Edie Fake, “Orgy,” in Gaylord Phoenix #6 (2012).
Fervent prescribers of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s credo on reparative reading frequently reference the potential for readerly surprise as among Sedgwick’s many criteria necessary to glean hope or affirmation from a text. But how many scholars—with jadedness typically an occupational hazard—are able to sustain such receptivity to cultural work? In his recent book, Queer Forms, literary and cultural scholar Ramzi Fawaz finally delivers on that difficult promise. In it, Fawaz infects his reader with the same degree of hermeneutic wonder and confoundment he finds in reading everything from a 1970s B-movie flop amusingly titled Zardoz to the canonical intersectional feminist pseudo-documentary classic Born in Flames, both positioned as generative allegories about lesbian separatism.
Queer Forms aims to tackle the elusive question of what makes form queer. Fawaz answers this by taking up a number of cultural texts from gay and women’s liberation in the late 1960s up to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early 1990s; the book’s foci shifts effortlessly among feminist speculative fiction (e.g., Joanna Russ’s The Female Man), gay drama and film (e.g., The Boys in the Band and Angels in America), and serialized gay and trans storytelling (e.g., Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City). Queer Forms troubles the assumption that the successes and failures of 1970s and 1980s women’s, gay, and sexual liberation movements have supposedly been put to rest. What would it mean, Fawaz asks, to reencounter the imaginaries of gay liberation and second-wave feminism through their prismatic multiplicity—something often deadened in today’s leftist political projects, inside and outside the academe, convinced that they have “evolved” well beyond the era? At its center, Fawaz writes, the book is about the “necessity of feminist and queer cultural forms as vehicles for the expansion of a political imagination” that can “alter, retune, or enlarge the sensorium by allowing us to feel and experience gender and sexual nonconformity in new and surprising ways.”
One may or may not be surprised by the connections and continuities between Fawaz’s first book, The New Mutants, published in 2016, and this second monograph. If in The New Mutants, World War II disrupted the organization of sexual and gender life in the US in profound ways, with comics providing coded relief from Cold War compulsory heteronormativity, Queer Forms acts as a sequel of sorts by reassessing the subsequent decades’ sweeping liberal social change that was meant to counter repressive conventionality. But don’t be mistaken, the book proposes no easy chronological progression from dark to light. Instead, Fawaz makes a case for liberation politics against reductive charges circulating today of their essentialism and homogeneity. Rather than resort to mere celebration, Fawaz endeavors to push against their settledness by getting inside their persistent thorniness. Queer Forms seeks out the theoretical vigor and dense imaginative capacities of allegedly “outdated” texts without demanding they offer contemporary readers full identification or even agreement. In this sense, Fawaz is a deft gleaner of social and media history in that he searches for what is politically useful in texts without discarding their ideological messiness.
Fawaz weaves together the historical and theoretical with granular care to reveal how this new field of consciousness ventured to produce novel forms to suit new world visions—whether with the goal of utopia or mere survival (or sometimes, strangely, both). By locating these emergent forms, Fawaz ambitiously pushes against the queer theory tagline that “gender and sexuality is fluid.” Though not reactionarily wishing to return to their fixity, Fawaz makes the blunt case that queerness is never formless in its mutability; queer existence, especially in its most radical guises, actually takes particular forms and shapes in the figures (even identities!) and narrative structures of historical texts.
Chief among Queer Forms’ propositions is a formal illustration of how differing liberation movements, as well as their internal factions, were indeed cross-fertilizing sociopolitical projects, even if they at times operated at cross-purposes. The book exuberantly stresses that the segmented experiences of queers and women, as well as other unlike oppressed people, in fact, share so much, not only longing for a world of equality, but also employing some of the same strategies for achieving it. Even if these strategies resulted in myopia, solipsism, and internal contradictions at times, they envisaged horizons of possibilities and modes of critique useful in the moment of their inception, and vital to toppling today’s political silos.
The interview that follows offers a rhetorical glimpse into each chapter and the larger arc of Queer Forms. Fawaz’s remarks demonstrate a keen attunement to both genre and medium specificity, requisitely treating cultural objects on their own terms. In a moment of backlash against cultural studies, Queer Forms elevates the bar in terms of interdisciplinarity, as well as the bridging of activism and pedagogy. If cultural studies is said to lack rigor and/or have hit a political-methodological impasse, here is a model for how to proceed, to push on bearing the practices of textual generosity and reparativity necessary for social transformation.
Marc Francis: Let’s start at the beginning of the book—even before the table of contents, there is an enigmatic, graphic image that spans the first two pages of the book. What on Earth is this cartoon? And why set the tone of Queer Forms with it?
