I always start with a story; it's just my way. This time, I am scraping the bottom of the barrel know as television for a story. On some sitcom a few years ago, a guy was making eyes at a beautiful (I suppose) woman on the subway. He spent the entire ride debating whether or not to say hello to her. Finally, she stood up and exited the car, pausing to tell him, "You should have said hello."
I'm shy. (Everyone who knows me says, "DUHHHHHHH!") I have a terrible time speaking to people I don't know. Why? Well .
You see, this isn't exactly a rational fear. I never had an experience where I walked up to someone and brightly said, "Hi" only to be dismissed with a "pfft" and a rolling of the eyes. That's not to say it doesn't happen; it has and it probably will continue to happen. And as long as the possibility of being blown off exists, meeting new people will still scare the hell out of me.
Now, if it were only me, I'd label myself borderline xenophobic and move on with my life. The only thing is, I'm beginning to think many of the people you meet (particularly in bars) have that same nagging fear that anyone they make a overture toward is going to dismiss them out of hand. Where does this fear come from? I dunno. It may just be a lingering bit of self-doubt from all the shit that we have to face as queers and as leatherfolk. Unfortunately, I think that it runs deeper than that.
Let's face it, we judge people by how they look. And, when we're with a group of friends, one of the most entertaining activities available is fashion scorecards for everyone in eye-shot. Leather is based on a set of looks (for example: men in mirror shades and peaked caps, boys in harnesses and jeans.) Dressing against these looks puts you at risk of being dismissed as a poseur, or a tourist, or a headcase. The rules are subtle and complex. I once heard someone critique the way a guy rolled up his T-shirt sleeves. Suddenly we find ourselves on a panel of Olympic fashion judges. That's not to say that there isn't some ironic "God, do you see what we consider to be important" attitude underlying the whole thing. In general, it's all in good fun. But such things can breed a mild case of paranoia. If you're doing this to one person, there's probably someone else doing it to you.
Next up on the self-doubt hit parade is the now cliched "no fats, no fems" line from countless personal ads and online profiles. What a way to put anyone with a shred of self-doubt on the defensive. I (and a significant number of men in the gay/leather community) tend to have strong misgivings about our weight and/or effeminate qualities. When people start drawing a line in the sand about who they do and do not find attractive, people like me realize that we don't know where we fall in relation to that line and a certain sense of "I don't want to find out" begins to creep in, and we withdraw.
Finally, everyone has their own opinion about how a leatherman or leatherwoman should behave. I've been criticized by self-styled "old guard" leathermen for: looking them in the eye, singing along with the jukebox, dancing, and drinking a colorful beverage. (Side note: "Old Guard" is not an excuse for rudeness.)
The situations above are grossly exaggerated, I know, but even toned down to rational levels, they illustrate a social landscape that could intimidate anyone. So, I'd like to suggest some things.
First, don't do any of the things I described above. Or at least try not to. At least try to try not to.
Next, for all you introverts. Make a small effort to be more outgoing to strangers. This is NOT easy, let me tell you. I'm starting out small: whenever I am in a situation where there are a number of unfamiliar people, I say "Hey, how ya doin'?" to at least five of them. Start out low-key. Say it just in passing to people, as a kind of acknowledgement of their presence. Keep moving, and you won't be able to tell if they said "Hey" in response or broke into gales of derisive laughter. As you get more confident, start saying it to stationary people (perhaps that woofy guy standing next to you at the bar). "Hey, how ya doin'?" is nice because there's little commitment involved. If the object of your greeting starts to recite Marilyn Manson lyrics at you in a guttural growl, you can simply move on. Alternately, you may have a good five-minute chat going there (particularly if you're into Marilyn Manson). And it's always good to keep one thing in mind: "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."
Finally, for you extroverts. You know who you are. You know (and remember) everyone's name within three minutes and you have no problem going up to someone and telling them that they're good-looking and you're always available for a little "boompsie" if they're interested. This suggestion is simple. Introduce your introverted friends to one another. You don't have to be Julie, the Cruise Director here. Simply, "Andrew, have you met Tim McGraw? Tim, Andrew is our Vice President. Andrew, Tim is a multi-platinum country singer who was just dumped by Faith Hill and needs a little lovin'." (Just let me dream, okay?)
To boil it down, "You should say hello."
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