Amidst Closures, A BDSM Group Takes A Beating — 

And Creates Community Online

[Some names have been shortened to protect subjects' identities.]

Before its temporary closure, one of the closest-knit spaces in Manhattan was a venue where people got whipped, flogged, and massaged with flames.

As communities and hobby groups around the country respond to coronavirus-related closures in their own ways, one BDSM organization has adapted to engage its community through online meetings. The Kink Collective, a “leather family” in New York City, normally hosts parties, called Dungeon, on the second, fourth, and fifth Saturdays of every month at Paddles, a sex club on West 26th Street. Before the fourth-Saturday parties, the group also hosts Lifestyle Discussion Groups (LDGs) at Paddles; before the second-Saturday parties, they host munches — nonsexual social gatherings in street clothes, stylized as “aBSurDisM” — in either of two venues on West 25th Street: The Blacksmith and Smithfield Hall. At the March 14th munch at Smithfield Hall, the entire space had only a small fraction of its usual crowd. One standout figure, however, was the leader of Kink Collective: 41-year-old “leather daddy” Joshua Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, a square-jawed former U.S. Marshal and sergeant in the US Marine Corps, now makes a living as “Master Joshua,” a professional Dominant who hosts parties, leads private sessions with clients, and facilitates educational workshops. He also creates online content with his 55-year-old partner, Cat O., in their Harlem studio. 

Kink Collective is a “leather family,” a close-knit group of “about 18 members” who practice BDSM, “give or take whoever I'm arguing with that day,” Rodriguez jokes. During a party, leather-clad members of Kink Collective wear glowing red or white armbands to be seen inside the dark space. Some take tickets at the door or monitor the entrance to the couples’ room, but others circulate throughout the space to monitor scenes, answer questions, or give tours to newcomers.

Rodriguez operates all Kink Collective events through the principle of People Before Kink, which he explains as, “Before we pick up the toys, we have to know the people in front of us.” Part of his motivation to keep the parties safe came from the relief he felt at seeing “everyday people that were very inviting” at his first time attending a party at Paddles six years ago. 

“Seeing community like that is what really drew me in beyond the ‘deviance’ that we were labeled with,” he said. “There was a sense of connection, people talking with each other and bonding.”

Although he goes by “Master Joshua” professionally, he and the other Kink Collective members only go by their first names at events. In fact, he has no patience for Dominants who refuse to socialize outside of scenes and reminds one Lifestyle Discussion Group that the simulated power structure of BDSM is “all make-believe, it’s all pretend.” Bathed in red light from the neon sign above the bar, he kicks off every party at 9:45 P.M. by standing atop a grope box and explaining, in depth, each of the event’s 23 rules: ask before touching. No means no. House safewords are “red” and “yellow.” Ask if you have questions. Be responsible.

Resident “fire Domme” Teresa S., 50, whose ‘scene name’ is “Smitten,” said that most Dungeon parties draw 50 to 100 people. On March 14, though, the environment was decidedly less full. At this party, the last one before New York’s PAUSE Order went into effect, there were no more than 25 people in attendance, including the staff. Although most attendees were veteran partygoers, a few new faces included Michael, a shy 20-year-old in business school, and Pete, a bearded 57-year-old who described himself as a “gentleman pervert.” 

Before the party started, Rodriguez had already taken precautions against facilitating the spread of COVID-19, putting out additional two-liter dispensers of hand sanitizer and imploring partygoers via Meetup not to go if they had been feeling ill. Since then, however, Rodriguez and O. have moved Kink Collective’s events online for the time being. Now, weekly two-hour Zoom meetings on Saturday nights replace the previous LDGs at Paddles.

Unlike the in-person discussions, in which participants can speak or ask questions at any time, the Zoom meetings are set up such that only a few pre-selected panelists, plus Rodriguez and O., are able to use audio or video. Other attendees can ask questions privately via chat to Rodriguez and O., who then relay the questions to the panelists. 

Like the original LDGs, each meeting has a theme. On March 21, responding to the theme of “Social Distancing, Intimacy and Introspection,” 41-year-old Dr. Shveta M., a Kink Collective member, talked about how the quarantine had changed her life as a kinkster and as a healthcare professional.

“It’s a little scary, and the rules of my job keep changing every day,” she said. “I also feel love through affection, and I'm used to my kink family being able to hug and touch and see people at least on a weekly basis,” she added. “This platform definitely helps.”

At the end of every meeting, Rodriguez encourages guests to share their FetLife profiles to make connections, build community, and continue the conversation. 

“I'm thankful for all of you for being in my life,” he told guests on March 21, “for being in our lives and for being able to represent this community the way you do.”