Ramzi Fawaz: The image that opens Queer Forms is borrowed from the final double-page spread of Edie Fake’s extraordinary, award-winning graphic novel, Gaylord Phoenix (2010), which narrates the erotic adventures of a gender transforming wizard trickster as they navigate a magical, geometric fantasy-scape. Across the arc of the story Gaylord Phoenix’s body continually transforms from one shape into another—in one moment an elongated series of tubes, in another a floating cloud with eyes—so that the reader can never actually pin down any kind of genital nomination to their sex or gender. At the end of the graphic narrative, Gaylord has an epic erotic encounter with all the different creatures they have met and had sex with throughout the adventure; Fake renders this moment as a wild orgy of forms, where all these multitudinous bodies of varied shapes, sizes, and gender expressions become literally intertwined in an orgasmic knot. The scene visually invokes the idea of fluidity. There are these curvy shapes and it looks liquid like all the bodies are melting into each other. Yet what I love about this image is that it imaginatively captures the chaotic, open-endedness of erotic desire across gender, but gives that sense of fluidity a series of concrete shapes or forms. The unpredictability and diversity of eros Fake tells us, is like a knot. Fake then does this beautiful job of rendering a world of gender and sexual anarchy in incredibly crisp and precise form. And in fact, the artwork in the comic book goes from being more and more sketchy or DIY—like the scribbles in someone’s notebook—to being more and more refined and glossy over the course of the narrative. This final image is the most precise of all of the work. As Gaylord dissolves into erotic bliss with all these other bodies, they moan “At last I hold my own.” It is the idea of being literally and figuratively held by the forms of other people. And that is what my book is about.
MF: Queer Forms is such a striking title because in many ways it sounds like a book that should have come out already—perhaps in the 1990s when queer theory was burgeoning. To my knowledge, this is actually the first book in queer theory to actually dwell wholly on the question of form. Tell us then about how you imaginatively define queer form and describe the role that this definition has in telling or recuperating the feminist and queer histories that you’re recounting via the many cultural texts you assemble in the book.
RF: The term “form” is, of course, one of the most contested, rich, complicated words in the history of all literary and cultural studies. Much like the word “ideology.” But there is no such thing as cultural or literary analysis without form. For me, I understand form as encompassing all practices of shaping. It is a creative and imaginative project that combines two elements: 1) the material molding of some substance. That is, the active process of giving structure, outline, or physical form to something in the world: whether that be applying paint on a canvas, assembling words on a page, or juxtaposing images in sequence. But also 2) the reconstruction of that form in someone’s imagination. This is the process by which the material shapes we encounter in everyday life come to be reformulated and interpreted in our minds. It is the relay between these two levels of shaping—in the external world and the imagination—that gives form its meaning. It is that reconstructive practice that gives form its power because all of us imagine or picture the things we see in the world differently from one other. In the book, I understand “queer form” very simply as any shape, construct, outline, or structure that comes to be articulated in some way to gender and sexual nonconformity. An example I return to very frequently in the book is the idea that the circle—an ancient geometric form—becomes a distinctly queer and feminist form when a group of women sit in a consciousness-raising circle circa 1970. The structure of the ring, which allows women to face one another on the basis of equality and share experiences of sexism and misogyny, becomes a form within which a group of people can diverge from the societal expectations of their gender. I say in the book, “Not every form is a queer one, but it could be with the right imagination.” Form becomes queer then when somebody actively connects it in their imagination to gender and sexual divergence.
MF: I like that you said form is a kind of “shaping” because I often found you used “form” as a verb, or alongside verbs. It’s rarely, if ever, passive for you. Not only is form on the move and freeing, then, but the activeness with which you endow it also operates as a bridge to activism, as in, social and political movements that give rise to new forms as new forms also shape or even help inaugurate those movements.
