Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Keeping the Pot Stirred
“Whatever happened to our dreams of sexual splendor only bounded by the limitations of imagination? Gay sex is now more about regimentation than experimentation, following the hideous rules rather than creating new possibilities for loving, lusting for and taking care of one another. “
Mattilda Sycamore agitates. A self-declared troublemaker, the community she’s most recently zeroed in on for a bruising migraine is the mainstream LGBT community and its campaign for normalcy.
Despite conservative queerdom’s best efforts to hide its “otherness” behind a velvet wall of “same as you” Tom and Hank and Jill and Janes, Mattilda and her like will not be ignored. As parades of neo-nuclear same sex families mug for the cameras on courthouse steps, queer body boys parade and flex impossibly taut muscles across our nation’s gym runways and circuit parties, and far, far too many proudly proclaim in knee-jerk defensiveness how “straight-acting” they are across the net, Sycamore blows raspberries at the forced mirage and holds up faded pictures of yesteryear boys and girls whose one claim to fame once was their difference. Sycamore endlessly delights in reminding them of the sacrifice they are making to be like everyone else. Nobody likes a know-it-all whose nervous tic seems to be a penchant for aggressive truth telling. A 90s era activist kid from San Francisco Act Up’s height, the now Santa Fe resident has released two novels So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008) and Pulling Taffy (Suspect Thoughts 2003), edited four non-fiction anthologies (including: Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Seal 2007), That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull 2004; 2008), and Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving (Haworth 2004), appeared in film (All That Sheltering Emptiness), and is a columnist and review editor for the feminist magazine Make/shift.
Released earlier this year, her latest anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, is a pesky reminder of those being left behind (the drag kings, differently-abled, the obese and average bodied, feminist women and men, and most of all, people of color) in the political and economic rush for “normalcy,” a word likely to make Mattilda shudder.
Nailing down the compelling personality that is Mattilda, we were able to talk rabble rousing with one of the queer community’s chief architects and ask the age old question posted by her latest inspiration:
“Why Are Faggots Afraid of Other Faggots” and are they really?
Well, I think we need to go no further than the standard preferences indicated on internet cruising sites, which endlessly parrot phrases like “no femmes or fatties,” “no blacks or Asians,” “HIV-neg only, UB2,” — and, my favorite, “straight-acting, straight-appearing.” Really –is this what we have come to? Whatever happened to our dreams of sexual splendor only bounded by the limitations of imagination? Gay sex is now more about regimentation than experimentation, following the hideous rules rather than creating new possibilities for loving, lusting for and taking care of one another. Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots is an emergency intervention.
Does the premise of this work actually set out to answer such a provocative question and do you feel satisfied that your selected works do that for your readers?
Well, I do think the book points to some fascinating answers and, even better, to more questions! For example, Chris Bartlett asks whether the emphasis on risk reduction in HIV prevention has actually pulled gay and queer men apart by abandoning the glorious challenges to the status quo that risk can sometimes facilitate. D. Travers Scott imagines an “information superfeyway” to replace the masculinist either/or limitations of internet cruising. George Ayala and Pato Hebert ask whether the corporatization and medicalization of the HIV prevention industry actually prevent honest conversations about love and intimacy and sex, making faggots more afraid of one another instead of open to honest conversations. That’s exactly what I wanted to create with this book, an honest conversation, a call for accountability and an exploration of the perils of assimilation. Maybe, somewhere in there, there’s also a vision for change but I leave that up to the reader to decide.
What was the moment or moments you experienced that made you say I must develop this collection, tell these stories, and raise these issues?
Well, I exist in queer, genderqueer, trans and gender-defiant subcultures that are inspiring to me in their emphasis on truth-telling, fluidity, critical engagement, negotiation, and developing mesmerizing alternatives to the dead-end emphasis on normalcy so intrinsic to gay and straight mainstream cultures. But, my sex life exists elsewhere, in a gay male sexual/social culture that unquestioningly embraces so much that is disgusting to me — mandatory masculinity, objectification without appreciation, and a relentless drive to keep the wrong people out, whether that means women or people of color or people with the wrong bodies or hairstyles. I wondered: if our desires have allegedly led us here, to an endless quest for the perfect pecs and abs and asshole, click, next victim—what are the possibilities to imagine something else?
There is a running theme of “sissyphobia” in your work. Do you believe gay men’s elevation of masculinity to be the greatest threat to effeminate homosexuals everywhere?