At RuPaul’s DragCon NYC, It’s A Party – 

With a Healthy Dose of Politics

At six feet seven inches tall in her black stilettos, the svelte blonde Strawberry, sporting a sleek fishnet dress, leather jock strap, and pencil-thin eyebrows, made a striking impression as she asked passersby a crucial question:

“Are you guys registered to vote?”

Strawberry was one of thousands of attendees at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC, a gathering for fans of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, on Saturday, September 7, 2019, at the Javits Center. Between hosting talks with Diane von Furstenberg and Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul spun a DJ set for the crowd on the Main Stage, blasting favorites like Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” and Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” to guests outfitted in ball gowns, bouffants, Speedos, and sparkles. Beyond the fun of performances, dancing, and meet-and-greets with drag celebrities, one key theme permeated the convention: the importance of participating in politics to create change for LGBTQ Americans.

Strawberry herself hadn’t planned to register people to vote; she said her role was “thrust upon me by a chance of happenstance” that morning. Most people she spoke to were already registered, but she appreciated the opportunity to encourage convention-goers to engage politically.

“We live in a society where money is taking precedence over the consensus of the people,” she said. “The only way to fix a broken political system is from within.”

As much as she appreciated the convention as a safe space for the LGBTQ community, she was concerned that the abundance of vendors might give attendees the idea that it exists primarily as “a place to buy goodies.”

“I hope people don’t take away the idea that drag can be bought.”

More than 200 vendors filled the Javits Center with neon wigs, bedazzled stilettos, and clack fans reading “SHADE,” but not everyone was there to sell merchandise. HeadCount volunteer Sam Hardy waved a red and blue clipboard as she circulated throughout the show floor in search of new voters. Hardy, a second-time attendee of RuPaul’s DragCon, said, “Our goal is to make everyone excited to vote.”

Even elected officials themselves exhorted Drag Race fans to register for the upcoming election. In a prerecorded video message, Senator Elizabeth Warren told convention-goers, “Equal means equal, period, and that’s what I’m fighting for.” 

“I’m counting on you to make your voices heard,” she added.

At a panel called “Trump and Mitch, Sashay Away: How We Win in 2020,” Marti Gould Cummings, who is running for City Council in Council District 7, explained that their biggest concerns as a candidate are high cancer and asthma rates, climate change, and police-community relations. 

What draws most people’s attention to Cummings, however, is that they campaign in full drag.

“For me, drag is just an extension of who I am,” they explained. “If drag gets the attention, I can then say, ‘Great, you’re listening? These are the issues that we have to take care of. These are the issues that my constituents are concerned about, and this is what I’m going to do when I’m elected, so if you don’t take me seriously as a drag queen, look beyond what I’m wearing and listen to what I’m saying.’”

Performer Trixie Mattel’s encouragement to participate in politics drew one of the biggest crowds at any performance that day. To an attentive, tightly-packed group of hundreds encircling the Main Stage, Mattel declared: 

“If I have the time to vote in drag, you b----es do, too!”

45 Minutes Of Tech Delays

 Couldn’t Knock Down

 Knocked Loose

At the Mercury Ballroom this past Friday, the energy in the crowd before local band Knocked Loose went on stage could’ve powered the city.

The three opener bands — Gates to Hell, 200 Stab Wounds, and Nothing — had all played their sets without a hitch. Now, the anticipatory energy for the headliner, Louisville-area metalcore band Knocked Loose, was overwhelming. 

But only a few songs in, around 10:30 p.m., someone on stage suddenly called for everyone to halt the music. Techs went to work immediately. For the next 45 minutes, the fate of the show would hang in suspense. 

Before Friday night’s show, Knocked Loose hadn’t played in their hometown since Louder Than Life in September.

Yet even before their set started, there was trouble brewing: one of the cryo jets onstage was malfunctioning, sending off sparks, and it had to be scrapped from the show entirely after some attempts to fix it.

But not long after, a large white curtain, a setpiece for their concept album “A Tear in the Fabric of Life,” went up, and so did the audience. Hundreds of phones came out, and the show began.

A few songs later, it stopped.

For the next 45 minutes, the audience was in suspense. They chanted for the band. They sang one round of “Jingle Bells.” They helped reunite a pair of missing glasses with its owner. Someone on the upper level threw beers down to people on the first floor until staff apparently asked him to stop.

But there were also periods of quiet. As the time ticked on, some fans began to slump against the barricade in boredom. They began to worry and whisper with photographers — will Knocked Loose be able to finish the show before the all-ages curfew? When is that, anyway? Will they have to cancel?

Thankfully, their worries ended up unfounded. When the band returned to the stage around 11:15 p.m. to a swell of cheers, frontman Bryan Garris told the audience:

“You all were going so fuckin’ crazy you broke the sound.”

The crowd instantly roared again, and Garris explained that everything had been fixed; the show would go on; they would make up for lost time.

