The Two Sides of MICHAEL SOL:
Queer Leatherman Explores Intimacy and Sadism
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
It’s entirely appropriate that Michael Sol should have a last name that means “sun.” Like the sun issuing forth energy and light in all directions at once, Sol has a vivid conversational style that reflects years of both thought and experience, but also one that’s a bit difficult to channel into one particular path at a time. His personal odyssey has propelled him in and out of the Leather community and led him to live a polyamorous lifestyle with both female and male partners, even though at other times he put all that in the closet and concentrated on being a father to his two children. He calls himself “Queer,” not in the sense Zenger’s uses the term — as an all-inclusive name for our community and an alternative to that ghastly acronym “LGBT” — but because he regards labels like “straight,” “Gay” and even “Bisexual” as too confining.
Get Michael Sol interested in something, and he grabs it with the tenacity of a dog’s jaws gripping a bone. Today he’s best known for his interest in shibari, an elaborate technique of rope bondage introduced in Japan, which he will be demonstrating at the San Diego League of Gentlemen Friday, April 1, 7 p.m., at the Joyce Beers Community Center, Vermont Street and Cleveland Avenue in Hillcrest. He’s also the proprietor of Edgeart and an extraordinary photographer whose images of people undergoing shibari and other Leather techniques are available at his Fetlife page, http://fetlife.com/users/10176/pictures/4020010
. (Fetlife is a social networking site specifically for Leatherpeople and others into BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadomasochism] lifestyles.) Sol recently won the 2011 Mr. Sanctuary Leather contest and will compete for Mr. Leather Los Angeles March 26-27.
But he’s practiced many other forms of Leathersex, including tattooing, scarification, needle piercing, physical and psychological torture and other forms of extreme “edge play.” At the same time, depending on whom he’s with and what the overall context of their relationship is, he can also be warm, intimate, romantic and loving. He describes himself as a “kinky scoundrel” and says one of his ideas is to restore sex and sexuality to a Leather/BDSM community he believes has become too consumed with ritual and forgotten that all of this is first supposed to be fun. For more information on Sol, his SoCal Shibari group and his other activities, please visit his Web site, http://www.sinsationsinleather.com/Michael%20Sol.html
Zenger’s: Michael, why don’t you start by just telling me a little about yourself, your personal history, how you got into Leather and how you see your role?
Michael Sol: Sure. I think I always knew that I was different, just as my sexuality came to me, because there were some key moments I think about when I look back. I came from a very conservative background, but when I was around 12 years old, I was digging through my uncle’s closet, because he had all kinds of cool things. He had guns and medals and Playboys and Hustlers, and the one that really caught my eye was a magazine that was published by John Willie called Baton Play. It was a damsels-in-distress bondage magazine, and Willie’s own illustrations were very influential to me. The people I would say influenced me today are Willie, Tom of Finland, and Botero. He’s a Spanish artist.
Around my 20th or 21st birthday, I went to an after-hours club. I managed a fashion store at the time. I’d taken a little hiatus from college, and my assistant manager was this really interesting Lesbian girl. Her partner was very good friends with the person who owned the dress shop, which was on Melrose [in Los Angeles]. I attended a party there, and I met this girl who was very, very interesting to me. When she and I were talking to each other, she mentioned that she had a girlfriend. And of course, I was young, I thought, “Threesome!” What it turned out, though, was her girlfriend was her dominant, and her girlfriend was interested in exploring a man’s energy, because she was Bisexual. So we formed something of a triad for some time, and I really became exposed to a more formal BDSM scene: D/s, Leather, whatever name you want to put on it.
When that ended, it ended very amicably because they decided they were going to get married, and I was exposed to Bisexuality and other gender choices. I used to dance a lot at Rage, which still exists over there on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I became more and more exposed to the West L.A. crowd. It was a really enlightening thing for me, because there were concepts that I really didn’t understand. I was also just beginning to come out as an artist, because I’d grown up very involved in athletics and an academic career. And I saw a different way. Around that time I had different partnerships, male and female, until I met somebody and I went up north and we raised horses together. It really limited my scope of life, because I lived in Madera County and then in Fresno, and there’s not exactly a huge, blossoming scene. There certainly was not then; now there’s a little bit.
Zenger’s: Was that a man or a woman?
