Sometimes you open a book that feels like sitting down to catch up with an old friend. That was my experience as I began to read Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon’s co-written book Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp Press). The book is an adaptation of the duo’s successfully-toured performance, interspersed with Clyde Petersen’s art which was also initially projected during their live show. In the show, the duo alternate telling stories exploring their unique take on life outside the gender binary, and the failings of trying to think of gender simply as a simplistic polarized “male” and “female.” (more…)
“The domestic made lethal—that’s the legend.”
We live in a society entrenched in matters of the body. Sexualization, fetishization, policing, ableism, movement, tangibility, and the body politic, our corporality is absolutely everywhere. Despite the fact that bodies are subject to intensive scrutiny, the historical origin of how bodies have been perceived throughout time (everything from feet to slouching to undergarments) remains mysteriously out of the realm of everyday knowledge. How is it, for example, that foot shape determined class and stature, traditionally? How has the body been commodified in times of martial economies (i.e., dowry economy)? (more…)
In the latest contribution to Arsenal Pulp Press’s “Queer Film Classics” series, Lucas Hilderbrand sets his sights on that legacy object, the fabulous and enduring cultural phenomenon that is Paris Is Burning. One of the most successful documentaries ever made, the 1991 film follows Harlem Drag legends like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja and newcomers like Octavia Saint Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza as they compete in Harlem drag balls, dream of fame and struggle as queer people of color in the bustle of pre-Giuliani New York City. Hilderbrand, whose scholarship includes articles on Todd Haynes’ Barbie bootleg, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and an analysis of “The Art of Distribution: Video on Demand,” embraces the rich cultural text with signature breadth and an impassioned personal narrative. (more…)
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
-Margaret Atwood, “The Moment”
Borges says, in his literary theory, that there are more or less six themes that authors write about, six stories they tell, though the narratives may vary. All have to do with the human condition: how we love, how we live, how we make a life for ourselves, how we interact with the physical/metaphysical/spiritual, our literal and figurative place in the world. Following this metric, Catherine Reid’s newest collection of nature-centric essays, Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, is the perfect example of how the personal becomes global through familiar tropes. Utilizing her relationship to her home in the Berkshires as well as the deeply-crafted life with her partner, Reid juxtaposes her identity as a native New Englander with her otherness as a lesbian woman to create lyric tension that sustains the ambivalence of the narrative. (more…)
Erasure is a central concern when it comes to representations of AIDS—be it in the face of hegemonic narratives, or absence. Historian Martin Duberman addresses this in his new book, Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS (The New Press, 2014). A dual biography, the book profiles Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill, both gifted, successful, HIV+ gay men who came of age in the Reagan years and with the onset of AIDS in America. The primary difference between the two being Hemphill was black and Callen was white, a fact that did not save either from needlessly early deaths, but one that does impact how they lived and how they are remembered. (more…)
Longtime scholar and activist Dennis Altman begins his book talking about change. How and why “change” happens are points of conjecture, but one thing that Altman is all too sure of is that “change often occurs at a number of levels simultaneously, and is often contradictory and uneven” and that is the point. In The End of the Homosexual?, Altman connects the old with the new and accounts for the pain and struggle that the LGBT movement has had in connecting to the proverbial “family-tree” version of queer history, while maintaining what is truly unique about the community as a whole–its constantly changing and evolving nature. (more…)
Two of queer theory’s leading contemporary scholars, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, have collaborated on a slender, yet powerful, three-essay volume about sex and interrelational attachments.
Both scholars are coming off critical success in their previous works: Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, the 2012 winner of the Rene Wellek Award, is arguably the greatest theoretical text to be published in the last decade, while Edelman’s No Future, controversial for what some call its nihilist, and narcissistic, argument, offers an unrepentant critique “reproductive futurism” through the trope of the child.
Both these texts converge in this new endeavor, one in which the theoretical impetus is to advance the idea of negativity while denuding it of its anti-social tenor by thinking about the political significance, and the productivity, of negativity as an ethic. “The historic practice of LGBTQ studies has been toward reclaiming and repairing lost histories and ongoing practices of delegitimation,” they explain in the introduction, “Negativity as a source for social theory tends to reject the impulse to repair social relations that appear to us irreparable, and in that light, our work might seem quietistic, apolitical, nihilist, defeatist, or even irresponsible.”
