Sarah Schulman takes on ‘gay gatekeepers’
Author: Antonio Gonzalez Cerna
July 22, 2010
Within the small red cover of Sarah Schulman’s 171-page Ties That Bind is a powerful, provocative critique of the American family (reviewed here). According to Schulman, in order to understand homophobia we must explore the family—specifically how families treat (or in many cases mistreat) their homosexual daughters and sons. From the legal system to the entertainment industry, the destructive consequences of “Familial Homophobia” only legitimize oppression. Michael Cunningham has said that “Schulman is one of our most ferocious, uncompromising voices.” He is right. Earlier this year, I spoke with Schulman in her 6th-floor walk-up in the East Village.
It’s important to note that this interview wouldn’t have happened without Schulman’s help. The new Flip camera I’d purchased specifically for the occasion didn’t have a charged battery. To make matters worse, my audio recorder also failed and my pen ran out of ink. I was nervous. Thankfully, Schulman’s apartment was full of light that day. She walked to her computer, brought out a tape-recorder and she gave a thoughtful, fascinating interview about her new porn project with Cheryl Dunye, self-policing in the publishing industry, and her trip to Palestine.
AG: Thank you so much for taking time; I sincerely appreciate it. Your book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, is one of those books that grabs the reader’s attention and also raises a lot of interesting questions—everything from adoption to marriage equality to inter-community prejudice to gaffes in the publishing industry. Can we just talk a little bit about how the book came about?
SS: It took me thirteen years to write. At a certain point I started to get a sense of myself as a person who could explain things, or figure out things—gay things and other things—so my ambitions became larger as a writer. Actually, it started with this Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Russians used to treat poets like rock stars—they loved their poets—so when she was arrested during the Stalin era and thrown in the gulag, of course the people recognized her. So they’re living in this terror and this degradation and this horror, and they see her in the crowd, and they say to her, “Can you describe this?” And I remember reading about that at the height of the AIDS crisis and thinking, “I can describe this.” And it was just like that moment.
That’s when I started writing those AIDS books; I think I wrote four AIDS novels. The first really big task for me was when a lot of people were dying really rapidly, saying incredible things about their experiences and then dying. I started writing down everything that everyone had said and streaming it together, and this became the character who was at the center of this book, Rat Bohemia, a gay man with AIDS. And I started to try out that material and then I realized that I could do this. I could actually explain what that was like. I remember the moment that I read it out loud and John Preston, who was still alive at the time, said to me, “You know, you really got it.”
So after that I became very ambitious. And homophobia in the family is the most common queer experience. It transcends every national category, every way a queer person thinks of themselves—class, race, language, age—it’s the most common experience. But there was no word for it. We talked about it all the time, but we called it “it.” So I was like, I’m going to figure “it” out. And I just started collecting notes. I had a box of notes; I had napkins from bars where I had written something I had figured out, notes or weird things, and after about eight or nine years I typed it all up and I started trying to make it make sense. And it took thirteen years.
Getting it published was almost impossible. It was turned down by everybody. Gay, straight, doesn’t matter—nobody was interested. Primarily because it wasn’t telling people what they already knew. Familiarity is the definition of quality and because it was so unknown, people turned it down. The most terrific turn down was a very young lesbian agent. I thought, well, she’s young, so she won’t have these prejudices, and when I showed it to her, she emailed me back, “Don’t show this to anyone.” That was sort of everyone’s attitude. Until, completely by fluke, it got to Julie Enszer at the New Press. Otherwise it never would have been published.
AG: That’s an amazing story—actually unbelievable, now that I’ve seen the physical book and read from it and felt that it speaks truth in so many ways.
SS: What’s been amazing about the reception is that I have not had a reception like this since Rat Bohemia, which was at the height of the AIDS crisis. When that book came out, people with AIDS were stopping me on the street, and then for ten years I never had anything like that. Suddenly, with this book, the emotional urgency of the reception…people leaving messages on my phone; I’m getting three to five Facebook contacts a day. It’s so resonant with people. Think of all those gay gatekeepers—agents, editors—who stop books like this, everyday, from getting to people because it’s new territory. It’s heartbreaking. I know I have the personality to persevere no matter what, but I wonder how many people get defeated by this kind of preemptive censorship. It’s a huge spiritual question for gay people in the publishing industry to ask themselves.
AG: You talk about the self-policing and the internalized homophobia in the publishing industry a lot, and one of the questions I have is that there’re so many LGBT people in the book industry, yet so few LGBT books are published-
SS: Especially L.
AG: Yeah, especially L; we’ll talk about that in a minute. Are we our own worst enemies in the publishing industry?