Sol: It was a woman. I felt very confined in it, and she became uncomfortable with my bisexuality. Our relationship ended, amicably at first, and then not as amicably. I moved back down to the San Fernando Valley, and my entrance into that scene was at a place called the Lair de Sade, which was primarily a het male dom/female sub type thing. I wanted to branch out a little bit, and eventually I was asked to form my own group, and I formed a group called Dominant Dominion. Dominant Dominion actually spread into three counties, and we embraced everyone. Something that started to come to me with Dominant Dominion is that we all share what I believe is a desire to claim a right. It’s not just a desire, it’s also a right of self-determination of our own sexuality.
While this was going on, I actually had a son, and I was trying to get custody of him. When the Club “X” raids happened I became involved with people trying to raise money. I moderated a Community Action Committee where we invited a number of people from different groups, and when you do that, someone’s not going to be happy. I started receiving e-mails that were sent from a Hotmail account from the Long Beach City Library. That’s where we traced them to. I have no idea who the person was, and I won’t even speculate, but what they had was a threat to out me, and the address and phone number of my son’s mother. It was really disillusioning for me. I shut my group down almost overnight, and I moved to San Diego.
At that point, I felt that the most important thing I could do as my authentic self — because different aspects of my life came into major conflict at that time — was through responsibilities as a parent. I needed to be a father. I just couldn’t put my kink self to the side, so a lot of aspects of my life were in the closet. One was my attraction to men, and the other one was just the scene in general. But I couldn’t walk away from it. And going surreptitiously to Leather bars and this type of thing just isn’t my style. So I started choosing places that were less than a $100 plane flight away. I would go to places like Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle, because they were short hops, and I would go about every other week and explore the fetish scene. That allowed me to be more open about my sexuality and my choices, and those things happened.
Also, about that time I became disabled. I was a flogger dom, the typical guy out there swinging whips, swinging a flogger, and because I had a respiratory disease I couldn’t do those things anymore. My focus changed into trying to do things that I could do that were not quite as strenuous, and so I brought more of an artistic bent into what I was doing and I became involved in a lot of blood play, cutting, decorative needle stick, kind of thing. And I met the person who is now my partner in Edgeart, Katie, and Katie is a person who opened a lot of doors for me.
She asked me once upon a time what I thought of tattoos, and I said, “I think they’re lower-class. It’s one of those things that I’ve always wanted to lose.” Did I say that? And she said, “For someone as open-minded as you, I can’t believe you would actually say that.” She gave me a bunch of books and resources for different places, and the history of body art, and I became absolutely fascinated with the Japanese floating-world period and the method of tattooing, irezumi. And ta moko, which is a Maori art from New Zealand. I also became exposed to Fakir Musafar and the Modern Primitives movement, and that’s something Charles Gatewood did stuff. There’s a really pivotal video called Dances Sacred and Profane which they did.
There’s a form I like called the tsukaso. It’s spelled a couple of different ways. It’s an inversion. It’s an inverted suspension. It was part of the punishment edicts of the Tokugawa period. It’s an inverted suspension into a river or lake. In my case, I use a thing of water. It’s hard-core. People never forget you did it to them, ever.
Zenger’s: It sounds like a combination of waterboarding and bondage.
Sol: It totally is, but if you take a person and you put them upside down and you do an interrogation, put them on a spinner and you spin them and then you do any kind of impact at all, everything you do when that person’s disoriented is amplified. Especially if you blindfold them, because then they have no way of knowing if they’re up or down, swinging and everything, and then if you drop them, they have no clue. You become their world. Because the thing is they know that the only person who can save them is you. So it’s a really interesting thing, because you are their tormentor and their savior at the same time. I think that, in a way, your whole world becomes one, and in a way you become omnipotent in that situation. It’s an incredible feeling — but afterwards, I’ve got to be honest with you, it’s an incredible feeling of, “Holy shit! What part of me did I just reveal?”
But I do things like that as an exploration of self for both myself and the other person. I don’t run home and do them with the girl or boy that I’m playing with, that I’m intimate with. As a matter of fact, I probably wouldn’t do that to somebody I’m intimate with. It would be too much — even in play, even with consent — a breach of trust. It’s not true for everybody, but with the people in my life with whom I’m affectionate, the people who inspire the daddy in me — not everybody does, but when they do I’m not doing that to that poor little boy! I can’t do that. Because of them, because of me. It’s a weird thing.
