Saturday, January 30, 2010

My film is showing in Baltimore next Saturday, February 6, 7pm!!!

In case you don't remember, I made a short film with Gina Carducci and it's gorgeous!

Here are the details:

All That Sheltering Emptiness is a meditation on elevators, hotel lobbies, hundred dollar bills, the bathroom, a cab, chandeliers, cocktails, the receptionist, arousal, and other routines in the life of a New York City callboy. Gorgeously hand-processed in full 16mm glory, this film is a collaboration between Gina Carducci (Stone Welcome Mat) and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (author of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly; editor of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation). All That Sheltering Emptiness explodes the typical narratives of desire, escape and intimacy to evoke something more honest. (16mm, color, optical sound, 7 min.)

And here's the information on the screening -- if you end up making it, let me know how it goes -- unfortunately, I won't be able to be there but Gina will be in attendance...

PARTS&LABOR
Opening Reception & Performances
(including a screening of All That Sheltering Emptiness!)
Saturday, February 6, 7pm
The Annex Theater & Gallery
419 E. Oliver St. (2W)
Baltimore, MD

Language and substance

Once, Kelvline and I ran into this guy who lived in my neighborhood, Edwards, who always walked or biked around late at night looking kind of homeless but well-dressed and after a while I realized he probably lived in subsidized housing and asked for spare change to supplement his SSI. Sometimes he looked like he was buying or selling drugs too, or just connecting people; I could tell he liked paying attention to everything that was going on. He often said to me: you’ve got style. He’s stopped saying that now, for the most part. Instead he says: how long have I known you? I say: I don’t know -- nine years? He says: and I’ve never attacked you, right -- not even once? I say: does that mean you’re going to attack me now?

But anyway, when Edwards spotted me and Kelvline together one night, not the first time but the first time he stopped to say something, he said to Kelvline: where did you learn to dress like that? Kelvline was angry; she assumed this was another black guy giving her shade for not looking black enough. Kelvline said: I’ve always dressed like this, I grew up that way. But that wasn’t true -- when I met Kelvline, she wore more or less masculinity casual with hints of art school messiness like a pair of jeans held together with 50 safety pins, and eventually it just became those jeans and some other clothes she never washed because then she was aiming for a scruffy kind of realness, but certainly not the clashing colorful polyester ensemble she was working on the night we ran into Edwards.

This was a complicated dynamic in my relationship with Kelvline. She had such a huge personality, but at the same time she imitated the people she respected. The word she used was emulate -- emulation involves imitation but also appreciation, right? Not just copying but comprehension. Our relationship came apart when Kelvline told me she was worried I was compromising my integrity for deciding to visit my father before he died. Eleven years before, I’d told my father I would never speak to him again unless he acknowledged that he sexually abused me, and he hadn’t acknowledged anything. My decision to visit him anyway challenged Kelvline’s opinion of me, and that was more important than me.

This was after I’d taken the train cross-country and I was drained and disoriented, hours away from visiting my father in the house where I grew up with all that violence. Kelvline decided this was also the perfect time to challenge me over an interview I did about Gay Shame with the Wall Street Journal. While I was in on the train, the predictably unsympathetic article landed on the front page, with my legal name as attribution instead of Mary Hedgefunds, the name I gave the interviewer. Kelvline told me she didn’t believe my account of the interview, she thought I was trying to use the Wall Street Journal for my own advantage. This stunned me: Kelvline didn’t trust media at all, any media, even the tiniest of independent outlets. And yet she felt it was necessary, crucial even, to confront me about an interview with the publication owned by the stock exchange, just as I was about to visit my father on his deathbed. That was her way of showing support. It felt like she was using the language of accountability without the substance, and I wondered if she actually knew what accountability meant.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Trademarks

But here I am at Rainbow Grocery, running into Darryl -- I don’t think we’ve ever run into one another at Rainbow before, which seems kind of strange. She called me earlier, but now we’re both in the bulk section, she’s getting rice and I’m getting seaweed and sea salt. There’s a strange kind of discomfort that I can’t quite place, maybe it’s just confusion or maybe it’s not discomfort it’s the way we deal with public engagement in contradictory ways: Darryl shrinks back and I get grander. The other thing I notice is how styley we both look, especially with my hair freshly washed and glowing in a big floppy curl around my head and my cobalt blue coat, Darryl’s clear plastic eyeglass frames and a black jacket somewhere between ‘70s and ‘80s -- we’re working totally different looks that go with our different personalities and I’m thinking about how intimidating it must have been for someone coming to a Gay Shame meeting for the first time, especially if that person didn’t feel they could match or clash adequately with our contrasting personalities and clothes. Even once we were the alienated awkward people and not the ones we considered scenesters, that didn’t change the way we looked from the outside.

Let me pause here to think about my own investment in fashion. Back in the day I would’ve said no, darling, not fashion -- style. Fashion meant consumer loyalty, zombie mirroring, ugly attitude and nothing underneath. Style -- well, you can guess. Sure, there might be some difference but I’m not getting stuck there. I’ve cultivated this strange look that means a lot to me, I mean it’s what helps me to exist in the world, it’s important to me to take it so far that it’s really too funny for fashion, but seriously, if I study other people who look this calculated I usually end up thinking oh, no! Usually that’s because I can see what they’re copying, but don’t get me wrong -- of course I know that authenticity is a dead-end.

