Sunday, November 23, 2008

The discreet charm of the Wall Street Journal

This is my column from the current issue of make/shift, in case you haven't seen it -- if you like the column, check out the magazine, and if you like the magazine and can afford a subscription, that's one way to keep it going...

Sometimes something ridiculous happens and I keep thinking I’m going to write about it when it doesn’t feel traumatizing anymore but that takes a while and after a while I don’t want to write about it. That’s what happened with the Wall Street Journal article.

But really this is about my relationship with Mary, our relationship in Gay Shame, the activist group that was the center of my world for several years it made me feel like I could dream. Like we could build something by sculpting our critiques into pageantry as armor and instigation. I guess it was a primary relationship—me, and this particular Mary, and Gay Shame—in the way that my primary relationships generally work, us against the world, except it was also Mary struggling against Gay Shame and struggling against me. Mary was totally contradictory but brilliant and crazed and hilarious and I thought that together we could make more space.

When someone does an interview as part of Gay Shame, that person uses the name “Mary,” as well as a fictitious last name. So we’re all Marys. This gesture is part of what Gay Shame has done best—to bring camp to its fullest possibilities as a scathing satirical tool, in this case not only satirizing media/police preoccupation with “leaders,” but invoking a camp queer history on our own terms.

When I did the interview with the Wall Street Journal, my name was Mary Hedgefunds, and I wore a frosted, asymmetrical, gray mullet wig, sunglasses, smeared eye makeup, and lipstick with a business outfit gone awry. I met the interviewer at my house. Bobby White was his name and he was a black man in Casual Fridays attire—black pants and black polo shirt—who’d recently moved into the condo-style apartments directly behind my building, thinking they were such a good deal with parking and a pool and laundry and a hot tub, but then he started walking around the neighborhood and saw people smoking crack out in the open, he’d grown up in D.C. but he’d never seen anyone smoking crack.

I said: the problem isn’t people smoking crack, the problem is real estate speculation that makes the neighborhood unlivable for the people who’ve come here for generations—marginalized queers, trans women, sex workers, runaways, new immigrants to the United States, street kids, people on disability, older queers—and, yes, drug addicts. The problem is when Lower Polk Neighbors, an association of property owners and businesspeople, decides that they don’t want a needle exchange in the neighborhood because their property values and happy-hour specials are more important than people’s basic needs.

“But what is your real name, Mary?” Bobby White kept asking. And I kept saying, “My real name is Mary Hedgefunds.” Gay Shame wasn’t interested in a human-interest story.

The article, titled “San Francisco Residents Fight to Stay Seedy in Low-Rent District,” appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It portrayed a battle between Carolyn Abst, the founder of Lower Polk Neighbors, who just wanted to plant trees, and a group called Gay Shame, which fought to preserve the neighborhood’s “gritty ambience.” The article’s stance is perhaps summarized best by a quote from Abst: “I had no idea that cleanliness, beauty and safety could get people so riled up.”

This absurd angle was not particularly surprising in the newspaper owned by the stock exchange, but there were some interesting elements. The article confirmed that Lower Polk Neighbors “successfully petitioned the city for more street cleaning and pushed to shut down a needle-exchange program operated by a nonprofit,” and hired homeless youth to plant trees in front of Carolyn Abst’s architecture firm, paying them the preposterous amount of six dollars a day (not the comparably generous figure of six dollars an hour that I had mentioned during the interview).

Bobby White did some research, and decided to quote me as “Matt Bernstein Sycamore,” without my consent (and without any fact-checking). Call me misguided, but I thought the Wall Street Journal would be worried about libel. Of course, I should have known better, since, to them, I represented no more than a “sometime club host” and a “former prostitute.”

This article appeared when I was in the midst of a very dramatic trip. Eleven years after confronting my father about sexually abusing me as a kid, and telling him I would never speak to him again unless he could acknowledge molesting me, I’d decided to visit him anyway: he was dying of cancer, and I didn’t want to realize, ten years down the line, that I wished I’d seen him before he died. I read the Wall Street Journal article when I was staying in the office condo where my father had formerly practiced psychotherapy, getting ready to visit him in the house where I grew up, the house I hadn’t visited in fourteen years; this is when Mary comes back in the story, the Mary I was talking about earlier. Mary decided that it was a good time to tell me I was compromising my integrity by deciding to visit my father, and that she didn’t believe my account of the interview—she thought I was trying to use the Wall Street Journal article for my own gain.

To say that I was shocked by Mary’s simultaneous lack of support for a huge life choice and her mistrust regarding the contents of an interview with a newspaper that represented everything we abhorred would be an understatement; I was appalled. Over the previous year, my participation in Gay Shame had become less satisfying—it felt like our politics remained rigorous but our activities had become less engaged. I stayed with the group because I believed in the relationships that had come out of it, the friendships that I thought were sustaining me. But as my relationship with Mary collapsed, I wondered about my participation in Gay Shame, whether it was more about loyalty and consistency than about inspiration.