“Even though we’ve never had technical difficulties like this, sometimes this stuff happens, and it’s always kind of weird. It started off so amazing — we started off up here,” he said, gesturing up high, “and I knew that throughout the set, you all were just getting warmed up. I just need to make sure that you guys are still fuckin’ ready.”

They restarted the show by playing “Billy No Mates,” and the audience’s energy once again surged. Fans crowd-surfed, raged, headbanged, moshed, slam-danced — it was, once again, a Louisville metal show as a Louisville metal show should be.

When the show ended just after midnight under bursts of red and blue confetti, the fans, the band members, the staff, and everyone at Mercury Ballroom knew: Knocked Loose had not been knocked down.

The Cathartic Power Of Deathcore Band sero\\tonin

The local female-fronted deathcore band sero\\tonin has burst onto the music scene — and that’s a reason to be happy.

Vocalist Melissa Eagle, guitarist Josh Smallwood, bassist Austin Crass, and drummer Chris Bindner made their debut as a band in late January. When Crass was putting the band together, he wanted to bring in a female vocalist because the deathcore genre itself is “a bunch of dudes telling you how they feel, what they think,” he said. Centering a female voice was a way to push back against that, to prove that a woman can bring lyrical and aural power to a genre that is otherwise male-dominated.

It certainly worked: since the release of their first single and music video, “No Escape,” in late February, the band has accrued YouTube and TikTok plays in the five digits, plus plenty of supporters. Next month, they’ll be playing in front of thousands of people at Kentucky Irate Fest, sharing a venue with Slaughter to Prevail and Norma Jean — and, no pressure, but it’ll only be their second show ever.

Not bad for a band that’s only released three songs.

In fairness, sero\\tonin has existed, albeit out of the public eye, for longer than half a year. In 2021, in weekly practices and rehearsals at Bindner’s parents’ house in rural Indiana, they operated under the tentative name ISayDie. It came from a transliteration of “Aes Sedai,” powerful female mages in the fantasy series “The Wheel of Time,” and was meant to honor the fact that they were female-fronted. Still, Eagle said, the name “just never sat right on all of our stomachs.”

It was Eagle who proposed “Serotonin” instead, though at first she thought it was “lame” — but her bandmates didn’t, and it stuck. The group tweaked the stylization a bit, realizing that they’d need to stand out from Google search results about the namesake chemical, and ultimately settled on “sero\\tonin” — lowercase, no spaces, two backslashes. It creates formatting issues on certain platforms, so they occasionally replace the backslashes with lowercase Ls or capitalize some of the name. But, as they wrote in a Facebook post: “People keep asking about our name, Sero\\tonin. If we’re lacking it, or meant to give it. Well, the answer is, yes.”

By the time they had their first show at 21st in Germantown on April 7, as one of four supporting acts for Left to Suffer, they’d already gotten plenty of time to hone their work. A sold-out crowd of 150 people showed up that night; there were even two separate mosh pits during their set, which Eagle was “hyped” to see.

Still, support from fans doesn’t always guarantee a band’s road will be easy, especially for one with a female lead in a male-dominated scene. Most deathcore musicians and fans are men; although sero\\tonin does have plenty of male supporters, they’ve also gotten a few detractors. A YouTube comment on one of their videos says that vocalists like Eagle use “too manly of a way of singing for a woman in my opinion.” Another asks if Eagle’s singing is her own or “male with the girl mouthing the lyrics?” One reads, “Billie Eilish needs to stick to pop…”

Eagle, who had blue hair for 10 years before a recent switch to blonde, is no stranger to Eilish comparisons — not all of which are derisive — nor to more general sexism in the scene. In the band’s earliest days, some men told her she should present a more sexualized image, which she refused.

Those comments, as well as those that suggested it’d be easy for a female musician to get popular in the metal scene, “made me feel gross, because I’m working hard here! These songs, I’ve poured my heart into. And I’ve spent the time writing and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting to record and then record music videos, just for people to look at me and be like, ‘Oh, you’re just getting this attention because you’re a woman.’”

“It’s been very difficult, but also, I like the challenge. I’m gonna stay me. I’m not gonna change to appease anybody, and I’m going to continue to get my point across,” she said. “When you work this hard, vocally, you’re gonna get somewhere.”

On the plus side, at least, she and her male bandmates have a comfortable chemistry — but you might think otherwise from watching the music video for their single “193.” The video starts off with Eagle dragging Bindner’s dead body, wrapped in a tarp and covered with (fake) blood.

Between shots of the band playing, we see what led up to the moment: as Eagle, in uncaptioned dialogue, vents to her bandmates, they roll their eyes, shrug her off, or nearly ignore her altogether. Her frustration builds until she snaps: one by one, she kills them, stabbing Smallwood with a knife, strangling Crass with a loose bass string and unlocking a jack above Bindner, crushing him underneath a car.

