Why are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform
Edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
More than 400 years ago, 16th-century philosopher Michel Eyquem de Montaigne noted that, "Once conform, once do what others do because they do it, and a kind of lethargy steals over all the finer senses of the soul."
The 30 writers in Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's latest collection, "Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?" offers a direct and searing confirmation of de Montaigne's observation. As they assess the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) movement's transition away from the out-in-the-street celebrations of queer difference that were common in the 1970s and 80s, they turn a spotlight on those sidelined by the rush toward respectability and almost-like-straight-world sameness that has dominated the agenda for more than a decade.
Sycamore assails the shift as a move into the "cozy-corporate," and writes that she hopes the anthology will "reinvent the anger, flamboyance, and subversion once thriving in gay subcultures in order to imagine something dangerous and lovely: An exploration of the perils of assimilation; a call for accountability; a vision for change."
It's a tall order, but the provocative essays in the volume are a bold challenge to homogeneity and demand attention. Norms - whether the imposition of standards of dress or the subtle call to march down the aisle to demonstrate one's commitment to a same-sex partner - ignore the wide diversity of human desires and experiences, something every writer in the anthology speaks to. Their marginalization, as people who want something different - or as people who look physically different from those a particular community has deemed desirable - exposes the pain of exclusion, not only by straight bigots, but by the queer community. Their insights are eye-opening and sometimes shocking.
Chris Bartlett's "Levity and Gravity" puts the shift in queer consciousness into a political context by acknowledging the impact of the AIDS pandemic on gay life.
"As a result of a virus our communities and cultures became suspicious of risk, fearful of risk, and sought safety, either perceived or real," he writes. "Most of us thought that safety couldn't be a bad thing - but perhaps we forgot about the benefits and advantages that risk taking had brought us.... So many men who've died were risk takers - in communities, in the arts, in drug use, in sex, and in relationships. Can we even imagine what was lost, how one person could have created an operatic masterpiece, another would have gone on to transform a community or developed a vaccine, or acted as an elder to someone who really needed one?"
Bartlett believes that as a result of HIV, gay men have "avoided intimacy with the very people we needed in order to overcome generations of internalized shame; we ended up limiting the very types of connections that had historically led to personal health and community well-being."
Something was lost, he continues, when random encounters - anonymous sexual play - became verboten. Worse, the disparagement of those who have died or who are presently HIV positive, as if they got what they deserved because they violated the rules of sexual propriety, has caused rifts and reprehensible divisions among gay men. Judgment, he reports, has replaced compassion, and has led queers who want no-strings-attached hook-ups to be castigated by those who've chosen a more conventional path.
Of course, race and class also enter the mix and are another vector for the display of power dynamics and divisions. Debanuj DasGupta's "Trans/Nationally Femme: Notes on Neoliberal Economic Regimes, Security States, and My Life as a Brown Immigrant Fag," recounts heinous exploitation by the gay white men he's slept with and who periodically employed him as a house cleaner and restaurant worker. His account of moving from India to the Midwest for graduate study includes a heartfelt reflection on the three years he spent with Kurt, a blonde-haired, green-eyed "superman."
During the years of their liaison, DasGupta writes, "the relationship revolved around race-based role plays. He would pick me up from the school library and we would fuck for hours. Some days he would be the white master, raping my brown hole, and other days the white daddy punishing me for being a dirty brown fag." The roles were never reversed, and the pair never went out in public.
"I know that while he enjoyed sex with me and several other Asian men, he wanted to fit in with his white upper class gay neighbors," DasGupta concludes.
Nick Clarkson's "Penis is Important for That" offers a raw look at the hurt caused by rejection. As a transman, Clarkson admits that he had a number of questions prior to beginning his transition. First, did he really need to become male, or could he live as a butch female? He also worried about finding other people like him and wondered whether he would be able to maintain his ideological commitment to feminism once testosterone coursed through his body. After deciding to move forward with both surgery and hormone treatments, he next had to deal with his sexual desires. His account of entering a gay bar and approaching a 40-something man he found attractive is painful.
The rejection came fast: "I've never been with a woman," the man, Joshua, told him. "I'm gay and penis is important for that." Clarkson recounts his unsuccessful attempt to get Joshua to break out of the male/female binary:
"Joshua, like so many other gay men I've tried to have these conversations with, would insist on the equation, penis = man and vagina = woman.... In the context of my trans body, my cunt is not a female part, out of place in an otherwise male body, because my cunt is at the center of my trans body," he writes.
Still, rejection stings. Always.
Gina de Vries' "Girls" zeroes in on the misogyny at the heart of the cock2cock and man2man movements. "Penetration is for girls!" ads for the group Cockrub Warriors proclaim. A web site promoting "the masculine alternative to anal sex" is unambiguous: "I have no patience with any of those parts of homosexual culture which sought to equate gay men to women: The derogatory use of the word girl, she, and her to refer to other gay men, and the adulation of drag. I want to sleep with men, that is, other gay men who are male identified. I do not want to have struggled all these years to become a self-accepting male homosexual only to end up sleeping with people who think of themselves [or me] as girls."
Indeed, the bottom line for contributors to "Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?" is tolerance for those who resist mimicking middle-class, heterosexual etiquette in their relationships and lives. It doesn't sound like they're asking for much. At the same time, the fact that thousands of queers do want to marry, have kids, move to suburbia and join the military gets short shrift in the collection. While Sycamore and the book's contributors clearly reject these tracks for themselves, their dream of a radically inclusive world needs space for those whose impulses run counter to their own. In the end, if the term "gay liberation" is to mean anything, those who long for white dresses, tuxedos and a pup named Spot need to be able to coexist with lavender avengers and gender-bending queers.