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…)
The gay community has always had a contradictory relationship with the notion of authenticity. We have delighted in the camp spectacles of drag on stage and marveled at the “realness” of ball culture in Paris is Burning, yet we maintain that to be “straight acting” is the pinnacle of masculine attractiveness and many lgbt rights groups preach assimilation and highlight our “normality” as a political tactic. In Camp Sites, Michael Trask traces some of the origins of this contemporary obsession with authenticity in the lgbt world, and its cultural politics, to a shift in the culture of leftist politics and American academia from the 50s to the 60s. Charging that the New Left of the 60s “drew with surprising frequency on the Cold War culture’s wide repertoire of homophobic suppositions,” Trask argues that “the New Social Movements had such difficulty with the queers” because “the equation radicals forged between authenticity and a meaningful life rendered gay culture’s uncommitted and artificial persons beyond redemption, even if such figures would serve a role in defining countercultural commitment by their negative example.” (1) Trask contends that the Left of the 60s saw the hallmarks of gay existence such as camp culture, male effeminacy, and closetedness as vestiges of the inauthenticity they sought to dismantle as they posited more utopian visions of cultural revolution. As Trask puts it “in the liberal mind, camp followers became so hopelessly beholden to surfaces that they were incapable of taking advantage of the opportunistic gap between appearance and depth, the gap in which realpolitik unfolded.” (8)
What makes Task’s book compelling is its counter-intuitive arguments about the role of the academy and the counterculture of the 60s in the emergence of the Gay Rights Movement. While we tend to propagate nostalgic mythology about the peace and love message of the radicals of the 60s and envision the established liberalism of the academy as a bulwark of objective reason that would defend the homosexual against the irrationality of prejudice, Trask’s book paints a much different picture. Echoing Van Gosse’s sentiment that “homophobia united the left,” Trask shows how several figures of radical politics saw the homosexual not as a fellow dissident against the values of the establishment, but as a symbol of how a man can be emasculated by the established governmental and cultural institutions, reveling in his degraded servility. (88) While New Social Movements and radicals deemed homosexuals “not expressive enough” and saw the queer as a closet queen, “an emblem of the duplicity and anonymity characteristic of the invisible government,” the establishment liberals of the academy deemed queers “too expressive” and “poor students of the school, which demands a certain abstract aloofness.” (221) In short, for the established liberals of the academy, being queer meant you could not be objective enough, while for the radicals, being queer meant you were too used to assimilation and closetedness to be trusted.
Trask’s book makes an important contribution toward understanding how the conceptualizations of homosexuality of the New Left, the countercultural radicals, and the liberal establishment in the academy influenced how the Gay Liberation Movement emerged in the 60s. In this light, the historical tension in lgbt politics between a strategy of emphasizing normality versus fighting against the very idea of normality and for an upheaval of how society views sexuality is illuminated as a product of the politics of the Left as a whole in the 50s and 60s.
While Trask’s book is aimed at an academic audience with its detailed consideration of competing theories of higher education in the American academy in the 50s and 60s, its fresh readings of classic studies in camp by Esther Newton and Susan Sontag and its analyses of queerness and authenticity in novels by Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, and Ralph Ellison among others should appeal to the literary and gay studies crowd. For those new to the idea of camp and gay culture in the 50s to the 70s, I might suggest beginning with David Halperin’s recent How To Be Gay, which introduces this history of camp and lgbt politics through personal experience and studies in popular culture. With Halperin as a primer and a compliment to Camp Sites, then Trask’s counterintuitive arguments about leftist politics in the 60s can be better appreciated and understood in their complexity.
Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America
By Michael Trask
Stanford University Press
Paperback, 9780804784412, 277 pp.
There’s a danger in writing about performance art: something will be lost and something added in each retelling of the event. Liveness is swapped for the nostalgia of not being there still, or for never being there. The written word or the photograph, or even the video, will never capture the moment, will never stand in for being there. In the case of extreme performers such as Ron Athey no archive can replicate the audience’s thumping hearts at the sight of his flowing blood or the smell of his bodily fluids just feet away. (more…)
These days, even bands without much in the way of A-sides have seen fit to release an album of B-sides. For any musician with enough fame or longevity, the record company clears the vaults, intriguing fans with unreleased songs, alternate takes, live performances, and demo recordings. At their best, these albums can provide a stronger sense of a musician’s artistic development and occasionally reveal a should’ve-been-a-hit song buried amid the outtakes. (more…)
We don’t use the word palimpsest much anymore. It was a favored word back in the 1920s among poets and other cognoscenti of the literary, whether in Paris or in the Harlem Renaissance. That’s what Hilton Als’s declarative, swooning, kiss-my-ass, stream-of-consciousness collection of essays is, however: a palimpsest.
Initially, the choice of title, Boys, An Anthology (Thought Catalog), appears merely a cultural response to the way in which Lena Dunham has challenged society to rethink what it means to be a girl. Indeed, an earlier Thought Catalog book explicitly set out to offer alternative female narratives, to widen the discussion that Dunham began. In many ways, that was the intention of Zach Stafford and Nico Lang – “to bring together gay men to tell their stories,” especially those voices that remain marginalised even within the gay community. Nineteen stories from nineteen self-identifying men from around the world, with proceeds from the anthology benefitting the Lambda Literary Foundation. (more…)
‘Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City’ by Choire Sicha
Choire Sicha’s new book, Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City (Harper Collins) bills itself as being about “New York, the Great Recession, and youth itself—as seen through the lens of broke 20-somethings and their affairs and bar crawls.” If you’re thinking “Bright Lights, Big City for the gay millennial set,” you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. It’s a fun read, but more interestingly, it’s also a tome that purports to capture a specific moment in history, and because of this, its true value may not be apparent until some time in the future.
‘Gentlemen’ s Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men’ by Peter Hegarty
Not many people may know about the disputes between Lewis Terman–a man who helped created the testing of intelligence– and legendary sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. From stories of their personal and professional lives to the development of their interactions over the course of their individual accomplishments, Terman and Kinsey’s lives are interlocking stories shaped by the relationship between sex and intelligence. (more…)
In five distinct chapters woven together through a deep sense of nostalgia and a detective-like wistfulness, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits by Duncan Fallowell offers the reader a glimpse into what it means to be (and to search for) those that have been forgotten, either through time or because of their own reclusiveness.