Kelvline was obsessed with the quest for true originality, but partially that was because so much of her art involved imitation: that’s how she learned to rap. She always demanded a certain kind of attention, negative attention was what she called it in one of our first intimate conversations -- because her parents always ignored her, that’s how she explained it. It’s what scared a lot of people out of Gay Shame meetings. Later she added: I’m very emulative -- which kind of implies a desire for positive attention too. I guess attention is attention, that was her point: she wanted it either way. I always get scared when friends start dressing like me, in some irrational part of my brain I start worrying that they’re trying to steal my identity: that’s how much clothes mean to me. But also it’s because I want to empower people to express their differences, not sameness, so when Kelvline started wearing bright colors and vintage thrift-store styles I thought well, it’s not exactly what I wear -- maybe she’s just getting more flamboyant. Like with gender: sure, I was probably the one who inspired her to throw off the male pronoun and embrace the queen’s vernacular, but she did her fair share of wacky things with the whole institution, like taking the universal she, and twisting it around with he to such an extent that really you had no idea what she was talking about-- that was her style. Her music was dissonant and fractured and broken and messy and that was the point. Or part of the point, anyway. But back to fashion, at one point Kelvline started wearing a French cuff shirt, with the cuffs undone, one of my trademarks, and one of the other black queens in the Mission said oh no, now there are two Mattildas, and that’s when I knew I wasn’t just imagining it. When I said something, Kelvline told me I was copying her hair -- my hair was big and spiky at the time, but it couldn’t quite compare to her Afro.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Making sense

But here Kelvline is on the phone, leaving a manic message. She says: I want to be that person who goes everywhere and debates gay marriage -- I want to make a flow chart with all the answers to every possible question, I want to be that person. I need to be that person, but I don’t have anything -- any books, or movies, anything I can use -- but I guess I have Gay Shame, maybe I can use Gay Shame.

I might as well tell you that marriage is what broke Gay Shame’s stride. When Gavin Newsom emerged victorious from a close mayoral election against a progressive opponent, he “legalized” gay marriage as a risk-free 2004 Valentine’s gift to the powerful gay people who got him elected on an anti-homeless platform. His popularity ratings in San Francisco skyrocketed and he became a national celebrity, anti-poor crusader remade as a civil rights hero. Thousands of gay people from across the country descended upon City Hall at all hours of the day and night, camping out, sharing egg salad and wine, and toasting Gavin Newsom as the vanguard leader of the gay and lesbian movement.

It’s hard to over-emphasize how dramatically San Francisco changed with this shrewd gesture on the part of Newsom’s political machine -- beforehand, an anti-assimilationist queer politic sometimes existed as an acknowledged part of local debate; afterwards, any challenge to the gay marriage agenda became heresy. If those of us in Gay Shame felt marginalized before, afterwards we felt like pariahs. We didn’t know what to do -- yelling at a bunch of marriage supporters just felt hopeless. We created a poster that said GAY SHAME OPPOSES MARRIAGE IN ANY FORM, and stenciled END MARRIAGE around the city. We also distributed our own version of the ubiquitous red-white-and-blue “Freedom to Marry” stickers. Ours said, “We All Deserve the FREEDOM TO BURY,” and continued, “How many Iraqis were murdered while you were getting married?” But we struggled to think of a larger intervention.

I keep trying to tell you how hard it was to work with Kelvline, but then I circle back around and make it all sound rational. When Kelvline gets all frantic and tells me she wants to be that person who goes everywhere and debates gay marriage, doesn’t she mean that everyone else trying to inject some kind of sense into the debate isn’t doing anything? Maybe I’m trying so hard to be clear that I end up clearing away too much. Because marriage did make us desperate; it still does. But Kelvline constantly contradicts herself and then I go off trying to make it all make sense -- that was always part of our relationship. Maybe it’s a dynamic I still don’t know how to avoid.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Until

Yes, there are times for the sun and this is one of those times, yes!


Santa Fe

Why do I wake up every day now with pain in my gut, this is not a metaphor this is pain in my gut. It starts before I get in bed, with that burping that gets stuck, stuck and then I have to get out of bed right after I get in bed, to walk around and hope for relief and then I get back in bed and it’s that way all night. Until I get up in a haze of pot smoke, did I tell you how much I love pot smoke? I know it’s not the actual smoke, but my whole apartment reeks of it, probably because I left the windows in the living room and kitchen almost closed because of the rain, otherwise it rains in my apartment but none of this helps the mold, the invisible mold I can smell in the corner right by the heater, how do I get rid of that mold? Unless I can cut through layer after layer of wall and replace it -- that’s not going to happen, how will I get away from the mold?

People always say that the Southwest is the best place for people with chronic illnesses -- pain, exhaustion, allergies, sensitivities, overwhelm, all of it -- but I’ve never been interested in the Southwest because it’s so hot, I hate the heat. I used to say that anyone I didn’t want to see ever again should go to Santa Fe, send them to Santa Fe, because it’s a great place to heal, but I’ll never be there. A few weeks ago someone told me that it snows in Santa Fe -- really, it snows? So then I started thinking about moving to Santa Fe, that’s how desperate I am.

