Vancouver
4 min

A queer, fat, kinky Jew

Silva Tenenbein lubes the wheels of social currency

LEVELS OF ACCEPTANCE. Silva Tenenbein says kinky people are viewed as halfway between axe-murderers and merchandising opportunities. Their day as a potential market may soon come-as it has for gay men. Credit: Xtra West files

On the street she’s a recognizable type called “academic butch”-jeans and boots and a tweed jacket.



Her long silver hair may not fit the image, but Silva Tenenbein has been smashing stereotypes all her life. On a weekend evening she often leaves the house in full leathers, a black hanky hanging out of her back left pocket and her devoted boy(dyke) Sky carrying her toy bag to a public SM dungeon.



She’s not your typical university teacher, either.



Tenenbein unsettles some of her SFU Communications students. “Many of my students are much more conservative than I am,” she says. The students themselves often report that they had their horizons broadened in more ways than they’d expected.



The very out leatherdyke describes herself as a queer, fat, kinky Jew.



“I’m willing to discuss any of the marginalized groups that I’m a member of. People’s horizons broaden from encountering people with different worldviews. It’s important that we marginalized folk speak up.”



Tenenbein believes the problem is that people tend to be down on what they’re not up on-and the solution is education.



“When those of us who can afford to be out, are, especially if we’re well spoken, it eases the way for others to be out.” Being out and visible as a dyke is easy these days, she says.



Contrast this to her experience 25 years ago when she was one of six out lesbians at a BC Federation of Women conference, an umbrella group of 51 women’s organizations. Tenenbein was chair of the Rights of Lesbians subcommittee. The other women wouldn’t sit beside any of the dykes.



“There was always a chair space, then they’d sit down. Nobody would sit directly beside you. Some organizations dropped out of the federation because it endorsed lesbians. It was very difficult.”



She’s out as kinky, too, but says that aspect of her isn’t visible yet. “It will be, soon,” she promises.



Tenenbein says that advertising is a kind of cultural antenna and SM images are starting to turn up in a lot of ads. “There’s a cultural pattern. First, you’re invisible. Then, you’re axe-murderers. Then you’re merchandising opportunities, and then you’re seen as a potential market. At the point at which you change from a merchandising opportunity to a potential market, you get reified into the culture. It becomes okay. Gay male culture has arrived in that way.



“With the kink and SM culture, we’re halfway between axe-murderers and merchandising opportunities right now. You start seeing corsets on film stars and hearing women saying (giggle, giggle) ‘oh yes, I have handcuffs.’ The Gap sells leather pants.”



Tenenbein writes pornography for entertainment. “There’s not much good pornography around. If you’re enterprising, you can write your own. You and your friends can circulate it and then you’ll all have good porn,” she muses.



“For some reason that I’m not able to fathom, I have run into a number of non-kinky feminist queers who find this extremely offensive. It’s interesting. In lesbian circles I’m marginalized because I’m kinky, and in kink circles I’m marginalized because I’m queer. Fortunately, I enjoy and prefer the margins.



“I love to contribute to all communities, but as me. Not in spite of being a leatherdyke; as a leatherdyke. Not in spite of anything; as all of it. I want to be thought of as a Jew and as queer and kinky and all the other things I am. I want it to be okay-and I want that to be the case everywhere. I fight for noticing-and it being okay. Because that’s what diversity really is-it’s not when you don’t notice; it’s when you do notice and you think it’s wonderful.”



Her passion for educating led Tenenbein to start a business dedicated to building cultural bridges. She approached longtime friend (and Xtra West columnist), Elaine Miller, to help create a series of workshops designed to educate both queer and straight communities. “Between us we have a preposterous number of skills,” laughs Tenenbein.



For more than 20 years Tenenbein’s been facilitating workshops of one kind or another. Unlearning racism and understanding heterosexism used to be the biggest sellers. Today, people want the kink stuff. The duo has a popular seminar called Sex Tips For Straight Men From Lesbians.



“There’s a bridge builder,” Tenenbein laughs. “I love facilitating workshops because I can see the transformation in people. I’m hooked on seeing lights come on inside someone when they suddenly grasp an idea. As society shifts to the right, there are fewer and fewer places where you can get information about things related to sex.



“What are people supposed to do? You’re not supposed to have any information at all-and suddenly you’re good at being intimate? It requires some skills,” Tenenbein says. “We also teach SM things because it’s much safer if you know what you’re doing.”



After making her own SM toys for 14 years, Tenenbein this year started another enterprise: Black Hanky Toys. “I play in public dungeons. People would come over to me and ask me ‘where did you get that?’ and ‘will you take $50 for it?’ and that happened so many times that I decided to start making them professionally. We have a policy: if you can break this in an SM context, we’ll replace it for free.”



She’s been building bridges “forever,” Tenenbein remembers. “I started the first lesbian newspaper in Canada, in Montreal in 1973 and started The Lesbian Show on Co-op Radio in 1979. I belonged to an organization called Lesbian Resistance and we did public talks. I went into high schools and said ‘I’m a lesbian. Any questions?’ I’ve belonged to more groups that I can’t think of the names of, over the years.



“I think the only thing that we really truly have that’s of any value is relationships-and the kinds of contributions I make, make people richer in relationships. I think that social currency is worth wa-a-ay more than federal currency-and as we value federal currency more and more, we value social currency less, and we have less of it. So I take it on as my job to increase just the general amount of social currency and to help people have more of it. It’s the lubricant that makes the gears of society turn.”



CHECK IT OUT:

www.workshopplayshop.com