Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is one of the most well-known anti-assimilationist queers working and publishing today. Long connected to San Francisco, the writer and activist recently left the city that has formed queer consciousness for decades. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco, is both paean to and a dirge about the city. But before that, the prolific writer also published her fifth anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? A collection of essays by writers like Lewis Wallace, till recently a Chicago writer, Chris Bartlett, and Gina de Vries, the book considers the meanings of faggotry which, Sycamore argues, is a radical underside to gay mainstream politics.
Windy City Times interviewed Sycamore about her recent work, the potency of "faggot" as a word, the end of San Francisco, and why faggots are still so afraid of faggots.
Disclosure: This reporter is a friend and associate of Sycamore.
Windy City Times: The title of your anthology, Why Do Faggots Hate Faggots? uses a provocative word that still causes anger amongst a lot of LGBTQ people, perhaps even more so than "queer." What was behind your choice of that word?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: "Faggot" to me is a beautiful word. "Gay," to me, is an identity based on craving straight acceptance at every turn. Faggot re-invokes the radical, liberatory outsider, the people who can't and/or won't conform to mainstream standards of acceptability, the flamers, the geeks, the sissies, the sluts, the ones sitting for hours at the glory hole or diving through the thrift store bins for the perfect ragged dress. Faggot is a word used to police [sexuality] among straight men in particular, obviously, but also now among gay men, as in "At least I'm not a faggot." So I want to ask, why are those faggots so afraid of these faggots? I mean, honey look in the mirror [laughs].
When I was first envisioning the title of the book I did at some point have some version that included the word gay, and I really struggled with it because I thought, "Wait, gay is what this book is fighting against, the hegemony of the straight-laced vision of normalcy, the phrases like "no femmes or fatties," or "no Blacks or Asians," which, to me, are the hallmarks of gay identity: Buying the right clothes, drinking all the right cocktails, living in the right neighbourhoods, and keeping all the "wrong" people out. Faggots to me are the people being kept out, and I want to bring them back to the center.
WCT: HIV/AIDS is a dominant theme in this book, with people are writing about maneuvering unstable lives but also trying to figure out what their relationship is to the disease. The essays also address the topic of barebacking, which has become another way to demonize a certain class of gay men.
MBS: Right, how could I do a book about faggots without HIV/AIDS, which has disappeared from the public discourse of what it means to be gay or queer . But it's a specter that underlies everything. At the same time and I wanted to present pieces that talked about HIV and AIDS that really complicated the issues in maybe contradictory ways.
People are talking about trying to stay safe, trying to create sexual lives that are meaningful and full of possibility but we all know that we fail just as much as we succeed. This idea of barebacking has become the sexual bogeyman.
Gay men are already stigmatized and pathologized but then you have the pathologized among the pathologized. It's interesting that in some reviews where people love the book overall, the piece about barebacking they say made them uncomfortable.
Shepperton Jones, in The Unlikely Barebacker, writes about being a white, queeny fag deliberately approaching Asian men for bareback sex because he thinks they're low-risk for HIV. That piece doesn't shy away from issues about race and sexual choice. But he doesn't say "Well, I've now figured out how not to be that way" [and that makes for a more complicated piece]. Similarly there's a piece by Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco, Rehab for the Unrepentant, about being HIV-positive and doing crystal and barebacking and being an HIV educator, and all those contradictions.
Drugs are also demonized. One of the questions he asks is, for HIV positive people doing drugs all the time, how is it possible for people to not do drugs? You can't have the drugs that make you high but you can do the drugs that are making you vomit all night and shit in your bed. He also writes about being in a relationship with a long term partner, but the relationship he discusses in his piece is with a straight truck driver, and about the two of them shooting crystal together and trying to negotiate intimacy and sexual communication on many levels.
WCT: Gender and gender identity come up often here, which raises the question: Can a woman be a faggot?
MBS: One of the things I wanted to show in this book is the potential for faggotry to be something that is chosen, negotiated, claimed, made and remade, so that does open the possibility for a faggotry outside those who were socialized as male, or designated male at birth, exhibiting a certain kind of flamboyance.
The final piece in the book by Kristen Stoeckler, Something Resembling Power, I actually have at the end of the book because it asks that very question. It's about a faggotry outside of the places where we expect it and it ends with invoking this performance by a drag king who, at the end, throws off the entire outfit. That asks Kristen to feel kind of embodied in a faggotry that's outside of these definitions. Kristen is asking about bodies, about breasts and cunts and boys and girls and fat and skinny and femininity and masculinity and the possibility of embodying all of that. I found that questioning really beautiful and I want the book to ask that question as a whole.
WCT: Your new book, The End of San Francisco is a memoir about the city but also about the dissolution of a radical queer politics, without being the usual romanticized "end of an era" narrartive. San Francisco might be considered the epicenter of the faggotry that's discussed in your last book. What is it about the city that it became, for you, a place for the faggotry you spoke of earlier?
MBS: I first moved to San Francisco in 1992, when I was 19. I was searching for radical queer possibilities to counter the annihilation of childhood and the violence of my parents and everything I was supposed to be. It's where I learned to create my own politics, communities, cultures, sexuality, where I found other outsider freaks, sluts, queers, queens, anarchists, vegans, incest survivors, whores, direct action activists, druggies and dropouts trying desperately to take care of one another and challenge the violence of the world around us.
It's where I first learned to call myself a faggot, to reject the terms of gay and straight normalcy. It's also the place that has let me down the most, and that's what I want to explore in the booknot just the annihilation of radical outsider cultures due to AIDS, gentrification and assimilationbut also the more personal story of the places where everything I've believed in have let me down, over and over, and what does that mean.
WCT: What made you want to write about San Francisco now, and why as a memoir and not, say, as another anthology or as a work of cultural analysis?
MBS: As an abused kid growing up in a world that wanted me to die or disappear, I needed to learn how to project a sense of invulnerability in order to survive, and in order to find others like me. But now I think it's vulnerability that will save me. That's why I chose to write a memoirbut I think conventional memoir has the amazing ability to take the most complicated, multifaceted messy lives and turn them into laminated timelines.
With this book, I want to reimagine memoir as an active process of remembering, an investigation, an instigationstylistically and structurally, as well as politically and intimately. The book is structured by emotionwriting about the places and people and moments in connection and disconnection that have made and unmade me, that's what drives the narrative, rather than a conventional plot structure. I think that allows for more emotional intimacy.
Bernstein Sycamore will be appearing at Women and Children First, at 7:30 p.m on Monday, Oct. 7. A full schedule of her Fall Tour can be found at her website. www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com/events.html .