I’m done with San Francisco -- maybe I’ve been done for a while, but now I’m really done. Fuck this voice activation software -- it just wrote dying! It’s because the microphone I was using stopped working, so then I had to train a new user and now every time I say fuck it writes Fox or pluck or fark, why is Fox always capitalized? How much do brands pay for that kind of loyalty? Anyway, I’m not dying I’m done. Done with San Francisco -- that’s what I was trying to say. I don’t feel politically, culturally, emotionally, or sexually inspired. Maybe intellectually inspired sometimes, but that’s not enough. My health is a disaster. I feel like I’m getting worse, things are getting worse -- every time I eat, I feel worse, and then I need to eat again. And again. And again. And again. Multiply that maybe 15 times -- really 15 times, that’s a lot of eating, a lot of eating that isn’t working.

I feel overwhelmed all the time. The only thing I like on a regular basis is my apartment, and the view, and walking around in my neighborhood, but every time I come back from a trip I know that I’m allergic to my apartment, that I have to move eventually, but if I move then I’m just going to move to another building in this neighborhood, since it’s the only neighborhood in San Francisco that I like, and then I’ll have the same issues. Or worse -- like with my last apartment, where the outside of the bathroom window was coated in a thick gray mold, the whole air shaft -- there were pigeons in the ceiling, roaches everywhere, rats in the walls and the interior of the kitchen cabinet underneath the sink was rotting away and sometimes there were the rats on my kitchen counter too, or mice running across the room and under the door to go into the hallway. Sometimes the rats were chasing the mice, or the pigeons. I know you can escape rats and pigeons and mice and roaches in San Francisco, but can you escape mold? I mean unless you can gut the whole interior, this time gut is a verb, and then after you gut it you need to take all the necessary precautions, whatever they are, but none of that’s an option for me and I don’t want to live in San Francisco anymore anyway.

I know there’s pot smoke in Santa Fe. I’m guessing there’s mold too, but probably not as much. I’ve never even been there -- I don’t even know what it looks like. It’s always sounded terribly colonial and touristy, but I’m desperate. I’m desperate to do something dramatic to see if it helps: the dry Southwest, the clean air, and I need certain resources that probably only exist in places with that kind of air quality if those places are also terribly colonial and touristy. If I was moving somewhere just to move, to find inspiration in the interactions of the city, I would probably go to Montréal, but I don’t think that climate would be good for my health. Freezing cold for six months and then muggy humidity in the summer, overheated apartments everywhere and there’s nothing worse than an overheated apartment for my sinuses, the most fragile part of it all, but what does that mean about dry heat in general, the dry heat of the Southwest? I just want to be able to do things other than just trying to do things, I mean trying to function and continue writing and occasionally interact with other people. Still I get these manic moments with so many projects and the crash happens so fast, I need to get to a place where I’m not always crashing, where one day out of 10 I sort of feel like maybe I can function, not like I feel good, I mean I still feel terrible I feel like maybe I can function and then boom there are the next nine days. Or 20.

Maybe this Santa Fe thing is just a fantasy, a fantasy of leaving which is so much work, leaving when I’m so overwhelmed and the process of leaving is always more overwhelming except right now it’s suddenly feels like something that might help. I mean it felt that way earlier today when I started writing this, when I was exhausted and panicked not just exhausted and overwhelmed like now, which is better than panic really but also it makes me feel like I can’t. Leave. I mean I’m not leaving now, I’m not leaving for a while but that while is getting closer, the fantasy is becoming more immediate, when I started to think of Santa Fe I started to think of how different it is than anywhere I ever imagined living -- I mean I’ve always lived near one of the coasts, I love the ocean even if I don’t visit often, I like the cool air here in San Francisco, the northern part of the West Coast, I like big cities, bigger than San Francisco would be fine really except for all the pollution, but maybe somewhere so different, different in climate and culture and capacity would help, I don’t know. Today I’m cooking millet with vegetable stock and it smells delicious, one of my succulents is flowering and the pink glows through translucent white and the music, the music is helping, yes this is a transparent attempt at feeling better about something, a transparent attempt that works for a moment, that moment in the morning before eating but I can cook millet with vegetable stock anywhere, I can watch my plants flower, I can listen to music and of course I need more, more than all of this but here in San Francisco I mostly feel heartbreak and suffocation, exhaustion and overwhelm and yes there’s a certain kind of comfort too, the light through the rain, the view when you walk up a hill, any hill, even the bus because I know where it’s going, this neighborhood at night and the way reflected light illuminates the street and my sadness clears, but only for a moment.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

As Haiti crumbles, the US sends in troops -- get ready for another occupation!

I’m standing in line at Walgreens and some white guy is yelling at one of the cashiers, a Latina woman, about Haiti, spouting racist corporate media lies about how Haitians are corrupt, they steal from their own people, they can’t be relied on to manage aid, and the cashier is trying not to say anything in response. She probably doesn’t want to lose her job.

It turns out this guy is screaming because Walgreens is now asking for donations to the Red Cross -- if only he was screaming because he thought the Red Cross was bureaucratic, bloated, corrupt, and ineffectual, and he wanted to make sure that his donation went to a responsible community-based organization like the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund. I wish he was using his energy to yell about the fact that this corporate drugstore is asking for donations instead of sending a stockpile of desperately-needed bandaids, medical gauze, peroxide, bottled water, and anything else required for basic needs. But no -- this guy’s just regurgitating Fox News. I think of yelling back at him that the corruption in Haiti comes from a century of US occupations, both covert and overt, not to mention the ire of the entire colonial world since Haiti became the first black republic when former slaves ousted the French in 1804. But this guy probably already knows that -- we’re in San Francisco, and his ignorance is almost surely a conscious choice.

