Art / Film

Memory Can Be Thicker Than Blood: Michelle Handelman’s “BloodSisters” 25 Years Later

Michelle Handelman, Queen Cougar from BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.

Michelle Handelman’s tantalizing and provocative 1995 documentary BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes And Sadomasochism is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year, which will be celebrated with a digital screening at OUTFEST Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival starting on August 26. When I first sat down to watch it on my tiny laptop screen, I was filled with anticipation, hope, a hint of jealousy, and of course, curiosity. Watching this landmark queer film for the first time through these 28-year-old formerly self-proclaimed/identified-lesbian-but-now-queer eyes was very bittersweet, full of nostalgia, and revealing.

Through the film, we are introduced to several Bay Area leather lesbians who tell us their stories about “participating in a subculture cast off by its own immediate ally, the larger lesbian community.” And while that experience may sound unique, many queer people, myself included, know how cliquey and exclusive the queer community can be.

I knew before even clicking “play” that I was going to see a glimpse of the San Francisco I was hoping to live in when I moved as a baby gay to the Bay in 2010 for college at San Francisco State University. Now don’t get me wrong, SFSU and San Francisco in general was/is hella gay and has been on forefront of activism since the 1960s. Yet by the time I was in SF, the “shocking’” no longer shocked, and the weird was/is considered normal (For example, look at SF’s How Weird Street Faire that has been held yearly since 2000). SF was….at least for me…in a bit of an activist lull. Obama was in his first term and while Occupy Wall Street was occurring, that call to action did not relate to me at the time as an 18-year-old first-time college student. San Francisco by then had cancelled its historic Halloween Festival in the Castro and would soon see its last lesbian bar close (SF’s last “lesbian” bar, The Lexington Club, shuttered in October 2014). 

When I finally attended the infamous SF fetish fair, Folsom Street Fair, in 2012 with my ex-girlfriend, we both didn’t know any older lesbians and had no connection to the scene (besides the gay men I knew that would go to the fair and Steamworks). I remember at first being completely overwhelmed with all the MEN. Oodles and oodles of sweaty naked men, with a handful of femme/female-identified people. Where were my leather goddesses? Where was the leather community for the new lesbians like me, who snuck off while growing up to watch Wild On! (1997-2003) and The L Word (2004-2009) because somehow your parents didn’t realize what exactly the show was?

Well, it seems I missed them by a few decades. How? Why?

Michelle Handelman, still from BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.

The community that Handelman documents in BloodSisters is unique in a variety of ways. Most striking is the moment in time this film captures–an odd limbo moment in queer history seen through the lesbian BDSM leather community, aka a community that was considered the black sheep of the queer community… a community within a community within a community…

This division within the queer and lesbian community originates with the infamous Sex Wars of the 1970s-80s. The Sex Wars come from an ongoing debate whether pornography, by its very nature, is violence against women, what is considered pleasure, what is consent, and how to view SM relationships and even homosexuality. Many lesbians and feminists took the position of WAVPM, the Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media organization founded in 1976. They believed all porn was violence against women, as was any type of BDSM, light or soft, ropes etc. WAVPM’s ultimate goal concerning BDSM was “to put an end to all portrayals of women being bound, raped, tortured, killed, or degraded for sexual stimulation or pleasure. We believe that the constant linking of sexuality and violence is dangerous.”

Thankfully for us, a counter-movement sprung up and changed the tide (eventually), the “Pro-Sex” Feminist Movement. To briefly summarize, they believe that all types of sex, from basic-ass-vanilla to OH-MY-FUCKING-GAWD-THAT’S-A-FIST-IN-MY-CUNT, was the ultimate feminist goal, no matter the form. At the time, this was a very staunch and radical statement. 

In the film, J.C. Collins, Ms Leather 1992, a butch leather lesbian who was raised by a Hells Angel father, gives us insight on why this community and all queer communities, for that matter, have such an intense bond, an unspoken understanding: “One of the things the queer community has over straight people, in general, is that our lives have been made political by our sexual identity, so there is no part of our life that we don’t look at [how politics control/affect our lives]…”  

Michelle Handelman, J.C. Collins from BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.

With that in mind, Handelman captures a moment that truly can never be revived and at least in some ways, hopefully not. Despite the community, the love, and the complete openness these women seem to share, there are still cracks starting to be seen and formed in this leather and SM dyke utopia. And the biggest crack was AIDS. David Dakota, Ms Missouri Leather 1992 (David has since completed his transition since the film was made and I will use only masculine pronouns and his chosen name here) eerily foreshadows his community’s losses when he explains the role of the leather community’s older members in competitions as integral to how the bonds within the scene are built: “If you look at the leather community as a tribe, you have the people that are older who have been previous title holders or founded bars or clubs, you say that those are the elders. And then a title holder–because that, that’s where your panel of judges comes from, the elders–the title holder is accepting initiation to learn the traditions of the tribe.” Yet sadly. we know now many of the leather ‘elders’ died, quickly and aggressively, never being able to pass down their heritage, their history. The queer chain of oral history that had been so reliable for decades, even centuries, was unraveling before their eyes. 

