When I started to read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s newest collection, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (AK Press), I had an idea of what to expect. There are plenty of examples in the trans/queer blogosphere and Twittersphere of queer, trans, and/or non-binary individuals critiquing femme erasure and femme invisibility. Usually these individuals are young, white, college-educated, and politically radical. They (we) critique a mainstream gay culture that attacks or erases femme expressions of gender, is bothered or even disgusted by trans queers, and deifies masculinity.
Some of the contributions in this volume come from this group, but the collection as a whole takes on a different tenor, one that is sorely needed in our communities. Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? focuses on brown bodies, on AIDS, on colonialism and nationalism, and on the intersections between these themes. These essays are about love and fear–the potential of queer creativity and the impact of a faggot-coded epidemic.
This volume asks us to question our fears–not only of femininity but of brown bodies, trans bodies, poverty, drugs, open sexuality, terrorism, and AIDS. The essays engage explicitly with sex, linking queer desire to ideas of nationality, safety, and acceptability. The authors ask us to build a political discourse around sex and desire and to see the potential in brown, femme, and/or diseased bodies that the collective mainstream gay imagination fears and has forgotten because of the terrifying possibility of death.
Some of the most controversial essays challenge the idea of “safe sex” and ask us to consider barebacking as a sexual practice. How do we pose bodies and sex as dirty or clean? The public health discourse around AIDS jibes well with a national rhetoric of individual responsibility–you are either safe/clean or you are not, you are a citizen or a terrorist, you are with us or against us–and if you cross the line, it is your fault.
“The ‘risk reduction’ we practiced often meant avoiding intimacy with the very people we needed in order to overcome generations of internalized shame; we ended up limiting the types of connections that had historically led to personal health and community well-being.” –Chris Bartlett, “Levity and Gravity”
Some of the authors in this volume suggest solutions to the status quo that are wrapped up in sex, desire, cruising culture, creativity, and femininity. These solutions also challenge the white, middle class, masculine gay norm. Ali Abbas, for example, tells the story of a white colleague accusing him of “playing into” his own Middle Eastern culture while simultaneously ignoring the queerness of some Middle Eastern cultures. Masculinity here is linked to nationalism and citizenship, which in turn is linked to the mainstream gay American culture’s focus on marriage (a right linked to citizenship) rather than human rights, immigration, sexuality, or poverty.
Several essays challenge the assumption of norms, usually presented in a “good vs. bad” binary, around desireability and sexuality. CA Conrad wants to know why fat men are assumed to be undesireable, while Philip Patston asks the same thing about disabled bodies. Patston’s story of going to his therapist and initially assuming, when told that things would be different for him because of his disability, that gay men would see him as a rare and desireable potential partner, challenges the assumption that normal desire focuses on able bodies–or on white ones, thin ones, cis ones, or masculine ones. Discussions of creativity in the early AIDS movement and of the good things about HIV-positive sex challenge readers to consider whether even an “infected body” is necessary less desireable. The gay community is used to the idea of collective trauma (ie, AIDS) vs. collective Pride, but why does Pride have to be found principally in middle class white bodies? Why not in a community of “Others”–brown, trans, pos, disabled, queer faggots?
I agree, at least in part, with the criticisms of the mainstream public health response to AIDS. There are no “good gays” and “bad gays.” The community, such as it is, would be a better place if we consciously engaged with disease, with sex, and with the creative potential of our fringes. I agree with Patrick “Pato” Hebert that our power lies in sex and storytelling, and that these things are linked. “We make ourselves through storytelling. We reproduce the queer power of ourselves through our sex.”
The narratives in this collection are a first step in looking at ourselves as sexual, positive, worthy wholes and as a powerful potential community of activists and artists. As Nick Clarkson explains in his story about a gay cis man who is unwilling to go home with him because of his trans body, we are not solely defined by our histories. It is important to recognize queer people both collectively and individually as a whole–through our histories, our identities, our bodies, and our stories.
You’ve probably heard the story of the straight man in Indiana who’s suing because a blood bank turned him away on account of “looking gay.” I don’t know that he’s a good poster child, but this case is a great illustration of how discrimination tosses logic out the window.
Numerous articles and posts have shown that the lifetime ban on men who’ve had sex with men makes no sense from a public health perspective. I’m very familiar with the FDA from my day job, and I’m convinced that it’s inertia pushing the decision to await further research, as other high-risk groups are subject to a one-year ban. This is a policy that’s a legacy of a gay panic, and it’s time for it to go.
I find it funny, in a sad way, that someone would be excluded for acting gay, a criteria that is obviously illogical for assessing HIV risk, under a policy that itself has no foundation in logic. Justifications boil down to “that’s just the way it is, and how it’s always been.”
Appearance and mannerisms often serve as a proxy for anti-gay or anti-trans discrimination because they are a visible marker of what makes the bigot uncomfortable. That’s why it’s crucial for non-discrimination legislation to address not only members of a group but those perceived as belonging to it. You shouldn’t have to claim an identity to be protected–bottom line, it’s wrong to discriminate against someone because of how they look or act. That’s equality 101.
Until a government agency offers a compelling reason to apply the laws differently based on someone’s queer identity, and to use appearance or perception as a judge of that identity, I’ll be opposed to this policy and others like it. There are logical, public safety-based ways to screen blood donors, and it’s time we relied on those alone. The FDA has offered no compelling state interest to justify this type of discrimination.
There’s been a bit of radio silence here, as you may have noticed, though I’m still blogging fairly regularly with my ladies at the F-Wave. I wanted to break that silence, though, to make a comment on World AIDS Day.
Last year this time, I was on the floor of my apartment in Iowa City with my friend Rita, researching and creating a poster presentation to mark the day at our law school. I remember thinking as we did that presentation how many populations are affected by AIDS, and also how much AIDS is tied in with legal/political issues in various tangential arenas. Take a moment today to think about some of these, and add your own in the comments:
- Funding for development, both HIV/AIDS related and generally
- Laws that criminalize/penalize sex workers and those who work with them
- Sex education, especially focused on sexual violence prevention
- Marginalization of women of color and women generally worldwide
- Laws that keep HIV positive people and people living with AIDS from adequate health insurance coverage, work, travel, and giving blood
- Sodomy laws that make it difficult to work with men who have sex with men and provide proper prevention and treatment, as well as endangering unknowing wives
- The use of rape as a weapon of war in Darfur and elsewhere
As you probably know by now, today is World AIDS Day. There’s so many things I could talk about today – how governments discriminate against HIV-positive individuals, how homophobia jeopardizes healthcare, how numbers are inaccurate in many cases because risk categories are stigmatised, how AIDS funding by the US is linked to abstinence-only policies – but today you’ve already been inundated by words on this topic, so instead I’m going to share some pictures from my effort to commemorate the day. If anyone wants the documents that are on the posters, since they’re hard to read in the pictures, let me know and I can e-mail them.