Butch leather dyke Tomo will be the keynote speaker at Beyond Vanilla
Beyond Vanilla to celebrate its 32nd year in Texas
CAROLINE SAVOIE | Contributing Writer
Dallas’ National Leather Alliance is calling in a kinky and curious crowd to its 32nd Beyond Vanilla conference this weekend, an annual event that aims to educate attendees about safe sexual exploration.
Sir Tender, co-director of Beyond Vanilla and one of the co-chairs of NLA-Dallas, said many styles of kink can be dangerous, even life-threatening. She even recalled an experience of her own in which a couch caught on fire during a play scene.
“We educate everyone to be as safe as possible, but accidents do happen, and people need to be prepared to handle those kinds of situations,” Tender said. “We want to have fun, but we need to be safe.”
With 60 workshops, special events, play spaces and a vendor market, Beyond Vanilla offers a comprehensive kink education experience over the three-day event. The conference opened Thursday, Nov. 9, and continues through Sunday, Nov. 12, in Mesquite, and registration is still open.
Tender said that beyond power, pain and paddles, Beyond Vanilla is a curated community space that is safe for anyone to celebrate — and learn more about — leather, kink and BDSM.
Sir Tressa, co-director for Beyond Vanilla, said that, as a member of the LGBTQ community, she knows that the leather community is an integral part of queer history. Tender agreed, saying that for her, being leather is about legacy.
Both women said being leather is “walking their talk” about being in service to her community.
“Kink is my way to achieve a sense of balance — mentally, physically, spiritually — with my light and my dark halves,” Tressa said. “It is a form of play; it is a form of celebration, and it is a means of self-exploration in a way that a lot of people don’t consider.”
Tressa said attendees come in from all over the country — and Canada — to be a part of the action. In 2022, more than 300 people attended, and organizers expect to surpass that number this year.
Master John, another Beyond Vanilla co-director and 21-year attendee, said the conference reflects the community in its multigenerational, diverse makeup. The event is for people 21 and older, and John said the community ranges from young adults to middle-aged married couples to people in their sixties and seventies.
“We’re accepting of every sexual identity, gender identity and presentation, ethnicity, religion, sexual experience and kink,” he said. “We have workshops about how to get your kink on later in life and how to play safely with disabilities.”
He said the conference will have a lunch munch that caters to more of the vanilla crowd who likes to chat about the idea, and organizers are going to let them explore the vendors separately to dip their toes in the kink pool.
John said that when the conference started in 1991, it was a weeknight event in conjunction with the health department to test and educate people about the AIDS epidemic. He said the event centered around safe sex practices, health services and legal advice.
Tender said Beyond Vanilla never strayed from its charitable roots. This year, proceeds from ticket sales and a silent auction are being split between Thrive Youth Center, an emergency shelter for LGBTQ youth in San Antonio, and the winners of the Texas Power Exchange.
“With all of the [legislation] against the trans community, we wanted to pick a charity that serves them,” Tender said.
John, who co-produces the Texas Power Exchange contest, said pairs or groups of participants demonstrate their power dynamic (like master and slave or handler and pup) to educate the audience. They meet with the judges, present a fantasy presentation of a certain aspect of their dynamic and are watched all weekend to evaluate their dynamic in public.
The winners receive funding to travel to other competitions, both in the states and internationally.
John said as the kink community grows, Beyond Vanilla grows with it. This year, new events include Hoofcon, a mini pony space; high tea; a presentation to unveil Beyond Vanilla’s official logo, and the Circle of Ceremony, a ritual to honor people in the scene.
“People can step in the circle and affirm their dynamic,” John said of the Circle of Ceremony. “They can award leather, do a collaring, affirm their dominance or submission. It’s a time to be honored and recognized.”
With 60 workshops, this year’s conference is the largest yet. John said the leadership team had so many applications from people wanting to speak.
Tomo, a queer butch leatherdyke, is the keynote speaker for Beyond Vanilla this year. And with presentations like “Playing with Sharp Things,” “What’s With the Growling? A Discussion on Being Primal” and “Breathless: Breath Play Basics,” Beyond Vanilla offers classes for kink veterans and novices alike.
This year’s conference also features 8,000 square feet of play party space. John said all attendees must sign a waiver agreeing to event conduct guidelines, and dungeon monitors will be on staff to ensure safety among the participants.
“They’re like lifeguards,” John said. “If you need immediate help, they’re the ones to call on.”
Tender said security staff and event leadership are going to be monitoring for safety throughout the weekend as well.
She added that finding a venue and sponsors for such a kinky event has been easier than expected. John said that NLA-Dallas was very transparent with sponsors and hotel organizers when it came to the conference’s NSFW content.
“I think one of our greatest strengths is the power of our story, the power of our mission,” Tender said. “If you can relate your mission to something they can get behind, they’ll be ready to work with you.”
Tressa said that younger generations are more accepting of what used to be considered “out of the norm,” which makes conversations around kink less taboo.
Each member of the NLA-Dallas and Beyond Vanilla leadership team brings their own perspective and expression of kink, but Tender said that servitude is the thread that binds.
John said being leather is about “walking his talk” by demonstrating service, honesty and discipline in all spaces in his life. He said that he used to think kink was just about dirty sex. But now he views it as so much more: a ritualistic devotion to beauty, honor and simplicity.
“It’s not whips and chains,” he said. “It’s so much more than sex.”