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.
Oh, sweetheart. How can I explain this to you, when you have so little experience of meanness? When your whole frame of reference for the grave injustices of the world is that you are typically restricted to one episode of Muppets at a time and are sometimes, non-consensually, covered with a blanket? How do I talk about the historical impact of reducing a person to an it?
S. Bear Bergman’s third book, Blood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter (Arsenal Pulp Press) does not begin with the above quote, but the way that Bear implores his son to understand the dynamism of subversion is implicit throughout the entire manuscript. Bergman, who takes on the monumental task of bringing into the world and co-parenting a child named Stanley, has crafted a well-wrought book of essays on parenting, non-traditional families, healing from old wounds, and intimacy that very nearly brought me to tears on several occasions. From Bergman’s essay “Constellation of Intimates,” which delves into the tender-hearted notion of polyamory, lovers, friends, and family as a giant web of never-too-much adoration and solidarity, to his story of how Stanley came into the world, the book rings true and clear in a modern queer world.
The book launches the reader immediately into Bergman’s world. Starting with the essay “The Really True Story, Once and for All, of How We Got Stanley (with Footnotes),” the origin, or genesis of how Stanley came to be in the world of Bergman and his partner Ishai is told in sweet detail: the insemination, the decisions as a couple, the discussions with community, the choosing of a donor, and finally, the gusto with which Stanley enters the world. The story of how Bear and Ishai’s son becomes a person is beautifully juxtaposed with the subsequent essays in the book that range from Bergman’s own disjointed upbringing to educational pieces on how to talk to trans folks.
I was particularly pleased to find the essay “Diesel Femme” among the pages of personal and educational story-telling. It is unfortunately rare for transmasculine or masculine-of-center narratives to pay necessary tribute or homage to femme identities, and here Bergman does a stand-up job. Not only does his essay talk about femmes with reverence, grace, and solidarity, “Diesel Femme” also subtly and yet poignantly acknowledges the colorful umbrella of the queer community—and all of the desires, wants, powers, weaknesses, and multiplicities contained therein.
This umbrella is captured well in the essay mentioned above, “Constellation of Intimates,” in which Bergman rejoices in the ways he is seen and loved by their closest people: “The ways in which the people with whom I have planted and grown great intimacy, whether while naked or dressed or both, make a lie out of the pervasive myth that people like me—fat or queer or trans or unrepentantly nerdy or polyamorous or difficult or some of those things or all of that—that people like me (and maybe people like you too) don’t get to have families.” Not only does Blood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter acknowledge that these myths are untrue, but they also make space in the world for them to plant and spread like the contagious fire they are.
Blood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter
By S. Bear Bergman
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 978155125112, 240 pp.
An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001) retells the unbelievable story of a boy who grew to adulthood in the very heart of Hitler’s Germany. Yet the title is a bit of a misnomer. The leader of a wide network of Jewish resistance within the city, at the center of a vast web of international humanitarian efforts, Gad Beck’s (1923 – 2012) illegal life was very different from that we know best: the Franks’. (more…)
Evoking Leo Bersani’s notorious 1987 polemic, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” Lynne Huffer strives to not only negotiate the divide between feminist and queer sexual ethics but tease out how the two intersect in her latest critical inquiry, Are the Lips a Grave?: A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex (Columbia University Press). (more…)
On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. That is a fact which no one can question, dispute, or deny. The photo of Matt shown on television and newspapers around the country depicted a blond, clean-cut young man with a friendly smile—an all-American boy—whom the nation could love. His tragic death led to multiple initiatives to introduce anti-gay hate crime legislation, as well as increased awareness of homophobia in American society. Few people questioned the possibility that Matt—this nice all-American boy in the photo–could be anything other than a terribly random victim of a hate crime. (more…)