Endnote by VI Johnson

* Please do not copy without crediting the author and SWLC 2016 *

“I See You”   

Let me begin with a thank you.  To the committee of the Southwest Leather Conference, thank you for having me back.  It’s been too long since I’ve been in Arizona for longer than just … passing through. These last few days have allowed me to remember the absolute beauty of this area and the gracious hospitality of its people. You folks really know how to throw one amazing party. Thanks again for the invitation.  Tina, a special thank you for your patience with me through my usual craziness.

As funny as this may sound, I had been searching for the ideal greeting for this speech.  What would be the perfect salutation from myself to my tribe at this event where leather, family and spirit, play and dance?  “Hello everybody, how are you?” … No.  “Peace to you all.”… not so much.  The Native American expression “Aho” … has too many meanings.  Even “Namaste” wasn’t quite what I was looking for. 

My mind drifted back to things I had heard my elders, especially the women folk, say to each other at church, at reunions and afternoon meetings as they would hug and greet each other.  One specific salutation stood out in my memory; “I see you.”  It was the old folk’s way of acknowledging a person’s presence in that particular time and place.  Other than my childhood, the only other reference I had for “I see you” was the movie Avatar, and *my* reference for the expression was more than five decades older than James Cameron’s 2009 cinematic masterpiece.

“I see you.”  Was it a New Jersey thing, a church thing?  The elders that I might have asked about this particular saying had long since left this world, but Great Google might possibly be able to give me some insight. So I typed in quote, I See You, close quote and was surprised to find out that that three word greeting had a*very* long and beautiful history. 

The greeting actually comes from West Africa.  It is from the Samburu tribe, *and* it has a second part, an answer so to speak.  The person making the greeting, looks the other in the eyes and says “I see  you.”  The person or persons being greeted reply, “I am here.”  Then after a few moments, each goes their own way. The writers of the articles I read all spoke of the beauty of the brief encounter and its spiritual meanings and power. How in the heralding, the two people not just acknowledge each other’s physical existence at that place and moment, but also honor their sameness. 

Now, I am in no way of the Samburu to be able to speak with authority on the full meaning of their tribal “I see you.” But more than 20 years ago Guy Baldwin called us a tribe made up of many clans.  And I believe this ancient African tribal greeting is just as applicable for our leather / kink tribe.

It also seems to me that there are other facets in this little jewel of a greeting.  For if I see you and honor what I see, (not what I want to see) then I also have an implied duty to have your back.  I honor you; “I see you.” I am here for you.  In return, you are here for me.

I remember hearing “I see you” in childhood occasionally addressed to me. I could be on the way home from school; “I see you Viola.  I hear you did a good job today.” Or I see you there Viola, I’m telling your Mother you were smoking.”  Good news and bad news could get home before I did.  But in an odd way, it also told me that someone was watching out for me.  That in this little town, which was my first tribe or sorts, I was safe.

In early 1974 Jill and I took our first steps out of the safety of our bedroom looking for others like us. A man named Jack Jackson *saw* us when we stepped into our first TES meeting.  His greeting, “Come in little sisters, you’re home” acknowledged us as the newest members of the little group that was meeting there. From that day, until we moved across the country, we were there for our TES family, just as TES was there for us.

That group grew and within a few years became the crucible for the tri state area.  The wealthy kinksters from up town started coming to TES, gay leather men from GMSMA were dropping in on meetings, even leading a few.  Lesbians were becoming members.  We *saw* each other, with our differences *and* our sameness. We marched together, we raised money together, we supported each other, not needing to sleep together to recognize our *sameness*.  We had looked each other in the eyes and responded, “I /we are here.”

Please don’t think that New York was the only crucible of kink. It wasn’t. Groups and events were making themselves known all over North America.  We traveled to visit each other, laugh and play together, *LEARN*  from each other, share and declare our kink. “I / we are here.”

Times were changing; new groups were forming and trying to claim a place / their place in the tribe.  Ponies were making themselves known.  To Equus Eroticus folk the “I see you” hand of kinship wasn’t always immediately extended.  Their sameness wasn’t instantly honored by the larger tribe.  “You don’t look like us”, some tribal members said. “Why should I see you?  Pony folk replied, “Don’t you see our sameness?  My pony is also my slave.  This is just a different form of M/s.”  “OH”, said tribal members, “In that case, I see you. There is sameness that I understand.”

In the 90’s our youth began to approach the tribe and extend their hand in friendship, eager to be welcomed. Instead of seeing this new generation as a fresh infusion of energy, they were snubbed.  “How could, how dare, these children, barely into their 20’s, declare themselves equals?” The elders myopic vision did not see that these young adults had started exploring their sexuality at ages older generations had never imagined.  Now, at 20 something, with 6-10 years of play and learning, they were more experienced than the 40 something that had begun to explore kink just a year or two before.  Only when TNG groups began to walk away and form a new *tribe* (not a new clan, a tribe) did many of the parent groups reluctantly acknowledge their presence.  “I see you”   Grumble

Similar situations happened in the early days of the Boy(i) movement, and with some of our less traditional forms of play. Too often tribal response has been, “I see yougrumble, and I would be more comfortable seeing as I want to see you, or maybe …over there.”The ever d etermined Boys sat down at the tribal fire anyway and lovingly but loudly proclaimed “WE ARE HERE!”  Only then, did we old folks extend the tribal greeting.

Before you think “Mom, this is getting depressing”, how about this variation of “I see you?”  It’s not a greeting, but... For almost twenty years the NCSF and their coalition partners have been vigilant in their protection of us. *Seeing* and challenging those who try to legislate our rights out of existence. 

Or “I see you” could be is a special thank you, and we can never say it enough.  It behooves all of us to acknowledgement the hard work by unsung heroes, who see a need and fill it without regard to the labor or the cost.  Those tribal members are the backbone of the Leather Heart Foundation, the Woman’s Leather History Project, Reclaiming Our Leather History, the BDSM Research Team and of hundreds of other special projects that help to support the lifestyle we love.  (Sir Gareth and Toi, “I see you.”)

Now, we have entered a new millennium.  The oh so important tribal acknowledgement of generations before, like other coming of age rituals is, quickly becoming a thing of the past.  Our next generation does not *have* to come to the traditional tribal fire unless they want to. They have made their own.  They find each other and communicate through blogs, social media, video email, grinder, Instigator and who knows what other electronic methods. Letter?  What’s a letter????

I often have the privilege of watching this new kinky generation at more traditional tribal events where the Library is present.  They come in seeking; seeking not just to learn about their history, but to see if who *they* are, is reflected in the Library’s holdings. And it seems to me our TNG’s have chosen to rephrase “I see you” into a question: “Do you see me?  Do you see me and honor me for who I am, or do you see what *you* want me to be? If you see *me*, then I am here, with you and for you”.

LGBTQIA youth, pups, gender queers, furries, littles, riggers, geeks, body , and gear boys and a host fetishes that were unheard of a decade or two ago, are greeting each other. But are they greeting us and we them?  Do we know them?  Do we understand who they are? 

The tribal circle is ever widening. Each generation must be *here* for the other.  Imagine what grand stories could be exchanged.  What learning could take place. What new ideas could be created, if we just greet each, other *learn* about* our differences, AANNDD recognize our sameness across our leather generations and across our kinks.

Now that you all have allowed his grandmother her rant, it is time for me to officially greet you all.  “I see you, and I am here.”   Thank you.