The leather community is angry at me. Well, not the leather community at large. It’s mainly a distinct subgroup of the leather community: men and (some) women who get a sexual thrill out of play-acting like puppies. They wear puppy masks and puppy tails and often some or other leather accoutrement, and they get off on acting like dogs. When in casual mode, they fetch and pant and probably lick your face; I imagine during sex they throw in some begging and snarling.
And now, packs of them are growling and howling at me.
You see, last weekend was L.A. Puppy Pride, a public four-day affair at which pups and other queer leather enthusiasts gathered for various social events, the capstone of which was the Saturday-night L.A. Pup Contest. This was a pageant of sorts, at which seven men competed to be, well, the best dog.
Now, I’ve started producing video segments for this website, as well as its sister site, Wehoville.com. I do a cheeky, man-on-the-street–type routine through which I cover various local events of little general importance: a drag contest, a gay Crossfit competition—you get the idea. Anyway, I thought the L.A. Pup Contest might make for a cute, and definitely funny, video segment. Grown men squaring off for the title of best puppy? Who the hell wouldn’t want to watch that?
I thought my video came out great. The material practically wrote itself, and I feel like I captured something most people hadn’t seen, and would probably at least find interesting. I also felt like many of the interactions I had that night were genuinely warm, even as I was playing the role of snarky sociologist. Enough people seemed to play along, and I felt generally like not an asshole for teasing people with my questions. True, there were some missteps, like when I asked a girl what she was doing among all these homosexuals, and she said, “I am a homosexual,” and I felt like an idiot. In the most comfortable of my interviews, we made each other laugh. I don’t think I ever came across in the moment as mean. Bumbling, perhaps, but not malicious or cruel.
Of course, it’s a wonder what some edits and a voiceover will do. The video I produced had the intended effect of highlighting what was funny about the night—mostly, the men in dog costumes—while also making fun of the seriousness with which many of the attendees seemed to take their roles. I also offered a “review” of the pageant performances in which I highlighted the impressive performance of one particular pup—the only contestant, in fact, who fully embraced the challenge, which was, of course, to act like a dog.
As a result of this video I have experienced my first Twitter backlash. The most-liked Tweet in response to my video called it “hard to watch” and “tone deaf and disrespectful.” Someone else wondered if GayLifeLA was “only for heteronormative, vanilla folks who can’t think outside the clos… er, box.” I think I get the point of this one, though one thing I don’t think you can charge my insanely gay videos with is heteronormativity. And what closet are we talking about? Did this guy think I was some straight dude who came in and made fun of all the crazy queers?
Effectively, it seems, many of them did. I may be as gay as they come, but the mocking bemusement of my video, to my detractors anyway, registered as the judgment of a sexually repressed bigot. The level of anger I generated surprised even the co-leader of Puppy Pride, who, despite his not seeing any problem with my video, asked my editor to take it down, noting on Twitter, “If many pups are hurt by it, I believe this is best to protect the pack.” Thankfully, my editor didn’t cave, but the comments on the story are merciless. This one’s pretty emblematic:
“There is a reason that people came from across the country for this pride event. It is because close-minded individuals, like you, are too frightened to understand our community and we can only express this part of ourselves in a protected environment. You violated our safe space. Rather than kink-shame us, you should have attempted to understand us. I would invite you to come to another pup event without an agenda of making a story because you really missed the point of the entire community.”
It turns out that for a lot of these guys, I wasn’t just poking fun at some dumb little fetish. I was mocking their very identities. To them, I was committing the truly horrific comic sin of punching down: I was making fun of a group with less social power than I have. Good comedy punches up—it deflates self-aggrandizers, cuts tyrants down to size, mocks pretenses. Comedy that punches down is, well, disgusting.
The idea that I might be guilty of punching down has spurred a good deal of soul-searching, even if my initial reaction to all this outrage was disbelief and irritation. After all, is this what we’ve come to? We can’t laugh at men dressing up as dogs? More shockingly, men dressing up as dogs can’t laugh at themselves? Their offense offended me; humorlessness is, after all, unforgivable. As my sole puppy defender put it on Twitter, “If you can’t laugh at yourself [you’re definitely] taking life too seriously [paw-print emoji] It’s not a documentary detailing wrongdoings.” In other words, I wasn’t revealing these people to be bad, just…funny!
It is difficult for me to wrap my mind around the point of view that poking fun at men who like to dress up as dogs is at all comparable to making fun of an oppressed or powerless community. I understand that many of these people have been marginalized—it was plainly evident that pup play had given many of these men a sense of belonging, and for some of them, a sense of being fundamentally okay. But, hadn’t they been marginalized for being queer, rather than for liking to dress as dogs? I am not aware of any anti-pup-play legislation, nor of any enlightened person who would have a problem with a harmless sexual fetish. Has anyone ever been disowned for being a puppy?
Besides, we’re all into something that would look totally bizarre to anyone who, well, didn’t happen to be into that particular weird thing. When I referred to the crowd as “homosexual degenerates,” an ancient-sounding phrase, I took for granted that my audience realized I was using some degree of irony—obviously I didn’t mean it literally. Besides, I count myself among that very population! No, I am not a pup-play person, but—well, here, I’ll give you my weirdest thing: I belong to a website for self-professed jack-off enthusiasts who like to beat it together while talking to each other like idiotic straight guys (“Nice dick, bro”—that kind of thing). It’s utterly ridiculous. Much like dressing up as a dog. Who in their right mind cares about any of this on a moral level? It’s all funny if you can see it in a certain light.
Of course, there is the argument that these are people who have been marginalized by the queer community. Perhaps to them, my seeming “vanilla”-ness represented the unforgiving judgment of the “mainstream” gays. But to that I say, who among us hasn’t felt marginalized by the queer community? We all have to deal with the pressures to look a certain way, act a certain way, be a certain way. Much like straight people do. That’s part of living among humanity. But dressing up as a dog, no matter how you cut it, is fucking funny. You can either realize that the profound meaning you find through a sexual fetish is more about the people you connect with through that fetish than it is about the fetish itself, or you can live in a world where we aren’t allowed to laugh at grown men in puppy costumes.
A part of me thinks that the rage I’ve inspired is a symptom of life under our current president. As a pup-play supporter who messaged me over Facebook put it, because of Trump, “Minorities in society are in danger and being treated worse than they have been in decades and because of that I think when we all see something that gets to us we tend to defend our friends and loved ones harder these days… [L]ife is much more scary.” He is right. Trump has made us all angrier, more frightened, and quick to suspect anyone from outside our own groups. It would seem that in this case, that meant me. These people didn’t know that, though I’m not of them, I am with them.
If I am sorry about anything, I am sorry in a sort of cosmic way that many of the people who were offended by me seem to have been treated very badly by the world. It might be no coincidence that the most puppy-like contestant had evidently suffered some pretty horrible crap at the hands of people who should have been better to him. What you don’t see in my video is that after his sketch, which was truly clever and surprisingly moving, he told the audience that his scene was meant to be a message. “Don’t feel sorry [about] the people who leave you behind,” he said, through his tears. “Feel sad for them because they gave up on somebody who would never give up on them.”
I didn’t think to include that part. It wasn’t funny.