Diary of an Unassimilated Traveler (2)

Published in: May-June 2005 issue.


A New York Minute, October 30, 2004

I’ve been on tour for over a month, traveling from West Coast to East Coast by train, and I’m exhausted. I have fibromyalgia, which basically means chronic pain all over my body and an inability to get restful sleep. I thought I would get some sleep in New York anyway, but I’ve ended up with a sinus headache from everyone’s overheated apartments and extra pain from carrying my bags on the subway. Two contributors to my anthology, That’s Revolting!, which I’m on tour promoting at bookstores and universities around the country—Blake Nemec and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine—join me in New York. We’re renting a car and then traveling through the South and Southwest, then back up the West Coast to San Francisco. Blake and I pick up the car, a new Ford Taurus in muted gold-beige. Neither of us owns a car—our politics and our finances are against it—and I can’t even drive because of my pain. We feel kind of silly and detached from this rented respectability. I play with the different controls on the sunroof. Luckily, the seats are comfortable.

Before picking up Cleo and heading to Philadelphia, we stop for a snack at a diner—that’s one thing I miss about living in New York, late-night bowls of split pea or barley soup for a few dollars. Blake, who’s on an even lower budget, orders tea.

When we get back to the car, someone’s broken into the trunk—a choreographed gesture of New York City realness in a gentrified downtown where everyone’s already celebrating Halloween. Straight men are wearing freshly purchased wigs or firemen or cop outfits; women are dressed as sluts or nuns; all sorts of people are in prison suits; and gay men are looking gayer than usual, in a Queer Eye sort of way. Half of our stuff is gone—we lose all our highly marketable thrift store clothes (my trademark pink corduroys! Blake’s favorite vest!), our underwear and socks, eye masks to block out the light while we’re sleeping, wrist guards, my special ergonomic pillow, bags of dried beans and grains and even produce (groceries for the trip), the Walkman with my relaxation sleep CD in it, Blake’s ’zine about dealing with Repetitive Stress Injuries (he’s got them too), plus all of Blake’s recording equipment and writing-in-progress. The only saleable things are the electronics. At least we don’t have as much to carry.

Georgetown University and Brian McKenzie Center, Washington, D.C., November 3, 2004

Originally, my grandmother forbade me to stay with her unless I changed the way I look. She wanted me to put on some “nice” clothes, and take off all those earrings. “People talk,” she said. I tell my grandmother I won’t have time to see her unless I stay with her, so she relents. Nothing has changed in my grandmother’s apartment since the last time I was there, maybe five years ago; it’s possible nothing’s changed since the 80’s. The guest room has lacquered emerald paint on the walls and ceiling and a leopard print carpet—the sofa-bed looks comfortable, but it feels like a coat rack. There are no photos of me after age thirteen, except for one from my high school graduation thirteen years ago, where I don’t quite look respectable, but at least I’m wearing a tie.

It’s very hot in my grandmother’s apartment—D.C. humidity!—so sleep is hard to come by. I listen to the blinds hit the window over and over again. My grandmother doesn’t understand why I get up so late. She drives me to my reading at Georgetown University, having made sure that I went downstairs separately so the neighbors wouldn’t suspect that we were related. I remember one time when I was about twelve and we were walking out the same back door (she still walked out with me back then), and one of my the neighbors said, “What a lovely daughter!” My grandmother must have been torn: she was passing for thirty years younger than her real age, but her grandson was being mistaken for a girl.

It’s the day after the election, and the first thing I say at the reading is that I don’t give a shit. Not very eloquent, but I get the point across—Bush or Kerry, awful or scary. It’s a small audience of about five or six professor types and ten or so students. Everyone is quiet.

Having grown up in D.C., I have lots of personal stories to tell. I talk about getting bashed just a few blocks from where I’m speaking the day after the national gay March on Washington in 1993, by a couple of guys who looked like Georgetown students and interrupted me while I was making out with a boy I’d met at a protest. “What are you doing,” they asked. “Kissing,” I said, and went back to it. The Georgetown students sprayed pepper-spray directly into my eyes, right outside Au Pied de Cochon, the 24-hour restaurant where I used to go after clubs in high school. When I rushed into the restaurant’s bathroom to throw water into my burning eyes, my whole face was so red that I thought it was spray-paint. The manager told me to take this outside. It took forever to get a cab to stop, to bring me to the Georgetown University hospital, where I had to lie on my back while they pumped saline directly into my eyes for 45 minutes to make sure that I didn’t lose my vision. When I met my parents for dinner the next night, they asked, “Why do you have to be so overt?”

