Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

SF Stories: Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein


San Francisco was where I first learned to gasp and grasp at the possibilities of radical queer self-invention and communal care. This was 1992. I was 19: childhood meant suffocation, college was pointless shit. All around me, people were dying of AIDS and drug addiction and suicide, but finally I was finding other queer incest survivors, whores, vegans, runaways, anarchists, dropouts, drug addicts, sluts, activists and freaks trying not to disappear. We were scarred and broken and brutalized but determined to create something else, something we could live with, something we could call home or healing or even just help, I need help here, can you help?

Of course, we were not the first wave of queer migration to San Francisco in search of ways to cope and hope, visions of lust and love not bounded by convention, brazen challenges to the violence of status quo normalcy. But learning how to dream is always a difficult process. It’s what we needed one another for.

And yet, there is a certain kind of smugness in queer San Francisco, this sense that we have arrived, that we’ve done our work, that we’ve created something beyond the twin traps of gay assimilation and straight normalcy. The problem is that often a sophisticated rhetoric camouflages the same tired patterns of abuse and neglect, and this hurts more when it comes from those you believe in, right? I know that it has hurt me more.
Let me tell you about the friend who will always be there, no matter what. We met when I was 19: we held one another and broke apart walls. We tried to share everything about our lives, and then when we ran out of things to disclose we dug deeper. This relationship lasted for 16 years, but I lost it all when I told this friend he was the most important person in my life. I told him I felt confident about the longevity of our relationship, about our intimacy and our trust, but I never felt secure because of the five-year period when he lied about everything due to a disastrous alcoholism, a five-year period he kept telling me he’d gotten past. It’s true that he wasn’t drinking anymore. When I told him I still didn’t feel secure, I thought he would ask me what he could do, but instead he became enraged, and our relationship was over.

This is just one example of the gap between rhetoric and reality; there are too many. When I arrived in San Francisco in 1992, the city sheltered outsider queer cultures unimaginable in most places. Twenty years of gentrification, homogenization, and assimilation later, and yes, these cultures still exist in some form, even if they have been decimated in both density and imagination. Perhaps what’s changed the most for me is that now I need to live elsewhere in order to dream.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is most recently the editor of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform. Mattilda’s next book, The End of San Francisco, will be out in April 2013 from City Lights—it might break your heart.

Bright on


QUEER Heady, hilarious, heartbreaking: Big Sex Little Death explores legendary sex writer, educator, and instigator Susie Bright’s coming of age from the 1960s to the present. Bright’s memoir focuses on her involvement with The Red Tide, a radical high school newspaper in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and her subsequent membership in a socialist sect that sends her halfway across the country. Her union organizing stint lasts until the Party leadership expels her for “joining or leading a cult of personality.” Personality is certainly one of Bright’s strong points, so perhaps we should be grateful for this particular falling out. It eventually leads to Bright’s role in founding the first lesbian porn magazine, On Our Backs, in San Francisco in 1981, as well as her pioneering work as a fiery spokesperson for free speech and sexual liberation. I spoke with her over the phone about sex and memory and writing.

SFBG You do such a great job of talking about your sexual coming of age as a teenager: describing your sluttiness without shame, your curiosity about bodies and pleasure and the intricacies of sexual positioning.

Susie Bright I think it’s because I wrote my memoir like a storyteller, like a poet — not a polemicist. I wasn’t ashamed; it never occurred to me. Margaret Mead would have found my little teenage tribe to be quite poignant.

SFBG There’s a tendency for many sex-positive spokespeople to glamorize even the most annoying, mundane, or gross sexual experiences as somehow — well — positive. Sometimes this sex-positive rhetoric ends up making those of us who don’t always succeed at having a wonderful sex life feel like failures …

SB I think bad sex — obnoxious, absurd, BIG FAIL sex — is funny, nostalgic, and more endearing as you grow older. It also goes hand in hand with adventurous, rapturous, mind-blowing sex. You actually know the difference. You’ve spanned the spectrum, you’ve lived. The big bummer with American sex right now is the unrelenting banality and flat-out scarcity.

