Michelle Jackson: Sign-Language Interpreter, First Female San Diego Leatherboys President

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's

Michelle Jackson knew she was going to be interested in languages from the age of five,when her father took her across the border from San Diego to Tijuana and she heard Spanish for the first time. In college she studied American Sign Language (ASL) and ultimately made her living as an interpreter for the deaf community. It was a job she took to interpret at a San Diego Leatherfest that led her to the Leather/kink/BDSM community — and she's become an energetic activist in it, serving as Ms. San Diego Leather 2005 and recently being elected the first female president of the San Diego Leatherboys.

MICHELLE JACKSON:

Sign-Language Interpreter and Leather Community Activist

interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Michelle as 2005 Ms. San Diego Leather (courtesy Michelle Jackson); Michelle and Leatherboys vice-president at the 2009 Mr. San Diego Leather contest; Michelle and 2009 Mr. San Diego Leather Bryan Teague (as Santa Claus) at the December 2009 Leather holiday party in Hillcrest.

When the San Diego Leatherboys held their regular monthly meeting December 8 at Filter Coffeehouse in North Park and elected Michelle Jackson their new president, I asked her for an interview. She asked me what she’d done that seemed newsworthy and I said, “Getting elected the first woman president of the San Diego Leatherboys.” “The first female president,” she corrected me. While she rejects some of the Leather community’s linguistic nit-picking — for example, she’s perfectly O.K. with being called a “boy” instead of “boi,” the usual spelling for females in the submissive role in a Sir/boy relationship — she’s unusually precise about the use of language and quick to point out when the person she’s talking to is falling into linguistic stereotypes that get in the way of understanding.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because language has been her whole life’s work. It began at age five, when her father took her across the border from San Diego to Tijuana. He explained to her that they were going to a different country where people spoke a different language that she wouldn’t understand, and to underscore the point, the moment they crossed the border he pushed a button on the car radio and it switched to a Spanish station. Later she realized her dad had pre-set the station and pushed the button on cue to give her that experience, but at five, she recalled, “I was flabbergasted that even the radio knew it had to change to Spanish when we went under that bridge.”

Jackson was so moved by the experience of a different language and culture that she told her parents she wanted to start taking Spanish classes — which she did. When she went to college, she majored in languages and fought a losing battle to be allowed to study American Sign Language (ASL) as part of her curriculum. After graduating, she went to work as an interpreter, and though she also does conventional interpretation between one spoken language and another, her specialty is ASL. Indeed, as she recounts below, it was her job as an ASL interpreter that first brought her to the San Diego Leather community.

Jackson describes herself as a second-generation San Diegan, a Bisexual, mother of two, grandmother of three and a “switch” — one who plays the dominant role in some S/M scenes and the submissive role in others. She’s normally quiet and soft-spoken, but she can be assertive and loud when she sees unfairness or injustice. She’s become an influential activist in the Leather community in the best way possible — simply by being there and doing the work, without thoughts of glory or ego gratification. Those qualities came through when we returned to Filter two weeks after her election and did this interview.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you just tell me a little about yourself?

Michelle Jackson: I’ve worked since 1988 with foreign languages, either doing customer service support or community service, different things for different companies. Through that then I became sign language interpreter, and that is how I ended up in the San Diego Leather community. I was asked to come and work for Leatherfest [the annual Leather convention, then held in San Diego and now in Palm Springs] in 1995 or 1996. I was at work, and a co-worker said, “Hey, Michelle, we need an open-minded, non-judgmental interpreter for a kinky BDSM/Leather event.” I said, “Woo-hoo, I think I’m your gal. I think I’m your woman.” I mean, I just knew. I knew right away that I would really like that, I’d do a good job.

Zenger’s: How did you get interested in working as a sign language interpreter?

Jackson: I had been introduced to sign language at eight by my mother’s friend’s sister, who was deaf, and so in college I wanted sign language to be my second language. But they didn’t recognize sign language as a foreign language, because American Sign Language is used in America and so it’s not “foreign.” That’s what they said. Italian satisfied their requirements, but I took American Sign Language, ASL, anyway. It satisfied the humanities [requirement].

I fell in love at that point with the people and the culture and the language, and found out that you could work, and most people either want to or have to pay you, and you can support yourself as a woman in this society and not have to worry about 70 cents on the dollar, because in the interpreting field 70 percent of the workers are women. So we already make good money, and as more men come into the field we make even better money.

I found out that there’s a whole culture of people who, when they become adults, create their own new families in the world, in their deaf culture. They help each other, pull each other up to a level where they can function in this hearing world. I just fell in love with the language and the openness and expression of the people, and how they express themselves in art and in life, and in their language.

