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.
I received a review copy of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (coming out this month from AK Press) at the perfect time. I’ve been frustrated by the growing focus in recent months on two of the things I care least about when it comes to queer rights, the two things that the mainstream LGBT movement seems most adamant about: marriage and the military. It’s impossible to get away from those two topics if you’re following LGBT news, but this book also turned my focus to another problem–that the most-covered “alternative” issues, those focused on individual rights, are still not the most important priority. Employment and housing discrimination are important but they focus on the middle class. Hate crimes are a problem, but the kneejerk response of hate crimes legislationtries to solve that problem by using the same harmful official system that terrorizes queer and trans people on a daily basis.
I would recommend this book to any activist, but especially to white, middle-class activists in the “LGBT movement.” The pieces in this anthology encourage us to get away from the white, middle-class idea of “safety.” Strong sentences for hate crimes don’t make us safer. Nor do most of the priorities of LGBT rights organizations. It is only from a privileged position that we can even believe that there might be a safe, mainstream, assimilated place to work and live.
Conservatives and moderates in the movement, and outside of it, want you to feel safe. It’s another story of us versus them: it helps those who are disgusted by trans people of color, by poor queer youth, by public queer sexualities, to tug the most powerful and heavily funded segments of the LGBT population away into a zone of “safety” and assimilation. Of course, many queer and trans people don’t have that luxury, and it’s foolish to think that any of us really do. Queer and trans people in prison, juveniles in the child “welfare” system, immigrants, sex workers, the homeless, and other marginalized groups are often victims of a cruel and unusual system that targets minorities and encourages oppression.
Read the rest of this entry