Back at home, I receive an email for a Haiti benefit, but who exactly is the benefit for? The United Nations World Food Programme. The United Nations has occupied Haiti since the US/Canada-engineered coup of 2004, and is an active participant in brutal violence against Haitian activists. It was the United Nations that gunned down unarmed civilians in Cité Soleil, one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighborhoods, as collective punishment for the popular demand for the return of democratically elected President Aristide (victim of not one but two US coups). In recent years, the UN is perhaps as responsible as the US, Canada, France and other colonial powers for the obliteration and dismantling of the public sector in Haiti (not to mention locally-owned industry), making the country permanently dependent on foreign aid organizations.

As the US government sends in 12,000 troops to occupy the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere AGAIN, the Aristide Foundation, a non-governmental organization that operates a medical center just one mile from the heavily fortified airport, is unable to obtain basic supplies to treat the wounds of the thousands of people gathered there for shelter. The US allows citizen children to fly into the US, but bars their Haitian mothers from joining them -- and, makes sure that Haitians know that if they try to enter the US illegally, they will be jailed.

As Hillary Clinton met with René Préval, the supposed president of Haiti (who has still made no official governmental statement about the earthquake), in a tent at the airport, relief planes were sent back to insure Clinton’s security. How’s that for priorities? Supposedly there’s a security crisis in Haiti, and the US cannot allow aid convoys into certain areas until they are “safe,” but Democracy Now producer Amy Goodman made her way through the epicenter of the quake in Léogâne to talk to survivors, with no threats of violence. According to lawyer Bill Quigley, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, there are no reported incidents of attacks on relief workers. None.

Now US soldiers with machine guns patrol the airport, the main hospital, and even the collapsed presidential palace, yelling at desperate people who have lost their homes, families, livelihoods, children, mothers, brothers, lovers -- yelling at starving people in English to move back, move back, causing the insecurity and panic they are supposedly there to alleviate. Thousands, literally thousands of people are dying every day because they lack adequate medical treatment, food, sanitation, water. People are drinking their own urine so that they don’t die of dehydration. And the US is sending in more troops. While right-wing demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson throw down the slave-master’s best English, it’s the Obama administration that will surely do more damage.

(Thanks to Democracy Now and Flashpoints for the brilliant reporting that fuels this analysis)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I almost forgot...

I have a story in the beautiful new issue (Issue 10) of the British queer journal Chroma -- it's a preview from The End of San Francisco, that crazy memoirish thing I’m work work working on -- check it out, if you get the chance…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pandering and possibilities

Kelvline’s political engagement was often enmeshed with revenge fantasies, and sometimes it was difficult to separate the two: I’m not sure she wanted to. In the beginning, Kelvline would rant about the Nob Hill Theatre in any context, and later the Eagle, or even Doseone. She wanted to get them back, for crimes both palpable and imagined. Later this happened with Deep Dickollective, the black gay rap group that had originally held so much hope for Kelvline. She wanted them to receive a Gay Shame award for their masculinism and for pandering to white gay consumers, but she also wanted them to get an award because they had let her down.

Benjamin and Kelvline often talked with me about the limitations of existing within mostly white countercultures: they were living the contradictions, exploring and expressing them, but they also felt the trap. Benjamin, who didn’t necessarily agree with Kelvline on many issues, spoke eloquently in favor of nominating D/DC for the Model Minority Award. I supported the nomination because I wanted to support the possibilities of queers of color in Gay Shame to critique other people of color. I don’t remember there being much debate, but there wasn’t much debate about most of the nominations. D/DC ended up in the Model Minority category; at our 2003 Walk of Shame, this was the only announcement that elicited boos from some attendees, causing several people in Gay Shame to question the nomination, as if they hadn’t even noticed it before. This felt disingenuous -- was it only an issue because people booed? If so, was popularity a measure of our integrity?

The controversy centered around whether Gay Shame, a mostly white activist group, could responsibly critique a black gay rap collective. But the most vocal proponents of the nomination were two black fags, one of whom had rapped with D/DC. Was it possible, within Gay Shame, to create space for queers of color to hold other people of color accountable?

And on the windows!


Monday, January 18, 2010

Raindrops, look how pretty!

I’m so exhausted that there’s nothing else I could possibly write about, except actually I’m so exhausted that I can’t possibly write

But I want to tell you about dancing, when I got up I was dancing, for a few minutes I even got to that place of total invincibility which is a lie but oh how I love that lie those few minutes of pure flying in the air the air through my head no the thoughts in my head the thoughts through the air like flying a lie it happens so fast so fast I could feel the exhaustion pouring in through the dancing but it felt okay. Until I stopped.