Actually, I don’t think it’s just a threat to “effeminate homosexuals” –it’s an affront to human dignity, and frankly it strikes me as tragic. As faggots, most of us grow up in a world that wants us to die or disappear; we shouldn’t grow up to mimic the grossest aspects of that same world, right?
Yet, it seems to me that many femmes in gay male culture—men most likely to be negatively impacted by the societal valuing of conformist masculinity—seem to be as responsible for coveting, exalting, and even promoting the alpha male as their oppressors? Is this just Stockholm syndrome or what?
Well, masculinity is so deified in gay culture that it’s no surprise that some queens exalt over it, even to the point of hating themselves and denigrating femininity –the other day I saw four queenie fags reading each other about who was the bottom, one of them said, “I appreciate every bottom I meet,” as if to imply that she couldn’t possibly conceive of bottoming, right? Gay culture is defined more by hypocrisy than anything else; so it’s no surprise that some fags internalize this in the most absurd ways.
There are gay and lesbian folks who want to be viewed as “normal,” experience the capitalistic path to the American Dream, and desire the privileges they assumed they’d have as heterosexuals before self-knowledge intervened. What’s your beef with those fags and dykes?
The question is: who benefits? The mainstream gay movement is obsessed with the drive for straight privilege at any cost –marriage and military inclusion are the hallmarks of this quest for normalcy, right? The military is the most hideous example — we should be fighting for an end to US imperialism, not for the right to go abroad and murder people of color in vicious wars of aggression. Similarly, last time I checked, marriage was still a central institution of anti-women, anti-child, anti-queer and anti-trans violence. Many straight people know its merits are tacky and outdated. Why are gay people propping up this failing institution? Can you imagine how much closer we would be to the universal single-payer health care –something that benefits everyone—if the gay movement was fighting that battle instead?
In this rush for mainstream equality are we losing our unique point of departure from the mainstream, one that broaden our world view and opened up the possibilities for alternative paths to joy, success, and fulfillment, be it in work, love, or family relationships?
Absolutely — I couldn’t agree more.
There’s a piece in your work by Matthew Blanchard questioning whether or not “It Gets Better?” Where do you fall regarding the impact and effectiveness of Dan Savage’s
Matthew Blanchard’s piece is a great one because it forces us to examine straight and gay homophobia, and the ways in which gay and queer people often treat one another just as awfully as straight people treat us. I think the “It Gets Better” campaign. However well-intentioned, it fails to account for the times when — guess what? –it might not get better. Does that mean we just give up, or join the military so we can blow someone else up instead of ourselves? “It Gets Better” is kind of like red ribbons in the early-90s, straight celebrities wore them to pretend they were doing something about AIDS. Now straight and gay celebrities can make cute videos telling their gay fans that, yes, yes, just hold on, as soon as you buy my shitty record everything for you will improve, I swear! But, structural homophobia is not questioned. What are we doing to make things better now? Why aren’t we creating an underground network of safe houses for queer kids to escape abusive homes, schools, families? What are we doing to change those homes, schools and families? Not everyone is going to get a job at Google or Pixar, and, not everyone wants to.
In the work, there is a proliferation of often marginalized voices and communities made invisible by the LGBT establishment, from people of color to trans men to the differently abled. Why was it important to you that these voices be heard and included in your collection?
These are the voices that are silenced by gay power-brokers –they love to argue on TV with straight homophobes who think we are all going to burn and hell, but do you ever hear a conversation between queers about issues that matter? It’s time to show faggotry in all of its messiness, glamour, incendiary potential, movement, disastrousness and experimentation. In its quest for power, the gay establishment wants to shove aside anyone who doesn’t fit the picture of straight white respectability, right? We need to shift that conversation.
What’s next for you and your work?
Well, right now I’m on a book tour for Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots — if you’re on the West Coast, definitely try to catch me! I recently finished the book I call part memoir, part social history, and part elegy — the book is called The End of San Francisco, and it’s about my political, social, sexual, cultural, and emotional formations and their undoing. Hopefully, I’ll have publication details on that soon. Of course, I’m open to ideas, contracts, glamorous possibilities in that area. And, I’m also working on a new anthology called WE ARE NOT JUST THE 99%: Queering the Occupy Movement, Reimagining Resistance. You can find the call for submissions on my homepage, mattildabernsteinsycamore.com, which also lists all my tour dates. With my anthologies, I always like to circulate the “call for submissions” as widely as possible; sometimes that’s how I find the most amazing work.
Photo by Kevin Coleman