SFBG The most striking part of Big Sex Little Death for me is the way you describe betrayal in the social and political realms you choose to inhabit — places that initially give you so much hope. Like when you helped to start On Our Backs, the first lesbian porn magazine, in the early ’80s. Feminist bookstores refused to carry it, claiming that you were aiding the patriarchy.

SB It was more than that. The whole mainstream feminist movement was calling for our heads. Or, as Barbara Grier of Naiad Press put it, “Everyone I know thinks y’all should be assassinated.”

It’s been a part of every civil rights and social justice movement that I’ve been a part of. We know it — we talk about how the powers that be would prefer to let the weak fight among themselves. We see how divide-and-conquer tactics are so effective, but it’s very hard to resist.

What kills me is the blindness, even years after the fact. Sometimes it’s comical. I got a letter from an ambitious writer the other day who told me that in the ’80s she fought the sex-positive On Our Backs types tooth and nail, no tactic too dirty. “We” were pimping the patriarchy and she was on point to take us down. She asked me if I found it amusing that she’s now in a submissive relationship with a man — no! Then she asked me if I would blurb her new book.

Someone asked me on this tour if I ever got an apology, and I was startled. No, not for the bombings or the death threats or the bannings or the locked doors or the bizarre libels and slanders. No way.

SFBG When the feminist movement refused to support you, you found several surprising allies. Among them were John Preston, at the time the editor of the gay leather magazine Drummer; cult filmmaker Russ Meyer of Faster Pussycat fame; and even the Mitchell brothers of that legendary exploitative straight strip club on O’Farrell Street.

SB Well, those were strange bedfellows, eh? They were all mavericks, iconoclasts, outlaws, film buffs, and we shared that in common. Aside from public librarians and ACLU lead attorneys, these guys were probably the most eloquent defenders of the First Amendment you ever met.

SFBG On Our Backs was started by two strippers who worked at various clubs in the Tenderloin and North Beach. One of the most heartbreaking chapters in Big Sex Little Death is where you show us how so many strippers worked to support their lovers financially, male and female, and then ended up strung out on drugs, homeless, or dead after their lovers used and abused them.

SB “Legalize it,” as Peter Tosh said. That is why these tragedies happen — because sex work is criminalized.

SFBG In your preface, you say, “I’m more preoccupied with people dying than with people coming.” And so of course you want to prevent these unnecessary deaths. Toward the end of the book, you also mention the deaths of friends, lovers, and confidantes to AIDS — but only briefly. It’s as if it’s still too painful to talk about.

SB The main deaths I talk about are my parents’, where I could fit more of the puzzle together; then John Preston, as a small example of what went on in early ’80s plague life; and the dykes I first knew at On Our Backs, some of who died too young. I am angry and too ragged to write about it all yet — I don’t have the distance from it. The last memorial I attended this past fall was [for] one of my greatest inspirations, a total ball-of-fire who ate a Fentanyl patch, choked to death on her vomit, and left a suicide note.

It was the exact one-year anniversary of the death of her father, a Southern fundamentalist preacher who beat and raped her as a child. She left him at 15 to come to California and made her way as one of the first generation of out dyke strippers and punk rockers. My redheaded friend was a leader of a local NA chapter by the time she was 20. What happened to her, all these years later, breaks the heart of everyone who knew her. She was a wonderful, wonderful, caring, radical feminist creative dyke who wanted to be a superhero who would vanquish all the abusers. It’s not fair.

SFBG Fairness is one of the central issues of the book — who lives and who dies, which cultures disappear and which remain. At the end of the book, you talk about deciding to give birth to a child, Aretha, and raising her. I’ll admit I got a bit worried that you would suddenly talk about this trajectory in a way that erased your sexual and political history, the histories of people like the friend you just mentioned.

SB My daughter has a trajectory of her own, now!

SFBG But somehow you’re able to talk about your love for Aretha while making it clear that child rearing certainly isn’t for everyone, and still articulating an anti-assimilationist queer world view focused on sexual liberation and radical politics.

SB I’m just drawn that way.

SFBG Why do you think gay assimilationists emphasize marriage, military inclusion, and child-rearing as the only choices for respectable queers, narrowing the options for everyone and rejecting sexual liberation as something dangerous from the past?