I want to tell you about something that happened in my sleep, a shudder in my chest it woke me up I thought oh, memory, childhood, incest, helplessness, my body, but then when I fell back asleep someone was holding me through movement I would fly through the air and into his arms or over his head and down into his lap that type of contact I miss so much and in the dream it didn’t hurt at all it was hope and home and help and then when I got up I wondered maybe, maybe that’s what I need, maybe I could take a contact improv class and it wouldn’t hurt at all it would help it would help me to feel supported except now here I am in all this pain already.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Consensus and contradiction

How does a mostly white activist group challenge structural racism? For Gay Shame this meant exposing hypocrisy wherever we found it. But there was always a wide range of political awareness among organizers and participants. It’s probably accurate to say that we never planned an action where everyone understood all the issues we were addressing, or if everyone did understand that didn’t mean we all agreed. I think that’s part of why Socket says it wasn’t real consensus. But I do think that part of consensus means that coming to agreement doesn’t necessarily mean you agree.

Maybe that sounds contradictory, but let me give you an example. In January 2004, Gay Shame held a political funeral at Gavin Newsom’s inauguration. Carrying a coffin for the “Voice of Dissent,” and gravestones for compassion, radical culture, the school system, environmental justice, tenants rights, cultural diversity, and even a “free ride,” the procession moved through City Hall Plaza. I didn’t participate because it was agreed that, in order to minimize the possibilities for arrest, this political funeral would be a silent protest -- I wasn’t interested in silence. But I didn’t block consensus, and the protest occurred as planned. It actually looks pretty glamorous in the pictures.

Our earlier political funeral was a noise protest -- we marched from Bagdad Café, where Akbar was murdered, to the police precinct in the Mission. I think we even carried torches. The cops assigned to guard the entrance actually looked scared, but what about this question of whether the crowd really understood? Usually we handed out a flyer at each action, articulating our politics as clearly as possible, but I don’t remember what our flyer for that action said. And I can’t find it anywhere.

Does consensus mean that you take the time to make sure that everyone at a meeting understands what the hell you’re doing? Absolutely, but that’s probably only possible if you don’t want to do anything else. Of course this is a contradiction, but remember that Gay Shame was always an open group, sometimes people would show up who understood nothing that we were doing. I do mean nothing. But we still had to come to consensus. Sometimes we rushed, especially at the beginning when consensus was basically a word with a question mark after it, followed by a group cheer. But we never came to consensus if people expressed hesitations: we waited until the issues were addressed, or settled enough to move forward. Part of this meant that our process was different than other groups that used consensus -- we didn’t want to do anything that felt like voting; Socket tried a straw poll a few times and everyone was aghast.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Talking a lot

But what did Kelvline and Benjamin and I talk about, besides meetings? Kelvline: Benjamin and I would have fights about Nietzsche, because he would quote Nietzsche and I would say why are you quoting that misogynist, and he would say have you ever read Nietzsche? And I would say why would I want to read Nietzsche? And then I had a lot of essentialist ideas about race and blackness, and Benjamin would kind of school me on that. I remember I would say I was a rapper, and she would say: that’s tired.

Me: that’s right, she identified as a rocker, which to her felt like a more complicated engagement with blackness, because you were supposed to be a rapper if you were a black musician, right? Kelvline: remember that time when we were at a meeting, and Brodie was going on and on about something that didn’t make sense at all, like usual, and Benjamin raised her hand and said: you seem to be talking a lot, but you aren’t saying anything. And that shut Brodie up.

Benjamin was one of the most critical people I knew, but also he was entrenched in the Mission scene, even the straight part which was higher fashion and more jaded. Especially that part. I guess it was because of his band, he thought he needed to socialize in that world in order to get shows and attention. But at meetings, if Kelvline was seen as something of a novelty, Benjamin was a familiar commodity: people either loved or hated him, so whenever he said something half the room would already be ready to oppose it. She would use the drama, build it into her performance, become even more scathing.

I remember her critique after our political funeral. She was worried that people were comfortable protesting for Gwen, a 17-year-old Latina bludgeoned and then strangled to death by four men at a party in Newark, California after they discovered she was trans, but not so comfortable protesting for Jihad, a gay black Muslim man shot dead by the SFPD after he reportedly brandished two knives taken from the kitchen of a popular Castro District restaurant. People were echoing the media argument that Jihad was armed and black, therefore he deserved to die. This was exactly the racism we were attempting to illuminate by linking these two murders.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When I wake up in the morning, looking down at this item on the stove and thinking: is that a piece of the ceiling? (No, it's a mushroom)

Engagement

At a certain point, Kelvline, Benjamin and I started hanging out after meetings. Sometimes we’d go through the meeting play-by-play, or maybe there was something particularly bothersome that had happened and we would dissect what everyone had said. Or not said. We were trying to say it all.

I met Benjamin when I first moved to San Francisco in the early ‘90s, she was on a panel about AIDS and cultural representation at the San Francisco Art Institute; the panel made it seem like AIDS activism was a thing of the past, and I raised my hand and said something about ACT UP, it was still going on and more crucial than ever. Afterwards I argued or chatted with Benjamin and Eythan, one of the other panelists, who went home with me, or maybe we just exchanged numbers and later he went home with me. Eythan was HIV-positive, and told me that he only got fucked without condoms; this was way before any public conversation about barebacking, and I was stunned. I said: well of course we can do other things. But he said he wanted to get fucked, that’s what he liked to do, so we didn’t even make out.

