Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Photo: Charlie Stephens

To close out Pride Month, Jezebel presents On Pride: A series of conversations with LGBTQ artists and activists about our communities’ relationship with police, building queer spaces outside of the parade, and other pressing issues affecting queer and trans people nationwide.

Pride month has come and gone, and, with it, a wave of anxiety over the increasingly corporate nature of the annual celebration of LGBTQ identity. This anxiety is nothing new; in fact, we’ve been feeling it for decades—going back at least as far the 1980s, when Absolut suddenly realized they could make lots of money by slapping a rainbow on their bottles of vodka.

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The question of whether Pride has become too corporate is a bit of a non-question for Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Of course it has, the author and activist—whose fourth novel, Sketchtasy, comes out this October—will tell you, and it’s been that way for her entire adult life. All too often, she says, when people wonder whether Pride has become too corporate, they answer that question with a concocted nostalgia for a time before corporate influence had so thoroughly infiltrated queer life. This bothers her, particularly when that time before the corporate Fall is pinpointed to the early ‘90s, a time in which she was very much alive and very much grossed out by the monetization of her identity.

“Nostalgia is violent. It takes away the complication, the nuance, the struggle, and all the layers of analysis and replaces it with some kind of glossy, dead, consumer-friendly product for vapid consumption,” she says, citing, for example, the revival of ACT-UP-inspired fashions but not ACT-UP-inspired politics. “As long as we’re nostalgic for an age that never really existed, we’ll never create that golden age now.”

I recently had the chance to speak with Sycamore over the phone about this kind of “Make America Gay Again” nostalgia for the early ‘90s, the corporatization and whitewashing of Pride’s political underpinnings, and what questions she thinks we should be asking when it comes to celebrating Pride. Our conversation has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.

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JEZEBEL: In 2013, you wrote in The New York Times that “the possibility of a trans or queer politic lies in using identity as a starting point for challenging the violence of the world around us, and building something else, creating more possibilities for everyone.” Is that how you would still define your trans or queer politic?

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: Absolutely. The problem with identity politics is when identity becomes an end point instead of a starting point, when you just put “gay” or “queer” or now even “trans” on top of an oppressive institution and suddenly that’s seen as progress. We see that right now with trans inclusion in the military. The U.S. military, as anyone who’s been paying any attention will tell you, is responsible for more violence in the world than any other institution, right? It’s currently involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, funding the Israeli war on Palestinians, military bases plundering Indigenous resources, destroying the environment around the world, and people say, “Oh, but trans people need to be included in the military!” It’s swallowed as a sort of liberal panacea to transphobia. Like, if trans people can go abroad and kill people and get away with it just like anyone else, that must be progress. That’s identity as an end point, but if we use identity as a starting point for challenging dominant institutions of oppression and taking them apart and building something else in the ruins, I think that’s where possibility lies.

Has this kind of “identity as end point” identity politics always been the case with LGBTQ activism and politicking in the U.S., or have you observed any sort of trend over the years?

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There’s always been a tension in gay, queer, and trans worlds between a kind of assimilationist, “we’re just like you, we want the white-picket fence, too” mentality and the more liberationist sort of analysis that talks about ending dominant institutions of oppression.

A big moment for me in my early years of activism was in 1993. I went to the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights—they didn’t even include trans in the language at all back then—with ACT-UP to protest for universal healthcare. It was the largest gay and lesbian march in history with one million people. We thought maybe we could get thousands of people to do civil disobedience at the Capitol to get universal healthcare. Instead, I think we only had 41. [laughs] But what was the central message of the march? It was gays in the military, which is something that’s going to destroy the world and only help the people who are plundering resources around the world—the corporations, the U.S. government—whereas universal health care would help everyone. At that time, in the early ‘90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., so many of us had lost so many friends and so many support systems to AIDS. We thought, well, what if everyone had health care? There would’ve been so many more people who were alive. So, there was a moment when universal health care almost became a mainstream gay issue, but, instead of focusing on that, everything has been centered around marriage and military inclusion in the intervening 25 years, and I think that’s to the detriment of everything else.

To get back to the issue of trans inclusion in the military, if someone had suggested that 10 years ago, I would’ve thought it was satire! It was all spearheaded by a trans billionaire named Jennifer Pritzker. She gave $1.35 million to the Palm Center at UCLA to research trans inclusion in the military, and suddenly it became this national issue! No one was talking about that! It was absurd. Is that all it costs to change the entire course of a movement? Yes! Apparently! Trans people are kicked out of our families of origin, our schools, and cities to flee to places. We’re unable to exist on the streets because of vigilante and police violence. We find one another and rely on each other simply to stay alive. But instead of talking about these basic needs, people are talking about the need to obliterate the world. There’s so little critical analysis. People just swallow the trans inclusion in the military thing whole. A lot of it has to do with straight liberals, who have always been just as homophobic and transphobic and complicit as anyone else and have never done the work to challenge that.

