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The gays were everywhere. You may think that we—three soulful, intelligent homosexuals—were overjoyed at the sudden omnipresence of these alternatively-desiring young people. Certainly a variety of heartwarming spectacles were available for our delectation: from the festive kiss-in to drag bingo, from the Day of Silence to “Camp,” the cleverly-titled bgltq dance. With Gaypril, the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) intended to “fight homophobia” and increase queer visibility at Harvard.
It seems obvious that, at a cultural moment in which people gather to watch both Queer as Folk and the first-ever same-sex kiss on daytime television, visibility in and of itself need not be political at all. It therefore seems rather strange that the BGLTSA should appropriate a variety of political actions proper to—and effective in—very different historical circumstances. Kiss-ins, for example, were once a form of direct action that gave voice to a defiant and threatened sexuality—as in the infamous series of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) kiss-ins at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The BGLTSA’s kiss-in, by contrast, was an exercise in timidity, an attempt to normalize same-sex affection as a part of the tedium of everyday life—something to ingest along with your Chick-Fil-A. While we enjoy having our sexuality served alongside a sandwich as much as the next person, it seems clear to us that taking All My Children as one’s model of political efficacy is no way to start a revolution.
In fact, for drag bingo, the BGLTSA explicitly took their political inspiration from television’s Sex in the City—an unlikely candidate for models of radical subversion. For this extravaganza, the BGLTSA board felt it necessary to hire a real live drag queen to provide them with make-up tips—thereby revealing the way in which the event depended upon a tokenized, exoticized identity of which the BGLTSA knew nothing.
By the same token, the Day of Silence originally arose out of an urgency totally alien to the BGLTSA’s rehearsal of that event. The Day of Silence takes its cue from ACT UP’s die-ins—which themselves were meant to illustrate the group’s brutal slogan, Silence=Death. When the Day of Silence came to college campuses in 1996, it sought to literalize the fatal silence surrounding the victims of hate crimes. In another decontextualization of a once-potent political action, the BGLTSA’s event re-defined silence as the silence of the closet. Needless to say, the silence of the closet is not the silence of the grave. To be, as one sign put it, “Silenced by Heteronormativity” is a condition easily remedied by coming out and staying out. To compare this to the absolute silence of the victims of homophobia cheapens their deaths; it is not only politically ineffective, it is actively retrogressive.
This is all too reminiscent of the BGLTSA’s observance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a national event in which we as a community bear witness to the lives of trans people lost to violence. The BGLTSA’s posters, each of which bore the name of the dead and the means and date of death, exploited the very people whom the event meant to commemorate—these posters were nothing more than spectacles, a show of political engagement devoid of any efficacy. There is no action in the BGLTSA’s activism.
While one might be tempted to dismiss the BGLTSA’s mode of activism as, at worst, a harmless attempt at visibility, the real effects of such political ignorance are far more treacherous. This became especially clear at drag bingo, where one of the lucky winners took home a box of “X-Rated Fortune Cookies,” bearing a squint-eyed, buck-toothed caricature of a “Chinese” waiter, scandalizing his blond-haired, blue-eyed customer with sexual secrets of the Orient. When the gross racism of this artifact was brought to the attention of the BGLTSA board, there was no official response. This is the consequence of an agenda of visibility that fails to think politically—or, more precisely, to think at all: these decontextualized performances of politics serve only to make their performers feel good about themselves. It is a gay politics that seeks acceptance from those structures (of race, of class, of gender) that oppress us; it fails utterly to change or even challenge them.
Nico Carbellano ’04 of Dudley House, Yumi Lee ’04 of Cabot House, and Jessica M. Rosenberg ’04 of Adams House are all Literature concentrators. They comprise the executive board of the recently re-formed Queer Resistance Front.
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