At that point I had already left D.C. to live in San Francisco, and got a two-part lesson on my return. This was the largest ever national march for “Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Rights and Liberation,” an assimilation spectacle the likes of which I’d never witnessed. This was the height of the gays-in-the-military obsession, the beginning of national target-marketing to the gay “community.” I went to the March to do direct action with act-up, got arrested for universal healthcare, and met my first boyfriend (the one I was kissing in Georgetown), and two other friends who became family. Among all the white fags in white T-shirts, the freaks found each other. That was the first part of the lesson—that we were the spectacle that neither gays nor straights could ignore (they were constantly snapping pictures of us!), and that we could create something more. The second part of the lesson was that after the assimilation spectacle, D.C. reverted to usual—only with more trash in the streets and a few fags with suitcases; and those of us left got bashed. Or maybe just those of us who were too overt, in defiance of our grandmothers’ and parents’ admonitions.

After my talk, there are a lot of questions. One student wants to know how to effectively critique the profit-driven motives of mainstream gay media. He wants to know if one person can really do anything, and I’m happy to offer advice. Another student wants to make sure I know that some gay people like to play sports. One female professor type gets very upset and berates me for my style of attack: “This is a masculinist agenda; you’re furthering misogyny by not mentioning more women in your introduction.” My introduction is more about critiquing the agenda of assimilation than invoking any specific gender, so I’m not quite sure what she means by “mentioning more women.” Wouldn’t I then be attacking more women? One of the central themes of That’s Revolting! is gender transgression and transformation. I tell her that everything I’ve learned comes from feminism. She thinks that feminism has a lot of problems.

Jennifer, my friend who set up the event, wants to argue the merits of Marxism versus anarchism. This is a conversation we’ve had before; I try to answer anyway, but my headache is overtaking me. I have another event in half an hour. Jennifer and I barely have time to talk afterwards. I rush off in a cab, arriving late to the Brian McKenzie Center, which is in Shaw, a gentrifying neighborhood where most white people were afraid to go when I was in high school. Blake and Cleo are there, and a few other people. I can barely speak, I’m so tired—I don’t know how I’m gonna say anything.

Eventually, an audience arrives, and luckily, once I start speaking, my adrenaline kicks in. I talk about growing up in D.C. or in the suburbs and going to a private school in the city called Georgetown Day, where all the guilty liberals sent their kids. Sometimes people thought we were associated with Georgetown University, and we would gasp: Georgetown University students were preppy and conservative; we wore all black and smoked clove cigarettes!

After speaking, I immediately feel much better. Then my fellow travelers take the floor. Blake is nervous and edits his piece while he’s reading it. Cleo is more comfortable: I can tell he’s getting ready for his own book tour (Dam Nation, his book on water politics, comes out in the spring). The audience is appreciative. Cleo and Blake both talk about anti-capitalist direct action, so we get lots of practical questions about activism and traveling and how to instigate change. Then some questions about gender: Blake and Cleo both talk about being trannyboys in anarcho, straight, white scenes similar to the space we’re in now. Here we’re definitely among friends—and everyone is so grateful to be talking about queer issues other than marriage. Blake asks what’s going on locally. Apparently this neighborhood is a nexus for the exact type of gay gentrification I talk about in my introduction: get rid of the people of color, the homeless, the whores, and once the gays clean it all up, then the parents of Georgetown Day students won’t be afraid to “invest” in the neighborhood through real estate speculation.

OutWrite Books, Atlanta, November 8, 2004

After readings in Richmond, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we have a little extra time to spend in Atlanta. Eli seMbessakwini, who joined the tour in Chapel Hill, works on her green card application (she’s Australian); Cleo and Blake go swimming and then look for replacement clothes at thrift stores. Later, Blake and I try to cruise the well-manicured Piedmont Park, but the few people there seem to be looking for drugs.

We’re reading at the gay bookstore, OutWrite, which has two huge American flags draped Southern-mansion-style from the front entrance. This gives me a great opportunity to talk about the stunning hypocrisy of gay patriotism, just one week after the election. We have three audiences. In the front is the audience who clearly came for the reading—queers of all genders, mostly young and white, but with several people of color and a few older folks. Standing in back is a crowd of mostly middle-aged, mostly white gay men who seem to have wandered into the reading by accident. And then outside, to the right of the microphone, is a group of young white fags, some of them smoking and chatting, but many staring in through the window. I can’t figure this group out: can they hear us, and why don’t they come inside?

This is our largest—and loudest—crowd so far. As soon as I mention gay marriage, people in the back start clapping. I gasp in mock astonishment, and say: “I don’t think so.” Everyone in the front starts clapping. Throughout the reading, there’s this dynamic between front and back, speakers and audience, that feels like a continuous conversation.

During the question-and-answer period, a guy in back gives us a testimonial: “I don’t live in Atlanta. I come from a small town, and where I live, we’ve struggled all our lives just to feel normal, and now we just want to sit back and relax and get married. The blacks and the Asians and the Hispanics have their rights, can’t we have ours?” I tell him that white supremacy is still thriving, and any appeal that implies racism is over only furthers violence against people of color. As queers, we grow up in a world that wants us dead, but struggling to feel “normal” is not enough; we need to dismantle the culture that wants us dead, not become part of it and attempt to reap the benefits of assimilation.

