Political correctness has a way of making strange bedfellows. In the maniacal rage to eliminate anything that could possibly be offensive to anyone, liberal advocates of PC propriety end up on the same side as their conservative counterparts in denying the liberties of free speech, free expression and free association. Both camps believe that the proper way is their way, with no wiggle room for viewpoints or lifestyle choices they fail to understand.
Case in point is the curious controversy brewing around the new Pyramid Leather Crypt & Art Gallery on Hamilton Avenue in Northside. Owner George Vanover is accustomed to being harassed by police and city officials, who successfully prosecuted his Pink Pyramid Bookstore for renting out the film Salo: 120 Days of Sodom in 1995.
That film, an anti-fascist work by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, contained scenes of dehumanizing treatment of civilians at the hands of state police during World War II and was designed to disgust the viewer. That such a condemnation of police tactics should in turn disgust Cincinnati Police should come as no surprise, especially if used to serve the purpose of shutting down a gay bookstore.
The surprise is that now some of the same folks sporting "celebrate diversity" bumper stickers and spouting the rhetoric of community and inclusion have targeted Vanover's offshoot business, a B&D, S&M, leather/fantasy boutique, as an unwelcome intrusion into what they regard as their own hallowed territory. But before getting too upset with their new neighbor, crusading citizens unhappy about the bold appearance of such a shop in their midst should consider the cause of the Northside opening.
"The city forced my hand," Vanover says, referring to the move.
"If they had let me keep my little leather department (at the Pink Pyramid downtown store), the people into leather and S&M would have been the only ones to know about it and we'd have been happy with that."
Instead, it resulted in another of those incidents created by city officials attempting to dictate what businesses can open where. Just as the city forced the closure of downtown's Elms Cafe, hoping to land something more high profile in that location, the closing of the Pink Pyramid's basement on Race Street was forced by the technicality of lacking an occupancy permit. In both cases, the city got its way.
But instead of the Elms Cafe, the city got what it deserved in Larry Flynt's new Hustler store. Here again city actions have backfired, with Vanover getting an expanded business in a more visible location along with free advertising.
"Business has been great," he says. "We're glad to be in Northside. It's an up-and-coming business district, and most people have welcomed us into the neighborhood."
Most, he says, but not all. Some neighbors are none too happy with the growing perception of Northside as a "gay ghetto," though the influx of gays and lesbians into that neighborhood has been going on for decades and has played a significant role in Northside's rise in popularity and desirability. Alas, not for all. One individual even filed a formal complaint.
"(He) doesn't like any of the gay businesses down here and complains they're taking over the neighborhood," Vanover says, referring to the complainant. "The sad thing is, we're the ones who are bringing life back into this neighborhood."
The same stretch of Hamilton Avenue now is home to Bullfishes, a popular lesbian bar (voted as one of the friendliest places in town last year by CityBeat readers); Jacobs' on the Avenue, a gay/mixed nightclub; The Crazy Ladies Bookstore and Center, a mainstay in the feminist/lesbian community; and the Serpent, a strict leather dress-code bar conveniently located next door to the Pyramid Leather Crypt.
With the Gay and Lesbian Community Center just up the next block, the avenue is dotted with ubiquitous rainbow flags from all these rays in the queer spectrum. Yet, despite the outward signs, this is hardly a peaceable queendom.
In addition to those he describes as "religious fanatics who want to control everybody's lives," Vanover cites a cadre of "feminist separatists" as other unhappy neighbors.
"They believe we're degrading women by offering B&D (bondage and discipline)," he says, "though a true feminist would encourage women to explore all of their sexual sides and make their own decisions."
The store caught flack soon after opening due to its window display of male and female leather-clad mannequins in master/slave positions. As of yet, though, the offended women haven't organized a formal opposition, despite stirrings and rumors of such.
The intolerance of some of his neighbors is perplexing and frustrating for Vanover, yet he displays a surprising calm, like he's seen this all before. "They say they want equal rights and or people to be left alone," he muses, "but they make strange bedfellows with the religious right."
He believes the common element for right-wing and left-wing extremists lies in the narrowness by which both define "acceptable behavior." Yet, he points out, roughly 70 percent of his clientele is heterosexual, with 60 percent of those being women who have a definite bent toward the role of the dominatrix.
In turn, about 60 percent of Vanover's merchandise is geared toward the transvestite/transgender and fantasy market, with women's items in large sizes so men can wear them. And he says he gets a small amount of lesbian shoppers as well.
But the biggest complaint against the new Pink Pyramid has centered not on the poses of the mannequins but the display of an unoccupied piece of furniture. A leather swing chair was denounced as "obscene" by one outraged woman who apparently could picture the apparatus in only one possible use. And while such devices have a fabled history in S&M "dungeons," how can a chair be obscene? Given individual tastes, it could just as easily be installed on a front porch as hung from basement floor joists.
But until leather slings are available at The Gap, Lazarus or Nordstrom, it's likely the chair in question will remain on display as a curiosity while the city continues to harass small business in order to favor the upscale. In the meantime, Vanover plans to offer demonstrations and art exhibits, to teach safety rules to novices and to better educate the broader community on the consensual nature of role playing and fantasy in the leather scene.
Obviously, he'll have to start with some of his neighbors and their tightly bound notions of diversity.