RF: Absolutely. I really question queer theory’s tendency to see form as constraining, limiting, and/or bounded. Instead, form is actually what gives brief and provisional legibility to anything: I cannot make sense of the world’s infinite complexity if I can’t picture the various artifacts that make up the world in my mind’s eye. Take identity, or selfhood, as a form. According to Rostom Mesli, identity politics is a provisional inhabitation of a coherent sense of self that other people feel magnetized to as a political object: “I am gay,” “I am a queer person of color,” “I am a nonbinary femme.” Each of these identities come to attach to certain forms: the bodies of particular people, hairstyles and fashion accessories, oft-repeated political phrases or slogans, distinct ways of speaking and moving through social space. These forms draw groups of people together based on a particular affinity they have to this identity, and it gives the identity shape, definition, and meaning. Yet these forms are ultimately an invention open to rearticulation and transformation: they are not universal, essential, or fixed, and they frequently under-describe the people who attach to them. And when an identity category no longer has use because we realize that it doesn’t describe enough people, or it reduces people’s complexity, or whatever, we invent new categories and new identities. Activism projects different kinds of identities, political ideologies, and values into the world and gives them shape in different ways; so the women’s movement conceives of the idea that “the personal is political” and it materializes this idea in the form of a feminist consciousness raising circle where seemingly private, local, intimate experiences of sexism become public and hence politicized. The power of any of those shapes is their inventiveness, their ability to change over time in response to the needs of various publics. And so I use the word “shapeshifting” in the project as a way of describing measured and meaningful change across time. Instead of imagining that people’s gender and sexual identities are effortlessly fluid, shapeshifting acknowledges that people take different forms in the course of a life and use a wide range of creative, imaginative or aesthetic tools to articulate who they are or want to be at various moments in their evolution. In that sense, I really question the idea that notions of fluidity, flexibility, open-endedness, and variability are opposed to form. I say: you cannot have flexibility and variability of anything (identities, worldviews, or ideologies) without the proliferation of forms, which gives us a picture of the world’s genuine heterogeneity. We know that the world is plural and complex precisely because we look around and we see a lot of different things in it. And those things have a shape. They have a material substance in our mind. I really want to present form as something that is actually a central aspect of the ability to unleash political power through collectivity: the sharing of our different forms with one another.
MF: The book has multiple tonal registers, which makes it such an exciting read. One of them is polemical, which you’re already hinting at, so can you expand further on the book’s main interventions in queer theory, but also the broader context of queer, feminist, and trans activism today?
RF: I think the book finds its origin in a sense of deep dissatisfaction in certain aspects of queer theory, a field that I fell in love with as a graduate student, but have grown to feel very antagonistic with as my scholarship has evolved over the years. The first frustration was my increasing sense that queer theory had turned against feminism, and at some point, that queer studies scholars more broadly had decided only certain types of feminism were acceptable, usually women-of-color feminisms. Thus, whatever was perceived of as “white feminism” (usually some vague idea of liberal feminist values like equal opportunity and legal redress for violence against women) was fundamentally seen as essentialist and conservative, and should be disposed with. That didn’t really make sense to me because my commitments to a queer politics emerged out of my deep feeling of affiliation and affinity with women as a young gay person who was constantly policed for failing to live up to masculine ideas. It often seemed to me that best ideas of queer theory—from heteronormativity to homonationalism, from queer temporality to the anti-social thesis—were essentially derivations of ideas originally articulated by second-wave feminists. For instance, heteronormativity—the term we use to describe the impulse many LGBT people feel to pursue life trajectories that mirror or reproduce heterosexual ideals—is a direct corollary to the earlier feminist concept of heteropatriarchy, which explains how male dominance is maintained through the conjoining of heterosexuality and gender hierarchy as the innate, and immutable structuring logic of society. There is no homonormativity without the foundational theory of heteropatriarchy. Similarly, the controversial “anti-social thesis”—which defines queerness as a radical rejection of the social order as it stands—is echoed in the anarchist sentiments of some 1970s lesbian separatists, who argued for complete divestment from male dominated society. And finally, long before the contemporary concept of homonationalism, Third-world feminists and feminists of color questioned women and queer people’s complicity in imperialism and white supremacy. In that sense, I share Mesli’s disagreement with the idea that queer theory needed to position itself against the feminist seventies, which mischaracterizes that period of feminist politics as identitarian and conservative (and hence opposed to a queer stance that is radically anti-identitarian). I think seventies feminisms fundamentally questioned the essential nature of women’s supposed shared identity even as they produced some of their own essentialisms.
At the same time, I wanted to stage an encounter between feminist and gay liberation in the seventies that reminded us that the two were deeply interwoven from the beginning, that there is no easy way to fully disentangle them. And it is to our benefit politically today to draw from the best aspects of both movements and the ways they overlapped. My students often overlook how popular culture can be a beautiful imaginative tool for conceiving different political realities. At its best, cultural production is a space for unending creative invention. So that word invention, the idea of figuring or proposing alternative gender and sexual futures that was so central to feminist and queer art practices in the 1970s, seems to have been forgotten by many social justice warriors today. I wanted to reclaim that for students. I go back to the seventies to say: actually, there is so much imaginative innovation going on in the movements for women’s and gay liberation, and we see it in the popular culture that those movements created or inspired. We should return to those objects and give them the due that they deserve, while drawing from their best aspects and learning from their mistakes. If they were racist or transphobic in certain instances, shouldn’t we learn from that? Shouldn’t we also draw from the parts that were not? We should do all of it, right?