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Do you think the loss of life due to AIDS during the ‘80s and ‘90s plays a role in that lack of critical analysis? Like, a lot of the people who would’ve passed on that analysis and that history to younger queer and trans people who came later were unable to because they had died?

There’s no question that the loss of so many brilliant people—especially outsiders and freaks and queens, trans people and hookers, people pushed to the margins—has definitely contributed to people’s lack of awareness, but that didn’t have to happen. Mainstream gay people with power and privilege are complicit in that, people who are still alive today. Instead of talking about that, the agenda has been marriage and military inclusion and sometimes hate crime legislation.

Did you do anything for Pride this year?

I wouldn’t say “for Pride,” directly. I’m in Baltimore. I’m living here for about six months working on a new book. I was a little curious about Pride because I don’t know Baltimore that well. I walked through it a little bit, but I didn’t have a specific agenda. A few months ago, [lawyer and Sylvia Rivera Law Project founder] Dean Spade and I organized a queer anti-militarism town hall with a bunch of people in Seattle. We launched this website called Queer Trans War Ban, which provides resources for people to challenge military inclusion. Everything from stickers and t-shirts to other materials to help people develop an analysis so they don’t think that they need to join the military. That’s kind of the idea: to build out the kind of anti-military queer analysis and politic for direct action and shifting the analysis in a more critical direction.

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Do you remember the first Pride you went to?

The first time I went to Pride was in 1992—actually, ‘93. I was doing something with ACT-UP to protest Frank Jordan, the Mayor of San Francisco at the time, who’d said he was going to march in the Pride parade. He had a brutal program of criminalizing pretty much everyone who’s vulnerable—very classically anti-poor and homophobic, really, although he was pandering to gay people. Anyway, we said we were going to block him if he tried to march. So, we got to the Pride parade right at the beginning, which is the only time I’ve ever done that. [laughs] We’d brought tomatoes to throw at him if he walked by, but he never did. I guess we scared him away. We didn’t know that, though, so we ended up staying for the entire parade. I can’t remember exactly what was in the parade, but I guarantee that it didn’t include anything challenging or transformative or liberatory. That’s something that’s been consistent in every Pride I’ve gone to since. This corporatization of Pride has been going on for decades. I think people have a little bit of nostalgia looking back on something wonderful that might’ve existed in the ‘90s, and I can say for sure that it did not. [laughs] I can say that it’s only gotten worse. Gay Pride, at least in the big coastal cities, is just about giving corporations endless operations to target and market to gay consumers. It’s just about buying a bunch of crap, including a consumer identity. Last year in Seattle, people blocked the Pride parade to protest the murder of Charleena Lyle, who was a black woman gunned down by Seattle police. They blocked the parade for a whole hour. That, to me, is the potential of what Pride could be. What if the whole Pride parade was about this? What if the whole Pride parade said, enough with police brutality! Let’s shut down the police department!

Like the calls made to join the Occupy ICE protest shutting down immigration hearings in New York.

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Exactly! People were calling on people going to Pride to join the Occupy ICE contingent. Did that happen? [laughs] You know, I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that it didn’t happen. The New York Pride parade was allegedly two million people. Two million people! That’s larger than most cities in this country. Now, imagine what two million people could do. They could shut down all the bridges and tunnels in New York. Easily! You can’t stop two million people. [laughs] That would be like a literal shutdown of ICE. It’s just so depressing. I saw this article in USA Today that tried to talk about the corporatization of Pride, but it kind of just focused on whether straight people belong at Pride or not. That’s an example of where a critical analysis has been whitewashed. To me, the question isn’t who should be at Pride. The question is, what are we doing? If we’re not doing anything interesting, if it’s all just about consuming $8 Budweisers and clapping for the beefcakes dancing on an Altoid float or cheering on gay people who work at Lockheed Martin…who cares! But if everyone went to shut down ICE, it would be great if there were straight people there. [laughs] It’s the same thing with this question about straight people in gay bars. Sure, it’s annoying on some level to deal with ogling homophobic morons who only go to gay bars because they find it titillating, but if we made gay bars into something more challenging, they wouldn’t be there! So, if everyone was just fucking in the gay bar and straight people were in there, they’d be fucking, too. And then they wouldn’t be straight! [laughs]

You can learn more about Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and her work on her website, mattildabernsteinsycamore.com, and head on over to queertranswarban.wordpress.com for resources on queer anti-militarism.