Fetish has no Age

We talk to Ralph Bruneau about growing in the fetish scene. “I’m not sure there’s ever going to be a monolithic fetish scene that includes everyone’s identities and desires but I hope we are making a large enough scene to house a multitude of smaller scenes.”

For people who may have been living on another planet for the past few years, who is Ralph Bruneau?

I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame. My work in this field began more than 30 years ago as a paraprofessional counselor. The profound nature of the work inspired me to go on to receive a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University and then a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. I served as faculty member at Antioch University, in the Family Training Program at the Southern California Counseling Center, and have provided training to clinicians regarding chemical dependency, psychopharmacology, and sexuality/intimacy. I am a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, an AAMFT approved supervisor, and, in 2016, received one of 2 national awards from AAMFT for my contributions to the field of marriage and family therapy in the state of California. I served 6 years on AAMFT-CA Board of Directors and currently serve on the Board of Directors for the LA Gender Center, CLAW, and Avatar Los Angeles (President). Additionally, I am EMDR Certified, a Certified Treatment Specialist for Diverse Populations (AATBS), Certified LGBT Affirmative Psychotherapy Provider (AAMFT-CA) and Certified Substance Use Disorder Provider (AAMFT-CA). Outside my consulting room, I have been actively involved with the effort to ban licensed mental health professionals from providing Conversion Therapy to minors since AB1172 was crafted. California was the first state to ban this dangerous practice. I have been actively involved in this effort for over 8 years. In 2017, I was named International Mr. Leather. Part of my platform entailed traveling around the world raising funds and awareness for NCLR’s #BornPerfect campaign to ban Conversion Therapy in all 50 states and around the world. 18 states, DC and Puerto Rico now have bans on the practice. I have written for, or been profiled in, Alphatribe, The Leather Journal, GayStarNews, Bound and Black, Box, Time Out, Advocate, Huffington Post, and most recently was one of 6 individuals (I was the only therapist) chosen for an eight-page feature in Playboy magazine (in collaboration with the Trevor Project) because of my work with #BornPerfect and activism in fighting Conversion Therapy. I was the Payasos Leatherman of the Year 2017 and the George Wong person of the Year 2018 presented by the LALC. My IML step-aside video was awarded the 2019 Best Musical Short by CineKink and is touring in festivals nationwide. I believe the therapeutic process sits squarely within a context of heteronormative, gender, and sexual politics. These influences restrain our expression whether it be cultural, familial, relational alienation, an unwanted and unhealthy relationship with substances or maladaptive patterns, or a partially expressive sexual expression, to name a few. In this regard, I see the psychotherapeutic process as one, which attempts the collaborative release of these restraining influences returning to the innate capacity for full range of self-expression.

For how long have you been in the fetish scene? How did it al started? Was it easy back then to step into the world of fetish?

I started my leather life in NCY in the mid/late 70’s. It was a wild time. The piers, the trucks, Fire Island. My first gay bar was the legendary Mineshaft in the meat packing district. It was legendary from jump. They had a strict dress code and it was everything a fetish bar could be. Pre AIDS. All freedom of expression. Piss tub, bondage table, St Andrew’s Cross etc. What made it special was the hard core play with a safe and supportive group. One of my first times there I made eye contact with an older (30) guy. He gave me the nod and I nodded back and dropped my head in submission. He pulled me close and passionately kissed me. I melted in his arms. He told me to strip. I did. He tied a leash of hemp around my cock and balls and led me in just my engineer boots to his friends. I was home. They were my pack, my protectors. I was safe to explore anything with them nearby. I was so lucky. I do that for others now with my club, Avatar Los Angeles. We mentor and teach others about safe and sane BDSM play. It’s paying forward all knowledge and safety I enjoyed coming up in the scene.

You lived through the aids pandemic? How do you look back at this dark side? Do you think the youth of today is really aware of what happened back then?