MF: I was thinking about that point when you speak of friendship in your conclusion. You write, “What might happen if we treated cultural representations as if they were our friends—not in a sentimental mode, but in the sense of someone with whom we engage in meaningful dialogue and action… [promising] to expand our wild imaginations about gender and sexual freedom. And we might learn to forgive these forms when they fail us” (344). It seems that students and readers alike might adjust their relationship to some past queer and feminist cultural texts, not to be in perfect harmony with them, but to be in conversation with them.
RF: Precisely. I remind my students that if we actually want a world where the wildest of desires are nurtured and not reduced to every person for themselves, we will need to be vulnerable to other people seeking the kind of freedom that we seek. When cultural texts circulate images of gender and sexual nonconformity, they make us vulnerable. We potentially see parts of ourselves in them or something we want that we don’t already have. When someone’s first response to a queer cultural representation is to pick up the ideological bludgeon and annihilate it for its presumed failures, they’re refusing the idea that that text could have moved or affected them in a surprising way. It also denies the existence of other readers or viewers who might see something that you are missing. Wouldn’t you want to be open to the possibility you could be surprised? What is the worst that can happen?
MF: This seems to come out of the idea that certain political movements or projects have failed, especially 1970s second-wave feminism and sexual liberation. Some critical theorists have taken up this question of political failure, of course; Lauren Berlant’s last book contains a chapter devoted to the supposedly failed project of sexual liberation. In what ways does Queer Forms think about the supposed successes and failures of gay liberation, second wave feminism, and the ways that these haunt current political struggles?
RF: In some ways, the purpose of great social movements is to fail, leaving open the political field to new and unexpected alternatives to be taken up by other collectives. The great political theorist Hannah Arendt constantly reminds us that radical democracy can never know in advance the outcome of its aims. The goal of democratic practice can never be merely the expediency of accomplishing one social fix or another; we practice collective decision making to unleash freedom, understood as the continual capacity to act in concert to change the conditions of our existence. She says we begin with an idea that collects us, that brings us together around the proverbial table. Say, we want to be able to express divergent genders and sexualities without being violated, without having our rights taken away; that brings us all together. Once we’re all together, we realize we have a million different perspectives on that same problem. And we’re going to have to figure out ways to work together to pursue different avenues of redress or to change something about the society, the law, whatever. The different decisions we make about how we pursue that, we can never know in advance where they will go. Consider that many of the most radical successes of second-wave feminism, like the institution of anti-rape and sexual harassment law, and Title IX, have become some of the biggest political quagmires of contemporary feminism. The women and their allies who fought for these things didn’t know in advance that many of those laws would become very regressive, that they would often be used to reduce and shut down conversations about sexual freedom, and that they would make it very difficult for men and women to negotiate their sexual desire across gender. And yet, those laws have also been absolutely necessary to chip away at the normalization of violence toward women. So, the question of whether or not social movements fail or succeed is often beside the point, because their outcomes are never totally transparent or non-contradictory. We need a more supple analysis. To my mind, the “success” of a social movement looks like the circulation of a new imagination about something. For all its supposed failures, I think radical feminism is one of the most successful social movements in history. It gave us a more expanded notion of what gender can be. In the matter of sixty years, the very idea that women (but also people of all genders) could be autonomous beings, in control of their reproductive capacities, financially independent and legally protected against violence—that’s never happened before in recorded human history! The implications of that are so vast. The control of abortion, the control of birth control, the desire to repeal many of the legal victories against gender bias, is a reaction formation to that monumental transformation. I don’t think we have been able to deal with the outcomes of all of that in just over half-a-century. We are still catching up to the changes in gender, and the people who fomented women’s liberation in the seventies were trying to run far ahead, really fast. That’s part of what makes them so messy and fascinating. And why they were so contradictory. I think they had a much faster imagination than we do today.
MF: Yes, you suggest at several points that the movements for women’s and gay liberation were moving at a “breathless pace.” Let’s shift to the chapters a bit because I think they illustrate this point beautifully. In your first chapter, I love how you turn different historical terms on their heads to redefine women and make us contemplate feminist epistemologies from fresh angles. For instance, in chapter one you recuperate an archaic pre-AI definition of the term “replicant”; in chapter two, separatism is not necessarily a dirty word for just reductive, wishful, or impossible politics of yesteryear. Tell me about your process for rethinking some of these terms, perhaps by way of some of your objects from that era.
