States and Canada when it comes to the leatherdyke community?
AZ: Actually, this is what my graduate thesis is on. There's a different history: culturally, militarily, censorship laws, etc. Also, critical mass - the amount of people it takes to create a community, one that's visibile enough that we hear about an event twenty years later.

T: How did Unholy Harvest come about?
JSU: In 2006, the wife and I moved to Ottawa.
AZ: And I moved to Toronto to be with my partner in 2007. Jackie had this idea of creating an event, a weekend somewhere in between Toronto and Montreal, and I said I was totally in to help.
JSU:And I said: "Oh I thank god!"
AZ: We missed Montreal, but we also made a conscious decision to step back from the Unholy Army and let that be run by people who lived in the city. We still wanted to be involved with the community. Through all the connections we'd formed over the years, we knew there was enough people to sustain a larger event. There's a certain core of people who travel back and forth between Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa and you'll see them at all the events in the different cities...
JSU: We call it the MOT Triangle.
So we wanted to get those people involved.
JSU: It was originally supposed to be a smaller event in Kingston. A ten person weekend with a couple of hour-long workshops. Andrea agreed. She said "Great, but let's make it a hundred instead of ten."
AZ: We became pretty aware early on that this was going to be really big. It became a needed channel for something bigger that was brewing.

T: Have you two received any negative responses to the event?
JSU: The community has been really supportive. The response has ranged from just a "good for you!" to "here, have a hundred bags of condoms!" People who are offended by it chose to think it's not there.
AZ: We've gotten lots of support from all quarters. Dykes who aren't into kink still think it's great. I can't think of one person who reacted negatively. It's not the sex wars anymore; anti-porn, anti-sex, talk comes across as an out-dated message. It's not that feminism decided kink was okay, I think it just dropped the issue because it wasn't sure what to do with it.
JSU: It's really amazing, actually.
AZ: Just think about what it would've been like during the sex wars!

T: Why is it so important for you to create a women-positive play space?
AZ: It's not because we don't like men. Let's make that clear.
JSU: We were very heavily influenced when we started the Army by several people who insisted women's space meant women-only space. What I was told at the time was, "If you include trans guys into women's spaces, then you're saying they're guys." and I definitely didn't want to do that. I totally wanted to give trans-men props as men.
AZ: Trans-women were never question. They've always been welcomed.

T: but you eventually opened the space to trans-men...
AZ: The question of including trans-men came up in the Army and Harvest at the same time. A big piece of it was that I'd been spending a lot more time in the leatherdyke scene in Toronto and, no matter who was sleeping with them, a lot of trans-men were an integral part of the community. We didn't want to start excluding people.
It's not because we don't think trans-men aren't real men. It's that there's a certain subset of transmen who used the be dykes - and not all transmen were dykes before- still maintain close ties to that community. We've come under fire for it, but transmen are totally welcome if they feel at home and comfortable in women's space.
JSU: That was such a water shed moment for me. That if you say "men comfortable in women's space are allowed" then only those who were comfortable would walk through the door. Part of it was horniness, too. We'd both found ourselves increasingly playing with trans-men. It also didn't mess with the overall feel of the event.

T: How does the tone and energy of an event change when an event becomes mixed?
AZ: Jackie and I have both happily played with cis-men and we spend a lot of time in mixed communities. It's not that women are better or that all women are great, there's no guarantee that an event for dykes will be good. It's more about creating and maintaining a very specific culture. For instance, dykes love blood play. That doesn't happen as often at mixed or gay-male events. We have, what, four blood play workshops coming up this weekend?
JSU: Intro to cutting, advanced cutting...we call it 'the blood stream.'
AZ: Also, let's face it, patriarchy still exist and me often take up a lot of space. I have this pet dream of an all-queer event. The guest list starts with dykes, and every man in the room would be invited by a dyke, and all those men would be the good ones.
JSU: It's about a maintaining a critical mass for a particular culture. It's not about a safe space, it's a women's space but that doesn't mean it's a safe space.

T: What are some of the workshops you're most excited about this year?
AZ+JSU: All of them!
JSU: And ASL for the kinky. It's a such a coup, we're so excited.
AZ: I've been taking ASL for over a year and am so thrilled that Harvest can become more accessible to the queer deaf community.
JSU: It's not so much about bringing the dyke deaf community to us, but that we can pick up kinky deaf dykes!

T: What have you done to make Harvest more accessible?
AZ: This year we worked really hard to make Harvest accessible. We have a scholarship program and a list of accessibility features on our website.
JSU: Unfortunately, our main space, Breathless, is up 30 flights of stairs, but our satellite space - where most of the workshops take place- is completely wheelchair accessible.
AZ: Also, we promote a culture of kindness. A small community can be full of drama, so we're really careful to minimize a cult of personality or pretension. If you don't know what you're doing, you're as welcome to be here as someone who's had thirty years of experience.
JSU: We ask people to look out for one another and be kind to one another.
AZ: As organizers, we really don't have patience for bullshit.

T: Has the leatherdyke and kink scenes in Montreal or Toronto changed since you started the Army and Harvest?
AZ: Our vision for Harvest was to create a space where a Canadian leatherdyke culture could emerge. It's important to note that dykes in the the states developed their BDSM culture around a specific legal and cultural structure. We also wanted to create a place for first-time and Canadian presenters. We have a habit in Canada of simply importing from the states without being critical of it. There's also a culture of celebrity that surrounds workshop presenters, and we wanted to avoid that.
JSU: The internet is also a phenomenal way to organize and reach like-minded people. Even if you're in Iqaluit, you can still be on the Toronto listserv just so you know there's other people out there.
AZ: There's also been a lot of groups popping up that aren't related to Harvest, but are in the same spirit. HOWL in Ottawa, FRISK in Toronto, and AWOL out East. You [JSU] and I would've been thrilled if these had existed when we were starting out.

T: How has Harvest grown and changed over the past four years?
JSU: We worked our tails off convincing people to do workshops, travelling to events, flirting... I created a workshop designed to give curious people the tools they needed to create a course and become presenters.
AZ: The first year I think we got three submissions. This year, it was so amazing, we got twenty-seven submissions and we only had eighteen slots.
JSU: It was so great to see, because most of them were people who are regular Harvest attendees and now are going to be first-time presenters. It really feels like we're harvesting everything we sowed in the last four years.
AZ: It's funny, in our quest to find Canadian leatherdykes, we actually kind of made them.

T: How do you fund Harvest?
JSU: We're not really funded. We have a couple of amazing sponsors, such as Venus Envy, Breathless and Pink Triangle Services, but we do as much as we can for free. We're completely grassroots and we try to keep the registration fee minimal. Really, we run on the blood, sweat and tears of some amazing volunteers. Lots of people who attend come back every year and are really willing to volunteer. They have this amazing sense of goodwill and ownership of the event.
AZ: Also Miss Jenn, the proprietress of of Breathless, is totally our hero. She does so much amazing work for us year round.
JSU: My wife has a saying that goes "I'm either getting paid or laid" - well, we get laid this weekend!

Unholy Harvest will be running this weekend. Registration is $100 CAD and there are still some spots left.

Note: *Coming to Power: Writing and Graphics on Lesbian S/M was released in 1981 by the Alyson Publications and written by the Samois collective; a lesbain-feminist BDSM organization based in San Francisco that operated between 1978 and 1983. The collective included renowned SM theorists such as Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin.

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