I mentioned Botero. He’s one of the three influences I named. Botero did a lot of art that I admired, and I liked it. And then he did a series on Abu Ghraib prison, and I came to love him. If you take a look at Botero and you take a look at Tom of Finland, you could see parallels. And those parallels are things I like to explore, because Tom of Finland has these guys who are so strong, masculine, a little oversized, blows them up.
Botero takes prisoners of war and their captors, American captors, and he makes them big and fleshy, almost Rubensesque, with big muscles underneath. He uses that same distortion of the male figure in order to show sexuality, brutality and a societal condition. It’s all about who they are and what’s around them, and he’s not afraid to blow it up. He’s not afraid to take that hard hyperbole, and to really use that is brave, I think.
Zenger’s: One of the things that struck me about Abu Ghraib was you had the torture couple. Charles Grainer and Lynndie England, the guards who were doing the torturing, were also lovers, and I couldn’t help but think that that was a really kinky relationship.
Sol: It would have to have been their sex.
Zenger’s: There had to be a connection between what they were doing to the prisoners by day and what they were doing with each other by night.
Sol: They also used sexual embarrassment, the sex of shame, as part of their torture. They raped them. Maybe they didn’t use their penis or their vagina, but they raped them, no question, with sticks. It was brutal. They did things like put the person in a strappado-type form, with their arms tied behind their backs, and they knelt them in a stress position on top of another stress position. Then they would drop the person’s temperature about three to four degrees, to the very lowest permissible level they could before there would be permanent damage to the people, O.K., as part of their torture. And they had them blindfolded, which is a major disorientation stressor, major stressor; drop the body temperature, which is combating the body’s ability to fight anything; bringing them totally into their core. Which means they’re leaving their thinking mind. That is incredibly powerful torture.
I teach a class called “Cultural Rites of Torture and Shunning.” We go through the stuff that you hear about, stoning and tarring and feathering, and such. But that’s just the first third of the stuff: “These are things you can do. Now let’s talk about how to really screw with a person.” Ethnic cleansing and Abu Ghraib: those are the two things that I talk about. Because a lot of people think about things like, “What about alien abductions? What if aliens came down and violated your body?” We’re going to use that thing, and I wonder why do I have to make shit up?
If I go look at the history of man, we’ve been doing screwed-up things to each other since the dawn of time — and very creatively. That’s art. Maybe it’s evil. That’s not for me to say. But that’s art: how man has tortured man. It’s every bit as valid as how man has loved man.
Zenger’s: That sounds like what the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen got into so much trouble for saying after 9/11, when he said that this was a work of art. He was asked, “Are you justifying it?” And he said, “No, because the people who were the victims did not give their permission.”
Sol: I agree with him. I totally agree with him. I know it’s not popular, but I totally agree with him. Because the thing is, Fakir Musafar said, “Dance sacred and profane.” I buy that, O.K.? But also embrace both your — that’s what I’m going to say — embrace the good you and also the evil you. Because they exist, and if you don’t know them both, how do you really know yourself? How do you live your authentic self? And how do you self-determine if you’re not willing to embrace all of who you are?
My sexuality, my torture, the things that I do are all extensions of myself to a person. And that’s what matters to me. And I’m not trying to be altruistic either, O.K.? That is what matters with me. There are different energies, and I want to feel them all. I want to feel them all. There is something really special with — there’s this guy who I refer to in this way: Tim, from Wisconsin. I love to punch this guy. We’ll do a scene, and I’ll get him, I’ll tie him up, I’ll do whatever it takes to get him into this nice, sweaty point. And then he’ll just stand there and look at me — and he’s a big man, big, heavy-set, mondo bear of a guy.
I’ll just take my fists, and I’ll just be looking at him, and I’ll rub his head and say, “Are you ready?” Then I’ll literally jump up on a little stool and then jump down on him and hit him, bam! Bam! Bam! I’m just sitting there to the point where he’s just growling at me — and I hurt too, because let me tell you, whacking a guy is not an easy thing. And I’m growling back at him. I have disabilities, O.K., but when I’m in that space I don’t give a crap about whether I end up in the hospital afterwards. And I don’t give a crap about whether he does, either — no, actually I do worry about that! I’m not stupid.