After that panel, Benjamin and I would see each other around, and we were friendly but not necessarily friends. I always thought she was brilliant but too emotionally distant, comfortable in her artifice, sometimes it seemed like artifice was all she wanted. She had this way of interacting with people that was so grandiose I could only see it as fake. But it was the way she’d survived. She’d grown up poor and black in the South, but had attended boarding school and elite universities. When I got back to San Francisco in 2000, it seemed like everyone I knew from the early ‘90s was poorer and more alienated than ever, and Benjamin was no exception. Benjamin was interested in Gay Shame, but not too interested -- this was part of his way of viewing the world, a political engagement too direct was as suspicious as no political engagement at all. Maybe more suspicious, because it couldn’t be dismissed with the same types of enthusiasm.

Art for Benjamin was what activism meant for me, and we ended up collaborating on a five-week experimental cabaret; when you’re done with something like that you either hate the people you’re working with or you become closer. We became closer. After our show it seemed like Benjamin was more interested in Gay Shame -- she’d already helped to mc some of our first big actions, but always in a detached sort of way. Maybe that’s what changed: Benjamin seemed less detached. Or maybe I just understood him better.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Alienation and kinship

Darryl was a student at UC-Santa Cruz, and he’d managed to get the university to pay for him to go to the conference, so there he was in Michigan. I was just about to write that maybe we hadn’t officially met in person beforehand, but here’s Darryl on the phone, reminding me of a time several months before when he came over my house to make copies of activist documents for a class he was teaching on radical queer activism; and a few meetings he attended before the Marina action; and even the time when he went to the Neo-Dandy Cabaret, a five-week theater show I created with three other dandies. But the conference was the first time we really bonded. We talked for hours, two nights in a row. Darryl was as scathing as I was. Even though he was becoming part of academia, he had dropped out of high school to run away from his parents at age 14. He would be the first person in his family to graduate from college, but he did not buy into the myth of upward mobility. He’d lived in outsider queer cultures beforehand and he recognized the hypocrisy of institutionalized violence masquerading as critical engagement.

We talked about growing up and abuse and escaping and veganism and cooking and drugs; I remember talking about Boston and one devastating K-hole or another, if I was talking about growing up and abuse and escaping then I had to talk about at least one K-hole, right? Darryl said she’d never done drugs; it always confused me when I met someone who hadn’t done drugs, but Darryl had seen the way heroin surrounded her friends and she already felt surrounded enough. Darryl was certainly familiar with drug culture: as a teenaged runaway, he’d smuggled massive amounts of mushrooms cross-country, a journey more mundane and harrowing than your usual trip, acid or otherwise.

We talked about sex, so of course I talked about sex work and how it was starting to feel like a trap. No, it had felt like a trap for a long time, maybe it was kind of like academia for Darryl: a certain kind of safety through something we were never supposed to know. We talked about relationships and romance and what we were looking for, but I remembered Darryl had said something about monogamy on the phone, she was in a monogamous relationship. I was surprised. I asked her what that meant for her. She said it was the only way she felt safe; she didn’t feel like it was better or worse politically or ethically, it was just what worked for her.

Darryl and I were bonding out of that strange combination of alienation and kinship that always felt so hopeful to me. I think we were both shocked by the conference, even if intellectually we knew all along it was different to feel it. Or, if she wasn’t shocked, then I was. We kept talking, talking for hours, sharing life stories that looped around one another in an embrace. It reminded me of the beginnings of my first close relationships.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Just like Cheney

But let’s go to Michigan. Michigan? Yes, Michigan. Just days after the official start of the war on Iraq, the shutdown of San Francisco, the mass arrest of over 2000 protesters, and the resulting police crackdown, Brodie and I flew out to the University of Michigan to participate in a conference calling itself “Gay Shame.” Our panel was titled “Gay Shame Activism,” not a very creative name but it wasn’t something we chose. It seemed like it was the only activist-specific panel at the conference. While Brodie and I disagreed on a lot, we did not disagree about this conference. It was obvious to us that we were a fetish object called on for a few realness points, but we figured our job was to confront hypocrisy wherever we saw it, right? Especially when it was about Gay Shame. So we arrived at the conference ready to stimulate a lively debate.

Brodie and I were joined by Stephen Kent, who had been involved with Gay Shame in New York, and who the conference organizers had originally contacted. You know, because everyone thinks everything starts in New York. Although I guess in this case they were right. It was our introduction that got the most attention. This conference, I said, is trickle-down academia, by which academics appropriate anything they can get their hands on -- mostly people’s lives struggles, identities, and activisms -- and then claim to have invented them. And: we’re not dead yet, so the mummification and the museumification of our work should not yet be taking place.

Brodie pointed out that as a group, part of our process was to critique every flyer to make sure our political agenda was represented, and he questioned whether the conference’s publicity poster of pearls hanging from a lovely tatooed ass was purely sensational. Stephen Kent added that there was a typo on the conference materials, and there was an extra “e” on the end of the second word -- “Gay Shame” should read “Gay Sham.” We then spent most of the panel talking about the history of Gay Shame in both New York and San Francisco.

I can’t remember how people reacted immediately, because right after our talk came a panel called “Fuck Activism?” It was as if one activist-specific panel in an entire conference allegedly inspired by an activist group was too threatening without immediately questioning the validity of activism altogether. But what happened after that presentation is what I remember the most: as we were leaving the room, the organizers informed us that there would be a surprise question-and-answer. Famous academics then stood up and started screaming at us -- most of the anger was directed at me. One academic said that I was “just like Cheney,” implying that by critiquing the academy we were furthering the goals of the Christian right. Another person said that this conversation about appropriation had happened 30 years ago, a familiar attempt to “put the kids in their place.”

