It's hard to overstate how much the politics of sexuality have changed in the past 20 years. In the 1980s and '90s, coming out of the closet was a radical act. In 2011, gay men and lesbians are so cute and cuddly and downright marketable in popular culture that even Archie and Jughead hang out with their very own gay pal, Kevin Keller. Riverdale's inhabitants may be so perpetually virginal that they would slap a triple-X notice on a slide show about cellular mitosis, but gayness is now safe enough that Kevin can be counted on to be as impeccably chaste and dull as any other All-American lad.
Writer, editor, and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is like the anti-Kevin Keller. Notoriously flamboyant, brazen, and radical, Sycamore would make the good citizens of Riverdale plotz. She's even been known to have that effect on both straights and gays in the real world. For Mattilda, the current agenda of queer politics, which promises gays and lesbians the right to be just like everyone else, is intolerable. (Notice that promise does not extend to populations such as bisexual and transgender people. Some in the gay-rights movement have long considered them dangerous, self-hating, delusional, or nonexistent.) With anthologies including That's Revolting! And Nobody Passes, Sycamore has established herself as one of the most outspoken critics of the gay mainstream. Her latest anthology turns the volume of criticism up to 11 with the title alone: Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?
The former S.F. resident is back in town, appearing Saturday (Feb. 25) at Viracocha for the Radar Book Club, to promote this book before continuing to Portland and points beyond. We talked with Sycamore about assimilation, queerness, the Occupy movement, and whether it actually does get better.
What does the title mean?
Gay culture has become obsessed with normalcy at any cost. There's so much denigration of anything that doesn't fit into the sort of white picket fence "We're just like you" message of the gay movement or the hypermasculine extreme consumerism and throwaway mentality of gay cruising. Camouflaged underneath all that is this really intense fear of anything that doesn't fit in, whether that be femininity or flamboyance or freakishness or an outsider sexuality or promiscuity or public sex, even just intimacy and love outside of dominant norms. And so I wanted to investigate where that fear between fags is coming from. How do we explore that, talk about it in all of its layers and contradictions, and how do we try to imagine something else?
How would you include marginalized voices and communities in broader gay activism?
If we weren't fighting for marriage, but were instead fighting for the end of marriage, if we weren't fighting for access to serve in bloodthirsty wars of U.S. aggression, but were instead fighting for the end of the U.S. military, then I think immediately some more perspectives would be available. For example, the mainstream gay movement is obsessed with this idea of what it calls "Middle America." If you look at the marriage movement, it's always these hyper-affluent gay couples in suits or ball gowns. If, instead, we're talking about people who ran away from home because they were being beaten up by their parents, they didn't have a space to express their gender or sexual or social identity, and they had run away because they were queer and they were on the street, addicted to drugs and trying to survive, I believe a lot of people in the so-called center would actually relate.
And simultaneously, by talking about the people who are marginalized, rather than the people with the most privilege, we'd create space for all different kinds of community and flamboyance and sexual striving and ways of taking care of each other on our own terms, rather than capitulating to some narrow, tired version of normalcy that I think so many people even in straight, so-called mainstream lives believe is regressive and backward.
What are your thoughts on recent efforts by mainstream activists to address bullying through stuff like "It Gets Better"?
In some ways [the "It Gets Better" campaign] is well-meaning, but the way that it plays this whole message "Oh, just hold on..." If you're 13, and you're in school and everyone hates you and you have nowhere to express your desires, and you go home and your parents beat you up, and your teachers tell you that you have no rights, and then you say "Well just hold on, it's gonna get better." Well, what happens for the next five years? How come we're not trying to make it better now? How come we're not trying to create safe houses for queer youth to escape abusive homes, abusive schools, abusive families, and an abusive world? How come we're not trying to change the school system? We're not trying to change homophobic families, we're not trying to change structural homophobia at all. I think it's similar to red ribbons in the early 1990s, where straight celebrities would put on a red ribbon and it would be like a symbol that they supported their gay friends who were dying of AIDS, but they weren't actually doing anything.
What's your ideal agenda for queer activism, and what would you ditch?
We need to get back to talking about peoples' basic needs. We have to talk about universal access to things like housing and healthcare and the right to stay in this country or leave if you want to. Back to gender flamboyance, gender self-determination, to a sex life based on an expansion of possibilities rather than limitations. All of these are things everyone should have access to, not just people who want to get married, for example.
Your next book is about the Occupy movement. What do you think about Occupy, and what stake do queers have in it one way or another?
The Occupy movements are really exciting. In a way, there's the potential for some kind of mass movement coming outside of the institutions of either the left or electoral politics. And there's a lot of potential for challenging all different kinds of hierarchies. In the Occupy movement, the essential slogan is "We are the 99 percent," and in a way, I'm startled by this emphasis on sameness, which is so different than the queer politics that I've been inspired by that emphasized difference.
So if you take a look at that 99 percent, you know that could include someone who makes $450,000 as a corporate lawyer, and it could also include someone who's been homeless for 35 years. How many commonalities are there really? What is masked by this emphasis on sameness is the way that the straight white male, educated and somewhat affluent, at least in background, stays at the center. And so the question I want to ask is, "Well, what might we gain if we were also talking about difference?"