Last night, during the evening plenary at the Midwest Social Forum Teach In, a small group of folks broke from the larger break out groups to chat, build community, and, as usual, the talk turned to sex. The group was diverse in age, race, gender, and sexual orientation. And the flow of the conversation was punctuated by giggles, snorts, indignation, and embarassment. Considering the age range of the folks in the circle went from early 20s to late 70s...it was a very visible reminder that the queer movement has so much to offer the rest of the movement for social justice.
The one truly refreshing moment in the exchange came from the late 40s/early 50s, straight, African-American woman faith organizer who just happened to be into leather, bondage, and S&M and had a special place in her heart for the "leather man conference" aka International Mister Leather, which takes place each Memorial Day weekend in Chicago. Old girl was an old school sex radical from back in the day, took advantage of (in the early 80s and today) the dungeon scene in New York City. I can't remember her name, but I am in LOVE with her.
In February, I was at the Creating Change Conference in Detroit. Creating Change is the largest gathering of queer organizers in the country. After the conference, I wrote an essay called "Talking About a Sexual Revolution." I am going to repost it below. After the conversation last night and the seemingly pre-teen reaction to sex that these sexually active adults were having reminded me even more that as we continue our revolutionary struggles that sex, sex positivity, and pleasure organizing need to be front in center in that work.
Talking About A Sexual Revolution--An Essay and a Call to Bed (2.22.08)
On 28 June 1969 queers, trannies, and drag queens, many of whom were people of color, expressed the explosive repressed anger of the queer community and in a night of resistance launched what would become the global movement for queer and transgender freedom of expression, freedom of being, and the freedom to fuck without social, moral, or legal discrimination.
The decade following Stonewall and before the advent of the AIDS crisis, the queer community, took the Free Love movement of the 1960s to new heights. Bears, leather queens, S/M communities, lesbian dominatrix, bath houses, the Christopher Street piers, Fire Island, the Castro, polyamorous/non-monogamous/multi-partner relationships, tea rooms—these were some of the people and some of the sites of a sexual revolution that declared that consensual pleasure, where ever it may be found, will be found and enjoyed. The right to fuck whoever, however, wherever with whatever was never simply about getting off...it was the battle cry of a community reclaiming their bodies, their spirits, and their connections with one another.
Without a doubt, sexism, racism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression were (and still are) present in the community, but never before had identity politics been intimately linked to the politics of sexuality. Queer folks pushed the envelope of what was considered acceptable sexual practice, and in doing so, forced the definition of acceptable to expand. Straight women could find auto-erotic supplies and learn about self pleasure. Straight men found that they could explore being topped by a woman with a strap on and not lose something of their masculinity. The queer sexual revolution was not just for queers.
Every gay bar in every city had a “back room,” and the movement knew that the revolution was created, stirred, and advanced just as much in these places as in the offices of the newly formed (what was then called) the National Gay Task Force (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) and the other LGBT advocacy organizations beginning to find their voices during the same period.
With the advent of the AIDS crisis there was a systemic backlash both inside of the queer community and outside of the queer community against the sexual liberation politics of the 60s and 70s. As the era of Reagan and the “Me Generation” took hold in 80s, a conservative attack on queer sexuality and sexual expression, coupled with the AIDS crisis, created a sex paranoia that caused many to back away from the radical sexual politics of the previous decade—some in shame and some in fear. There were still many advocates that continued to fight for both a strong sense of health education and a healthy, positive sexuality—but the court of public opinion and the lack of response from the Reagan administration to the AIDS crisis conspired to set the sexual revolution back. It is clear to me that the queer sexual revolution was not to blame for the spread of AIDS, it was the systemic denial, demonizing, and hate mongering of Ronald Reagan and his administration.
I grew up in a different era.
Coming of age in the mid to late 90s, I was lucky to be a part of a resurgence of positive sexuality, sex positivity, slut politics, and diverse expression of sex interests, forms, and play. I believe that this resurgence, led largely by a strong and vibrant queer youth movement, was a direct reaction to the sexphobia and sexfear of the 80s and early 90s. Having grown up in the upper Midwest, my idea of sex and sexual play was understandably vanilla. Minneapolis closed all of its bathhouses a decade before I even thought about coming out of the closet. I believed that the only valid relationship was a long term monogamous relationship, and the thought of getting spanked, pissed on, fisted, double-fucked, or anything else that was outside of the queer version of the missionary position was simply beyond my experience.
