by Steven Dolan
- For The Capitol Hill Times -
Amid countless Facebook profile pictures changed to reflect support for gay marriage while the U.S. Supreme Court heard related arguments, an alternative voice – a radical, queeny, queer voice – filled the lower floor of The Elliott Bay Book Company.
Last Friday, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore read selections from her new book, “The End of San Francisco,” a memoir of sorts that explores her formation as a queer person and activist. This book and Sycamore’s other work, which includes anthologies like, “Why are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?” and the novel “So Many Ways to Sleep Badly,” often opposes the assimilation intrinsic in the mainstream LGBTQ community’s push for gay marriage. It’s a pursuit that she and others condemn for what they say constitutes as “institutional violence.”
Sycamore’s memoir follows her through the pursuit of a radical ideal while living in New York, Boston, Seattle and, of course, San Francisco in the 1990s. According to Sycamore, “The End of San Francisco” is the author at her most vulnerable.
“I think that when I came into my queerness, a lot of it was about invulnerability, and projecting a sort of invulnerability to the outside world,” Sycamore said. “That serves a certain purpose. You know, we need that feeling of safety even when we don’t have it.”
Sycamore frankly tells of sex work, drug use and confronting her father about sexual abuse. As well, she suggests that it is important to become more vulnerable as she continues to create, as it provides opportunities for connection within the queer community.
“The only way that we can actually connect and create something in the ruins of the world around us is if we can experience our own vulnerability,” Sycamore said.
This included acknowledging the various failings of activist groups that Sycamore had been a part of, such as ACT UP and Gay Shame. Sycamore spoke against perceived success in certain queer cultures for creating what she calls “radical alternatives” to both straight and gay normalcy.
“There’s this sort of self-congratulatory rhetoric about ‘well, you know, we’ve succeeded,’ and I think that rhetoric around success really camouflages violence in very similar ways to the kind of smiling, happy people, you know, mainstream gay mythology.”
The book is a radical alternative in its own right, foregoing a linear narrative structure and telling stories of some the world’s outsiders: queer people, sex workers, drug addicts, anarchists and others.
“I wanted to think about my memoir not as that kind of [linear] narrative, but something that opens up the possibility for a messier kind of story that, for me, is more honest,” Sycamore said.
Sycamore often describes the story as “messy,” but it certainly isn’t clumsy. There is grace to the books’ madness, facilitated by the skillful use of associative style.
Reluctant to draw connections between art and activism, Sycamore sees art as a means of survival with political limitations. She cites art in the everyday, such as flamboyance on the street, which Sycamore believes creates safety for queer people.
“Making something and putting it in a gallery is not necessarily an intervention,” Sycamore said.
Whether she is willing to admit it, “The End of San Francisco” has potential to enlighten individuals within a generation that has been told that “marriage equality” is the ultimate right to be won by the LGBTQ community. Some readers won’t like Sycamore for her social and political critiques, but she is an important figure who encourages a critical look at social action, and, for that, “The End of San Francisco” is an important book.
“The End of San Francisco” was published in March 2013 by City Lights Publishers. More info here: