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Queer Wars AND That’s Revolting [22 June, 2005]

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Paul Robinson, Queer Wars: The New Gay Right and Its Critics

University of Chicago Press, 2005

Mattilda, AKA Matt Bernstein Sycamore, ed.  That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation

Soft Skull Press, 2005

What are the histories and promises of “queer”?  Two new books offer different sets of answers to the question.

That’s Revolting is edited by the activist Mattilda/Matt Bernstein Sycamore.  The book is an anthology of writings by radical queers who are wrestling with issues like homelessness, poverty, and queer assimilation.

Essays range from short performative pieces to detailed accounts of protest participations.  Rocko Bulldagger’s hilarious “Dr. Laura, Sit on My Face” is a satirical love letter to the rabidly conservative radio talk show host.  At one point, she asks simply “Who would have heard of my kind of queers if it weren’t for you?”, deflating both Dr.  Laura’s venomous rhetoric and those who would censor her.  Anarchists and anti-war activists Olivelucy and Salmonella write about their efforts to establish a queer, anti-capitalist media outlet during the Seattle 1999 protests against the WTO.

We might believe that gay is always good, but gay spaces frequently replicate wider social inequalities.  Tommi Avicolli Mecca writes about picketing a gay bar in Philadelphia for only carding Black patrons.  And Priyank Jindal reminds us that even progressive queer organizing spaces are so engrossed in their critique of capitalism that they can fail to recognize their own racism, classism, and transphobia.

Refreshingly, writers foreground connections between sexuality, gender identity, and political projects.  “Query” writes about a trip to Israel where he and other media activists splattered part of the ‘security fence” that cuts through the West Bank with the colors of the Palestinian flag and launched a banner that read “No Apartheid Wall!” His account is interwoven with details of his sexual encounters, reminding us that the lines between sex, life, death, and politics are always shifting and intangible.

Elisa seMbessakwini writes as an intersexed person, born with ambiguous genitalia and subject to a lifetime of painful surgical procedures.  But instead of a clichéd narrative about progressing towards a fixed and acceptable body, she provides descriptions of events that cannot be defined as either fact or fiction. Consequently, the reader has to confront and negotiate with the author’s contentious concepts of identity.

Proponents of gay family values might believe that the desire to change the world, which runs through this book, only reflects a phase that everyone goes through before embarking on the more serious project of contented domesticity.  Paul Robinson’s Queer Warsis a critique and intellectual history of contemporary gay conservatism, and he defies this logic of “growing up.”  The author came of age in the Stonewall era and is an established academic in his ’60s.  But he remains an uncompromising believer in the principles of Gay Liberation: leftist politics, erotic and sexual liberty and the celebration and adoption of gender and sexual “deviance.”

Robinson focuses on four central figures.  The assimilationist Bruce Bawer, who wrote A Place at the Table, was among the first “gaycons,” as was Andrew Sullivan.  The remaining two are somewhat surprising choices, given that their politics have not always been clearly discernible as conservative.  Gabriel Rotello wrote Sexual Ecology, a book that fueled public fears that gay sexual practices caused the AIDS epidemic; he is also former editor of Outweek.  And Michelangelo Signorile was, after all, a member of Queer Nation and is both anti-war and a strong critic of the Bush administration.

But Robinson points out that it’s Sullivan who often argues for more sexual libertinism in contrast to Signorile’s calls for sexual restraint and even policing.  And it could be argued that Signorile’s “exposure” of Sullivan’s ad for a barebacking partner replicates the Right’s reliance on shame to score political points.  Robinson calls for a closer look at how the gay “left” and “right” are defined in an era where neither Gay Liberation nor fierce AIDS activism define queer politics.  His book is a complex analysis of the histories and legacies of “queer,” and is based on a sustained and historical consideration of our social and political contexts.

These books are essential reading for anyone who feels that something has been missing from the coverage of queer culture and politics in the mainstream gay press.  If we take seriously the claim that we are everywhere, then we are also among the uninsured and the homeless, and we continue to fight for a radical politics against all odds.  Queer Wars and That’s Revolting make it clear that we have to think politically about private choices.  And that growing up queer does not mean giving up the struggle for a better, more contentious, and a more just world.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 22 June 2005

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