In the history of queer theory in academia, the idea of negativity as a political and social ethic is born more recently out of the anti-social thrust—queer is that which resists political and social order and indulgently refuses all systemic complicity—and more broadly from the new historical strain of queer studies invested in recovering “negative affects,” most notably “gay shame,” as integral to re-constructing LGBT and queer history narratives.
Their working definition of negativity, in simple terms, aims to demystify relations of their idealism, on a meta-scale, as well as all optimism: “Negativity points to many kinds of relation in what follows, from the unbearable, often unknowable, psychic conflicts that constitute the subject to the social forms of negation that also, but differently, produce subjectivity. Generally negativity signifies a resistance to or undoing of the stabilizing frameworks of coherence imposed on thought and lived experience.”
This is why they focus on sex, because sex, “as a locus for optimism, is a site at which the promise of overcoming division an antagonism is frequently played out. But,” they contend, “the consequences of such efforts to resolve our social and psychic contradictions can include the establishment of sexual norms and the circumscription of sex for socially legitimated ends [....]”
“Would living with negativity entail the death of the optimism that animates desire an energizes politics?” This is Berlant and Edelman’s optimal question, although one has to wonder about the impetus of denuding sex of its optimism. What if I wanted a sexual relationship, one not predicated on homogeneity or driven by the desire to reproduce the liberal family structure? What does an intimate relationship look like without optimism, which is by definition is born in the present but which extends into the future? Are relationships impossible? This last question, to me, seems distinct from any reparative concern of either Berlant’s or Edelman’s, both of whom are critical of the socio-political desire to repair (a relation).
This is the problem with the queer discourse of negativity: it constantly defines itself in terms of the negative, in terms of what it’s not. Frankly, and to invoke the hot queer term of the moment, it’s quite a privileged position to delimit one’s ethics in terms of the negative—perhaps it’s a symptom of living within the confines of academia.
Yes, we all know that sex is powerful; we’ve all “become undone” by it. Berlant and Edelman’s point that sex is an unmooring of one’s sovereignty is insightful. “When it takes the shape of intimate relationality, [sex] is both disturbing and anchoring, and therefore never stilled enough to be a concrete foundation for the house of life or the house of pain; expressing a desire for disturbance, sex cannot also defend entirely against it.”
At the same time, when Edelman claims that the sexual “encounter, viewed as traumatic or not, remains bound to the nonfutural insistence in sex of something nonproductive, nonteleological, and divorced from meaning making,” and that “[i]n this sense sex without optimism invokes the negativity of sex as a defining and even enabling condition,” one has to think deeply about what kind of sex these scholars are having. This statement, in fact, lies at odds with a lot of queer scholarship concerning affect theory; if all interaction is affective, then surely there is meaning to be had? Or, perhaps this is the lesbian in me: I can’t imagine sex that is so lame that it is completely devoid of any affective force such that it has no affective resonance on my body or mind, and that, therefore, it has no “meaning.”
Structurally, the form of their collaboration takes the form of the dialogue, which not only provides both scholar the space for thinking through the possibility of “sex without optimism,” but it is perhaps a nod to a different methodological and critical investment in the future of the humanities, one that actually seeks to foster a dialogue with a community of readers outside the pedantically prescribed academic norm—you know, the dozen or so individuals who can navigate an argument through overwrought academic jargon. In this regard, Berlant’s language is more digestible, if only because her discourse works primarily within the parameters of cultural studies, as opposed to Edelman’s more cumbersome working from and within psychoanalysis.
While the central inquiry about the encounter between negativity and nonsovereignty is not radically new, Berlant and Edelman’s three-act dialogue is wonderfully intriguing, especially in regard to how the dialogue itself bears witness to the intellectual process of “thinking through” in the dialogic form.
Sex, or The Unbearable
By Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822355946, 168 pp.