I’ve used my primary second language, which is Spanish — I’ve been speaking Spanish since I was five — but sign language is the one I work with the most. When they did the Latino Awards at the Center, and they wanted an interpreter, they asked me to interpret because I could go from their Spanish directly to ASL. We didn’t have to have two interpreters. And they paid me.

Zenger’s: A lot of people don’t understand this whole concept of ASL as a separate language. Could you explain to me what it is and why it qualifies as a language of its own, and not simply a way to spell out English?

Jackson: It’s not manually coded English, and that’s evident when you look at the syntax and the structure, the grammar, everything. Linguistically, it has everything that every language has. The only thing it doesn’t have is an on-paper, written form, which years ago linguists used to say you had to have that to be a real language. But then people said, “Well, what about these people who live in trees and dirt and rocks, and that’s their world, and they don’t need paper and don’t write it down?” So there are languages that are not written.

American Sign Language was grown in the state residential schools that started back East and are now all over the country. They were started back East by a man in America named Thomas Gallaudet, who went to Europe, first to England and then to France, and met up with a man in France. The two of them then came back and brought this language system. American Sign Language — as it is now known —was grown and started there in the schools, with the children, on the East Coast. And our university, Gallaudet, was named after that American man, Thomas Gallaudet. The university is there in Washington, D.C. now.

It’s not manually coded English, and an easy way to prove it is to try to sign and speak any given sentence at the same time. It’s practically impossible, unless maybe it’s only one or two words. And even then, you’re probably going to have them in a different order. That, to me, proves right there they are definitely not the same language. They are very different. The cultural rules that go along with language, like how you would interrupt a conversation already taking place, are different.

Zenger’s: You said you had your “Eureka!” moment when you were hired as an interpreter to one of the Leatherfests, and suddenly discovered this was another community in which you belonged. How did that happen?

Jackson: It was in parts. The first “aha!” moment I remember was at the first Leatherfest. I got there early. At a weekend event like that I’ll try to get there really early, to get a feel for the physical space, the people working, the clients, customers, whatever, the vendors and the consumers. So I was watching them set up. At one particular point there were only two people in this big auditorium space, working. One was working on the stage, and one was running back and forth, getting stuff to set up.

An interesting note: I cannot tell you now if they were both men, both women, or one man and one woman. I really don’t know, because in general we dress more androgynously than other communities do. So I really don’t remember if those were guys or girls working, I don’t know. But the one person at the stage was really working hard, having to put all that together for the platform. And the one that was walking back and forth stopped what they were doing — and I could read in their body — they stopped and thought, and then turned and went in the opposite direction, and came back with a bottle of water and gave it to the person working the stage, putting the stage up.

I thought, “You know what? I have worked a heck of a lot of places as a sign-language interpreter. I have worked in churches and schools and hospitals, and governments and offices and Pride celebrations, and all kinds of places, and I have never seen anything like that.” It impressed me so much that I started looking more, and looking deeper. I really wanted to see, “What is this?” Not just the surface — all the little words that get people excited or upset — but look under the surface.

I found out that I really did belong, and I fit. I felt really comfortable, and I thought I had something to add that’s going to benefit not only the Leather community but also our extended LGBTQ-alphabet communities, Bears and Imperial Court and everybody. It really was very interesting, coming in from work, being a professional person invited in, and then eventually I just hung around and started participating more and more.

What was interesting and exciting to me was not only the play, but the fundraising and the charity and the community-building. The public at large has no idea, and I know that because I had no idea. I was in this community for years before I found out that if it were not for the Leather community, Special Delivery would not exist as it is now. A lot of things would not be able to survive. If you took the Court and the Leather out of the LGBT communities, a lot of places would fall apart financially. That’s because those two communities do tireless 365-days-a-year fundraising for people that are not just LGBTQ, and not just adults, but children and seniors and everybody else. And that turns me on a lot.

So I hung around, and pretty soon I started working with Spo, International Mr. Deaf Leather (IMrDL) 2001. I worked with him a lot. I did not know then that in 2001-2002 working with him was training ground for being a Leather titleholder myself, because I was not at all considering or thinking about or working towards being a titleholder in the Leather community. Then Karen Hew, Ms. San Diego Leather 2004, asked me to compete for and take the title after her for the 2005 contest, which was held in November 2004. And Before that I had never thought of running for a title as anything I was going to do. I was very happy doing what I was doing, and when she asked me to run for a title, I had to really think because I knew what was going to happen.

