More often than not, queer children are born to straight parents and raised in a straight world. Traditional coming-out stories, where a queer character must reveal their sexuality to their families, have long held fascination for mainstream audiences. Infinitely more fascinating is the self-actualization journey, the universal queer experience of coming out to oneself, which is where queerness really distinguishes itself from straightness. Queer people must discover identity on our own, often without community, reflections of ourselves, or any record of our history. That’s why the queer canon — of radical queer cinema, literature, and art — is so vital, and it’s something you certainly won’t find in the latest Ryan Murphy confection.
Before it became fashionable for every TV show to have an LGBTQ+ character, queer art was often made with very little money or support. This led to the scrappy, DIY aesthetic of the New Queer Cinema, a term coined by film historian B. Ruby Rich for the indie queer cinema of the ’90s. Hallmarks of the genre include Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning” (1991), Todd Haynes’s “Poison” (1991), and Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner’s “Go Fish” (1994). These films premiered to great acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, then a fledgling center of American independent cinema, and influenced a generation of filmmakers, both straight and queer.
But for every festival darling, there were 10 micro-budget queer films, viewable only at word-of-mouth screenings in underground subcultures. A queer cinema canon worth its salt must excavate and elevate these hidden gems, of which “Bloodsisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism” is certainly a crown jewel. Released in 1995 and directed by video artist and filmmaker Michelle Handelman, “Bloodsisters” is a vital archive of San Francisco’s once-thriving leather dyke community. It’s also a rare time capsule of a community at risk of erasure, whether by assimilation or puritanism, and is surprisingly current in its discussion of the ever-evolving spectrum of lesbian/dyke/queer identity.
Blasting out its siren call in glorious celluloid, the provocative images saturated in red and green color overlay, the experience of viewing “Bloodsisters” today is a bit like getting a surprise phone call from a long-lost relative. The ’90s leather dykes of “Bloodsisters” — in their mullets, corsets, and collars — reach their cuffed wrists through the screen as if to say: We were here, we were queer, and we were into some wild shit long before whatever the hell you kids are doing.
Though its DIY visuals and choppy queercore soundtrack scream experimental film, Handelman keeps things accessible by introducing plenty of colorful characters. Interviewees include pioneers of the queer kink scene like Patrick Califia and Tala Brandeis, with Califia’s jovial musings imbuing the extreme proceedings with a healthy sense of humor. Chunky graphic text announces each name, of which many have a few. With names like Rainbeau, Skeeter, Queen Cougar, and Dianic Princess, sitting through the credits has never been this much fun.
With their Australian accent and no-nonsense demeanor, swaggering butch Skeeter will either thrill or terrify any curious kinksters. A POV shot where they talk to the camera as if to a submissive will have many bottoms fanning themselves. Tops can learn a thing or two from their instructional demonstrations, where they illuminate the torture-device capabilities of common hardware store finds like paint stirrers or pliers. An introspective monologue at the film’s conclusion, where they admit to almost crossing the ultimate line, will shock even the most kink-aware.
In general, everyone in the film is extremely thoughtful about BDSM, gender, and lesbian culture. The in-depth conversations onscreen in “Bloodsisters” are still being had, but they’ve been relegated to social media and dating apps. While the access afforded by online connections has many benefits, LGBTQ community spaces have suffered. Lesbian bars have closed across the country; San Francisco’s famous The Lexington Club shuttered in 2015. Civil rights and mainstream media representation comes with a price, eliminating the need for dedicated queer spaces and sub-cultures.
Knowing this, the archival footage of raucous in-person events — a femme domme Mommy accepting a Ms. Leather prize, a spanking demonstration — become bittersweet records of a lost time. In a world that would rather erase all alternative lifestyles, “Bloodsisters” is a vital archive of queer history.
“Bloodsisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism” is currently playing at NewFest.