BloodSisters was produced during the end of the height of the AIDS epidemic, meaning people were still dying daily, and this need and desire to be a part of a community that understood you, would remember you, was literally a matter of life and death. By 1992, AIDS was the number one cause of death for U.S. men ages 25 to 44. In 1994, AIDS became the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44, and it was not until 1995, the year BloodSisters debuted at Frameline Film Festival, that the combination drug treatment known as the “AIDS cocktailwas introduced. 

This is an important subtext to Handelman’s documentary and the wider legacy and history of this entire community–the need to take back that control. Control from a society that regarded them, the queers, as subhuman, from their blood families that abandoned them and demonized them, from a government that took too long to step in and acknowledge the devastation from AIDS, from the lesbians that said SM was wrong, and finally from a society that has always seen women as inferior. Instead, they showed how SUPERIOR women can be. And that is obvious with these women, in the best most empowering way. For butch J.C. Collins, “It’s a spiritual thing for me. It’s a way for me to go someplace else not here.” For Queen Cougar, her experiences in SM have given her “…the ability to negotiate what I will and will not have in my experiences [in and out of the bedroom]. I didn’t have that years ago.” 

Michelle Handelman, still from BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.

Stylistically, BloodSisters is a documentary film very much of its time. The entire film has that DIY-Riot Grrrl aesthetic, particularly with the music selection and cinematic choices. In general, from today’s perspective, the techniques that Handelman uses–the mirroring of an image, various shades and hues, quick cuts and edits, and documentary interviews between snippets of black and white erotically charged art–could come off as cheesy, out of place in a documentary, or even unnecessary and distracting. But in this film, it’s perfect. How could it not be? All the latest filming techniques, such as the In Living Color-Warhol-Pop-party changing hues, were soooo cool because, well, they were new and different. At that time, everyone was experimenting with these techniques from music videos to documentaries. And with that, the film feels authentic and honest, capturing the underground leather dyke scene through using the cutting-edge underground film techniques of the era. 

Michelle Handelman, Skeeter from BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism, 1995. Courtesy of the artist

One of my favorite scenes in the film emphasizes this taboo underground vibe when we, the viewers, become Skeeter’s sub through Handelman’s camera lens, as she leads the viewer around her “dungeon,” talking dirty to us. We are introduced to Skeeter in the very beginning of the film, a tall butch white leather dyke with a slight British accent, a pretty face, and captivating eyes. She is the type of woman that can make any woman her bitch, even Shane from The L Word would be putty in her hands. It was a fun and playful way of getting the viewer in the mindset of this type of relationship, this dangerous pleasure. And who better to lead us on this path than Skeeter? 

Skeeter, like all the people seen and interviewed, is drop dead sexy. They ooze that sensuality that comes from confidence from within, coming from having to struggle to survive, but have now found a peace within themselves. Patrick Califia [formerly known as Pat. He has since transitioned and I will refer to him by masculine pronouns in this article and by his name] explains through the process of coming out, he lost all of his friends and family, and yet now it’s like a burden has been lifted, no longer fighting and divided within themselves. Through this process, it’s almost like rebirth, but unlike normal birth where your family is right there, you have to go out, find, and create a new family.

Michelle Handelman, still from BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.

Looking at the film today, there are things I see so clearly–little nuggets of wisdom these women (and men) speak that go beyond the moment they are in, into today.

Where were the sexy leather dykes whose guidance I craved when I was in San Francisco? The ones that would teach me, lead me, become my family? Where was my Patrick? He was right in front of me. All of my queer dyke mothers surrounded me in their legacy. I did not realize as a naive scared little 18-year-old queer from Georgia that while things weren’t like they were before, in many ways they are better. J.C. Collins closes the film stating her hope for future leather dykes to “know that there were women like them and that they didn’t have to be afraid. Because they didn’t have to, nobody could say, ‘Hey people like you don’t exist!’ Nu uh look! Look! People like me do exist, cool, huh? And that’s sweet..that’s sweet. It’s a simple thing, it’s a small thing. But it’s really really important.” It is very cool, J.C., and it is very important. Your hope was realized then, now, and in future with this film. 

My mother dykes and queers, your dedication was not in vain. I am no longer afraid because I know I will never feel alone again for who I am.

BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism screening at OUTFEST begins streaming Wednesday, August 26. A Live Panel discussion will be held on Friday, August 28 featuring Michelle Handelman in conversation with Patrick Califia (writer/activist), Queen Cougar (leather titleholder/activist), and Pony Lee (CruiseLA). This fall Kino Lorber will be releasing a restored version of the film. Watch the trailer here.

Michelle Handelman also has a new video “Solitude is an Artifact of the Struggle Against Oppression” on view in the online exhibition Artists & Allies III at signs and symbols, NYC

Alexandria Deters is an artist, writer, and researcher in the Bronx. She received a BA in Art History and a BA in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University in 2015 and in 2016 received her MA in American Fine and Decorative Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York. She has written for Gallery Gurls, EL CHAMP, and and currently works at Peter Blum Gallery, New York.


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