Before I ran for a title, when I joined San Diego Boys of Leather [the predecessor to San Diego Leatherboys], at the very first meeting I went to, a couple of people there said they were so glad that I had joined the group, because now they had a sign-language interpreter at their meetings. I had to tell them at that meeting, right off the bat, that if they wanted an interpreter they were going to have to get somebody else, because I was there to be a member. I was in the group to learn how to participate as a Leatherboy.

Zenger’s: People outside the Leather community who read this are going to be very confused by the idea that a woman could be a “boy.” So could you please explain, first-day class 101, how that happens.

Jackson: First, I do not differentiate between “boy” and “boi.” For me, it’s just “boy.” I don’t get into spelling it differently, or whatever. It doesn’t matter to me. There are women who will make a big distinction between “boi” — it’s gotta be with the “i.” That’s their thing. I totally respect that, but that’s not me. I don’t get into the letters like that. I think it’s deeper than that, deeper than how you spell something.

There are two things we need to consider when you’re talking about the labels you just used and the sentence you formed, was “woman” and “boy.” Those terms take into consideration sex and gender — which are two different things. Sex is what we carry on our bodies, and gender is in our head. For me, I just relate more to male-type energy, male-type thoughts in my head. At Mr. San Diego Leather, they had two auction baskets set out, and they were gender-quote-sex differentiated. If you would have labeled them, one was pink and one was blue. I liked the blue one better. That’s an example of what I mean by that.

The Leatherboy movement does not exclude membership to people on account of sex or gender. People in the community accept it or don’t accept it to whatever degree they do, and that’s O.K. I’m just really interested in participating in the community. There’s a core group of us who have been there all of this way, and I’m very dedicated to that group of people and this club. So that’s why I keep showing up.

Zenger’s: You’ve told me that you’re actually the first female president of the Leatherboys, but that there were females involved in the Boys of Leather.

Jackson: Yes, that would have been joey, boy joey, and also Jesse Duran. I think Jesse was president for a while, or vice-president, one or the other. I had at one time been secretary, provided that service when they needed it. It was very difficult because it was for a portion of my title year, and I traveled a lot — which I still do. We’ll see how it goes with conducting the meetings. We’re going to have to have strong cooperation, and I believe we will with the current board. So it will be fine if I’m ever out of town with the meeting. We’ve got a vice-president who can conduct the meeting.

Zenger’s: How did you end up as the president of the Leatherboys? Was it something you sought out, or were you just there?

Jackson: The most recent president, boy ryan, suggested that I become president when his term was up and said he would nominate me. He asked me if I would accept the nomination, and I said if the boys want me to be the president, I would be president and I will serve. You know, do what they want to do. That’s what a president is supposed to do: serve the club.

Zenger’s: That’s like the old saying that about 90 percent of life is just showing up.

Jackson: Yes, and participating. This group is very dedicated to continuing to exist, to supporting each other, and to being involved in the community. I know that; I want to be a part of it. So if this is how they want me to be a part of it now, I’m going to do my best, and I hope that that’s going to be wonderful and terrific, and serve the club and the members and the community, and me as well. It’s going to be a win-win-win for everybody.

I’ve never done it before. I’ve never been president of a club before. I’ve been secretary, vice-president, things like that, member, and with other groups that I’ve been involved in I’ve gone in in a supportive role. So this is a first for this particular group, and a first for me. I feel very supported by the members, and in particular Keith Roberts, who showed up recently for the first San Diego Leatherboys barbecue at San Diego Eagle with our new board in place. Thank goodness that Keith did that. I wasn’t surprised at all, but he showed up and just totally helped me pull it off.

What I’m hoping to see is, now that Ms. San Diego Leather 2005, Ms. World Leather 2005, is the president of San Diego Leatherboys, I’m hoping that my buddies in L.A. and Palm Springs come to our barbecues at San Diego Eagle, third Sunday, start at 3 p.m., once in a while. Because I know I sure do go to the Eagle L.A. or out to the Beer Barracks for their Sunday barbecues, and I really enjoy it. I’m hoping to see that reciprocated by friends, and I’m sure it will happen. I’m looking forward to it. The Boys here have been going out of town more to more events, and I think that’s good because some of them don’t have an opportunity to do things in different communities out of town, and there are a lot to enjoy.

This recent one we went to was in Los Angeles, but it was in Oil Can Harry’s, and it was a phenomenal event, put together by American Leatherman 2008 Randy Carminati. He did a fantastic job. He pulled together a stellar cast and crew, and it was a phenomenal event. Everybody had fun. Spo was there taking pictures with his new camera he got for Hanukah. He was happy. He loved that camera. In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him take pictures and relate to the crowd that way. It was interesting, but fun.