The twist: It was all a dream, but implied (perhaps) to be a diegetic revenge fantasy.

For what it’s worth, Eagle’s actual dynamic with her bandmates is far better. She and Crass have been friends since they were teenagers, and he introduced her to Smallwood and Bindner, “these lovely people who have never, never ever given me a reason to be like, ‘I don’t like you,’ even in the slightest.”

Still, the video has a dark origin: it was inspired by the true story of Susan Wright, “The Blue-Eyed Butcher,” a woman who stabbed her husband at least 193 times, for reasons that are still debated. Eagle made it clear to me that she does not condone Wright’s actions in any way, but she wanted to explore the theme of her case at a deeper level — through the lens of someone who is pushed to an out-of-character breaking point.

It’s not the first time the band’s drawn inspiration from real life — that is, in fact, where all of their songs come from. “Call of the Void,” whose name comes from the French term “l’appel du vide,” is about suicidal depression, which Eagle struggles with (“All these demons / will finally die / along with me / fuck it!”) “No Escape,” whose music video stars a tarantula called Nevermore, is a song about “how it feels to be caught in the web of a spider” — figuratively, as the song alludes to a sexual assault (“Fleeting nightmares of your mattress / Haunt me still to this day / But I’ll drag that skeleton with me / Until we both land in our graves.”) An upcoming song, “Chasing Highs,” which will be released on Sept. 23, is about Eagle’s struggles with her late brother’s heroin addiction.

For Eagle, singing about those issues is deeply cathartic.

“When you go through some of these things, you do get filled with a lot of anger. When you’re not heard, and you’ve been through these situations, for me, it is so healing to get up on stage, to get into that garage, and scream my head off about things that I want to scream my head off about,” she said. “That’s my favorite part.”

That translates into a cathartic experience for the listener, too. Deathcore is a heavy genre, of course, lyrically and otherwise, but jamming to ferocious vocals backed by strong instrumentals is one formula for happiness. If you’re a fan of screams and snarls, listening to Louisville’s newest female-fronted deathcore band is a great way to get plenty of sero\\tonin.

Carmina Burana: Review

Drunk, horny monks have helped me survive the pandemic.

Lately, I’ve been losing myself in the sumptuous music of Carmina Burana, a cantata that sets medieval monks’ poems about destiny, sex and alcohol to epic, powerful arrangements like “O Fortuna,” “Were diu werlt alle min,” and my personal favorite, “Tempus est iocundum.” The composer, Carl Orff, wrote the music in the 1930s and 40s, but the best pieces have had serious staying power (in pop culture and elsewhere) throughout the last century. 

A 2006 NPR piece about Carmina Burana described it as being full of “extremes and excess.” Outside of LEO, I make a living in theater photography, the intersection of two art forms that make melodrama out of everyday life. “Extremes and excess” are my career, yet so much of 2020 neutered me into a life at home, without theater. Daily, I saw the same dusty laundry room. The same backyard. The same neighbors’ cars. The same wooden floor onto which light spilled, not from the lofty rafters, but from the fridge. It was a struggle to get through a photo class doing staged “performance” photography at home last spring because I knew that it just wasn’t real. It wasn’t right.

But rediscovering Carmina Burana through the Munich Percussion Ensemble’s 2017 performance has reawoken my motivation for my work — because that’s exactly what my favorite part of it, “Tempus est iocundum,” does. Everything about this piece just works.

Those opening notes — the high-pitched women’s voices in sync with the tambourine — set up the rest of the piece so beautifully and brightly. Each “quo pereo!” is a burst of pure joy. Even the way that the baritone soloist glances at his female counterpart gives us the sense that we’re not just an audience to a song, but to two characters in their own scene. 

The best part, though, is that gorgeous, weighty “totus floreo,” which means “I am wholly blooming.” In this concert hall — stately and high-walled, yet warm and earthy like a medieval tavern — the phrase rings so beautifully that I am tempted to tattoo it onto my arm.

But I am not wholly blooming. I am still living at home. I am still working through the aftershocks of the pandemic: the betrayal when one of my closest friends turned into an anti-masker. The panic when he suddenly got sick. The loss of income when my summer job was canceled last-minute because of COVID. The loss of faith in my government to prevent something like this from happening.

For what it’s worth, not every song in Carmina Burana is equally capable of being a necessary distraction. “Were diu werlt alle min,” a song about forsaking the world to romance the Queen of England, conjures up images of imperial triumph and victory in only 56 thunderous seconds. But its counterpart, the jarring “Ego sum abbas,” is less a transporting piece of music and more a depressing monologue with an occasional interjection from the percussionists. It’s just uncomfortable. That’s not to blame the performers, by any means; the musicians are skilled and the baritone soloist, Carl Rumstadt, has a powerhouse of a voice. A listener will take to it better, though, in pieces like “Circa mea pectora,” in which the swells of the orchestra and the male chorus back up the singer as he moves toward his ultimate decision, punctuated by the quick notes from the women that imply an anxious internal dilemma. It’s the most beautiful, longing ode about a man cheating on his girlfriend that the classical music world has to offer. 