RF: My choices of cultural objects were really intuitive for this project. I wasn’t trying to look at every work of feminist or queer popular culture or to do a survey of 1970s cultural production. What I was trying to do was to say: look, here are these concepts that seem really denigrated today that emerged out of the movements for women’s and gay liberation, like the notion of women’s equality, or consciousness raising, or coming out of the closet. While it’s easy to throw shade at these concepts as “liberal,” pandering or reproducing the status quo, they had incredibly radical implications for the future of gender and sexual rebels in a democratic society. Consider that contemporary projects for transgender liberation are obsessed with the idea of legal equality, even as some claim that the idea of equality in the seventies was a white liberal feminist fantasy. But the demand for equal access to affordable health care in regards to gender-affirming services emerges from this moment in the 1970s, and gets taken up decades later by trans activists. The same thing happens with lesbian separatism. Separatism is seen today as a regressive white essentialist lesbian feminist idea—that lesbians compose a distinctly marginalized identity group who should completely divest from male dominated society—and yet here are all these young social justice advocates demanding safe spaces for marginalized folks. I selected concepts that struck me as getting a bad rap, yet ones we’re still attached to. What does it look like to live up to our word and to think about these concepts at their most radical?
Second, I wanted to explore how these high-level, abstract political concepts, such as “equality,” come to make sense in the seventies to ordinary people who have nothing to do with gender and sexual freedom movements but might be sympathetic to them. I started to study these concepts and the way they were talked about in feminist and queer writing, popular speeches, and political dialogue. I would then voraciously read and watch popular culture in the seventies to see where the concepts keep coming up in mass media. So, for instance, I found it really interesting that in a variety of 1970s feminist science fiction writing, equality kept being figured as this problem of encountering somebody who was supposed to be your perfect double, and hence exactly identical to you, but then turns out to be a wholly separate being who is nothing like you. The texts I used were Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972), in which two women move to a suburb and discover that they might be being replaced by robots; Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), a brilliant lesbian science fiction novel about four women who are different versions of the same person from alternate dimensions; and The Woman Warrior (1976), a classic Asian-American text, in which the unnamed narrator imagines encountering and meeting all the different women in her family in different times and spaces. These books presented the problem of equality to readers without ever using the word “equality.” They said: the labor of intellectually and imaginatively figuring out what you share with somebody you thought was supposed to be just like you, but isn’t, is a necessary part of radical politics. The three texts encourage readers to do the cognitive work of comparison, looking at two distinct beings (usually women) and seeing what they share in common without collapsing them. The texts reject a reductive interpretation of equality as sameness, and instead figure it as the practice of constantly negotiating difference. Radical indeed! I try in each chapter to find popular culture texts that dramatize or figure fundamental political concepts or problems in surprising ways, maybe even more creatively than political actors were articulating them.
MF: How did this bring you to reconceiving of the idea of the replicant? What you do with it is truly so innovative!
RF: I wanted to shift our attention away from how the figure of the “replicant” was displayed in the classic film Blade Runner (1982) and the novel upon which it was based, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (1968). Those texts popularized the idea of the replicant as an imperfect humanoid, looking, sounding, and feeling like a person but ultimately a robot or “fake”. Instead, I looked to the work of feminist science fiction writers like James Tiptree Jr., Joanna Russ, and Ursula le Guin, whose work frequently featured character doubles, doppelgangers, and clones who end up being their own multi-dimensional persons that must be contended with. I basically wanted to take that entire set of figures—creative icons of duplication and multiplicity—and think about them all representing collectively a logic of replication: the idea of different versions of a woman’s supposed double, who then ends up not being at all like the so-called original she was modeled after.
MF: You say in the book that replicant used to be used to describe a “new applicant or employer.”
RF: Yes, an interlocutor, basically. Someone who continually responds back. And that’s how I want us to see popular culture, not as an archive of easily decoded ideological messages, but as a vast library of imaginative interlocutors, objects that seek to start a dialogue with us about the state of our world at any given moment.
MF: Exactly, so if replication is actually about dialogue, then it’s about replying and being in conversation rather than a kind of crystallized, segregated nonhuman existence. Counterintuitive perhaps, being a replicant is about struggling with sameness and difference. Now how did you find the texts by which to analyze lesbian separatism?