SB They’re squares — what can I say? They’ve always been around. Square used to be a synonym for straight. We’re constantly caught in the middle on this, the boho bunch. Of course we want civil rights for all, duh. I defend anyone’s right to let the state be their pimp, to fight the wars, be the cannon fodder, acquire family assets like a stamp-collecting hobby. Bully for you. But as Peggy Lee said, “Is that all there is?” Christ, I hope not.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is most recently the author of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly.


Bending toward oblivion


Gay liberation changed Martin Duberman’s life. In the 1960s, Duberman taught history at Princeton, hardly a bastion of radical thought. Yet he found himself invigorated by nascent counterculture movements and became a champion of the left, penning essays in The New York Times and serving as faculty advisor to the Princeton chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. At the same time, Duberman spent years in intensive psychotherapy in desperate attempts to "cure" his homosexuality. Soon after the emergence of the gay liberation movement, however, he rejected this homophobic vision and embraced a gay identity. His work also became queerer.

Over the years, he has written more than 20 books — biographies, plays, memoirs, history texts, and a novel — on a wide range of topics ranging from antislavery activism to the civil rights movement and Stonewall. His new book, Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985-2008 (The New Press 352 pages, $26.95), is a combination of diary entries and recollections from the Reagan years to the present. This latest work serves as a window into Duberman’s activist and scholarly careers, as well as his critiques of the mainstreaming of the gay and lesbian movement.

SFBG We’re approaching the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the symbolic event of early gay liberation, and I’m wondering if you think there’s any of this liberationist spirit left in the gay movement.

Martin Duberman Well, I guess it depends on how you define liberationist. In the early days, gay liberationists were aware of a great many other ills in the society besides their own. Their own were real, and they were well aware of that. But there was a lot wrong, they felt, with the system, and their central goal was to challenge many of the established institutions and values. Today most LGBT people seem to think of themselves — certainly they tell the mainstream — as "just folks," except for this little matter of a separate sexual orientation. That they’re patriotic Americans and they want the same things that everybody else wants, etc.

SFBG In Waiting to Land, you cover this assimilationist turn in the gay movement. You talk about the March on Washington in 1993 where gays in the military became the dominant issue. You also talk about Stonewall 25, which happened one year later in New York City, where one of the biggest fundraising events was held onboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, and where corporate sponsorship arguably overwhelmed any celebration of resistance, history, or culture. Has anything changed in the last 15 years?

MD The early ’70s were still fueled by the countercultural movement of the ’60s, and the early gay movement built on the insights and the demands of, say, the feminist movement or the antiwar movement. I mean there was so much going on in the ’60s, and together it all amounted to a challenge to the so-called experts. There was an across-the-board challenging of many traditional views, so finally that began to seep down, or up — whatever it is — to us. That’s the whole trouble, I think, with the assimilationist turn. It denies our own gay past and our culture and our politics. I mean, they’re willing to throw all that away in order to make stronger the claim that we’re just folks.

SFBG And do you feel like mainstream gay people have become more heterosexualized? I mean in that particular way of embracing long-term committed partnership, monogamy, or now even marriage, as the only type of love or intimacy that’s valid?

MD Yeah. Once again, the banner of lifetime monogamous pair-bonding has been raised. Now some of that is the result of AIDS, in which people were scared to death, so they settled down into so-called permanent relationships. Not everybody. But many more than had done so in the ’70s.

SFBG When you talk about AIDS in Waiting to Land, it punctures the style of your writing. You’ll be writing something that’s more ruminative, and then you’ll have three or four sentences about a friend who died or a series of friends who died, and then you go back into your thoughts about something outside of that.

MD I think that’s right. It’s why I put that subtitle in. I say "mostly political," because when it came to the death of friends, I did talk about my personal feelings, and my sadness, whereas most of the time in Waiting to Land I’m talking about external events or public policies.

