In the fall of 2007, hundreds of people—including drag queens, former Act Uppers, anarchist punks, policy wonks and transmen—stood on the sidewalk a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn. They were poised to defy the ring of cops around them, as well as the new rule passed by the head of City Council, an out lesbian, which made it illegal for 50 or more people to process through New York without prior consent from the police. A drum squad clad in pink and black unleashed an ass-shaking rhythm. “What do we want?” revelers chanted. “Liberation! Fuck that assimilation!” They strutted into the streets.
Of course Ben Shepard, author of Queer Political Performance and Protest (Routledge 2010), was there that night. For over a decade, he’s been organizing, chronicling and analyzing this of risky spectacle, where pleasure and politics hold hands, humor subverts authority and participants create an experience they talk about for years to come.
Opening Shepard’s book is like entering a raucous party. Sure, some of the usual suspects of queer liberation are present. Ginsberg argues that the riots at the ’68 Democratic National Convention should have been orgies instead, and the trannies of Stonewall battle cops as they sing about their skimpy underwear that shows pubic hair. But our host Shepard has also invited to this party some of the unusual suspects as well, the ones you’ve probably never heard of, though they’ve shaped public policy and stood at the vanguard of counter-culture.
These unusual suspects include members of the affinity group Action Tours, a clandestine off-shoot of Act Up, who stealthily deploy a 900-square foot banner from the Statue of Liberty and later dress as gender-bent “airline stewardesses,” wielding bananas and condoms before the New York Board of Education for an unscheduled lesson on safer sex.
Then there are the vice-loving activists of Sex Panic! who battle the purge of NYC’s adult play spaces by infiltrating the Gay Pride Parade with an enormous puppet of then-Mayor Giuliani, perched on a squad car and surrounded by go-go boys and girls chanting, “More booty, less Rudy! Keep New York sexy!” (The cops would muscle them off the route eventually.)
And no party is complete without the Church Ladies for Choice distracting the “antis” at women’s health clinics through clever ditties, including one sung like the tongue-twister from Mary Poppins but titled “Christo-fascio-Nazi-nutso-psycho-right-wing bullshit.”
Much of what lies between the covers of Shepard’s book can’t be found elsewhere, and this has a lot to do with the close relationships he’s cultivated over the years with sex-positive radicals, circus geeks, campy militants and jesters with agendas.
Under the guise of an academic treatise, Shepard has written a manifesto for the pursuit of pleasure. Maybe it’s actually a manual for troublemakers. Play, he argues, “articulates what the world could look like,” initiates “an appropriate response to social control,” “persuades,” “seduces,” and “invites people into the game of social change.” The revolution, according to Shepard, will be accessorized.
At Shepard’s party, the guests are under various influences. Even our host seems both addled and ecstatic, so don’t be too surprised if the scene gets a little messy. Far too often Shepard repeats ideas, as when he writes that “ludic play” isn’t “tailored for many heavy issues” and then, only two paragraphs later, regurgitates this line almost verbatim. He introduces most of his guests the first time that they’re quoted, though the biographical sketch of at least one of them, John Jordan, remains a mystery, despite his intriguing personal mission statement: Because “Capital…needs sadness,” he feels compelled to “break sadness.” And while Shepard’s introduction offers a discombobulated history of queer resistance, you almost can’t skip it because it also contains the unforgettable spectacle of neo-pagan queers casting spells in Tompkins Square Park before belting out the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show: “Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have a town, why don’t you take it?”
It’s in the subsequent chapters, especially the ones detailing the exploits of Act Up and pre-Giuliani New York play spaces, that Shepard’s field notes bear gorgeously specific testament to tactics, philosophies and ruminations about life on the wild side. Here, Shepard rarely strays far from his objectives, with one notable exception. For fourteen pages, he details the clash of identity politics, strong personalities and stray agendas that splintered the activist group Sex Panic!, but connections to the larger subject of play remain tenuous, besides what quickly becomes quite obvious: the group that defended pleasure just wasn’t that much fun to be around.
Shepard chronicles not just the stories of mischievous activists, but also those of sub-cultures dedicated to the erotic. And so we hear from Liddell Jackson, a black gay man and sex party organizer who for decades facilitated the good times of bawdy men and marveled as they morphed into, he doesn’t “mean to be cheesy, but a brotherhood.” In addition, a member of the Gay Activists Alliance recounts gatherings where hundreds of politically-minded carousers trip on mescaline and dance and fuck as “a single ‘vibe’ filled the room of writhing bodies.” Yes, Shepard’s collection of testimonies depict ecstatic, even chancy, sorts of play where participants get off, but they also speak of utopian experiments, forays into the terra incognita of human relations.
Shepard pushes pleasure to its controversial apogee when he quotes principled hedonists praising the transgressive and claiming that play and risk are intimately connected. In one such endorsement of the forbidden, writer and activist Eric Rofes advocates for “serosorting,” or barebacking with partners based on the self-disclosure of HIV-status. He claims the practice has medical legitimacy because HIV rates in San Francisco remained stable despite a spike in cases of gonorrhea and syphilis.
It’s clear that Shepard believes the Gang of Four—Larry Kramer, Gabriel Rotello, Michelangelo Signorile and Andrew Sullivan—have only dampened the party. They’ve pathologized sexual relationships that go beyond the heterosexual template of coupledom and urged state-sponsored purges of venues where consenting adults play. They seem to be arguing that because our wings might melt, all attempts at flight should be banned.
In post-Giuliani New York, the Gang of Four have handily won. The edgy nightclubs, the baths, backrooms and outdoor cruising spaces have been mostly eradicated, though of course chat rooms and private parties continue to throb. Sure, most of us can still get off, but how many of us feel like we’re part of a flourishing community?
Bob Kohler, interviewed by Shepard while in his eighties, had been in the Gay Liberation Front and spent the decade following Stonewall operating an NYC-based bathhouse. He laments the loss of play spaces in New York, including the baths, which he claims served as a “shared living room” where Bella Abzug campaigned, Ronnie Eldrige speechified and Sarah Vaughan performed. “People would come out of the big orgy room,” Kohler says, “fucked every way but sideways, coming down and having…long political discussions.”
Kohler worries that most queers aren’t visionary anymore, that we no longer fight like we mean it, that we’re moving toward the middle rather than blowing up the margins. But he has a simple remedy: “Listen to the crazies.”
Perhaps he has a point. After all, the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality to be a mental illness until 1973, and many of those queens who rioted at Stonewall would still be stigmatized today. And besides, often the ones who don’t fit in, who are far too agitated and inspired to settle for what is, hold the secrets to what can be.
It’s safe to say that you can count Shepard as one of them, the crazies. His ragged, machine-gun-insistent voice gives him away. But you’ll probably be more than a little convinced by his argument that pleasure is the cornerstone of a pluralistic, democratic society.
QUEER POLITICAL PERFORMANCE AND PROTEST by Ben Shepard Routlege ISBN: 978-0-415-96096-0
Hardcover, $95, 320 pages