RF: Well, with Zardoz—this absolutely bizarre and delicious film about the implosion of a post-apocalyptic commune of superpowered beings called “Eternals”: I watched it in my early twenties after a college friend sent me the DVD and told me to view it without looking up anything about it. I followed instructions and my brain was broken into a thousand pieces. I didn’t know what to do with it, but I just kept it in the back of my mind for two decades. Like I was saying before: texts that break me open at a sensorial level, ones that I feel psychically vulnerable to, always keep my attention. I had for some time been fascinated by lesbian separatist writing, and when I returned to lesbian separatist texts in my later twenties, it clicked. I read a 1972 newsletter by the lesbian separatist group The Gutter Dyke Collective that says without mincing words: all men are evil and they should be genocidally killed. As soon as I read this, I thought of the first line from Zardoz: a giant screaming stone head in the form of an old white man’s face intones: “The gun is good, the penis is evil!” And suddenly I realized the movie could be understood as an allegory for separatism! At the time of its release, feminist film scholar Marsha Kinder wrote an amazing long-form review of the movie in Film Quarterly where she critiques Zardoz as sexist, but applauds its formal innovation. I thought to myself, if she’s right that the form is innovative, what would it look like to argue that the movie is a formal working through of separation? What does it mean for women to separate from patriarchy literally and figuratively? What are the effects of that, and how does the film visualize the logic of removing oneself from the sources of one’s pain?
MF: The conclusion you reach with separatism, as I understand it, is that we don’t necessarily need to think about it as an end goal, but rather as a necessary step to form coalition, to separate off or detach, and then just imagine other ways of being with others. What you’re doing is in some ways loosening these concepts that at first glance seem quite constrained or bounded. You’re trying to see where there might be room to move around in them in order to help us rethink the world.
RF: Right. In some ways, part of my frustration with contemporary queer studies is that when we turn to notions of gender and sexuality’s ephemerality, fluidness, and open-endedness—which seem on the surface to be so generative for thinking about them as mutable categories—we actually end up liquefying into a kind of nothingness that makes it impossible to distinguish people from an undifferentiated queer mass. That mass is then seen to automatically distance itself from everything perceived of as “normal” and oppressive. We oddly fetishize the act of separation (from norms, society, regressive community) but without really seriously considering how to negotiate our differences. Consider that queer studies often valorizes negative affects and feeling states, including disaffection from a homophobic and transphobic society, but this very negativity also further separates you from the world at large. It’s one thing to articulate the value of that disaffection, which is utterly legitimate and understandable. It’s another thing to become completely mired in it, or make it a way of life. A lot of my concern in the book is that we have perfected the first thing that some lesbian feminists anarchically propounded: separation. After that, we are bad at reaching out across difference and honoring unexpected affinities and affiliations beyond our marginalized identities. I wanted to show that, in fact, 1970s lesbian separatism and the popular culture that meditated on its project give us tools for doing both: separating from the sources of our oppression when we need to and communing across our differences when we need to. It’s not a zero-sum game where we have to choose one or the other.
MF: This theme of activist cross-pollination existing at the time and then also animating you in the present comes up again in your chapter on The Boys in the Band. In it, you demonstrate that both the play and film take the form of an unplanned, spontaneous consciousness raising (CR) meeting. You speak about feminist CR, and you discuss the circulation of some guides on how gay men could adopt it, but did it happen that the gay male community practiced it in the late sixties? If so, this is barely, if ever, discussed.
RF: Yes, it was practiced regularly by gay and lesbian activists. I tried at the beginning of the chapter to temporally and geographically locate CR as a distinct feminist project of the late 1960s that then radiates outward into gay politics in the early 1970s. The Boys in the Band premieres off-Broadway in 1968 in lower Manhattan, which is exactly where women’s liberation and then gay liberation are unfolding literally on the street. Stonewall happens within about a year. Besides the confluence of those things, one could argue that the earlier version of gay male CR was more like the Mattachine Society in which people just met in people’s living rooms and socialized. Mart Crowley did not even need the existence of gay male or feminist CR groups to have an image within his head of gay men coming together. My sense is that he’s just building off his own experience of circulating socially among middle class gay men. Once the movie comes out in 1970, however, women’s and gay liberation are in full force. CR is now the primary political tool of the feminist movement, and gay liberation has directly borrowed it. Karla Jay, a lesbian feminist who is shuttling between both movements, then introduces CR to the gay liberationist Allen Young and both help institute it within the political practices of the Gay Liberation Front. By 1970 the members of the first gay male living collective in lower Manhattan craft their own version of a feminist CR manifesto, “Notes on Gay Male Consciousness Raising.” Even if the filmmakers and Mart Crowley himself were not keyed into this, the movie plops right into the cultural scene at the moment when gay male CR is taking shape; the first anthology of gay political writing Out of the Closets appears in 1971 and it reprints “Notes on Gay Male Consciousness Raising” for a wider audience. While I don’t think that the movie necessarily was intending to represent what a gay CR circle looked like, it is almost impossible not to make the comparison in that moment. The people going to see it are also potentially hearing about or participating in CR.
