By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore wants you to start the revolution. Described as “startlingly bold and provocative” by Howard Zinn, the genderqueer activist is the author of two novels, most recently 2008’s “So Many Ways to Sleep Badly,” and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies, including “Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity” and an expanded second edition of “That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.”
Hir latest anthology, “Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform,” brings together many leading radical queer writers to consider the ways queer culture works against itself by assimilating the norms of straight society and abandoning the “wild possibility” intrinsic to countercultural life. In advance of hir reading at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne on March 5, Sycamore was kind enough to answer a few questions from PQ Monthly about the ways queer culture fails its members, the impulse towards smugness in communities such as Portland, and why gay people need to “get crazy and open up to the possibilities of your life.”
PQ: First off, why do you think faggots are so afraid of faggots?
MBS: That is a sneaky question — isn’t there a whole book on that subject? And, of course, there could be many, many more. In short, gay culture has become obsessed with mandatory masculinity, objectification without appreciation, and a relentless drive to police the borders. The grossest limitations of straight conformity are now considered the ultimate measures of gay success. In the sexual realm, this means that desire is regimented rather than exploratory, risk is demonized rather than applauded, consumerism exists unquestioned, “straight-acting” is the norm, femininity is shunned, and anyone who doesn’t abide by a white middle-class value system is ignored. Take a look at any cruising site and you’re guaranteed to find an endless range of posts that say things like “no femmes or fatties” or “no blacks or Asians.” I’m getting scared just thinking about it!
PQ: In the book, you touch upon the ways that the traditional culture of queer sex is being replaced by models that basically emulate straight culture’s take on dating. Why do you think it’s important to preserve the “old ways?” Can we ever return to a “golden age of promiscuity?”
MBS: Actually, I think it’s more paradoxical than that. Yes, there is this “we’re just like you” emphasis on normalcy and straight privilege at any cost — marriage, military, adoption, priesthood. But simultaneously there’s the brutal, calculated hyper-objectification of most gay male cruising spaces where everyone is just another chat screen waiting to open or close. Next! I don’t think there was ever a golden age. I’m not interested in romanticizing the past, especially a past I wasn’t part of, since I was born in the 1970s. Yes, there were possibilities that existed in the ‘70s — or, even in the early ‘90s — that don’t exist now, but the same hierarchies existed. What’s changed is that now these hierarchies are unquestioned, and that’s horrifying. But what we need is not a return to something that may or may not have ever existed, but a total reinvention of the ways that we live with and love and lust for and take care of one another.
PQ: One of the debates that rage within the queer community is whether it should be all-inclusive — with all takes on sex, gender, ethnicity, and class all lumped together into one group — or whether sub-types of queers naturally segregate themselves out into “scenes.” What’s your take on this? Do “scenes” fracture queer community, or strengthen the individuals within them?
MBS: I don’t think there is a singular “queer community.” There are a lot of different communities that sometimes enhance the possibilities for gender, sexual, social, cultural, and political self-determination, and, sometimes [those communities] fail miserably! I do believe in “queer” as an umbrella term that encompasses all types of sexual freaks and iconoclasts and outsiders and fuck-ups and flamboyantly flagrant violators of straitjacket normalcy. But, you see, without a politic, it’s nothing. The problem with “scene” is that it just becomes another method of exclusion. I’m more interested in cultures that embrace fluidity, and seek to undo all hierarchies. Don’t get me wrong — we all need to find the people that mean something to us in order to survive and thrive. However, let’s try to create more options for everyone.
PQ: How has “Faggots” been received by the gay community so far? Have there been any surprising reactions?
