That’s Revolting

Edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore; Soft Skull Press, re-issue 2008, 360 pp. 

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is angry at a GLBT mainstream that s/he says is "centered more on obtaining straight privilege than challenging power." First, there’s gay marriage, the right to what s/he calls "state sanctioned Tiffany wedding bands and participatory patriarchy." Then there’s the rest of the agenda: activism that eschews the battle for universal healthcare in favor of domestic partner coverage and work to end discriminatory employment and housing policies that sidesteps the fight for full employment and government-supported public housing.

Understanding how the Gay Liberation movement fragmented into something less revolutionary than activists originally intended is not easily understood and the 32 essays in That’s Revolting attempt to deconstruct what happened to the notion of radical queerness. Some commentaries lambaste LGBT institutions that mimic straight counterparts. Others provide a look back: at ACT-UP’s heyday and missteps; at the movement’s unsuccessful efforts in the 1990s to save Manhattan’s Westside piers from gentrification; at Philadelphia trans-activism to demonstrate that every life matters. Still others look forward to tactics that reclaim a libratory ethos. 

It’s potent, even incendiary stuff. At the same time it fails to address several fundamental questions. Why has gay marriage captured the imagination and dreams of so many LGBT people around the world? Why do some queers gravitate to Wall Street, the military and conservatism? And why does a house in the suburbs, often far from madding urban crowds—with kids, carpools and play dates—hold appeal? Why do so many queers simply want to be left alone to live conventional, assimilated lives, progressive politics be damned? 

That’s Revolting would have been a better book had it answered these questions rather than simply dismissing adherents as sell-outs. Likewise, had it acknowledged LGBT diversity—from Girl Scout leaders in Dubuque, to Fed Up Queers protesting police brutality in Queens, to Log Cabin Republicans who consistently vote to protect their class interests—questions of acclimation would have had deeper resonance. 

What’s more, it might have helped us imagine ways to promote self-determination—not just for queers but for everyone, everywhere—to decide where we’ll live, what we’ll do for a living, and with whom we’ll share our lives. It might have helped us imagine ways to organize for the material conditions that make self-determination possible. 

That said, many of the pieces in That’s Revolting are incisive and important. Sarah Schulman’s interview with Jim Eigo of ACT-UP, "That Incredible Exhilaration," chronicles the political fervor that galvanized activists in the early years of the AIDS pandemic. The interview reminds us of the potency of collective action and makes clear the power we hold when we are united by indignation. 

Ferd Eggan’s chapter "Dykes and Fags Want Everything" looks at the late 1960s Stonewall Rebellion and the challenge to white male power that it represented. 

Tommi Avicolli Mecca’s "It’s All About Class" skewers the racism and classism that keep queers divided. His description of well-off community members buying property in San Francisco’s Castro District and subsequently evicting long-time residents, is harrowing. Worse is his horrifying report of gay resistance to the creation of an emergency shelter. "What’s perhaps saddest about the fight…is that queer organizations and leaders, for the most part, remained silent," he writes. 

Benjamin Shepard’s "Sylvia and Sylvia’s Children" tells a similar story, this time on the Manhattan piers that were once a haven for transpeople, queer kids, and sex workers. "The point [of the City ‘clean-up’ effort] was to make the people who rent $3000 studio apartments feel at home," he writes. In short order, gentrification eradicated the area’s "spectacle of difference." 

 Rocko Bulldagger’s "Dr Laura, Sit On My Face," originally published in 2004, is a fabulous retort to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s homophobic ranting. "I’m glad you are stirring up fear of homosexuals. It makes me feel dangerous and gives me a lot to live up to," Bulldagger quips. Calling up a radical vision of freedom, she continues: "We want sexual liberation where every single person can choose who, when and how they fuck. Queers like me want everyone, including straight folks, to feel the effects of our liberation." 

It’s easy to cheer Bulldagger’s chutzpah. Yet as appealing as this is, it’s important to remember that her dream is not shared by all LGBT people. Indeed, the road to the social transformation she and other sex and gender radicals want—in fact, the end of constricting gender categories altogether—will likely be littered with confetti and bridal bouquets. As couples—men and men, women and women, and women and men—of all races and classes line up to show the world their love, I hope she and the other contributors to That’s Revolting can toast this small step toward remaking the world. Not to do so ignores a tiny but real victory in the fight for justice. 


Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, freelance writer and activist from Brooklyn, NY. She is also the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.