A bathroom view of two side-by-side urinals is the book jacket graphic for Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's new anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? In a femme and fearless metaphor, one of the urinals is stuffed full of jewelry, flowers, and other colorful, queer-looking flotsam -- a nod to the book's anthological content, featuring "flaming challenges to masculinity, objectification, and the desire to conform," as the subtitle reads.
In anticipation of the book's official launch -- slated to take place, appropriately, on Valentine's Day -- Ms. Sycamore spoke with me while on her West Coast book tour.
"The book is dedicated to exposing hierarchies wherever they exist," said Ms. Sycamore of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? The book was born, she said, out of frustrations with the "gay male" sex scene that she inhabits, and the hierarchies within it: internet cruising, sexual commoditization, and assimilationist culture.
"It's about flaming challenges to all of that," she said. "Flaming as in flamboyant and queenie and outside the conventional binary, but also in the sense of lighting things on fire." She paused. We laughed.
Since her first book, Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients, published in 2000, Ms. Sycamore's work has lit lots of us on fire. Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? is her fifth anthology in a string of wildly popular works -- at least, in the queer scene -- including her much-acclaimed Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (2007) and That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (2008).
"Like always with my anthologies, the idea for this one stemmed from a question that's coming from my own life experience and the cultures I'm involved in," she said. "In my life, I feel really inspired by trans/genderqueer and gender-nonconforming communities that I inhabit. But in a very personal way, I feel less and less hopeful in the sexual spaces I find myself. Gay male space often mimics the grossest norms of everything I hate."
Ms. Sycamore and I discussed cyber cruising scenarios, including the use of Grindr, a gay cruising app for the iPhone. (For further reading, visit a new website called "Douchebags of Grinder," aimed at exposing extreme examples of racist, ableist, classist, and other stereotypical gay male sexual exclusivity, as illustrated by profiles on Grinder.)
"'No femmes or fatties' is practically the mantra of gay cruising culture on the Web," she said. "This gross kind of hierarchical regimentation has become so normalized, to such an extent that most gays don't take the time to say, 'Oh, that's fucked up.'"
Ms. Sycamore described an experience she had attempting to say "that's fucked up" to a random cruiser.
"Someone had one of those standard posts with all the 'don'ts,' and this one was 'no Asians,'" she said. "I wrote, 'I'd prefer no racists,' and the person responded by saying, 'Don't be sore just because you're Asian.'"
Ms. Sycamore is not Asian, and she was appalled at the expectation she shouldn't be offended by a racist comment if she is not member of the race the comment is perpetrated against.
"I wonder whatever happened to our dream of a world of sexual splendor?" she said. "The dream of a sexually inclusive utopia. Today, instead of imagination, we just have regimentation. The gay culture started out so we'd have a place to express ourselves sexually. Where's all the glamor and joy and sustainability now?"
The stories of 31 different authors were compiled in Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? in an attempt to answer this question. And according to Ms. Sycamore, the authors and their subjects are as varied as the alternatives to sexual assimilation.
"For example, there's a piece by a straight, female prison guard about the interaction between homophobia and male-on-male desire in prison," she said. "And there's another story about how drag king culture sometimes takes on the same kinds of prioritization of masculinity as in the gay male and heteronormative communities. Even in a performance that is based on gender fluidity, still there's a hierarchy. It's amazing!"
Mostly, said Sycamore, she is impressed by the honesty of her authors and their willingness to write openly about desire in a way that isn't pathologized or limited to a right-and-wrong dichotomy.
"There's another piece by an author who writes about wondering whether he deliberately approaches highly educated, upwardly mobile Asian men for bearback sex because that demographic might pose less of an HIV risk," she said.
Ms. Sycamore described another author who writes of living in a master-slave relationship as a docile Asian slave, the limitations of that relationship, and living in post-9/11 New York among the racist terrorizing of people of color, especially South Asian queer, genderqueer, and trans immigrants.
"So, you can see, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? goes in a lot of different directions," she said.
Equally interesting is the confusion some readers have around Ms. Sycamore's gender identity and the appropriateness of her authorship.
"People look at the title and at my name and think, 'Who is this lesbian, and why is she so worried about faggots?'" said Ms. Sycamore. "People decide what they think I am and judge what type of sex I should be concerned with. It's fascinating. They should be more concerned with their own misogyny."
As a female-identified faggot, Ms. Sycamore feels perfectly suited to anthologize stories about thwarting the pottery-barn, rainbow Hummer mainstream of straight-acting gays.
"I certainly don't fit in that paradigm," she said. "And I guess, for me, this book is like an attempt not to lose hope. It's a means of finding something that could make me feel hopeless, and discovering possibilities for transformation by expanding intimacy and trust, and challenging dominate norms, whatever they may be."
On Valentines Day, Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 6 p.m., Ms. Sycamore will host the Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? book launch at the San Francisco Main Library in San Francisco, Calif. She'll be accompanied by contributors Jaime Cortez, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, Debanuj DasGupta, Booh Edouardo, Eric Stanley, Harris Kornstein, Gina de Vries, Horehound Stillpoint, and Matthew D. Blanchard. Ms. Sycamore is also currently at work on a new anthology called We Are Not Just the 99%: Queering the Occupy Movement, Reimagining Resistance and has recently finished a memoir called The End of San Francisco. For more information on her book tour, submitting an entry to her newest anthology, or the release date of her newest memoir, visit her website.
This article was originally published on Wild Gender.
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