They raised $6,500 for the Jeff Griffith Youth Center in Hollywood [a program of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center]. It’s for LGBT youth, teens, homeless teens, and they have not just shelter but meals and all that stuff. It’s a huge turn-on for me to be involved with that kind of stuff. I love it. And San Diego Leatherboys were present. Keith and I went there and brought toys to donate. Rough Trade is a business up there, and representatives from Rough Trade had a basket up there to collect toys for children in the area. We brought some stuff up, and that helped me get in the holiday spirit this year.

Zenger’s: There seems to be a kind of contradiction between the role of a boy, which is generally thought of as a submissive, and the kind of assertive, out-front, sometimes aggressive stuff you have to do to keep an organization together. How do you resolve that?

Jackson: As a female, I would say this: when you start talking about submission and aggression and succeeding and survival, the tiny power will have to learn to exercise what power it has, and it will have to learn how to deal with the larger power. Just like in a male-female relationship, you’re not going to be able to overpower someone who’s twice as big as you. And in the community, if you look at men and women in the LGBT community, women are not equally represented, period, across the board. That’s just the way it is. We live in a sexist society: sexist, ageist, racist. Period. Quote me. America. It is.

Zenger’s: Yes, I was just reading the editorial in the current Gay & Lesbian Times announcing their selection of Gloria Johnson as Person of the Year. She’s someone I’ve known for over a quarter-century by now, and she’s quoted in the article as saying we still need to build Lesbian visibility. I read that and thought, “This is freaking 2009. Why do we still need to build women’s visibility?”

Jackson: Because we still make 70 cents on the dollar and we’re still having clitorectomies in Africa. That’s why. Because women are subjugated. Because not men, and you all never let us forget that. Although a boy may be submissive with his Sir, that boy does not have to be submissive to every Sir that’s out there. Quite the contrary. A boy might have to be very aggressive to stand up for himself or other boys around him if inappropriate wanna-be Sirs or titled Sirs, whatever, are misusing their position. You’ve got to get kind of assertive and/or aggressive to take care of yourself. If you’re not the oppressor, you’re going to have to learn survival tactics.

There’s a Sir in the community that I interact with. He’s not my Sir at all, but I give him complete and total Sir respect. He responds to me as he would to any boy, even though I’m female. He’s called me on my stuff if I’m wrong, he praises me when I’m correct, gives me guidance and help. I’ve had to call him when I’m out of town and ask stuff. You learn how to be assertive and take care of yourself, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to step on anybody else.

I think sometimes that’s the fear, that whoever has the power doesn’t want to give up any of the power because they think they’re going to disappear, but in the BDSM/kink community it’s all about power exchange, the exchange of power. That’s part of what the dynamic between the Sir and the boy, because the boy gives permission to the Sir to be dominant: “I will submit to you, Sir.” That doesn’t mean he’s going to submit to everybody.

Zenger’s: I’ve heard that’s one of the worst and most common breaches of etiquette in the Leather community: dominants who come in thinking, “Anybody who’s a boy has to submit to me.”

Jackson: Yeah, they think they can even touch me or manhandle me! They should think again. I don’t think so. That’s not going to work. Unh-hunh. That’s somebody who thinks they know what the community is, and they’re not really a part of it, because if they were really a part of the community, they would know not to do that. It’s about respect. It doesn’t matter who the person is that deserves the respect. It should be common and mutual.

Zenger’s: What do you think is in the future for the Leatherboys? Beyond what they’re doing now, where do you want to see it go?

Jackson: There’s so much growth going on, both locally and networking. There’s more communication between different groups. We interact quite a bit with Palm Springs, and I’m looking for us to build a liaison, a connected relationship, with some of the L.A. boys and all of the other groups. I’ve got friends in D.C. Boy elena gave me the Kansas City pin. Boy alex from Toronto. Another boy alex from the Washington, D.C. Boys. Boy joe from the Phoenix Boys of Leather. All of us have — we’ve been around for a little while, and there are new people, but there are older people also.

I’m just hoping that in 2010, with new decade and all that, there’ll be a lot more growth, locally and nationally for all the groups. I’d like to see us hosting some of the other boys to come here to San Diego, and I’m definitely looking at us going out of town whenever it strikes our fancy. Also, San Diego Leatherboys needs a meeting place. I’d like to see growth for all the little local groups, and more networking, and we need a space.
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