A church and a bar are two very different institutions, but Marie Cartier, in Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Acumen Publishing Limited), proposes that the bar, and specifically the gay bar, served both a communal and spiritual function for many queer women in the mid-twentieth century, pre-Stonewall. (more…)
For most of the lgbt community, knowledge of Ballroom culture in America begins and ends with Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. While the film’s release was one of the defining moments of lgbt culture with its masterful (though not unproblematic) depiction of the genius and spectacle of Ballroom performers balanced with the reality of urban poverty, racism, and the AIDS epidemic they faced, its subject matter has largely been frozen in time as 80s nostalgia and aestheticized in the lgbt imaginary. The snarky quotes, over the top fashions, and Madonna’s appropriation of Voguing have stuck in lgbt culture, but the film’s messages about black lgbt life seem to have faded from memory. (more…)
Americans have had conflicted opinions about sex work since European colonists brought Christianity, slavery, and racism to North America. In the twenty-first century, the United States provides no federal protections to sex workers. Sex work remains illegal in most states of the Union due to its association with immorality, substance abuse, venereal disease, organized crime, and human trafficking. Significant percentages of gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans—particularly those from communities of color—have had to engage in sex work for survival. They have suffered abuse at the hands of law enforcement as well as clients and pimps; for these reasons, queer sex workers were the most likely to rise up against the system to fight for their civil rights.
In Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk (Beacon Press), author Melinda Chateauvert reveals the relatively unknown history of sex workers’ involvement in LGBT civil rights protests in the United States, as well as their efforts to organize for legalization and regulation of their trade. Chateauvert sits us on her knee and bluntly tells the story of how mainstream gay and lesbian historians—as well as activist groups themselves—marginalized, ridiculed, or left out the major contributions of sex workers to the Stonewall Riots, gay and lesbian liberation movements, and AIDS awareness campaigns. Predominantly white and cis-bodied, leaders of these movements believed that no one would want to hear from transgender prostitutes or other disadvantaged groups.
Chateauvert is an activist, historian, and professor involved in multiple campaigns to change policies and attitudes toward sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights. Based on her experience, she has also taught courses on Community Organizing and Sex Work. Unlike other academics who would provide a well-researched but distanced account of sex worker organizing efforts in the United States, Chateauvert’s personal experience makes her a champion for the cause. Rights for sex workers, she says, are human rights.
While Sex Workers Unite is impressive in its documentation and mentions many historic American activist groups that included sex workers (Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP, COYOTE, and many others), Chateauvert only touches the surface of the parallel challenge to sex workers in modern America—the lack of unity of women’s rights activists and feminists on the issue of sex work as choice, as opposed to patriarchal oppression. The majority of American women have harsher attitudes toward female prostitutes than men; In Chapter 2, “Those Few Came on Like Gangbusters,” Chateauvert cites American feminist writer and activist Kate Millet:
PROSTITUTION AND SISTERHOOD?
Prostitution provokes gut-level feelings in women precisely because it reveals so starkly fundamental and tacit assumptions about women’s relations in a patriarchal society. It reminds us that we are defined by our sexuality: i.e., wife, spinster, lesbian, whore; and it reminds us that most women are dependent on men…in one way or another [to] secure our survival in exchange for the commodity that men want most from us. Feminists see this sexual objectification as dehumanizing and degrading—with the ultimate degradation experienced by women who sell their bodies to earn a living. (The Prostitution Papers, 1973)
Nearly fifty years later, this anti-prostitution still rings true for a significant percentage of American women whether or not they consider themselves feminists. In the twenty-first century, American women are more likely to support criminalization of prostitution because of its overlap with sex trafficking. While Chateauvert does mention this more contemporary issue, this reader would have appreciated deeper coverage of how women can be their own worst enemy at times in the quest for social justice. Chateauvert does an excellent job, however, of depicting how American transgender sex workers have historically been at the losing end of women’s and LGBT civil rights movements; crimes against transgender sex workers in the United States are most likely to go unresolved by law enforcement. Transphobia, coupled with American society’s disdain for prostitutes, puts transgender sex workers most at risk for disenfranchisement, abuse, and murder.
Readers of Sex Workers Unite will come away with an enlightened view of sex work and the contributions of sex workers to civil rights movements in the United States. The notes and bibliography of this book alone are a treasure trove for those who wish to learn more. Chateauvert’s book just may cause American readers to question our country’s policies toward sex workers, and wonder how other countries made them work.
Havoscope: Global Black Market Information. (2014). Sex trade: Prostitution facts and prostitution statistics. Retrieved from http://www.havocscope.com/tag/prostitution/
ProCon.org. (2014). 100 countries and their prostitution policies. Retrieved from http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000772
ProCon.org. (2014). US federal and state prostitution laws and related punishments. Retrieved from http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000119
Treasures. (2014). Statistics. Retrieved from http://iamatreasure.com/about-us/statistics/
World Health Organization (2014). Sex work. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/sex_work/en/
Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk
By Melinda Chateauvert
Paperback, 9780807061398, 272 pp.