MF: I believe you’re the first person to make that connection, and it really puts aside facile debates about whether or not Boys in the Band is a good or bad object. It speaks more to how people were trying to process their experiences, traumas, identities—all of that—in this historical moment. The type of historical research you did for that chapter is quite different than the chapter on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. You went out and conducted interviews with the readers of the serial and incorporated those testimonies into your analysis. What led you to embark on this field research? Is this today a common approach in the disciplines of English and comparative literature? Just talk about what it was like finding people. What surprised you in terms of the process?
RF: With Queer Forms it felt important for me to embark on a project that was more methodologically challenging than the first book. I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before. Because people loved the analysis of the fan letters for The Fantastic Four in my first book, I was continually asked, why don’t you interview readers? Two other inspirations in this direction loomed large for me. The first was Richard Dyer’s classic essay “Judy Garland and Gay Men.” That piece starts with a simple question, “Why are gay men obsessed with Judy Garland? What is the cultural articulation between this iconic performer and gay male subjectivity?” Dyer puts out an ad in a bunch of both mainstream and gay print media in London. He says he’s looking for gay men to write about their experiences watching Judy Garland’s movies and concerts. He gets a hundred letters from gay men who describe to him in detail why they are obsessed with her. And then he does an astonishing discursive analysis of those letters, transforming them into a framework or theoretical model for re-reading Garland’s entire film oeuvre as a distinctly queer cannon. It’s astounding because rather than relying on existing queer and feminist theory to let him analyze Garland’s work, he lets ordinary people tell him what their theory is of their desire for her screen image and stage persona. The second thing is that when I was in grad school, one of my great mentors, Melani McAlister, spent eight years traveling the world with US-American evangelicals who were doing global missionary work. She was living with them and interviewing them and doing extensive ethnographic work. I was so electrified by what she was gleaning from ordinary people. It created a more humane analysis of a deeply problematic religious culture. She didn’t just want to ideologically criticize evangelicals. She wanted to understand them.
Tales of the City seemed the best opportunity to do the kind of work that Dyer and McAlister modeled. It was local to the Bay Area and hence delimited in scope. In its initial publication, you could find a group of people who read it in its original format, and because it was daily in the newspaper, I knew that I could get interview subjects through the newspaper. I initially used Facebook and social media to attract interlocutors, but I didn’t have a lot of luck. Then somebody said, “You need to put an ad out in the Chronicle because people who read the paper are lifers. If they read it in the seventies when the story was coming out, they’re probably reading it today.” And that turned out to be true. A long-term columnist at the Chronicle Leah Garchik told her readers I was looking for interview subjects and within a day I got fifty emails. I was able to interview thirty of those people, both online and in person. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took two and a half summers. I had to negotiate people’s schedules, their temperaments, and their personalities. Some people wanted to talk for twenty minutes. Some people wanted to talk for three hours. And what was amazing was to see the richness, suppleness, and complexity of how people read this story in the seventies. It was life transformative for them, a representational achievement with tangible results on people’s lived experience. Many associated their reading experience with becoming less homophobic, more feminist, and simply more open to human diversity. None of those people assumed that Tales of the City was supposed to represent all gay people. Many were critical of its whiteness, but they also accepted its limitations without discarding it. They saw it as part of a larger 1970s media ecology working to tell a broader range of stories about a diverse US-American public. And it was so fascinating to learn from people the way they encountered Tales in everyday settings. Some people were reading it at the student union at UC Berkeley. Others were reading it in group homes in San Francisco, where they were living with other artists and hippies. And yet others were reading it daily on the on the bus alongside strangers. So, my own interpretations became more and more complex because I had to contend with the way people in reality encountered this story in various contexts. And this is something I think is lacking in contemporary literary and cultural studies: we make so many grand claims about the political stakes of art, literature, culture, and media, but we don’t really care that much about how actual people encounter those texts in their everyday lives. It has been decades since a serious “reader-response” movement has captured the imagination of literary scholars. And we have allowed media studies to corner the market on audience analysis. What media studies does with reception studies is incredibly necessary and important, but it often relies on large quantitative data sets that can obscure the fine-grained reactions that individual readers and viewers have to their most cherished cultural texts. Those of us who work in the interdisciplines also have the skills to do qualitative analysis on such reactions, which is why we should be finding more ways to collect data through oral histories and written accounts. I wasn’t trying to get a representative sample of readers like a media studies scholar might. I was simply trying to get a cross-section of reader response broad enough to be able to make a statement about people’s interpretative practices.
