By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
An organizer quiets the room, asking for attention. "This is your opportunity to give back to the community you love dearly. All of us fall on hard times in one way or another," he says, explaining that LeatherMagick raises money to help those who need a few extra dollars for medicine, bills or Christmas presents. "We try to take care of ourselves and help our own."
Twenty years ago, such an event would have been unimaginable in Colorado. The formalized BDSM community was in its infancy, fractured and secretive. Newspaper ads would alert participants to upcoming play parties, most of which were held in people's basements. "It was much more underground, much more dark. It was still pretty edgy, pretty daring to come out. You were taking some serious risks not just to be ostracized, but to be arrested," says Mys V, co-founder of LeatherMagick. "You had to prove your worth. You had to prove that you were of sound nature and you were not the police. It was hard to find groups."
That changed in the late 1990s, when several local practitioners opened Uncommon Ground, a private BDSM social club, in a rented warehouse in Aurora. Soon after, others in the community opened the Labyrinth, a Denver facility that later moved to Lakewood. "That was the heyday. That's when everybody was close and loyal, and there was kind of an exciting, clubby scene," says Rick, a veteran BDSM organizer. "It was like the hippie movement before everyone went in different directions."
These clubs weren't just about fun and games, though; they were a way for the community to police itself, to protect itself. Here, members could learn how to use ropes and knots that wouldn't cut off their partners' circulation, how to check participants for pre-existing conditions like dislocated shoulders or positional asphyxia, how to be on the lookout for those who might not follow the community's unwritten codes -- predators who wouldn't honor their partner's trust, respect safety precautions or obey safe words that, once spoken, require a play scene to come to an end.
"It's important for people in BDSM have somewhere they can go and learn how to play," says Ms. Phoenix, former president of Uncommon Ground. "We are looked at as hedonistic, self-centered rebels, but the scene has its own set of rules, and we are just as capable of self-governance as the Amish or the Mennonites or the Catholics."
But the clubs also made the BDSM community more susceptible to mainstream exposure -- which members discovered with a jolt four years ago. In the spring of 2003, undercover police acting on a tip that somebody was advertising sex acts at the Labyrinth paid to attend an event there and reportedly witnessed nudity, bondage and discipline. Incensed Lakewood officials argued that the club's owner should have disclosed such publicly accessible sexual activities, and that these activities made the facility an unlicensed adult business in a zone where such businesses were forbidden. The club was permanently shut down.
"Every member of [Lakewood City] Council was shocked when they heard about it," Mayor Steve Burkholder told a reporter at the time. "It does not reflect the moral value of the city or its citizens."
Uncommon Ground closed soon after the Labyrinth did, its membership splitting in squabbles over how to prevent similar exposure. People who'd spoken up for the clubs report being ostracized by friends and family. "When the Lab went down, everyone scattered in the wind," says Missy, a local submissive. "A lot of people who were in the scene for a very long time, they got out and didn't get back in. They got burned and didn't want to risk getting busted up again."
The shakedown was a wake-up call, a "baptism by fire," says Mys V. "It was the first time we ever had to deal with being raided in a hostile environment. It established that we needed a defense system, because these are communities that don't want us."
By then, Michael and Deb were already building that defense system in Commerce City. "The general paradigm was, get a group of people, find a building, rent it and open up and hope you don't get noticed, because, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever licensed a BDSM club within the state," says Michael. "Usually you get some other type of license. And what usually happens is somebody complains and the city looks into it. They don't have to address the First Amendment rights of adults doing what they want to do; they nickel-and-dime you for zoning and coding and licensing, and because you haven't dealt with that, they can get you on it.
"We were going to go to the right zone, we were going to go to the city, we were going to get the adult license if they asked for it, we were going to do it right," he continues. "We wanted to eliminate all those reasons so we have a lot less chance of being raided."
A few in the community wondered if this zealotry was necessary, insisting that as long as they ran a licensed, private social club, Michael and Deb didn't have to worry about things like adult content. "Michael and Deb and I definitely have different models," observes Love Slave, who runs a non-profit, private BDSM club that's been in operation, under different names, since 2004. "We are legal here. We fit all the legal requirements for a private-member social club in the city of Denver, and we fit all the zoning requirements."