There’s nothing I like less than when activists bring their personal issues into group process, and Mary routinely reveled in such drama, so I decided not to go back to Gay Shame meetings until we’d resolved the questions in our relationship. We never resolved those questions, and I haven’t returned. It’s been a year and a half, and I miss having an activist home base. I miss having a place for my manic ideas among other people with manic ideas who are dedicated to mixing it all up and creating something splendid and threatening. I still have manic ideas, but I feel less hopeful.

3 comments:

Yasmin Nair said...

This sounds familiar to me, in light of the stuff that broke up Queer to the Left (the death of which also came about due to some old-fashioned racist crap and a yearning for marriage, but which was instantly diagonosed as personal stuff).

I'm struck by the familiar trope of personal distrust and I wonder if the inability of a group/some of its members to deal coherently with the kinds of issues that only *look like* personal issues on the surface is also a sign of its impending doom or at least a shift to its becoming something else. And that something else might be something you were flinching from, and Mary was flinching towards...the fact that there seemed to be no space to figure that out in the context of the work you were doing might be symptomatic of the end of the group as you knew it (I'm assuming a lot here, forgive me).

Which is to say: perhaps in an earlier time, the group's dynamics/the way it fit into your lives as activists-friends-members of GS could have actually turned the moment of distrust (Mary doubting your integrity on two counts)into a productive chanelling of sorts. It could have become a moment for people to take stock of things and to - if you'll forgive the cliche here - hash things out and move forward in organising.

I don't mean to take away from your processing of this moment, of course. It just made sense for me in my own context and makes me think of why radical queer work keeps stopping and starting the way it does. I so completely understand when you write: "I miss having a place for my manic ideas among other people with manic ideas who are dedicated to mixing it all up and creating something splendid and threatening. I still have manic ideas, but I feel less hopeful."

That sense of wild urgency among a group of people is what I miss sometimes, although I have no desire to enjoy it with the folks who ended up inhabiting Q2l (which eventually died).

But I do miss it when I find myself among like-minded folks who nevertheless are ruinously stretched for time and energy because they're also struggling to articulate their wild and manic dreams within, for instance, the non-profit industrial complex. I've turned maniacally to writing as a resolution, but I do miss the manic energy born of human contact.

But I've also found myself turning to organising around issues like immigration, and I find that those force me out of my queer comfort zone because I can't always go in with a "la-di-da-I'm-a-more-radical-queer-than-thou" view and have to confront the limits of my own ideological perspective. In a sense, I've had to be more, well, ah, queer as a result, by finding the limits of being a "queer radical/activist."

And perhaps that's also the limit that groups like GS and QTL have to confront - the fact that they must, in a sense, disappear in order to be effective in the long run? I don't mean literally disappear, since they might sometimes continue on, but in the sense that the original purpose disappears.

Ah, this reads bleaker than I feel. I think the trick is to discover where the manic energy resides and how to harness it. How and with whom is the question.

xox
y

Yasmin Nair said...

p.s to my last note:
And, of course, it's completely rotten of Mary to just denounce and, in effect, dismiss your returning to see your father the way she did ("Mary decided that it was a good time to tell me I was compromising my integrity by deciding to visit my father"). And I wonder if that's partly a personal inability to understand and sympathise with your rationale and partly a refusal to move out of the prescribed mode of "being a queer radical." Which is to say, was she working out of the idea that there was a prescribed (and very prescriptive) "queer radical" way to respond to the impending death of a parent whom one had once confronted?

I'm not sure that's entirely clear. I guess I'm mostly wondering if being queer (which is all, I think, I can ever be because no one else will have me and because that's the only way I know how to define myself :-))is sometimes translated in rigid ways that prevent some of us from gaining the flexibility that we might foresee as part of a more radical and queer world.

Yammering on here. M, you provoke my thoughts, as always.

xo
Y

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Yasmin, there are so many underlying issues that would be too much to go into right here, but I like this:

"I wonder if that's partly a personal inability to understand and sympathise with your rationale and partly a refusal to move out of the prescribed mode of "being a queer radical." Which is to say, was she working out of the idea that there was a prescribed (and very prescriptive) "queer radical" way to respond to the impending death of a parent whom one had once confronted?"

Although I would say it was more, perhaps about the prescribed (and very prescriptive) way of being a "queer radical Mattilda," perhaps...

And this:

"I guess I'm mostly wondering if being queer (which is all, I think, I can ever be because no one else will have me and because that's the only way I know how to define myself :-))is sometimes translated in rigid ways that prevent some of us from gaining the flexibility that we might foresee as part of a more radical and queer world."

Important important important ideas to think about, for sure!

Oh -- and writing to cling to, to cling to for comfort and also change and vision and hope, I can certainly feel you there...

Love --
mattilda