I did. I came to Manhattan in ‘74 and left at the worst point in the epidemic in ‘84. Those years were the most free and then the most frightening of my life. I look back often. Maybe too often. All the men I loved in those years are gone. All of them. My 2 partners, my housemates, friends. They’re gone but never forgotten. I carry those men in my memories. I owe them that much. I stopped my career as an actor and became a hospice volunteer before getting another masters and doctorate in Clinical Psychology. I felt, if I’m going to be one of those that make it, I need my life to mean something. It’s still what drives me to service. Even as IML. I had been involved in the effort to ban Conversion Therapy for minors. I was able to take that fight all over the world. Born Perfect is the organization I support and it was the focal point of my title year and in the center of my title vest as IML. As far as the younger generations and AIDS awareness goes, it’s a mixed bag for me. I want them to know what we did, who we were, and how we died. But. In some ways I’m glad they don’t have to carry the trauma that I live with. I wouldn’t wish that for them. I just spent a week at eve Russian River in NorCal. I’d never been. It’s where so many SF queers went to escape the city as we did on Fire Island from NYC. We went to the graveyard where many gay men from that time are interred. Ashes of thousands of men who died of AIDS were scattered directly below our cabin. There’s always more stories of those grim times to be learned. It was profoundly moving. I hope future Lazy Bear events will include the history of that place. Where we lived, played, died. Important remembrances. IMHO

Did the fetish scene evolve through all these years?

Of course it’s evolved. We needed a road map when I was young. We were creating and organizing at the same time. We needed to look and act alike to find each other. AKA clones. White tees, 501’s, engineer boots and motorcycle jacket. We played in defined ways and in defined spaces so we could make safety in rules and rituals. But. Systems evolve or degrade and our systems of play can now be so much more diverse and creative. It’s great. Moving from an arborescent to a risomatic paradigm. Not linear growth but roots reaching out in every direction and creating new growth as they do. Exciting to see.

How did your IML-title change your life? How important is it to remain active and encourage young kinksters into their fetish discovery?

Being IML was completely unexpected and remarkable. I represented Gay Naturists International as Mr GNI Leather 2016. No naturist contestant had ever made the top 20 let alone win. I just wanted to represent that we can be leather in and out of our gear. I love to go out and play in leather and I also love to wear a jock and boots to play. I’m always a leatherman. It’s about who I am and how I play as much as what I wear. Taking that message out in the world was fun and exciting. Play and politics. Two things I feel passionately. I think it helps folks coming up in the scene. They don’t need to drop a grand on formals to be leather or fetish. A harness or vest, boots and jock are as likely to be worn out at the Eagle for me as full BLUF. Own the gear and don’t let the gear own you and you’re good to go no matter what.

Any thoughts on “wisdom comes with age”. Is age a struggle within the fetish scene? ( for youngsters, and silver foxes, … )

I don’t know that wisdom comes with age but experience should. I was the oldest man to win IML, by a lot. I was 64. I started collecting Social Security during my IML year. That was unique ;) I think that daddy culture is a big part of that. I think a lot of younger guys are attracted to stability, assurances and the power that sometimes comes with age. There is, of course, ageism in our scene as there is everywhere. I try to stay buoyant and educate where I can. My husband is an amputee. I see so much ableism in witnessing his journey. We are lucky we can invite self reflection without aggression—most of the time. It’s a privilege. We’re both still attractive and viable so people can identify and that’s crucial. I also love hearing from men my age how important it is to them to have me/us be seen as vital. That means a lot. And if younger guys think I’m a sexy daddy they might be interested in learning what it was like back in the old days ;).

How inclusive is the fetish community? Is there space for improvement?

I like that you call it the fetish community. I think there are a lot of loosely associated communities under that umbrella. I just went to Lazy Bear. That community has always been attractive and inviting to me. I usually go to IMsL, MIR, CLAW, Darklands, and IML. I personally don’t feel I need to be an insider in all but I’m glad there are enough choices to keep my dance card full as a participant I think people continue to create groups around their identity and desires. We’ve always done that. I’m not sure there’s ever going to be a monolithic fetish scene that includes everyone’s identities and desires but I hope we are making a large enough scene to house a multitude of smaller scenes.

Which upcoming events will you attend?

IML and MIR on the agenda until IML was cancelled again. My club is hosting the dungeon space at LA CLAW in November. Maybe Easter In Berlin and then IML. I’m writing this interview on a plane to Barcelona but not for an event. Just for fun. I’d like to have more non-event vacations in the future. A nice balance

How can people get in touch with you?

I’m on FB under my name and on Instagram as @IML_2017

Thank you very much for your time, Ralph!