Another question comes from a gay man who looks like he might have just come from the gym: “Do you see yourself as part of the history of gay liberation? And don’t you think that in order to have a critical analysis of urban gay culture, you need to have some experience within it?” I answer that it was crucial to me when compiling That’s Revolting! to include pieces by people talking about the early years of gay liberation, as well as younger queers who have come of age more recently. I do think there’s a mythology that only young queers can have a radical perspective, when in reality the work we’re doing has been made possible by earlier generations of radicals. Many of these people are still alive and thriving but are made invisible by an assimilationist gay mainstream that sees marriage, military service, and adoption as the only issues for queer struggle. Blake adds that he grew up in a rural area and did develop his critical analysis through a university education and access to urban queer life, but he does feel like his analysis grows from rural experience.

Several people ask about public sex, since Eli’s piece talks about creating a public cruising event for dykes in San Francisco’s Dolores Park. Is this still going on? Unfortunately not. Does Eli have any ideas for how to get something like that started? I suggest a sign-up sheet. After the reading, everyone on the staff is excited and friendly. It turns out that there’s a speaker system outside connected to the microphone, and that’s why everyone outside was staring through the glass. The back wall of the store is covered with authors’ signatures, and the event coordinator asks me to add mine. Luckily, I’ve brought my own magenta permanent marker, so my signature stands out.

Nowe Miasto, New Orleans, November 10, 2004

Nowe Miasto is a huge warehouse space converted into two floors. The kitchen is in the front, and most of the bedrooms are upstairs. The main “room” is the ground floor, which seems like it was originally designed for some sort of vehicle to drive through. So there’s the “driveway,” which continues through to a garden in back, and then the public reading area above ground level inside. There are no windows in this area, so during the day it’s pretty dark, and at night it’s darker. For our event, people clean off the dust and set up a seating area of old lounge chairs and sofas. It has an illegal cabaret-type feeling.

We’ve been staying at Nowe Miasto for a few days, but the space really lights up for the event. People get dressed up in thrift-store finery and cook vegan gumbo, while various anarcho and lefty types arrive for the festivities. I start by talking about the complicity of the straight and gay Left in silencing radical queers by promoting the media myth that there are only two sides to the gay marriage debate: foaming-at-the-mouth Christian fundamentalists and rabid gay assimilationists. I point to an anarchist publication I found in the kitchen, which has one tiny news brief praising progress towards allowing gays in the military, as if to be “inclusive” of queer issues.

Staci Smith makes a surprise appearance from New York, to read an excerpt from her piece about the mid-90’s New York-based direct action group called Fed Up Queers. Someone asks her: “What do you think about leaving the country now that George Bush has been elected?” Staci answers quickly: “Most people don’t have that choice, and things have been so awful for so long, that I don’t understand why people suddenly want to flee.” Eli points out the irony that she is presently working on her green card application.

The crowd is really mixed between queer and straight and in-between (or neither?), and there’s a lot of discussion about the radical potential of queer identity to destroy gender norms. One person mentions that she sees a lot of gay people in New Orleans working on individual or group projects but not really instigating politically or getting involved in radical organizing. This seems like a common theme: the lack of options for connecting radical activism with queer identity in a way that renders them inseparable. One person asks about the projects we’re working on now, about the potential for organizing across race, class, and gender lines. This is a dominant theme in That’s Revolting!, and a lot of people relate to this struggle. The event at Nowe Miasto feels like community-building. The discussion could go on for weeks, but we have to leave immediately after the reading to drive to Austin.

BookPeople, Austin, November 11, 2004

We drive through the night. It all works out fine until the sun starts coming up, and we find ourselves at a gas station with the keys locked in the car. Luckily, Blake learned a lesson from the burglars in New York: climb in through the trunk. I buy mirrored sunglasses to deal with the other problem: the sun.

I’m hoping that we get to sleep from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—what a way to make a living!—but we don’t get to Austin until 9:30. After sleeping and cooking, we arrive at the reading, delirious and late. But the crowd is amazing: they’re practically screaming in agreement during my introduction. Cleo has left us in New Orleans, but another contributor, Alison Kafer, has joined us. Her piece is about People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms (pissar). Blake reads a new piece about working as a personal attendant for a disabled academic, which actually references pissar. Along with Eli’s piece about creating public sexual space for dykes, this event ends up centering around accessibility issues.

A journalist from the Austin Chronicle asks me, “Was gay marriage the straw man that Republicans and Democrats batted back and forth, in order to avoid talking about deeper issues of U.S. imperialism and diminishing social programs?” This is the question I’ve been waiting for….


Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore, is the editor, most recently, of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. She maintains a website at www.mattbernsteinsycamore.com.


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