Two of the first pieces in Carmina Burana that I ever listened to were “Veni, veni, venias” and “Floret silva nobilis” in high school. I didn’t know the full meaning of either song; I knew that “veni” was encouraging something to come forth, and I assumed “floret” meant something to do with plants growing. Musically, they were both bouncy and sprightly, so, in my head, they both had the same approximate meaning: please come, spring! A great sentiment in any year. But in this particular year, when we’re dependent on what spring can offer — the vaccine, the opportunity to get outdoors, to be safe and warm and amongst friends — that message is even more urgent. Listening to those songs — even knowing now that their meanings are definitely not what I had thought they were — almost feels like I am sending up a plea to Fortuna, destiny, herself.

The poems that make up the text of Carmina Burana predate the Black Plague, but we and the people of the medieval age share the same love of theatrics, of excess, of extremes. It’s stayed with our species through the ages. We want to get together in person and feel the soaring glory of a chorus hitting a high note — or a “totus floreo” — deep in our souls. We just don’t want to worry that doing so might threaten the lives of our loved ones. 

Through the last few months of winter, getting lost in Carmina Burana has been my method of self-preservation, a way of reminding myself that beautiful performances like this one will return to the world. There will be shows again. There will be actors, there will be lights, there will be songs. This year and next, the performing arts and I will, once again, bloom.

Fatten the Curve:

How the Plus-Size Dating Community
is Making the Most of COVID-19

When it comes to COVID-19, not everyone wants to flatten the curve. Some people want to fatten it.

As COVID-19 has taken most elements of life virtual, one online dating community is thriving because of the quarantine and some of its physical side effects. Feabie (pronounced like the name “Phoebe”) is a dating and social networking site that caters to communities whose members tend to overlap: fat admirers (or FAs), plus-size people (BBWs/BHMs), and members of the feederism community (feeders and feedees.) Currently, the site has more than 115,000 users worldwide. It functions as both a dating site and a community outpost.

An FA is a person of any gender who is attracted to fat or plus-size people, although most FAs on Feabie are straight men. Plus-size people themselves are divided into BBWs (“big beautiful women”) and BHMs (“big handsome men.”) Feederism is a fetish that involves one partner (the feeder) giving the other partner (the feedee) food to make them gain weight for both partners’ sexual gratification. Not all FAs are feeders, but the two groups often overlap. 

Fat-related fetishes — as well as attraction to fat people in general — are often pathologized and stigmatized. Even as wanting a “thicc” girl has become a mainstream meme in the last few years, the idea of the dating partner who hides their attraction in public is a very well-known trope in the fat community.

Rochelle Brockington, a plus-size photographer who goes by “Rochelle Fatleopard” professionally, posted on Facebook in 2017 that her skinny friends “get surprise dinner dates” overlooking the New York City skyline, whereas she and her fat friends “get paragraphs from dudes explaining why they don’t pay for dates then a text at 3am [sic] asking if you wanna come over.”

On Feabie and elsewhere, however, the community is diverse and eager. Members include a financial analyst in New Jersey, a higher-up at Twitter, a champion disabled athlete, a pediatric surgeon at an elite Upper East Side hospital, a competitive pinball player, and an up-and-coming playwright. 

While “the quarantine fifteen” has been one of the banes of many people’s pandemic experiences, many users on Feabie have embraced it, literally and figuratively. The site’s homepage functions as a public hub where, at all hours of the day, users around the world post paeans to various components of fat bodies: love handles, thick calves, sagging bellies, stretch marks.

Unlike the Facebook newsfeed, the Feabie newsfeed makes all status updates public to members around the world, although members can curate which types of users’ posts they see, according to their own interests.

In the last eight months, many Feabie users have written status updates celebrating their own or their partners’ quarantine weight gain.

“Biggest I have every [sic] been and still way more to go,” cheered a 26-year-old pharmacist in Indiana. “Several women I know have BALLOONED since March,” posted a 31-year-old IT professional in Georgia. “It’s a shame they aren’t comfortable with it.”

At the same time, even the most devoted FAs on Feabie often complain about how frequently fat women use the site — and, more broadly, the fetish as a whole — as a means of earning money. Women who do this will post links to various outlets in their profiles, including Amazon wish lists and payment services like CashApp and Venmo, usually with a coy mention of “tributes” or “getting spoiled.” Some women on Feabie make “clips” for male audiences. Sometimes these videos are directly sexual in nature, but often they reflect the interests of the niche community — for instance, eating or posing in normal clothes that fit badly.