As I matured as an individual and as an organizer, I was blessed to be surrounded by loving and caring peers that took great and gentle joy in blasting apart everything I thought I knew about myself, my beliefs, and sex. At my first Creating Change conference in 1998, I found myself surrounded by kinky, slutty, loving, caring, radicals that taught me figuratively (through workshops) and literally (through hook-ups) about the power of sex as a tool for movement building. At Creating Change, and subsequently while working at the North Carolina Lambda Youth Network, I was surrounded by folks that had done enormous work to leave behind, or at least mitigate, the puritanical U.S. sexual construct. My friend, mentor, and boss—a fierce New York lesbian Jew-- told me just before my first Creating Change conference that I should go and hook up. At the time, I thought she was just encouraging us to have sex, what I learned later was that she was encouraging us to use all of the tools at our disposal to connect with others in our movement and to celebrate, without shame, a core and fundamental aspect of our being: our sexual selves.
As the new millennium hit, the queer community found itself again at a crossroads. This time our sexual revolution was not under attack by the establishment, indeed by the early 2000s, the Supreme Court struck down Bowers versus Hardwick, decriminalizing sodomy and de facto ending a large portion of the institutionalized sexual homophobia (although, it is still illegal to buy dildos in Texas!), our nascent resurgent sexual revolution was under attack from our own “success” stories and from our own political organization(s). By the end of the 90s, queer folks could see themselves staring back from Ellen, Will & Grace, MTV, Bravo, and a host of feature films. Except for Queer As Folk, and later the L Word, all of the media images screamed one message, to the straight community, “DON'T BE AFRAID, WE ARE JUST LIKE YOU!” Instead of June and Ward, you had Jack and Will---still a chaste American couple. Queers had been made palatable by removing the sex and ramping up the camp. Baby gays and dykes began to see and hear overwhelming conformist images and messages: find a man or woman (forget a tranny!), settle down, get a house in the burbs, adopt a baby girl from China,vacation in Europe, work for Target, resistance is futile!
And on the political side, you had organizations such as HRC (and later Freedom to Marry) continuing on the conformity battle cry while sucking up vast community resources and achieving next to nothing of their federal agenda. HRC, as the fairly unchallenged “national voice” of the movement until a recent resurgence by the Task Force, had the ear of the media and the nation...and used queer celebrities to extol the virtues of the heteronormative lifestyle—their sexual politics can be summed up by the image of Ted and Steve, white, in great shape, perfect hair, extremely butch, Log Cabiners, in business suits saying: “Hi I'm Ted and this is Steve, were are just like you...except I like to deep throat his cock and he likes to take it up the butt now and then. Buy American!”
And so, the growing visibility of the queer community, to me, was a blessing and a curse. It is great to see in media and in politics individuals with whom I am able in some ways to identify. It is horrifying that those same people have forgotten that our movement consciously tied sex and politics together in an effort to erase, permanently, regressive efforts to control our bodies and our pleasure.
During the last 10 years, the one place that I could count on to find the old spirit of sexual revolution was the Creating Change conference, For a decade, walking into the registration room of the conference was like taking one big politically charged viagra. For a week, I was able to fall in love with the politics, personality, and ass of dozens of revolutionaries---and I could, with celebration instead of shame, end my night deepening my connection to someone else in the movement through gymnastic rompings on the heavenly bed at the Atlanta Westin.
This year was different. Around the third day of the conference, I called a good friend to tell her that she was missed. She asked me what I thought about the conference, and I shared that in terms of style it was amazing, in terms of substance, somehow, the HRC had finally managed to infiltrate and suck every bit of sexual energy from the conference. The program book contained almost no workshops on sex, sexual organizing, polyamory, or any of the other staples from years past. There was no conference sponsored S&M play party as their had been in Milwaukee. Creating Change had lost an integral part of what made it truly about creating change...changing our beliefs and thoughts through conscious, shameless, safe, and supported exploration of our entire identities—including our sexual selves.
Although I was saddened by the specter of desexualization at the conference, I was not surprised. It was only a matter of time before the marriage movement/HRC borg was able to worm its way into the few places left that embraced radical sexuality and a sexual revolution.
I shared my thoughts and concerns with the conference staff at the Task Force, and they assured me that the evaluation process would include these concerns. But my concerns run much deeper than an annual conference. My concerns run to an active distancing of sex radicals from the queer movement. The same conformist queers advocating for marriage and monogamy, are the same ones you can find on Manhunt advertised as bareback, fist fuck, piss whores. Through the Reagan era into the mainstream conversion process, it has become unacceptable to bring to work and our lives the freedom of sexual expression that was at the core of our movement 40 years ago.
I challenge our national and local organizations, our youth organizations, our faith organizations, our media, and all of the other institutions we have created for ourselves to challenge the messaging we have been given about our sexual expressions. It is one thing to examine your core sexual attitudes and, through a conscious process, come to decide for yourself that at your deepest level you are meant for the long term partnered monogamous life. It is wrong and antithetical to ourselves as human beings and to the roots of our movement to accept a framework for sexuality crafted by James Dobson and approved by the board of the HRC.
It is time for the sluts, whores, kinks, leather community, chicks with dicks lovers, and every other shade and stripe of queers to come out of the closet and declare that our sexuality is not the price we are willing to pay for a grudging tolerance of ourselves as queer people.