Friday, December 04, 2009

Community through critique

There was something else to do, and that was Gay Shame. For once I was excited while talking about New York, fantasizing about taking Gay Shame further, holding it in an outdoor public space like Tire Beach, a rotting industrial park on the San Francisco Bay where discarded MUNI streetcars were dumped and a concrete factory bordered a small area of grass and debris. Brodie got excited too -- let’s do it, he urged. He was drunk. We had four weeks until Pride -- we would have to scout the location, make flyers, wheatpaste and flyer all over town, find performers and speakers and a sound system and DJs and who knows what else. That sounds great, Brodie said. I was skeptical, but his enthusiasm turned on my manic button and then we were a team.

When I say that Brodie and I were a team, it doesn’t mean that we agreed on everything. Sometimes it seemed like we didn’t agree on anything, except for this project that became so much. But no -- that’s where we disagreed the most. We were a team because, even if it immediately we harassed everyone we knew, and soon enough there were maybe 10 other organizers, and then the event itself brought in all different levels of participation, even though Gay Shame was nonhierarchical by definition, even though we always made decisions by consensus, even so it was Brodie and I who made it happen. For the first two years, if either of us had stopped, Gay Shame probably would have stopped too. Unfortunately, even in nonhierarchical organizing, people want someone to coordinate.

Returning to San Francisco and expecting to connect with a culture of radical queers I imagined and remembered from the past, I was verging on hopelessness when faced with the reality of the present: if those cultures had ever existed in the ways I remembered, they did not exist in those ways when I got back. Yes, there were plenty of radical-identified edge-trendy queer scenesters looking for the coolest parties, but that was about it. Gay Shame was a conscious attempt to bring the politics back into the party, but the truth was that I wanted to make the politics into the party, and Brodie wanted to make the party into the politics. Maybe that sounds like the same thing, but actually we were manifesting an old tension that stretched back through generations of queer organizing. Perhaps one difference from generations before was that neither of us talked about the politics versus the party, but it still felt that way when we argued about the direction we wanted Gay Shame to take, argued inside and outside meetings where battle lines were drawn, relationships made and unmade.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we made the flyers. They asked: Does gay pride make you feel desperate and alone? And: Are you choking on the vomit of consumerist gay pride? And they declared: darling, spit that shit out -- Gay Shame is the answer. And recommended: dress to absolutely mesmerizing ragged terrifying glamorous excess.

In the past I’ve mostly talked about Gay Shame as an amorphous and ever-changing we, but the truth is that, initially at least, most of the rhetoric came from me, and it was Brodie, with his years in the Mission scene, who managed to draw the numbers. But if Brodie was the one everyone knew, I was the one in the public eye. I was the MC for every protest, delivering a sensational incantation in lavish outfits made of glitter and tattered gowns -- if Brodie’s talents lay more in the mechanics and mobilization of each event, I was the one who created soundbites on the spot. And so, when I say that neither of us wanted to be seen as leaders, I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t like the attention.

Our group of organizers reached consensus on issuing press releases, but no one actually wanted to talk to the media. Except me -- I thought it was crucial if we were going to create a culture of resistance -- how else would people find out? People outside of our circles. Even if we were misinterpreted every step of the way, I thought media was crucial. In every interview I emphasized that Gay Shame was a collective project, that I was simply one instigator and not the founder, but that was never the dominant perception. If activists demand leaders even when engaging in nonhierarchical work, the media requires them. In the public eye I became Gay Shame, and perhaps this made sense because, when I said that we wanted to create a home for the culturally homeless, I meant that I felt culturally homeless. When I said that we wanted to build our own culture on the ruins of the rot surrounding us, I meant that Gay Shame gave me hope in radical queer dreams, in creating community through critique, relationships through activism, accountability through action. I needed that hope.

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