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The Erotics of Grief: Mourning My Leather Life Before COVID-19

"Desire without sociality is like fire without oxygen."

By DaemonumX

It is an ordinary morning rush hour in New York City before the COVID-19 pandemic, and I look something like this: dressed in black heels and a black dress with a freezing iced coffee wedged between my elbow and my rib cage. I stare down at a book in one hand, my other holding onto the subway railing. I must consume nearly 100 pages a day on my daily commute from Bed-Stuy to 42nd Street. Hundreds of strangers surround me, each one with infinite possibilities for where they could be headed or whose bed they had just left. Rats busy themselves on the tracks below us, serving their own small, filthy purpose in the city’s neural network. Enveloped by people, I fantasize about their lives, study their faces, name the shades of their lipstick. Most of all, I absorb their energy.

Energy, as Audre Lorde taught me, is erotic. In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” her groundbreaking 1978 feminist essay about empowerment and sensuality, Lorde says the erotic is personified creativity. She asks that we view the sensual as spiritual and harness its power. Imagine an erotic ouroboros. A fire-mouthed dragon swallows her own tail, and what is the start is also the end and then begins again forever. My bustling city life electrified my imagination and birthed desire after desire. This constant flow of energy became an important part of my identity.

As a leatherdyke, top, and sadist who engages in SM relationships, I was always coming up with material for creative scenes. Ideas flowed like dragon’s gold, and my masochistic partners could count on me to provide my latest ingenious perversion. Inspiration would come to me at any moment, gifts from Eros packaged with a bow.

DaemonumX

Photo of Sara Elise by DaemonumX.

I always say that being a leatherdyke is a full time job. Once you lean in, there is no going back. Your perspective attunes to the erotic in everything. Have you ever felt the electricity in the wind blowing? Have you ever sat alone in the corner at a party and felt yourself getting more powerful as the room hums with history? Waiting for the train, I’d get a flash of a scene in my head — my girlfriend is wearing a vintage nightgown, tits bursting out, bound from chest to ankles, and gagged with a lemon in a full face of makeup. These images begged for story arcs: How did she get there? What happened next? Constructing that narrative was all a part of this delightful labor. I’d take notes on my phone as I rode the elevator at my day job, grinning from ear to ear. Later, I’d present my ideas to my partners, introducing new and exciting opportunities for connection and creation, just for us. “My baby, here’s how I want to torture you this week!”

Leather is a way of orienting toward queer community where you allow yourself to be known as an erotic creature first and foremost. A large part of the way I connect with people — friends, partners, acquaintances — is through Leather. I prioritize pleasure and perversion and surround myself with others who do, too. In this coterie there is communion through public sex. Play parties, which may seem frivolous, actually perform many of the same psychosocial functions as religious rituals. As such, Leather provides those who partake with stabilizing benefits like improving self-image or reducing anxiety by internalizing a queer cultural lineage and social norms (even if those norms are quite far from what our cisheteronormative society deems “normal”).

Before the pandemic, there were monthly play parties, weekly rope nights, private scenes between me and my partners, play dates, workshops. There was community. It felt like my life was a string of delicious moments meant to savor. Then came COVID-19, which ushered in an era of sadness, isolation, and death in unprecedented numbers. There were no more busy subway rides or crowded rooms I could disappear into, no feeding off the electricity of the city. There were no more visions from Eros of hot women being tortured — I couldn’t even read books anymore. The erotic inspiration that flowed so easily from my everyday life had completely dried up. Desire without sociality is like fire without oxygen. Grief began to fill the space that desire once occupied.

The pandemic has changed all of our lives in different ways, some more drastic and devastating than others. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the hundreds of thousands of people who have died of COVID-19 in the United States alone. Disappeared avenues of pleasure might seem unimportant in the grand scheme of the things we have lost, are still losing, to the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we cannot grieve them, too. It took me a long time to accept that this loss was not frivolous. For a leatherdyke like me, it was crushing.

DaemonumX

Photo of Kiss Me Deadly Doll by DaemonumX.

In their essay “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” scholar Judith Butler theorizes about grief and loss. They characterize mourning as a project of transformation that one can never truly complete. Butler writes, “When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do.” Grief is intrinsically linked with desire, as one cannot exist without the other. Vulnerability requires us, in Butler’s words, to be undone by each other. By existing as social beings, we incur the risk of grief's violence.

Grief, then, is erotic. It requires a certain viscosity, an attention to breath. Our deepest, most ancient knowledge is felt in our bodies. As hard as you might try to forget, everything you have ever loved and everyone you have ever been courses through your blood. Grief demands that you pause and pay attention, that you put your hand on your chest and feel your heart beating, that you move through slow waves of remembering.

My erotic lineage asks me to attune to grief. Just like Leather or sex, grief is social, embodied, and meant to be witnessed in community. The fact that many of us are grieving alone at this moment is also a devastating loss.

After a while, I tried to reconnect — I started a Discord, organized a leatherdyke picnic, and dreamed up play parties to host once it is safer, something I never wanted to do before. I started to read again and took lots of walks with the intention of feeling the wind on my skin. However, nothing has quite offered me the same erotic spark as the invigorating energy of pre-pandemic New York City. I’m not sure if I will ever get that back, but I’m starting to accept that other ways of being will eventually surface — grief writes a narrative. I always tell everyone, “Be kind to yourself,” and I’ve started to take my own advice. Even though my desire hasn’t surpassed a low simmer since the first pandemic-related shutdown, I’m still a leatherdyke deep in my marrow. No external circumstance will ever change that.

Cut to early 2022. I’m walking my dogs down the street, the same as I do every day. I pass a house I have passed thousands of times and catch myself admiring the last remaining roses of the season peeking over an iron fence. The pink petals cling to the end of long, thorny branches outstretched to the sun. I’m struck with a vision of myself clipping off a few branches — pruning is good for rose bushes, after all. I close my eyes, savoring this precious moment of inspiration.

I cut the stems down into shorter pieces and wrap a few together to create a gag. The next thing I know, my girlfriend is kneeling at my feet and staring up at me. “It’s so nice to see you again,” she says lovingly. I fill her mouth with rose stems.

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