But the thing about it is I care about this guy. I love this guy. No question, I love this guy. I’m just pounding on him, and there’s this primal energy that comes in. It’s in that growl, it’s in the fists, it’s in the sweatiness of it. And when I can’t go anymore, he can’t go anymore — it’s usually me, because he’s a strong guy, O.K.? — I just hold on to that guy and I bring him down to the ground, and then there’s that embrace. And it is the same lover’s embrace that I have with people where there’s this softer form of intimacy.
Zenger’s: When I first met you, you defined yourself as a “kinky scoundrel.” What does that mean?
Sol: I’m a very fortunate person. I got to study with some very, very good people, very early on. Then because I got to teach in a national scene, I got to spend a lot of time with these educators, and what you find out is there’s this exchange of ideas: “Wow! You do really good rope! I do this other thing.” But then I came across a little bit, particularly in rope, bondage, people who are elite. Right when I formed SoCal Shibari I was approached by a group who said, “What are you doing, Michael? Aren’t you casting pearls before swine? Those people aren’t true lovers of this art.” And I looked at them and said, “Jeez, where are you coming with this whole thing? These are people we’re talking about,” and they said, “Yes, but don’t you want to be part of the elite?”
I thought about it, and I tried not to answer the question for some time. But the answer is fuck no. I don’t want to be part of the elite, because the elite has got their nose up in the air, O.K.? Living, life, art is found down in the muck and the mire. I thought about that, and what I like from other people’s educators, and I went, “You know what? I would really like to share things that I love, as a lover. Not as somebody who’s ‘elite.’”
So I thought, “Who has fun, and is actually good at doing the things they do? Scoundrels!” Scoundrels are accomplished guys or girls, most of them. I’m a scoundrel, and I’m a kinky person, so I thought that “kinky scoundrel” was a very approachable way to bring these things that I love to people, and to teach them: not as some person with this huge mentor title, or this elite status, but as someone who’s pretty good at what I do, teaching people the things that I love.
The kinky scoundrel can broach any subject, in as non-threatening a way as possible. And I think when you do that, when you have fun, you can start talking to people about AIDS. You can start talking to people about our youth committing suicide. I think you can talk to people about antisepsis in a dungeon, because people are hearing you. They’re not seeing this elite person who is “better” than you, in their monotone voice like this, because you know what you do when you see an elitist up there, someone who’s lecturing you? You tune them out. That’s why I identify as a kinky scoundrel: because I want to have fun, but I also want to disseminate important information in an approachable way.
Zenger’s: One of the things you told me the first time you said “kinky scoundrel” to me was that it had to do with getting BDSM back into a relationship with sex, whereas other people in the community try to divide the two: “I’m not having sex with people; I’m doing this, this, this and this with them. I’m not having sex with them.”
Sol: That’s why I say, “Fun to the fuck power.” This stuff is supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be sexual; and if it’s not, dude, then try it this way and it’ll be more satisfying. I think one of the cool things about being a kinky scoundrel is you can say, “Fun to the fuck power.” People who are trying to be with their attitudes can’t say, “Hey, you wanna fuck?” I can.
I proposition people in my role as a kinky scoundrel out there, and the funny thing is, that’s stuff that sometimes I’m kind of shy about. Well, not any more, but I was at one point in time. And I’m not even serious half the times. I’m just having fun. And the interesting thing is when you’re open to the world, good shit happens. Stuff that you were just talking about suddenly happens, and you go, “Wow!”
Zenger’s: And, you know, I try not to judge other people’s relationships. But there are couples I’ve met, and I’ve noticed their dynamics, and I’ll think, “I’m glad this makes you happy. This is not a type of relationship I could be in, at all.” One person I know will only date much younger men. I respect him; that’s his thing, that’s fine. It’s not mine. I need someone closer to my age that I can relate life experiences with.
Sol: I see people who have dynamics with a much younger person, and I notice little things like maybe they’re a person who likes to teach, who likes to mentor, something like that, and they like that almost parenting role. But I also think that maybe there are some people themselves that, although they may be 40 or 50 years old, their real state of mind is 20. It doesn’t even mean they’re immature, although that could be part of it.
Katie [Sol’s partner]: We have to deal with that some, because I’m a lot younger than you, and so when you date somebody who’s older than you are, it makes the age spread much bigger for me.
Sol: And also there’s a relationship between she and I, where her primary sexuality is towards women. She has a tendency, because she’s Bisexual, to only want to have one Daddy, and her other interests focus on women. I’m a person who goes after whoever catches my fancy, O.K.? And I like cultured people.