I’ll admit I was a bit stunned. I expected people to nod their heads in agreement, and then maybe write a few clever papers, and fail to apply our analysis on any level. Instead they wanted to silence us, and if they didn’t silence us then they certainly silenced the rest of the room. A few people came up afterwards to whisper secrets in our ears, but otherwise everyone in the crowd of several hundred people remained quiet: their future careers might be at stake. I guess we were supposed to arrive at the microphone with a few curtsies or bows, repeating thank you, thank you to the Academy!

Before our panel, conference organizers were solicitous and enthusiastic -- a friendly grad student was even assigned to take me grocery shopping and on late-night errands. After the panel, conference organizers tried to avoid looking in our direction. Their unwillingness to acknowledge their part in a long history of appropriation felt eerily similar to the Center’s refusal to take responsibility for allowing queers to get bashed on its doorstep. But at least the Gay Shame conference organizers didn’t arrest us.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

These relationships through our actions

Ten days after hot pink turned blood red, Kelvline got arrested at one of the anti-war demos, and ended up spending nine days in jail. Everyone wanted to visit her inside, even people who never seemed to like her before. Apparently jail makes you popular. Somehow I managed to show up at the required hour of 7 am in a long plaid polyester skirt with contrasting plaid shirt and coat, and glitter covering my eyelids -- I was third in line, I kept saying welcome, welcome to the club. Maybe that’s why Kelvline says: back then, you were dressed up all the time. Or maybe because I always got dressed up for actions -- what could be more intoxicating than arriving at a demo in ball gowns made of torn-apart prom dresses and thrift store excess, shaped into a sculptural concoction of decadent collapse?

In prison, Kelvline was still making jokes, trying to entertain: the food here is great, she said -- they served fried chicken. That was before she was vegan; maybe it wasn’t a joke. The woman next to me was passing contraband to a guy who looked like a pimp; I guess that means the woman looked like a hooker, boobs carefully arranged to flash underneath something passing as office-wear. I wonder what I looked like. But Kelvline, I asked -- how are you?

I’m trying to map these relationships through our actions. So I can show you how I got to this place where now I’m lost. So you can find me. At first I thought Kelvline’s arrest happened before the Center, because of the way I arranged the sections in that earlier essay. But then I looked more closely. I’m so glad I wrote that history -- otherwise the timeline would be shuffled; this might not matter, but it feels like it matters. Feeling is what I’m after. I’m trying to establish the tensions, so I can establish the tensions inside me. In the earlier essay, I didn’t write about my relationships. Now I wonder: when did I meet Darryl? Because later it was like Gay Shame became a project between Kelvline, Darryl, and me -- I mean we were the ones who kept it going. And those were the relationships that kept Gay Shame going for me. But here we are, almost two years in, and Darryl hasn’t even made an appearance. I mean, she’s the one who showed up at our demos with Gay Shame buttons, actualizing the dream of participation we were invoking, but she lived in Santa Cruz so it took a while before she started attending meetings.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Tumbling

Was it really one week later when we went to the Center to confront Newsom? The cops were already there to block us from entering. Wait a second -- wasn’t this our Center? Newsom arrived, and a phalanx of cops escorted him inside. As soon as Newsom made it to the other side of the glass doors, the cops started bashing us. I stood with my back to them, encouraging the small crowd to challenge our exclusion. I was thrown into oncoming traffic, and probably would have tumbled face-first onto the asphalt if it wasn’t for Zee, who broke my fall, and we tumbled together into the middle of the street. Four of us were arrested. One arrestee was put into a choke-hold until she passed out; afterwards, a cop hit one protester in the face with his club, shattering one of her teeth and bloodying her entire face.

We knew that the Center wasn’t on our side, but we didn’t expect that Center staff would call the cops and watch while they bashed us. Or, that even with news coverage all over the place, the Center would never even make some limp statement of regret. Instead, those of us who were arrested were held in jail for up to three days and faced ridiculous charges like assault on a police officer (four counts for me) and felony “lynching,” an antiquated term for removing someone from arrest. But that night was emotional for more personal reasons as well. Zee and I were no longer that close, but here he was catching my fall. Crying inside the police van, of course we couldn’t help but remember the first time we’d met, and bonded inside a different police van, although that time we’d planned our arrests well ahead. This time I was worried about the pain in my wrists -- my fingers were turning blue, and I asked an officer to loosen my cuffs. Of course he tightened them; I was released that night, in part because my hands were swollen and even the jail staff were worried. The pain in my wrists and arms was debilitating enough in general; I was scared it would get much worse. It was already overwhelming; soon it would become systemic, and I wouldn’t be able to call it repetitive stress injury anymore, or not just repetitive stress injury, although this wasn’t because of my arrest. Back then it got worse for a few weeks and then it was back to the usual. It’s now when I can’t even imagine wearing those glamorous outfits, just the arrangement of fabric would make my body hurt too much.

