In the review you’re about to read, I make reference to the death of Mark Aguhar, Chicagoan queer artist. I don’t do it well–I am blind in it to my white privilege, and I think to my privilege over male-assigned trans folks as a female-assigned trans person, which is a very particular sort of privilege that I’m trying to work out a way of talking about. I was called out on this, and have debated for a long time as to how to rectify the problem. Ultimately, I arrived at adding this paragraph. I don’t want to edit my mistake out completely, because I want to be accountable, so go ahead and read, but do note my mistake and consider it a mistake coming from a white guy trying and often failing to unlearn whiteness (and guyness).
I’ve spent the last week reading Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s latest editing effort, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots, and I have to tell you: it is a good book. But before I begin to explain why it’s such a good book, what I think it’s trying to accomplish and why I think it succeeds, I should make something clear: Even though up until this point, I’ve only given positive reviews, I’m not trying to to. This is because I get to choose what I’ll be reading and reviewing, so I pick books I already know I want to read, with authors whom I already know of, and luckily enough they haven’t disappointed me. I just wanted to let you know. Don’t worry, eventually my reading list will run out and I’ll have to read some vile young adult book about a brave and special young trans man who inspires everyone in his rural but surprisingly accepting rural village, or something. Then I’ll be real mean.
Now that I’ve excused myself– faggot time.
I have a real soft spot for Sycamore’s work because she was my first introduction to queer anti-assimilationist politics. Before I read That’s Revolting when I was fifteen, I had assumed assimilation was the goal. The doublethink perpetrated on vulnerable queer kids by ciswhiteabledetc gays in the HRC had convinced me that somehow diversity and homogeneity were compatible–indeed, that victory for the former would inevitably result in worldwide establishment of the latter. The voices Sycamore centered in That’s Revolting changed me forever.
Reading Faggots, you quickly realize that this isn’t so much a book of essays as it is a scholarly dreamscape. The writers Sycamore has chosen write about political structures without even pretending that there’s a chance at separating them from the personal. This isn’t to say that Faggots lacks intellectual seriousness or depth, or that it’s a collection of memoirs or anecdotes–it doesn’t and it isn’t. Rather, these writers do not demand that the readers ignore their feelings while they read about politics. In the midst of reading Faggots I found out that a gorgeous brown femme queen artist had been found dead in her Chicago apartment. We’d never spoken, but always inhabited the same communities, and one day I had hoped to make art with or near her. I did not want to think abstractedly about politics; I wanted to mourn her with all the rage and despair she deserves, and in that context, reading these essays was like being able to breathe again.
There’s something so masculinist about the way we’re required to talk about our political identities, isn’t there? Who hasn’t been told, “I think your experiences as a queer person bias you and limit the discourse about queer people,” or “No one’s going to take you seriously if you keep talking about how many feelings you have about transphobia” or “This seems more like creative nonfiction than a critical essay.” We’re asked to subdue our queer rage at a system that murders us and our friends, or to channel it into exclusively analytical contexts, so that our thoughts can be legitimized within a strictly “logical” and “sensible” framework. But the essays in Faggots use their form to regret this masculinist way of producing knowledge, offering excellent analytic insights as well as stories of their own experiences as proudly freaky perverts.
This subversion of masculinist analytic styles is no coincidence–it’s carefully curated. In the first essay, D. Travers Scott indicts the cut-and-dry nature of internet profiles, then “imagines a faggoty web,” one laden with image, that a lady can browse from her divan. Queen voices are centered here, and even when we roar off into slightly different territory (most notably, interestingly enough, in two essays about and by gay trans men), we never end up anywhere that doesn’t welcome a nice swishy scarf. Particular standouts for me: CAConrad tells the reader about how many beautiful men he sleeps with who love his fat queeny body; Lewis Wallace recounts the story of a hard scrabble love between two trans boys; Mishael Burrows giving us an invaluable look into queerness within the prison system.
These essays are unafraid to be beautiful, artistic, femme. If “lesbian and gay studies” is the professor in his suit and tie, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots is the queeny brown genderqueer boy with whom the professor has been sleeping for years, but won’t take out in public.