SFBG You yourself have played a role as both an insider and outsider in a variety of realms. In Waiting to Land, you deliver scathing critiques of the rigid hierarchies and competitive structures of academia. You talk about the homophobia of the straight left, and you talk about the limited agenda of the gay mainstream. You talk about the exclusiveness of establishment theatre and mainstream media. Yet you’ve also worked inside all these structures. So I’m wondering how these institutions have formed your politics and how you’ve helped to form or transform these institutions.

MD [W.E.B.] Du Bois, the great African American leader, once said something — I think he called it double vision. He said that although he had had a superb education and was accepted by mainstream whites, nonetheless he felt he was a spy in the culture, a spy who was bringing the news about the mainstream back to his own people. And on one level, I have had a very easy time passing — I went to very good schools, I was on the tennis team in high school, etc. Nobody, I think, or very few people, guessed that I was in fact homosexual, and I did my best to play along with that. I was very career-oriented, I was very competitive — I always wanted to be first in my class, win the best prize for an essay, and that’s where most of my energy went throughout my 20s. But then once the counterculture began, I sort of leapt on it. I was immediately sympathetic, and I wrote lots of essays during the ’60s in which I was very strongly on the side of the New Left. And then it took a while longer after that before I realized that of course the same applies to being gay.

SFBG In terms of your role as both insider and outsider, do you feel that that’s helped you to develop stronger critiques of all those institutions, whether on the straight left, in the gay mainstream, or in establishment theater and media?

MD I think so, because I knew the inner workings of many of these mainstream institutions, and so I was able to see the falsity of many of the attitudes, especially toward people who are not middle-class whites. White men, I should say.

SFBG I think one thing you’ve tried very deliberately throughout your career, whether as a writer, an academic, or an activist, is to build movement ties across lines of class, race, gender, and age. In the new book, you talk about trying to bring an awareness of queer and feminist issues into the straight left, and an awareness of race and class into the gay mainstream — and feeling mostly like you’ve failed.

MD I think it’s because the mainstream left is no more receptive — they all claim that, "well of course we believe you people should have your rights, and of course we’re tolerant of your lifestyle." But when it comes right down to it, you cannot get them to hang around long enough to listen to the ways in which queer values and perspectives might inform their own lives. They don’t believe that for a second. And that hasn’t changed at all. At least, if it has changed, I haven’t seen it.

SFBG And what about in terms of the other side of the equation? With the dominant agendas of the big gay institutions centering on marriage, military service, ordination into the priesthood, adoption, and unquestioning gentrification and consumerism, do you think that those particular emphases prevent a deeper analysis of structural issues of racism and classism?

MD Well, of course they do. Mainstream America is still further behind the gay movement in dealing with any of those issues. So when you’re bending your energy to turning into the mainstream, you’re simultaneously burying your awareness of the class and racial and economic divisions that continue to characterize our country.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is the author, most recently, of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights) and the editor of an expanded second edition of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull).

Down with legitimacy


OPINION We all remember Gavin Newsom’s stunt four years ago, when he emerged from a tight election race against Matt Gonzalez and promptly "legalized" gay marriage, sending his approval ratings soaring and guaranteeing him a second term. Back then 80-somethings Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon became the first smiling gay couple to marry in honor of La Newsom, before then a politician known mostly for cynical, anti-poor rhetoric (remember "Care Not Cash"?).

Now that the California Supreme Court has struck down the ban on same-sex marriage, everywhere we hear of couples who’ve been together 10, 20, or 30 years (or six months) rushing to tie the knot and proclaim: "finally … it’s … legitimate!" It’s hard to imagine a more wholehearted rejection of queer struggles to create defiant ways of living and loving, lusting for and caring for one another — methods not dependent on inclusion in the dominant institutions of straight privilege.

Gay marriage proponents now declare that finally gays and lesbians are "full citizens" — as opposed to half-citizens, one imagines, or — gasp — non-citizens! As Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts the biggest raids in history, the gay establishment celebrates its newfound legitimacy. Sure, for a few of the most privileged, the right to get gay married might be the last thing standing in the way of full citizenship. But there are certainly a legion of impediments for the rest of us.