Plus-size model Mary Boberry, 35, is to the FA world what Kylie Jenner is in the mainstream world: an entrepreneur, celebrity, and outsizedly popular sex object. At the start of quarantine, she weighed more than 600 pounds, and she currently has more than 111,000 followers on Instagram, Reddit, and Feabie combined. A two-and-a-half minute slideshow on YouTube showing her weight gain has more than 47,000 views.

As a “verified creator” on Feabie, she earns a living through selling “sets” — themed groups of 50-70 photos of herself in certain outfits — through a website called BigCuties. She, too, is using quarantine to her advantage. One of her spring sets celebrates her for “doing what most of us are, hanging out at home, and socially distancing!”

Ultimately, Feabie is a microcosm of larger society, and it often filters sociopolitical issues through a fat-related perspective. Around Thanksgiving, a 29-year-old construction worker and saxophonist in California implored community members not to celebrate colonialism but to instead “celebrate overeating and togetherness.”

Shortly after the Associated Press announced on Nov. 7 that President-elect Joe Biden would replace President Trump, many users came to the site to express their glee at the news. In between all-caps posts of relief, joy, and support for Biden were posts more common to Feabie. A woman in Germany asked for recommendations on take-out food. Another asked for advice on gaining weight. One woman (who has since deleted her profile) said she was just interested in cuddling and “getting her booty rubbed on.”

Earlier that week, on Election Day, a 35-year-old feeder in Denver named Zach posted that he wanted everyone to get out to the polls in support of the Biden/Harris ticket. The only type of exercising he supported on Feabie, he said, was exercising the right to vote.

History in the (Re)Making

Only the priests noticed that the King had now been missing from the Assemblée Nationale for more than 15 minutes, and their furtive note-passing betrayed their attempt at calm as they deflected glares from the Jacobins. Suddenly, the nervous President Barnave rose to announce, voice shaking, that Prussian forces had advanced toward Paris. Someone, he warned, must be elected to lead the Army immediately. A laborer, relegated to the back of the room, stood up to demand that his people be allowed to enlist — and that, if not, they would start a riot.

Then someone’s cell phone rang.

This was not the French Revolution. This was Reacting to the Past, a historical live-action roleplaying first-year seminar taught by Professor Patrick Coby at Smith College every Monday and Wednesday evening from 7 to 9 p.m. Here in “Reacting,” as students call it, first-year students relive and recreate the events of two historical time periods: the French Revolution in September and October and the Parliament of Henry VIII in November and December. Each student is assigned the role of a character, which can be either a specific person, like Thomas Cromwell or Maximilien Robespierre, or a member of a faction, such as the Jacobins or the Crowd. Students deliver speeches, make deals, and vote in order to advance their characters’ "victory objectives,” which may include goals like abolishing slavery or enabling King Henry’s divorce. Smith offers three different Reacting classes per year, but Professor Coby’s fall class is known as the most intense of the three.

Reacting is unlike a typical first-year seminar because students must live the history in ways that go beyond just dressing in costume or using vocabulary from the time period. Students must use the same devious means as the historical figures they portray once did in order to achieve their goals. Rather than merely argue about taxes, for instance, the lords and commoners in Parliament poison each other, spy on each other, spread false rumors about each other, and put each other to death for heresy or treason. Additionally, characters may filibuster, shout down opponents, or worse: in one class, a student — with the professor’s blessing — burned another student’s paper over the sink.

Reacting is a psychologically intense experience of winning and losing power – and, as a result, it is incredibly addictive. Competition, backstabbing, paranoia, and secrecy all play an important and everyday role in Reacting and lead many past members of the class to half-jokingly refer to it as a “cult.” 

Amanda Miller, who portrayed révolutionnaire Antoine Saint-Just in the French Revolution game and Bishop John Fisher in the Henry game, agreed that “cult” is an accurate descriptor for Reacting: “The game really takes over.” In Reacting, she said, “I’m totally in the moment; I never think of anything else but, ‘Oh my God, it’s 1535, and, like, defense taxes, fuck!’”

“It’s like you’re possessed,” said Jenny Agel, who played the only female member of the Crowd faction in the French Revolution game, then a placid priest in the Henry game. “But it’s also a little bit exhilarating.” 

Miller agreed. “What I’m disturbed by is that it feels good.”

A unique aspect of Reacting at Smith is that most of the characters are male, whereas all of the students playing the characters are female. In both the French Revolution and the Henry games, students make many in-character statements about the impropriety of women being in government, owning property, or being able to vote. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, the two women who make brief appearances in Henry’s Parliament, are there only to be publicly shamed for making Henry unhappy. Naturally, the gender discrepancy does not go unnoticed.

