March 2012



Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

As I've already been swept off my feet by the potential of queer creativity displayed in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity and So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, the latest anthology of narratives edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Why Are Faggots So Afraid Of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, came as the sweetest punch in my lovely straight-acting face. Challenging the assumption of binary and assimilationist norms that make lesbians and gays buy into heteronormative schemes and performances and building a political discourse around one's sex and desire doesn't exactly make for the perfect bedtime story, but again, making queer people share their most intimate and terrifying experiences and asking clever questions about hardcore subjects has never been easy. "We've come to terms with our deviance, our defiance, our love for fucking and flowers. We've pushed inward and outward at once; we've learned to hold one another even if it's only that moment, that taste, that tongue to tongue or the imprint of sweaty fingertips. And still, we are losing hope": this is, shortly, the pulsing reason and context for each of the essays included in the anthology. A legitimate critique mixing writing styles that vary excitingly as you browse the pages, celebrating queer nonconformity, explicitly engaging with sex, and exposing the hypocrisy of mainstream gay culture and its objectifying norms, Why Are Faggots So Afraid Of Faggots? is a literary rabble-rouser questioning prejudices, preferences, and hierarchies, offering some quite tempting hints on what it would feel like to reclaim and reoccupy our sexuality only to make it more fluid and take up some space for its new expression.

Manhood as accepted by general society is a status that must be achieved and constantly demonstrated through specific qualities that have been labeled as manly and masculine. There's no wonder why these particular characteristics, including having dependents and people to provide for, being tough and courageous no matter what, marriage, and a constant declaration of dominance with or without fireworks shooting in the background, have also placed so much pressure on the mainstream gay culture, a culture that has become obsessed with deifying masculinity and erasing any femme identity or expression. Basically, the essays in Sycamore's collection challenge these very ideas of masculinity as routine accomplishments that "happen" only to men, but only to go much further and link trans bodies' desires to ideas such as poverty, safe sexual behavior, open sexuality, body image, AIDS, terrorism, gender, religious upbringing, nationality and nationalism and colonialism, drug use, and acceptability and make sure that these intersections provide the sharing experience, storytelling, and insight so needed in radical queer culture and communities. 

Questioning and asking the reader to question his or her own fears of femininity, the whole anthology is focused on underlining the high potential in femme, brown, trans, and diseased bodies, a potential that has been forgotten by the collective mainstream gay imagination too busy worrying about shopping carts, low-calorie diets, aging, gaining weight, silicon implants, and chilling perspectives on death. Some of these essays challenge the current idea of cruising online and what is means nowadays to go online in search for a partner and end up identifying oneself from just two choices "Dad or Lad," as there are no intermediary alternatives, no greater flexibility when it comes to profile-creation forms and interfaces that are far from being neutral to sexism, racism, and homophobia, social ills lurking beneath every online cruise community or chatroom. "Hooking up should not be rational calculation; seduction should not be schematic," as one of the authors suggests, challenging the status quo of cruising online and offering a flamboyant and vivid projection of the ideal faggoty web that allows its users to immerse in a brand new dimension by embellishing their current reality with elements of virtual reality, without feeling like being trapped and while enjoying an indiscriminate promiscuity while cruising online: "First life baby, no sloppy Second Lives."    

Other essays raise uncomfortable questions about the current assumption of the restrictive norms that govern gay sexuality, appointing what is desirable and what is not in terms of physical appearance and claiming that normality is all about loving only white, thin, masculine, fully able bodies. Nick Clarkson wants to know why the penis is so important in a sexual relationship between a trans boy and a gay boy while also demanding respect for his trans-fag identity, appreciating his trans boy body and challenging misogyny as soon as he senses it: "I understand worshipping penises. What I don't understand is speaking of vaginas with any less reverence." CAConrad challenges the current assumption imposed by mainstream gay norms that fat men are undesirable while feeling self-assured and titillated by the sight of his constantly growing body mass. In his essay "It Gets Better?" Matthew D. Blanchard depicts the process of living through disfigurement and getting accustomed to and accepting his new face reconstructed after a necrotizing HIV/AIDS-related bacterial infection. A constant object of voyeurs' attention, his face becomes a catalyst for grace, pride, and courage while stirring dreams of genuine intimacy that find no match in his current reality: "I desire to be kissed, to be fucked, to be loved, yet when I turn my head around to get that kiss or to beg for that cock inside me, all I get from the anonymous queer kid behind me is a vacant stare and a somber shake of the head."      

Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? also insists upon the brutality of ostracizing elders and people who are HIV positive, both in straight and gay communities, bringing about discussions of the creativity that was a genuinely distinctive feature of the early AIDS movement and challenging us to consider whether a HIV-infected body is less desirable or not. "AIDS KILLS FAGGS DEAD," the homophobic slogan from the 1980s apparel, taught Eric A. Stanley, the author of "Slow Boil: AIDS and the Remnants of Time," how to be a faggot in a time when everything was pre- or post-AIDS and stand against the homophobic attitudes imposed by the normative culture. Witnessing the dazzling rhythm of his HIV-infected friends' deaths, Stanley has to face his own AIDS-phobia: "My fear of blood was also the fear of his blood." "The Soul of Our Work," a piece by George Ayala and Patrick "Pato" Hebert, points to the importance of storytelling when looking for ways to respond to AIDS and the needs of queer people who have to live with this condition, but also discusses critically how the concept of storytelling can easily miss its generative potential when it falsely assumes authority only for certain types of knowledge production, such as academic research and governmental initiatives, while devaluating and excluding others such as social and interpersonal exchange: "Research is really about storytelling too, but it's also about the process of soliciting stories and synthesizing those stories through particular sets of lenses."     

By far one of the most explosive topics brought into discussion is the way we're used to designating our bodies and sex according to the sterile and septic "clean vs. dirty" norm. With the hysteria over individual responsibility regarding one's sexual practices, the national rhetoric is usually quick to indicate who is a citizen you can have safe sex with and who is a sexual terrorist committed to spreading STDs. Once you cross the line by engaging in unsafe sex with dirty partners, you are against the system and, so to say, you're to blame for what happens to you next. Challenging the very concept of safe sex, essays such as "The Unlikely Barebacker" by Shepperton Jones, "Levity and Gravity" by Chris Bartlett, and "Girls" by Gina de Vries reveal the joys of less vanilla sex practices or point the finger at the homophobic perception implying that frottage is a much hotter and "pure male" practice unlike its counterpart, anal sex, protected or not and associated with "the feminization, the inequality, the drugs, the pain, and the disease," all qualities believed to make it worthy of disgust and being teased. Blaming the so-called risk reduction for the lack of intimacy and the limitation of meaningful connections between queer people, Bartlett remembers "the paradox of a light-hearted gay culture that faced the serious threats of gay bashing, job discrimination, family ostracism, and racism from both within and without" but also displays his genuine faith in the new generations that "seem to instinctively know the heaviness and seriousness of what is at stake. And out of the gay traditions of the past, they are able to tell the difference between that heavy knowledge and living forward with a lightness of touch."    

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's collection of essays never ceases to emphasize the importance of recognizing queer individuals both individually and collectively through their chosen identities, histories, bodies, and narratives. And yes, I have to admit that I got pretty uncomfortable at times, especially when reading those paragraphs that caress too obviously the delights and poetry of unprotected sex. But despite these occasional and transitory "interferences," reading Sycamore's work definitely feels like kissing a drag queen's eyelids, chewing on and gritting the bits of make-up till your gums bleed...  

Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
AK Press
ISBN: 978-1849350884
232 pages