Let’s step back for a moment and imagine what it means to be a full citizen of the foremost colonial power, bent on bombing rogue states to smithereens, exploiting the world’s resources, and ensuring the downfall of the planet. As same-sex marriage fetishists rush to stake their claim to straight privilege, who gets left behind? Oh, right — anyone who doesn’t want to follow an outdated, tacky, oppressive model of long-term monogamy sanctioned by a state seal.

Want health care? Get married (to someone with a good health plan). Need a place to live? Better get working on a spouse with a house. Need to visit your friend in the hospital? Forget it (unless you’re ready and able to tie the knot). Need to stay in this country, but you’re about to get deported? Should’ve gotten married while you had the chance!

Want to define love, commitment, family, and sexual merrymaking on your own terms? Honey, that’s so last century — this year it’s all about matching putf8um Tiffany wedding bands, the Macy’s bridal registry, and a prime spot on the Bechtel float in the Pride parade — now that’s progress!

While San Francisco has a long history of sheltering dissident queer cultures of incendiary splendor, the rush for status within the status quo threatens to delegitimize everyone who isn’t ready for the Leave It to Beaver lifestyle.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is most recently the editor of an expanded second edition of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull Press, 2007). Her new novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, will tantalize you this fall.



OPINION It seems that everyone, from current politicians to former friends and lovers of Harvey Milk, is scrambling to serve as a spokesperson for the new Hollywood movie about the life of Milk, the first openly gay elected official in a major United States city.

Milk joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, only to be assassinated (along with then-mayor George Moscone) one year later by Dan White, another member of the board.

Cleve Jones, who worked as a student intern in Milk’s City Hall office (and later started the AIDS Memorial Quilt), is now serving as a consultant for the Gus Van Sant film. At the Castro Theatre on Feb. 4 he encouraged a crowd of extras gathered to re-create the candlelight march that took place after Milk’s murder by saying, "We made history on these streets, and we’re gonna do it again tonight."

But remaking historical moments from the pain and glory days of the past is hardly the same thing as making history in the present. In the 1970s queers fled abusive and stifling families and places of origin to move to San Francisco by the thousands and join dissident subcultures of splendor and defiance. Of course, queers still flee similar conditions; it’s just that the hypergentrified San Francisco of 2008 barely offers the space to breathe, let alone dream.

The excitement around reenactment obscures the reality that some of the same smiling gay men who came to San Francisco in the 1970s have consistently fought misogynist, racist, classist, ageist battles — from carding policies to policing practices to zoning and real estate wars — to ensure that their neighborhood (Milk’s Castro) remains a home only for the rich, white, and male (or at least those who assimilate to white middle-class norms).

Check out a quote from Dan Jinks, one of the producers of the movie, in the Dec. 27, 2007, Bay Area Reporter: "Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination."

Revitalize the Castro, where you’re lucky if you can rent a flat for less than $4,000 or buy property for less than $1 million? Everyone who’s ever set foot in the Castro knows it’s filled with tourists from around the world!

Oh, I know what Jinks means: straight tourists. Some gay people are so anxious to participate in their own cultural erasure.

After White’s 1979 trial, at which he was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder and given a lenient sentence, rioting queers torched police cars and smashed the windows and doors of City Hall. Later that night vengeful cops went to the Castro and destroyed the windows of the Elephant Walk (now Harvey’s), entered the bar to beat up patrons and trash the place, and swung their batons into anyone they encountered.

I’m wondering if the new Van Sant film will end at the candlelight march, thus avoiding talk about such market-unfriendly issues as systemic police violence and property destruction as a political act.

Unfortunately, San Francisco is now more of a playground for the wealthy than a space for the delirious potential of dissidence. But there are still plenty of reasons to protest. Got housing? Got health care? Got citizenship? Nope, we’re just getting milked.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is the editor, most recently, of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Seal Press, 2006) and an expanded second edition of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (out in June from Soft Skull Press).