Lily Armstrong, who plays Thomas Boleyn, said, “[Reacting] undoes the way that we’ve been socialized to act as women in this day and age, as opposed to men in another era.” Amanda Miller added, “It’s the freedom to act like men in power without facing the repercussions of ourselves being judged that way.”

While Reacting is a firsthand lesson into the limitations of history, students find ways to add modern perspectives to the class. In the French Revolution game, one character passed a law establishing marriage in France as a civil right, which, as a result, legalized same-sex partnerships.

As soon as the gavel hit the podium, a beaming Antoine Saint-Just, sporting a handmade tricolore and cravat, strode to the front of the room and asked his colleague Maximilien Robespierre to join him. Pulling a red Ring Pop out of his pocket, Saint-Just got down on one knee and asked Robespierre to marry him. 

Robespierre said yes.

At Online Festival, LGBTQ Men 

Redefine and Explore Masculinity, Gender

Nathan Serrato has many of the hobbies one might expect of a life coach in Escondido, California. He loves yoga, hiking, and posting inspirational quotes to Instagram: “You are never TOO YOUNG to start an empire or TOO OLD to start a dream.”

He also loves to pole dance for strangers online. 

Serrato, a gay Latino man whose coaching practice is called Queer Conscious, said that LGBTQ people are more likely than straight and cisgender people to suffer from alcoholism, substance addiction, and sexual abuse. 

“By the time I was 21, I became a statistic of all of those,” he said. 

He’s now using pole dancing — online only, for the moment — as a means of reclaiming his identity and sensuality after trauma and religious repression. 

Serrato, 29, was one of more than 30 artists and performers at The 8th Annual New Masculinities Festival, hosted on Zoom on November 14, 2020. The festival, produced by two New York-based organizations, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center and Produced by Man Question, spanned two parts: “Main Room” and “After Dark.”

While all of the pieces in “After Dark” had to do with sex, sexuality, and desire in some way, the overarching theme of the festival was about giving space to rethink what it means to be masculine or male.

Wearing a black hoodie, tall stilettos, and striped thigh-high socks, Serrato gyrated to the song “Silence” by Marshmello and Khalid: “Can't tell me there's no point in trying / I'm at one, and I've been silent for too long.”

At the end of his performance, his audience applauded him — silently, with the clapping emoji.

“The arena of our sexuality and erotics is where a lot of gender performance gets put into practice. I’ve just wanted a space for us to get a little dirtier with it,” said C. Bain, the host of “After Dark.” Bain is a writer and performance artist in Brooklyn who describes himself as “gender-liminal.” He showed off tattoos of nautilus shells underneath his black chest harness.

Much of masculinity, Bain said, “exists in this domain that you can't explicitly make art about or even put language on, really, because of how our culture handles sex.” The point of After Dark, he explained, was to counter that limitation.

Steven Gordon, former executive director of The Pride Network, echoed Bain: “Sometimes we feel the need to compartmentalize our sexual selves from our activist selves from our community selves, and, really, they're all one.”

“I know the way I show up in the bedroom affects the way I show up in my community, and vice versa,” he said.

Emanuel Highlander Brown, a Black trans man in Georgia, recited a spoken-word poem about his body.

“Despite my complicated relationship with my fatness, I know it is dangerous. I know it is threatening to be big, bearded, and Black,” he said. “I know each wave of an arm or strong planted footstep creates fear. I know this body is policed.”

Other pieces that evening were more explicit: Jeffrey Cougler, a hard of hearing graphic designer from Rochester, NY, shared a video of colored pencil drawings of male nudes; Jake Frisbie, who is nonbinary, played a silent video of themself naked, flushing a toilet, overlain with text from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel about a character who changes genders; and Chinese-American poet Chen Chen, who lives in the “second most conservative city in the country,” Lubbock, TX, read a longform essay about the poet Rimbaud — and a sex act with a similar name.

At the end of the festival, C Bain was sad to be distant from his guests: “I want to hear the heels in the room!” Still, he said, the event was valuable to the community and society as a whole.

“A little gay sex and French poetry would make some people better citizens,” he said.

With new EP, local band Castlewood 

cranks the soft-pop up to “Eleven”

Any band who wants to take the stage first has to prove themselves in the studio. For one local band, though, that studio is actually a living room in New Albany, a cozy yellow space encircled by liner notes, album covers, and lyrics scribbled on the walls.

This is the homebase of up-and-coming Louisville-area musicians Nate Stemle, Josh Courtney, and Tyler Courtney, who perform together in the band Castlewood. Stemle, the frontman and lyricist, is a New Albany native who teaches English and journalism at Saint X, his own high school alma mater. Twin brothers Josh and Tyler Courtney are the producer/bassist and pianist/guitarist, respectively.

