Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new book Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform begins by yanking readers out of the closet, burning their designer duds and enlisting them in the fight against assimilation. I was excited for this book because I had been futilely searching for queer fraternity on out.com, and I wanted alternatives.
“No one would buy into the hype of gay mass consumerism if they were sure that alternative modes for living and creating culture existed and were easily accessible without shelling out the cash,” Ali Abbas asserts in the book. Sycamore’s attack on commercialized queer culture is a call to forge a new queer identity and walk in solidarity on a road unpaved by commercialized commonality. Create a community, not a profile! she screams. Don’t buy your identity; make it yourself!
However, the book’s contents cannot be attributed exclusively to Sycamore. Collectively, the book is a politically infused queer tome backlit with Sycamore’s fanaticism. In her introduction to the anthology of essays by multiple authors, Sycamore writes that the book “reinvokes the anger, flamboyance and subversion once thriving in gay subcultures.” While this sometimes poignant, cathartic and often obscene anthology is not always so seditious, Sycamore seeks to re-evaluate what it means to be gay, suggesting that, in the current sociopolitical atmosphere, homosexuality comes with more responsibility than defense of same-sex relations. Ironically, by making sexual identity synonymous with a subversive political statement, Sycamore exemplifies why faggots are so afraid of faggots. As a gay man, the idea that accepting a queer identity also means accepting a political one leaves me quivering in the proverbial closet.
Sycamore, aka “Matt,” is for all intents and purposes male, but identifies as “genderqueer” and responds to the pronouns “she” and “her.” Her use of the word “faggot” is an attempt to reclaim it. And like her, people in the book assume limited labels to expand definitions through intimate experience, forcing us to re-examine who we may have misclassified or miscategorized. In the process, this book definitely does its job of exposing prejudice, but the esoteric content and sensationalism may only serve to perpetuate it.
The internet is a common theme in these disjointed essays, used as a metaphor for the restrictive nature of labels. Hookup chat sites are ideal for this since they often force users to identify with limited labels—“dad” or “lad,” “top” or “bottom.” Michael J Faris and ML Sugie write that “conversations in hookup chat rooms reproduce and enforce dominant narratives with regards to race, gender, sexuality and sex.” The internet isolates and magnifies the sickness and superficiality present in male gay culture. Sycamore suggests that the internet and consumer bandwagons help LGBTQ people maintain a sense of community without sacrificing the straight/acceptable facade.
But this book offers no viable options. One man suggests that coming out to show solidarity is queer obligation, going so far as to tattoo “queer” on his arm. Another suggests that we should take an inventory of the AIDS casualties to strengthen “gay lineage.” If prompting a queer revolution is the goal, these techniques are more guilting than inspiring, which seems to be the book’s overall effect. It obfuscates rather than illuminates, like an octopus emitting a shroud of ink and then disappearing in the fog. It gives the reader a visceral sense of queer affliction and creates a cloud of complaints without pragmatic solutions.