Our interview with the rad queer author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore / by Allison Francis
Radical queer activist and author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is currently wrapping up a tour in support of her new memoir, The End of San Francisco. “It’s important for me to challenge this nostalgic vision of the past, particularly of the early 90s,” Sycamore told us about her memoir, which covers her experiences in SF during that period -- stories about sexual assault, addiction, homelessness, self-discovery as a radical activist, and more. “Nostalgia erases the actual experiences.” In advance of her December 11th appearance at Harvard Book Store, Sycamore spoke with The Media about the shortcomings of mainstream gay culture, where the personal and political overlap, and the importance of challenging the communities we are a part of.
Allison Francis: In The End of San Francisco, you write that critique is an act of love. How does this apply to your work and life as a queer activist?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: A lot of people are afraid of critique because they think it means you aren’t supporting them. For me, the most important thing in any kind of relationship is the critical engagement. Unfortunately in a lot of radical or artistic or queer worlds, there’s this unquestioning support, this “we have arrived” mentality: we have created radical ways of challenging the status quo, we have created different ways of living, different ways of creating intimacy, and desire, and love, and lust, and living on our own terms.
The worlds that have formed me have always been the worlds that are most important to me. In writing The End of San Francisco, I was drawn to talking about the places where my analysis stopped and where the people I believed in let me down. Now I’m in a place where dominant straight culture could kill me, and
mainstream gay culture with its consumerism and harmful violence could also bring about my demise. But neither of those things really touch me in the every day.What really hurts is when the people we believe in let us down. We’re never going to get anywhere toward these beautiful ideas -- ideas of accountability and mutuality and creating relationships through desire and desire through relationships – unless we can talk about the places where we fail.
You write so much about your personal and political lives, where they overlap and where they’re the same, and where they seem to be at odds with each other. In the memoir you talk about your past traumas of sexual assault, addiction, and homelessness, to name a few, alongside writing about your self-discovery as a radical activist. How are these narratives connected to one another?
San Francisco was the most formative place for me when I first moved there in the early 90s. That’s where I found myself as a radical queer person dedicated to challenging both straight and gay normalcy and creating radical alternatives, different ways of taking care of one another and also challenging the laws around us and creating something more devastating and flamboyant and transformative.
We all exist in multiple worlds, right? But most people don’t want to. In San Francisco I existed in a radical queer activist world with ACT UP and other direct action groups, and I also existed in a dyke culture centered in the Mission, which was politicized but not necessarily interested in direct action activism, and I existed in a late-night, knock-you-down, house and techno dance culture that was all about drugs where there was no substance beyond going out at six am and being . . .
On an autumn of activism and a rally next Saturday / by Nicole Sullivan
It was a warm June afternoon in 2012. I was nervously sitting on the Boston Common while close to 45 women waited around me. When it seemed liked no one else was coming, I asked the crowd to gather in a circle and handed out an agenda. In the next two hours, we discussed patriarchy, violence, and its intersections with white supremacy. Most importantly, we asked ourselves, “why does the women's movement keep failing at these intersections, and how can we move forward?” From this informal discussion, Boston Feminists for Liberation (BFL) was born.
Since that afternoon two springs ago, BFL has organized rallies, film nights, and an ongoing reading group that meets every month. Earlier this year, we hosted speak-outs against the pro-choice struggles. Last year, we held a March Against Rape Culture and Gender Inequality through the streets of downtown Boston. And this Saturday, we’ll host out fourth rally, Break Out! March Against Mass Incaceration, to protest the massive amounts of racist and sexist state violence committed towards women, gender and sexual minorities at the hands of Boston's prison industrial complex. The march comes at an appropriate time, at the end of an autumn that has seen similar feminist prison reform organizing done by not only BFL but other Massachusetts-based groups Jobs Not Jails and The Prison Birth Project.
The roots of Boston Feminists for Liberation are within a very different movement. In the winter of 2011, a police officer told a group of college women that to avoid rape, they should avoid dressing like sluts. From that one comment, the Slutwalk movement was born. Women marched through the street, telling the world they could dress how they want, fuck how they want, and live how they and no, that doesn't not give anyone a reason to rape them. It was incredibly powerful in its bluntness. I would know-- I helped organize the largest Slutwalk here in Boston. I thought I was changing the world for all women. It soon became clear that I was dead wrong.
Slutwalks began popping up all over the globe, but at the same time, so did criticisms. These criticsms came from unexpected voices. Instead of men telling us to get back in the kitchen, we had hundreds of women stating one thing very clearly: “You do not speak for us.” From the Open Letter from Black Women to Slutwalk Organizers to countless blog posts, it became clear that Slutwalk missed the mark by far. Sexual violence is not just an issue of backwards cultural belief, it is a tool and weapon used by various institutions on our society- especially by white supremacy and colonialism. Without that structural analysis, Slutwalk was effectively useless in creating . . .
December / by Liz Pelly and Jenn Pelly