Zenger’s: In the Bi world, that’s called “gender-monogamous,” meaning you have an ongoing partner of one gender, and then everybody else is the other.
Sol: She’s gender-monogamous. I’m slutty.
Zenger’s: I’m not sure how this is going to fit into this article, but I know there was something you wanted to talk about, about the Tom of Finland exhibit in West Hollywood.
Sol: I have a tendency to be really interested in causes, O.K.? One of the things that I think is happening is I think there’s a little turnaround in some of the gains we’ve made as a Gay community, as a kink community, whatever. I’m talking about the all-sex-positive, fetish community. I think some of our values are eroding because America is becoming, I don’t know, some sort of neo-fascism is rearing its head within us and it’s changing the face of the landscape. And I think we have to fight against that change.
Stonewall doesn’t mean anything unless we’re willing to put ourselves on the line, like people before us did. Very recently — and this is certainly no incredibly dramatic thing — but in the city of West Hollywood, the Arts Council voted against endorsing the Tom of Finland art exhibit, whereas for many years previously they have. It was a slap in the face to the Gay community. So a number of people, partly under the leadership of the Band of Brothers [an organization of all the former contestants for Mr. Leather Los Angeles] — but it was wider than that, the Los Angeles Leather Coalition, the Band of Brothers and other people got together and appeared at the City Council meeting.
Now, the City Council had already agreed that they were going to endorse Tom of Finland, but that wasn’t good enough, because if you’re looking at West Hollywood, that community is largely Gay and it’s a slap in the face to the Gay community. So group of Leathermen and other kinky people showed up, not in loud, bitter protest, not unreasonably, but largely in business suits, and said, “We are here, we are constituents, we represent your community and we want you to fix what happened with this Arts Council.”
They weren’t faced with a mob they could dismiss. They were faced with thinking, reasonable people. And the reaction to it by the city of West Hollywood was extremely positive. I think we’re going to see more things coming out of it, where the city is going to create programs in order to address situations like this where a mistake is made, and instead of protests and words of hate, the people sit down and work out what these problems are. I think that’s what we need to know.
As an artist, I look at a lot of things where there’s intolerance, and I’m able to cross over. Body art more than any other place. I do cuttings. It’s a form of scarification. I use a scalpel and I create art. It’s a primitive art, and sometimes I will do it in a very primitive way. But other times, what I do is I take that primitive feel and I modernize it. It’s what Modern Primitives do. I add more technique and artistry to it. And when people approach it, sometimes they think it’s a tattoo.
They say, “Oh, my God, that’s beautiful,” until they come closer and understand what it is. But they’ve already committed themselves to an interest, and if they go, “Oh, that’s terrible, that’s blood,” and I go, “You don’t like it, fuck you, then we’re done. But if I look at this thing and say, “I thought that way, too, until I got to understand the spirituality of it,” and I talk to them about the spiritual aspect of it, and about how it affects me as an artist, those people walk away knowing me. They don’t know an angry me. They may walk away maybe not agreeing with a damned thing I said, but they know me.
A lot of these things that happen are backlash reactions because of hate. It’s very, very hard to hate unless you objectify a person, until you dehumanize them. Hitler did it to the Jews: “big noses.” In the South they did it with Black people: “big lips.” Slat a poncho on a Mexican with a sombrero: “These sleepy people we don’t want in our society.” But if we go through and we let people know us, if we meet the seeds of hatred with our opening hand, those seeds will never be watered. They’ll be falling on rocky soil.
Because of the fact that we say, “Know us,” we become human. I’m all about having sex with humans, and I’m also all about being a human so other humans cannot dehumanize me. I think that that’s what we need to do. I really do. And I think that our art and our culture are things we need to let people see, invite them to see, invite them to embrace it and to embrace their own art, as a different view but something that’s equally valid.
That’s why I think that the art of shibari, the art of cutting, the art of virtually everything it is that we do, if we really allow people to see two Gay men embrace and see the love that exists between them, you can’t deny love. You just can’t. I think that’s what it’s about, and that’s why I encourage people, “If you see someone with a different sexual opinion or stuff, ask.”
And the second thing that I want people to do — and I hope they will do — is to answer, and not automatically assume that this person has a malevolent intent. I think that’s how we get to know each other, and how we really make gains that are going to last.