Lust and loss



Many dedicated faggots have made the comparison between cocksucking and prayer, especially when knees are planted in the ground, eyes closed because of something too powerful to look at. But Christopher Russell’s Landscape, a book of black-and-white photos of men cruising San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, at first appears to take this assertion one step further — with the trees towering above and light cascading onto shirts, hands, exposed asses, it’s almost as if these men have stumbled into heaven. If so, they appear unaware — in one early photo, someone crouches forlorn in the shadows between trees; above him beckon three perfectly crafted beams of light. There’s an eeriness to many of these photos, as the sumptuousness of the foliage and the brashness of the sunlight render the sex acts comparably mundane: white T-shirts pulled up and white briefs pulled down like on a porn set; the spooky silhouette of a face pressed against a waiting crotch; baseball caps and dark sunglasses holding distance.

It’s when the images become fractured that they reveal depth of feeling — faces merging with leaves and light, heads blending into trees awaiting sky, the motion of hands and arms and legs conjuring a certain type of flight. When the camera pulls back, it’s the sky that’s shimmering, a brightness between branches and leaves with just a tiny figure below. We see a face turned, or the back of a head — yet the action is not where the figure is gazing but above and around, leaves swaying in the breeze and branches shaking underneath the glow of the setting sun. It’s here that we can truly appreciate the complex landscape of lust and loss, adventure and longing.

In one photo, the silhouette of someone’s coat blends so neatly with that of a tree that it resembles a sagging branch, and it brings to mind an image reproduced in the French writer Tony Duvert’s Good Sex Illustrated, a scathing 1974 critique of a five-volume "liberal" sex manual published the previous year in France. The photo, taken from the handbook in question, shows a park somewhat more groomed and far less picturesque than Buena Vista, but we see light reflecting off trees and a man in an overcoat standing to the side of a path, his back to us. Unlike in Russell’s photos, however, it’s the man who seems monumental and the trees a backdrop as a child gazes up from several feet away, apparently immobilized by what he sees. The image, from the volume aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds, is meant to illustrate the dangers of pedophiles who apparently lurk in parks. But Duvert indicts the motives of parents who warn their children about such violence, declaring, "What they are really trying to do isn’t to protect the child but their own exclusive right to do whatever they want with him."

In Good Sex Illustrated, published in English for the first time this month, by Semiotext(e), Duvert skewers the emerging field of sex education as nothing but "science taking charge of the old moral order." With a savage glee, he dissects the volumes of the manual allegedly geared toward helping young adults discover their sexual selves but instead intent on "libidinal dismembering" and centered on a "pro-birth obsession." Duvert is most hilarious when he compares what the handbook calls a "feeling of total fulfillment" from pregnancy to that of a teenager getting fucked in the ass: "Jean scrubbed his ass pensively: is this what they call a feeling of total fulfillment?" In a related footnote he brilliantly comments, "It goes without saying that as soon as the pleasure of having a cock inside your body stops being depreciated, the honor of having a fetus there won’t be over-emphasized." But if this is one of Duvert’s most skillful reversals, it also illuminates a gap in his analysis. After all, he’s comparing a woman’s alleged feelings during pregnancy to a man’s response to getting fucked (we hear nothing about a woman’s sexual pleasure). While Duvert incorporates a nuanced gender critique into many of his readings, he prioritizes male sexuality throughout the book, which ends up thwarting him in his overall mission of subverting the social order by encouraging the sexual freedom of all children.

David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity has a similar aim of moving conversations about sexuality (and sexual safety) away from standards of "healthy functioning" and "rational" or "irrational" behavior. Halperin seeks to champion queer cultural traditions over the judgments of psychology and the false dichotomy between risk and safety. (In a homophobic culture, what gay sexual behavior, after all, isn’t risky?) In searching for a more comprehensive approach to gay male sexual splendor, Halperin revisits a vulnerable and challenging 1995 essay by Michael Warner in the Village Voice, "Unsafe: Why Gay Men Are Having Risky Sex," in which Warner at one point states that "abjection continues to be our dirty secret." If Warner talks about abjection as a sense of "dirtiness" due to societal condemnation, Halperin describes it as "an experiment with the limits of both destruction and survival, social isolation and social solidarity, domination and transcendence." In other words, "the more people despise you, the less you owe them, and the freer and more powerful you are." Halperin proposes, "Instead of worrying about the appeal of abjection to gay men, … what we really should be doing is trying to think concretely about … how to make it work for us."