MBS: Well, the book is just now coming out into the world, with a Valentine’s Day release. It’s the perfect romantic gift, right? Interestingly, I just did an event at USC [the University of Southern California], where my use of the word “faggot” was quite controversial to one particular, well, faggot, I suppose. That surprised me. As far as I’m concerned, “gay” has become a consumer identity based on what you wear, where you shop, what gym you go to, what kind of cocktails you drink or which AA group you belong to. With the book, I want to explore the possibilities of a flaming faggotry that challenges the corporate-cozy norms of this assimilationist lifestyle. As C.A. Conrad says in the book, “it’s time to get crazy and open to the possibilities of your life.”
PQ: If you had your druthers, what would queer culture look like?
MBS: Oh, honey, I have no idea. Let’s just say there would be a lot more emphasis on communal responsibility, on creating space for people on the margins, on exploration, on transformation, on negotiation, on intimacy that builds, on accountability — yes, accountability —, defiance, deviance, on coming together to challenge the violence of the world that wants us to die or disappear. Of course, we can’t change the queer world without changing the rest of the world. If everyone had access to housing, comprehensive healthcare, delicious healthy food, the right to stay in this country or leave if you want to, a meaningful and satisfying sex and romantic life — if this country stopped its imperialistic quest to dominate the world — well, that would be a good start, right?
PQ: In addition to your work as an essayist and editor, you’ve also written two novels. How do you juggle these different genres? Do you find that there’s bleed between your work — say, memoir sneaking into your fiction?
MBS: Well, I used to say that the difference between fiction and autobiography is that autobiography is all lies, so that’s why I write fiction. Now that I write nonfiction too, I try to use the techniques of experimental writing to expose the mechanism. There isn’t one thing called “truth,” right? The book I just finished is actually, well, a memoir, I guess — it’s called “The End of San Francisco,” and it’s about my political, cultural, social, and emotional formations — and their undoing. I hope it breaks people’s hearts. I know it broke mine.
PQ: You’ve been putting your work out as a writer for decades. How have you and your work changed during this process? What projects do you have coming up next?
MBS: Has it really been decades? Time is so strange. Well, I see myself as an experimental writer, so that means I’m always open to experiments, right? Writing for me is the way that I’m able to exist in the world, to express myself so that I don’t disappear. In some ways I’ve become more hopeful, and in some ways less. Maybe my work has become more vulnerable. That’s something I’ve always striving for — to expose everything that I’m afraid of, and then maybe I can go on. Strangely, that makes me feel safer. Growing up as a queer kid in an abusive family where I couldn’t express what was really happening — where the violence was always camouflaged beneath the apparent success of my upwardly mobile parents — I had no way to speak, really. That’s why I write — so I can see myself, so I can help others to see me, so maybe we can all see one another for at least a moment or two, right? And my anthologies, those are kind of a combination of political organizing, community-building, and instigation. My newest project is an anthology called “We Are Not Just the 99%: Queering The Occupy Movement, Reimagining Resistance.” I’m now circulating the call for submissions, and anyone is certainly welcome to send me anything. [For more information on the call for submissions, check out mattildabernsteinsycamore.com.]
PQ: You’re coming to Portland on March 5. What are your thoughts on the city and the queer community here? What would you want to see change, improve, or disappear about queer life in the city?
MBS: Portland is always one of my favorite places to read. I always get great crowds at Powell’s on Hawthorne, so I can’t wait to see who shows up this time! I don’t know Portland that well. The last time I was there was 2008, and one thing I noticed was that there were some similarities with San Francisco in the early ‘90s. There’s a really vibrant culture of queer outcasts and freaks, a homemade messiness, a wild sense of possibility. There’s also sometimes a smugness, a self-satisfied “we have arrived” feeling that emerges in any destination city, as though now that we’ve found our queer worlds, we can just stop working on anything else. That’s what we always have to resist.
Sycamore’s latest anthology “Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?” comes out Feb. 14 on AK Press. Ze will be appearing at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne (3723 SE Hawthorne, Portland) on Monday, March 5, at 7:30 pm for a reading, book signing, and Q&A session. For more info on Sycamore and hir work, go to mattildabernsteinsycamore.com.