“Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots is an emergency intervention,” writes Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in the introduction to the new anthology. The collection of diverse and unruly writing, subtitled Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, was put together in response to what Sycamore and other writers saw as a flattening of a vibrant gay culture, a culture more obsessed in participating in consumer culture with “Absolut vodka, Diesel jeans, rainbow Hummers” than celebrating its schism from the outside world.
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Of course, that is the way most subcultures go. They love their freedom, their differences, their oddness, until they are issued an invitation to the bigger party. In the act of blending in, so much that was worth celebrating gets discarded. Sycamore isn’t asking for a retreat, back to the days of oppression and isolation, but she is asking that we acknowledge there was some value in what was lost—and what was lost can be reclaimed.
Sycamore, who also edited the anthologies Nobody Passes and That’s Revolting!, as well as writing the beautiful novel So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, answers some of my questions about conformity, consumer culture and gender fluidity.
You've edited anthologies on similar issues before, so why this topic for an anthology, and why now?
I find myself intensely inspired by the politics and potentials of trans, genderqueer and gender-defiant subcultures that I am a part of, with their emphasis on fluidity, experimentation, negotiation, communication and communal care in order to redefine and remake not just gender and sexuality, but everything.
But, simultaneously I exist in gay sexual/social cultures that are obsessed with mandatory masculinity, objectification without appreciation and a relentless drive to police the borders, to keep out anyone who fails to play by the rules, whether that be women or people of color, older or younger people, people with the wrong bodies or hairstyles, people who don't buy the right clothes or drink the right cocktails or use the right anal bleaching cream. As queers, we often say that desire is what got us to this place—so, if it's our desires that have led to pec implants and Pottery Barn, how do we start to imagine something else?
When you and your contributors write about this push to conformity to "straight-acting dudes hangin' out," do you think it's something unique in the queer culture? Or do you see it in other arenas as well? I related to this anthology because the straight world ain't so fun either, and feminists have a tendency to hiss each other down before anything gets too out of hand. How, in a world of limitless choice for personal expression, do we all end up trying to play the same roles?
Yes, in this book, I do want to explore the very specific nightmares of gay sexual/social culture, the places where hypocrisy becomes the norm and is allowed to exist unquestioned, unquestioning, unquestionable. But certainly, that translates into other areas, especially among subcultures and cultures of resistance that originally emerged to challenge dominant norms.
I'm so glad it translated for you! So often we end up creating new hierarchies that are just as bad as the original ones we were trying to challenge—even in subcultures, or maybe particularly in subcultures, there are rules and regulations. How do we re-imagine the whole idea of belonging? Maybe belonging isn't what we are after at all, maybe we have to create a space where no one needs to belong, what would that look like?
As a tentative answer to the question of your title, I would humbly offer the possibility that masculinity is so much more rigid today than femininity is simply because feminism opened up our gender to a conversation, whereas masculinity just remained the norm. And the norm is always resistant to change.
It's interesting, because feminism is where all my politics start—the feminism of challenging power, not accessing power. The feminism of destroying all hierarchies. The feminism of radical dykes and outcasts and freaks and whores that I first encountered when I moved to San Francisco at the very end of my teenage years in the early-’90s.
Yes, I think that feminism has opened up more possibilities for gender, sexual, social and political self-determination. But, I think that, although gay liberation emerged from feminism in many ways—as a rejection of organized religion and the nuclear family, a rejection of police and state control over queer bodies and lives—now, there is a conscious rejection of feminism in most gay male cultures. To me, this is tragic and horrifying.
In some ways I think that gay liberation made it possible for straight people to be more fluid in their gender, sexual and social identities, while gay people are busy salivating over participatory patriarchy and Tiffany wedding bands. And so, part of what I want to do with this book is to bring a queer feminist analysis into gay culture. As an intervention.
Such a complicated question, but in your introduction you write that "scorn becomes 'just a preference,' " in regards to sexual desire. How does our sexual desire, which we think of as being a kind of pure, instinctual pleasure not at all influenced by outside forces, become warped? And how do we figure out what we really like?
Well, I think what's happened in gay culture, especially in the sexual realm, is that desire has become regimented instead of exploratory, compartmentalized instead of expansive, regulated instead of experimental. Just take a look at any cruising site, and it's all about who or what you want to exclude—“no femmes or fatties” or "no blacks or Asians” or "no one over 30" or “HIV-neg, STD-free, UB2”—or, my favorite, "straight-acting, straight-appearing only." Can we pause for a second and think of the irony of an endless array of posts in search of gay sex declaring emphatically "straight-acting only?"
I don't know if I have an answer to your question, other than that we really need to interrogate everything—all hierarchies, all preferences, all desires. Unfortunately, desire does not exist outside of the world we live in—with all its hideous biases. To get past those prejudices, first we need to acknowledge them, challenge them, to stop believing that desire exists outside of our analysis. I think it is only then that we can get somewhere else, to somewhere more fluid and fantastic.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.