Together, the group is in between two releases: Castlewood’s first EP, Eleven, which debuted on March 8, and an upcoming single, “Give It Away,” due to premiere on April 16. The five-track EP is the group’s first; previously, they had only put out singles, including 2020’s “Ink Us In” and “Wake Up.” 

The songs on Eleven are a little hard to categorize: while “indie” is a useful catch-all, they are also breathy, reverent, soft, dreamy. I’ve played this album through at least six or seven times, and I’ve always gotten the sense that it could be the score for a romantic scene in a movie.

That sense is apt, because all of the songs on Eleven are about the highs and lows of love. “No Warning” tells of romantic feelings that took the singer by surprise; “All is Well” speaks of a relationship that’s better than fiction. Even in “Night Off,” in which the main character and his beloved fight, they reconcile: “What once was straight, it might be bent / now the words I said are words I meant / and I still think you’re heaven sent / These are feelings that we’ll fight off / But love won’t take a night off.” (Stemle also has a tattoo on his arm that reads, “Music is love.”)

Much of what makes Castlewood what it is is the group's ties to their hometown roots. Not only have the band members known each other since childhood, but Eleven itself was named for Stemle’s house on 11th Street in New Albany, the location of the aforementioned studio. The Castlewood name is a direct reference to the street where he grew up. There’s even an occasional bit of Kentuckiana flavor in the band’s lyrics: in “Next to You,” the singer tells his girlfriend that he will call her at 5:02 — a double meaning that also refers to the time Stemle’s real-life fiancée, Aubrey Meiners, calls him after work each day. After that, he’ll “take exit ten onto Cannons Lane / and I’ll hit the gas and I’m on my way.” Even some of Castlewood’s most immediate goals are geared toward the local market: they want to get a song on a rock station like 99.7 or 100.5, the same ones they used to listen to as teenagers. The group would love to get 10,000 fans, they said, but Stemle’s first goal for the band was for one person they didn’t know to listen to one of their songs. 

Although Castlewood is a newer musical venture, the Courtney twins are no strangers to wider audiences. Through their band, Before the Streetlights (BTSL), they’ve racked up a bevy of credits as the openers for “emo” groups like Escape the Fate, Secondhand Serenade, and The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, and Austin Bello of Forever the Sickest Kids produced their EP Highways in 2014. In March 2016, BTSL’s song “Goodnight, Goodbye” played in more than a thousand Journeys stores, which the group considers to be one of their biggest professional breakthroughs. It brought them a new surge of fans, including some as far away as Scotland and France. (The song’s success is well-earned; it’s a banger.)

While Castlewood might be a bit of a departure from BTSL — Tyler pointed out that Castlewood’s music is more “radio-friendly” that BTSL’s, which is fair; one of BTSL’s early songs talks about getting a fake ID and running from the cops — the group has confidence in their future, despite the challenges of the last year. While all the members of Castlewood currently work or go to school full-time, the pandemic gave their creative process the literal and figurative space to flourish.

“Without the pandemic, we wouldn’t be a band,” said Josh.

The lyrics of one of their earliest singles, “Summer of Josh” (whose name is a play on the Seinfeld character George Costanza’s “Summer of George,” referring to a season of waylaid plans) will be painfully familiar to anyone recounting 2020: “Staring at the four walls of my house / Getting sick and tired of hanging around / Nowhere to go, nowhere to be / Sun is shining on 11th Street.” 

Breaking out of their own stagnancy led the band to create the cover of Eleven. The trio, armed with disposable cameras, took photos of moments that made them happy — going camping, moving out of an old house, or even just hanging out together on a porch. The end result, after some culling, was a pile of photos commemorating a summer that otherwise would have been lost — a summer that they salvaged by sharing creative energy.

Castlewood does not yet have the name recognition or touring history of more established acts, but if there is one thing this band is not missing, it is energy. In the hour and a half that I spent with them (twice as long as we had originally planned), the bandmates bounced fluidly from their songwriting process to shared nostalgia, reveling in memories of mid-2000’s mall concerts and a past Harvest Homecoming Festival. We laughed about shared connections from middle and high school, about how Louisville is both a small town and a big town. Even when the bandmates weren’t talking about music, the way they vibed together was (forgive the virus language) joyfully infectious.

When the pandemic is over and live concerts can return, they want to put that energy to work at an open mic, maybe, or a concert (“or eight or 10 or 20”) – maybe a joint tour with Elephants (the name under which Josh produces his solo works) and BTSL. First, though, they admit that they’ll have to learn how to adapt their songs to be played live — “a whole different art” from recording them in a studio, Tyler said  but, in the meantime, they have their new EP and single to share. 

The sun is shining on 11th Street. Next year, perhaps, stage lights will shine on Castlewood.

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