SS: We’re not our own worst enemies, but we’re like our third-worst enemies. Gay people are not advancing themselves in the industry, they’re just regurgitating familiar territory. Of course, artists are always ahead of gatekeepers. That’s the way it works—artists innovate. But in order to fulfill your promise as an editor, agent, publisher or reviewer, you have to be a person who’s embracing the new and looking to elevate what is not yet known. And unfortunately, there’s not a discussion among publishing professionals about enhancing this aspect of people’s responsibilities. In fact, it goes the other way. So there needs to be a psychological revolution on behalf of the people who are controlling what information is allowed to be seen.
AG: The publishing industry is going through some major shifts and changes right now, especially with new technology. I’m just wondering how all of this will play out in the next couple of years.
SS: Well ultimately, if the individuals are not looking to use their power to expand what’s known, it doesn’t matter what condition the publishing industry is in. There’s always opportunity to advance, no matter what the obstacles. Sometimes change provides more opportunity and sometimes it doesn’t. But an innovative person with a good imagination can forge forward no matter what.
AG: You just said there were so few lesbian books getting published now. And you talk about how in the UK it’s a little bit different. All the big, award-winning lesbian writers I can think of off the top of my head are coming from the UK. Why do you think that is?
SS: Because the British book industry treats them like they’re human beings and treats their books like books. When I was published in England, I would be on TV, I’d be interviewed in the Guardian, all that kind of stuff that never happens here. There’s just so much less prejudice that they are allowed to be seen and their books are allowed to be evaluated. And then the US market just says, ‘Oh well, they got this prize or that prize or they have this BBC series, so we’re just going to import them.’ That’s what happens. It’s the censorship of American lesbian fiction and its replacement with this already approved-of British import. Not that those books aren’t great. The Passion is one of the greatest lesbian novels ever written, but that’s not the question.
AG: So you’re going to Palestine.
SS: Yes, I’m going to Palestine on Tuesday. I was invited to give the keynote address at the Gay and Lesbian Conference in Tel Aviv because of my book, and of course I wanted to go because of the particular situation of Jewish family homophobia that I wanted to address.
The problem was that the conference is being held at Tel Aviv University, which is under boycott by PACBI, the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This was something that was started in 2005 and honestly I didn’t hear about it until after Gaza in 2009, when I became aware of Naomi Klein and Judith Butler’s views on sanctions towards Israel. So I contacted them both to find out if there was a way I could go and Judith Butler got back to me in about four hours. She was amazing and put me in touch with these incredible gay Israeli academics involved in the anti-occupation movement, who they told me they would prefer if I declined.
I decided to take the sanctions option and do a solidarity visit instead. I’m going to speak at two anti-occupation venues in Tel Aviv and then I’m going to the West Bank. I’m going to meet with Palestinian queer organizations in Haifa and Ramallah. I’m going to meet with PACBI itself because I’m concerned that if gay people are going to boycott gay events, there needs to be visibility that gay people are supporting the sanctions movement, which can only be helpful to Palestinian queers and also Israelis. That’s going to be a challenge. And I’m going to be speaking at Haifa, also to an anti-occupation group.
AG: Can we talk about the project you’re working on with Cheryl Dunye?
SS: Cheryl Dunye is, of course, a well-known lesbian filmmaker, but she’s also made the most features of any black woman in film history. I first collaborated with her thirteen years ago on her film Watermelon Woman, a lesbian classic, in which I acted. I’ve never acted again and there’s a good reason for that. Last year, she invited me to co-write her feature The Owls and we actually got into the Berlin Film Festival. I had the amazing experience of being a screenwriter at the Berlin Film Festival and we worked together so well we’re doing two new projects.
One is a porn film, being produced by Jurgen Bruning, a German porn producer who’s worked with a lot of artists like Bruce LaBruce. Our movie engages the ultimate lesbian taboo: mommy. It’s called Mommy Is Coming. And I have to say, I don’t watch a lot of porn myself, but I had to watch a lot for this movie, and it’s a really boring form. So it’s a little bit of a parody of a porn movie because I was trying to make it funny. Right now, we’re about to go into the Tribeca Film Festival lab with a big feature called Adventures in the 419, about the African underworld in Amsterdam. Cheryl is Liberian and did live in Amsterdam for a while. The material is amazing. It’s a kind of Crash type of film—a gay Turkish cop, a Nigerian brother-sister team involved with internet scams, just a lot of really interesting characters. So somehow suddenly I’m in the movies because I just found the right person to work with, and it’s really opening a lot of doors for me.
AG: Let’s chat about books you’re reading, or maybe some of your favorites.
SS: I’m reading Vestal McIntyre’s Lake Overturn. I’m re-reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which is exquisite, because I just read Joan Schenkar’s biography of Patricia Highsmith, which was also exquisite and made me go back to her work. I’m reading Edith Wharton’s New York stories and they’re incredible. They’re so New York, even though they’re a hundred years old. I’m also reading three books about John Cassavetes, who is my current art obsession.