It’s a provocative idea, but unfortunately Halperin here departs from his methodical (and meticulously footnoted) analysis of safer sex strategies to endlessly circle around Warner’s essay and certain passages from the writing of Jean Genet, resulting in a repetitive rhetorical jumble. To be sure, Halperin provides a few illuminating examples (including the writing of porn star Scott O’Hara and the brilliant and short-lived zine Diseased Pariah News), but What Do Gay Men Want? could certainly have benefited from an analysis of the wealth of queer world-making in the era of AIDS that has centered on the possibilities (and perils) of an embrace of outsider status — the work of David Wojnarowicz, Samuel Delany, Derek Jarman, Gregg Bordowitz, Justin Chin, or Essex Hemphill, to name a few among innumerable possibilities. Or, perhaps, an analysis of Christopher Russell’s photos, where the messiness of desire becomes landscape.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is the editor, most recently, of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity.


By Christopher Russell

Kolapsomal Press

70 pages, $49.95


By Tony Duvert; translated by Bruce Benderson


184 pages, $14.95 paper


By David M. Halperin

University of Michigan Press

176 pages, $22.95

Joining the party

In 1946, after three and a half years spent fighting in the segregated US Army on the Pacific front of World War II, Nelson Peery returned to a home front marked by joblessness, mob violence, lynchings, police tyranny, and red-baiting hysteria. Discussing the homecoming of black veterans such as himself in his new memoir, Black Radical, he says, “We had become conscious defending other people’s freedom.”
Black Radical is the sequel to Peery’s first memoir, Black Fire, which takes us from Peery’s childhood during the Great Depression to the wartime experiences that lead to his expanding racial consciousness. Black Radical focuses on Peery’s time in the Communist Party, which he joins soon after his return to Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Peery’s father, an American Legion stalwart, chooses patriotism over paternity and declares to the state legislature, “I have seen my seven sons swallowed in the bloody maw of Communism.” This “good Negro” pose is exactly what Peery has vowed to struggle against, although he is equally skeptical of black nationalism, embracing instead a Marxist analysis that sees the overarching system as the problem, not just white racists and their deluded allies.
Peery’s dedication to the Communist Party, which he likens to his commitment to his army division during the war, is sometimes stunning when juxtaposed to the organization’s systemic racism. And while he is forthright about his ethical struggles and political development, there is a staginess to much of the dialogue that transforms plot turns into vehicles for Peery’s soul-searching. But the book is also filled with anecdotes that lend emotional depth to Peery’s revolutionary rhetoric, such as when a white librarian hands him a copy of Karl Marx’s The German Ideology, though such a gesture could lead to her immediate dismissal. Or when Peery hosts legendary blues singer Leadbelly at his Minneapolis home and the singer ends up entertaining a crowd of 200 revelers that includes the visiting Dean of Canterbury.
Black Radical concludes in the LA neighborhood of Watts, where Peery attempts to do organizing work as relentless police harassment of poor black residents leads to the Watts uprising of 1965. Peery visits a supermarket where customers are piling their shopping carts high and then wheeling everything past smiling clerks. One woman tells Peery, “You can take whatever you want. They ain’t chargin’ today.” While the riots are eventually suppressed by 24,000 law enforcement thugs, this moment still illuminates the possibilities for the self-determination Peery invokes.
By Nelson Peery
New Press
272 pages
Sept. 20, 7 p.m., free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF
(415) 362-8193,