MF: In another chapter you take on AIDS activism in queer comics. In reading that chapter, I recalled that your previous book was on comics. Can you talk about some of the continuities in these two projects in terms of how you were reading comics’ queer forms?
RF: I often say that my first book was a very theoretically informed cultural history of fantasy in the post-World War II period using superhero comic books as a foundation for that analysis. My second book, however, is a very historically informed work of queer and feminist theory that uses the moment of the 1970s to get at much bigger conceptual questions about the shifting nature of gender and sexuality as meaningful political categories. I think the fundamental continuity between the books, is about how people use cultural forms to imaginatively work their way through seemingly intractable political problems. Basically, people say, we seem to not be able to figure out how to make this coalition work, or we seem unable to clear space for certain kinds of differences to be valued in our society. What do we need to do to change that? I think people often turn to culture as a playground to creatively figure out what it would look like to work through these kinds of problems when traditional political avenues seem to have failed or reached their limit. So cultural production becomes a scene of critical thought, or political theorizing, but also a transmission device or formal container for getting innovative ideas across to broad audiences. The two books share a deep investment in this fact. Comics make an appearance in both projects because I’ve always found it a particularly potent medium for this kind of work: after all, comics are formally organized around the ceaseless sequential unfolding of drawn images. It’s an aesthetic form that lends itself to both imagination (since every panel can depict anything the creator can possibly conceive in their mind) and multiplicity (since the medium is driven by the continual expansion of panels across a page). In The New Mutants, I discussed these formal features in terms of comics’ democratic or cosmopolitan qualities, namely the ways that superhero comics presented ever-expanding casts of mutant or monstrous outcasts whose ethical exploits to protect oppressed peoples across the cosmos were subject to continual revision or extension in future issues. In Queer Forms, I spend more time with the formal logic of sequential art itself, as a proliferative medium that encouraged queer artists to playfully depict numerous forms of alternative eroticism, or gay sexual practices or desires, which could then be transmitted to audiences through the comic strip panel. In both projects, comics’ spirit of multiplicity or continual unfolding of visual possibilities is what captures my imagination, and why the medium has held such an important place in my heart and mind for so many years.
MF: Is this a good moment to tease us with some of your future work?
RF: Midway through writing Queer Forms, I presented an early version of my research on Tales of the City at the San Francisco LGBT Historical Society. During the question-and-answer session there was a gay male audience member in his late sixties, who said, “I love this talk and agree with everything you’re saying, but you never discuss drugs, which is central to the story. I wanted to remind you that all of us who were experimenting with our genders and sexualities in the seventies were always on LSD.” This really stuck in my mind. Of course, when I’m teaching the queer and feminist seventies, I teach students about the Cockettes, a glam drag performance troupe in SF who frequently claimed they were on LSD when they were in costume. And it so happened that just around when this man made his point, I was reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. That book was opening up my perception to the vast possibilities of the psychedelic renaissance, yet it was also keen on separating itself from the experimental drug cultures of the sixties. I suddenly started to connect the dots between all these realities: namely, that many people who were using these drugs recreationally in the 1960s and 1970s, were often trying to imagine their identities differently, or experience their political values viscerally in their bodies. They were trying to say, if I think of myself as straight, what would it mean to not be that? If I think of myself as gay, what would it mean to think of myself as queer or pansexual, in a nonviolent, non-repressive way? It was about a transformation of self occasioned by the surrendering of rigid identities. So increasingly, it has struck me as fascinating that the psychedelic experience is now being talked about as a potential cure for depression, anxiety, and addiction. All of the science tells us that the signal feature of psychedelic experience that makes this possible is the loosening of the ego. It’s about the reduction of attachment to a rigid form of self. My new work is going to consider the psychedelic experience not simply as a drug experience, though that’s also important, but as a framework for thought, as a way of thinking or a form of consciousness neither intent on dissolving identity nor fixing it, but loosening our grip on it. I want to look at the ways in which contemporary American popular culture has already long registered the psychedelic renaissance. It has registered it in the turn to enchantment, the explosion of fantastical narratives about interdimensional travel, hauntings, magic, and radical bodily transformation. I want to talk a lot about the multiverse as a psychedelic visual and conceptual model for difference. What would it mean to encounter a million versions of yourself across the multiverse, as well as a million versions of other people? If we only think of psychedelics as a magic bullet for human immiseration, just like every other magic bullet in the history, it’s going to have a brief explosion and then disappear into thin air because there is no quick fix for human suffering. But I think if we approach psychedelics as a framework for thought, as a way of seeing the world, I think it can have a longer, more salubrious impact. It can give us equipment for living.
MF: What an exciting project that truly bridges all kinds of texts, time, and space.