Walking out of the jail in layers of glittery makeup and a red gingham dress, but without my wig, my hot pink jacket or accessories or even the big stuffed flamingo originally wrapped around my waist as part of my ensemble, I spotted a trick of mine, walking his dog. Or was it the next morning, I think it might have been the next morning. Why do I remember 16 hours, but also it seems like I came right out? I am sure that the trick didn’t recognize me. He and his boyfriend hired me the first time, the second time it was just the two of us; both times were hot, hotter than most of the sex I had when I wasn’t getting paid. Driving me home, he had pointed out a homeless man knocked to the ground by the cops, who were holding him face-down on the sidewalk while cuffing his hands behind him. That’s the worst, the trick had said, and I’d hoped for solidarity or analysis or understanding, but instead he continued: “having to arrest a dirty person.”

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Our community

The Eagle benefit was financially successful, but it brought group tensions to the surface. Many of us were grossed out to find ourselves surrounded by the apolitical scenesters who never came to our demos, swarming around us in a sea of beer. But we did get excited when someone noticed a newspaper ad promoting an event for our good friend Gavin Newsom, his own benefit one week later at the LGBT Center. And, get this -- Newsom’s Valentine’s benefit was called “Hot Pink” -- what a great opportunity for outfits! Maybe we could use the benefit to get the word out.

While I attempted to announce the upcoming festivity, Eagle staff turned off the sound on the microphone, telling me that I was too loud, my queeny voice too irritating. Louder and more irritating, apparently, than the three bands performing that evening. I told the bartender that we weren’t just there to make money for their bar, we actually wanted to promote our actions. He told me: “you need to stop prancing around in here.”

I was enraged; I went over to Brodie and told him the story, but he just stared at me with a drunk, glazed look in his eyes. I guess we were still friends afterwards, I mean our relationship looked the same from the outside, but I didn’t believe in it anymore. Later that night, after a femme friend in a band confronted the manager, he came up to me and explained that the Eagle didn’t allow people to announce outside events. When I told him that was ridiculous, he pushed me halfway across the bar, forcing me out the door.

Worse than the incident at the Eagle was the unwillingness of many at Gay Shame meetings to critique the Eagle -- they’re part of “our community,” their logic went. Since we had formed Gay Shame specifically to expose the violence that lurks beneath that type of rhetoric, it was particularly unnerving to hear it at our meetings. As I was fond of repeating, I’d spent plenty of time getting smashed in horrible gay bars, but I never thought they were my community.

Kelvline was incensed; she wanted to organize an action against the Eagle. She was obsessive about it. When we were alone, our eyes would get wild and she would say Mattilda, what are we going to do about it? What, I would say? The Eagle, she would say, what are we going to do?

Several people went to talk to the manager on behalf of Gay Shame -- I thought it was just a way to make them feel better about themselves, but I didn’t fight the proposal. That’s how consensus works -- you agree to some things you aren’t interested in. Kelvline said the manager kept repeating that he was just a big guy, and that was how big guys behaved. I was annoyed that everyone was treating the whole thing as an isolated incident that happened to me, rather than an example of how women, queens and other people perceived as feminine were treated at leather bars all the time. I wasn’t interested in protesting the Eagle because of what happened to me. I wasn’t interested in protesting the Eagle at all, why give them any more attention? But if we were going to organize an action, I thought we should hold the entire culture of leather bars accountable. It disturbed me that hardly anyone else seemed to share this analysis.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Learn in 2010!

Benefits

In early 2003, as the US was getting ready to obliterate Iraq, attendance at Gay Shame meetings swelled with queers active in anti-globalization movements, and even straight anarchists were calling on us to add a little glamour to the breakaway marches at the big anti-war demos: we became the Pink Bloc in a sea of anarchists wearing black. A pink bandanna became the inadvertent symbol for Gay Shame.

You remember the Eagle, right? What did I say about the Eagle before? On Thursdays, it was the hotspot for the Mission scene, packed with dykes, trans guys, straight scenesters and fags trying to look trendy but not too trendy -- instead of the usual middle-aged leathermen. At some point the manager approached Brodie and asked if we wanted to do a benefit there. The idea of a benefit at a gay white male space entrenched in traditional gay bar norms of mandatory masculinity, rampant misogyny and racial exclusion split the group: those who loved the Eagle loved the idea, but the rest of us were skeptical. If we agreed to host a benefit there, wouldn’t we be tacitly accepting their policies? Or, worse, would we be giving them cover?

We spent as little money as possible, but most demos involved at least a few of us throwing in 20s for art supplies, photocopying or van rentals. Generally it was the same people who contributed the cash, several of whom were now demanding a benefit. While many of us didn’t want to spend energy raising money, it was true that holding a benefit would bring our expenses more into the collective process. So we agreed to do it.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Interest

I want to say something about the way history is made and unmade. The way we make these histories in our bodies, which become another kind of history: When I wrote a history of Gay Shame, some people were angry that I was the sole voice, even though for months I had repeatedly encouraged everyone at meetings to write their own pieces for the anthology I was editing. Several people did, but they wrote on other topics. No one else had wanted to write about Gay Shame before, but after the book came out there was all this anger I heard about through shady comments thrown here and there. I had no patience for that kind of critique. I didn’t want our work to immediately disappear from the public record. I knew I was developing a certain kind of access by representing this world that meant something to me, but I was also representing this world. To me there was no conflict of interest.