Randomness and revelation


› REVIEW If fiction is truth masquerading as lies and the ever-popular memoir is tall tales packaged as transcendent fact, history is the place where dominant culture markets itself and covers the tracks. In recent times, historians like Howard Zinn and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have shifted the focus to tell the stories of marginalized, oppressed, dissident, and defiant peoples often erased from the record, but there’s still a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps it’s time to employ additional tactics, as coeditors T Cooper and Adam Mansbach have in A Fictional History of the United States (with Huge Chunks Missing). The anthology of stories progresses like a typical history textbook (in chronological order, that is), yet its goal is not to give us the facts but rather to widen the cracks in the official story until it breaks open. Some of the strongest pieces in A Fictional History are the most preposterous. In Ron Kovic’s “The Recruiters,” it’s 1968 and two Marines arrive at a high school auditorium, climb onstage, and start singing a song: “Oh, if you lose your penis in a war/ And you can’t make love with sexy girls no more/ Then don’t blame it on the old Marine Corps.” It turns out these Marines did indeed lose their penises in Vietnam, not on the battlefield but in a pool game, playing against a man who wielded a machete in place of a cue. Confused? “We made a bet,” the Marines declare. “It was a COMMITMENT.” A more over-the-top indictment of US military arrogance, masculinity, and the myopia of team loyalty could hardly be squeezed into the six pages this story occupies. Alexander Chee’s “Wampeshau” describes Chinese settlements of explorers and concubines in the area occupied by the Narragansett Indians nearly 300 years before the founding of the United States: “To be an explorer is to practice the art of getting lost.” But these settlers also practice the art of flying. That’s right, “the secret to it … is that even the wind will help you if you agree not to linger.” This is certainly a refined band of travelers, and in their observations about the newly arrived British settlers destined to replace them lies a prescient warning: “They are like the opposite of ghosts, so alive it has made them numb.” Sarah Schulman’s “The Courage to Love” brings us inside the psychoanalytic method, seen through the eyes of Anna Fuchs, a German Jewish refugee psychiatrist in post–World War II New York who once “waltzed with Jung and made Freud jealous.” As Anna conducts a final supervision session for one of her students, their spinning conversation (and Anna’s interior wanderings) manages to take on the Nazi Holocaust, Jewish assimilation, and parental violence while foreshadowing current Israeli military aggression. A contentious session explodes into a debate about the nascent medicalization of psychiatry — a conversation that’s even more relevant in our own era, when the right prescription is seen as the answer to even the most complicated emotional traumas. Not all of the pieces in the book are quite so rigorous. The opening story, “The Discovery of America,” by Paul La Farge, wallows in a self-satisfied joy over all things random, which could be an interesting challenge to the notion of “discovery” if it weren’t for phrases like “America remains to be discovered.” “The New Century,” Neal Pollack’s take on media whores and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, lacks any insight beyond the obvious (the media are only interested in sensation these days, etc.). More successfully, in a humorous take on racism and white guilt, the Civil War and drag, Kate Bornstein recounts the tale of Sassy Sarah, formerly known as Huckleberry Finn, a slender girl working the brothels of New Orleans under Union occupation. Coeditor Mansbach describes a 1905 zookeeper’s friendship with an imprisoned African man exhibited with the apes in a story whose final line is perhaps the most scathing indictment of colonialism in the whole book. Before you start browsing your favorite search engine for Marine recruitment chants, flying Chinese explorers, Anna Fuchs, drag prostitution, and zookeepers, though, it may be helpful to read the final story in A Fictional History, Daniel Alarcón’s “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles.” This one takes place in the future, 2011 to be exact, during a war inside the United States, where the President has been injured in a hunting accident (!) and his leg amputated to prevent infection. Part fable and part cautionary tale, “Anodyne Dreams” evokes revolution but refuses to deliver the specifics — Denver is a stronghold of resistance, but why Denver? Instead of blueprints for sabotage, Alarcón treats us to an endless array of antiquated statistics about amputations throughout history, details contained in letters to the President from the doctor he’s already executed. Nowhere is the tension between randomness and revelation more evident, and perhaps this is just the challenge to history that is needed. SFBG A FICTIONAL HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (WITH HUGE CHUNKS MISSING) Edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach Akashic Books 300 pages $15.95 Readings by T Cooper, Adam Mansbach, and contributor Valerie Miner Sept. 17, 6 p.m. Cody’s Books, 2 Stockton, SF (415) 773-0444, Readings by T Cooper, Adam Mansbach, and contributor Daniel Alarcón Sept. 18, 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera (415) 927-0960, Sept. 20, 7 p.m. Diesel, a Bookstore, 5433 College, Oakl. (510) 653-9965, Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore (, is the editor most recently of That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.