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Our interview with the rad queer author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore / by Freddie 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.

Freddie 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 able to dance until you couldn’t stand up any longer. To me, these worlds weren’t necessarily contradictory.

I wrote about this moment where I invited people from all these different worlds to a dinner party at my house. What I wanted was for people who meant something to me to meet one another, but it was such an uncomfortable situation. The club kids were talking about how vegan food was really weird, and “I don’t even know what activism is” and “did you see my new outfit”, blah blah blah, and everyone else didn’t know how to interact. A few of them accused me of conducting a social experiment! I learned a lesson there.

People become so glued to one particular way of thinking or social scene or subculture that they lose track of how to connect to people outside of that. If you’re not playing by whatever the rules are, you’re ostracized. But we need to be demolishing rules and hierarchies, not creating new ones. We need to be creating more possibilities for people to be fluid in their gender, sexual, social and political identities.

The End of San Francisco is structured unconventionally, non-chronologically, and almost in stream of consciousness, as if you are sharing different parts of your life as you are remembering them. What made you choose this style of memoir and what do you hope it adds to the experience of the reader?

Most memoirs take the most challenging, creative, dissonant, messy, explosive lives and turn them into laminated timelines, like passive products for an unquestioning audience. I wanted to challenge these terms. Conventional plot structure doesn’t match our lives and experiences. When I was writing about people who let me down in 1992, I felt almost as betrayed as I did then! I was going for those vulnerable parts, things I wasn’t able to write 20 years ago – or if I had written them, it would have been in a different way. I wanted to preserve the intimacy of feeling things as they happen in the moment.

In an interview with your publisher you said the title The End of San Francisco refers to the end of your “hope for San Francisco as a refuge for queer visions outside of status quo normalcy.” Through the memoir I observed your struggle between upholding your radical queer vision and trying to pre-emptively avoid getting disappointed by people and communities you end up feeling disillusioned by. What is your vision for those of us who want to challenge the status quo in our communities?  

It’s important for me to challenge this nostalgic vision of the past, particularly of the early 90s. So many queers now have this nostalgia for something they never experienced. In the early 90s, everyone was dying from AIDS, and drug addiction, and suicide. I came of age watching a generation of people losing all their friends. That’s what being queer meant: it meant everyone was dying. Nostalgia erases the actual experiences.  

I still believe in all the same things I did in 1992: creating our own culture and values and communities and flamboyance and structures in the place of the disgusting rot fed to us, whether that’s the dominant straight culture that most of us grow up with or the viciousness of mainstream gay culture that many of us grow into. That’s where the possibility lies and that’s where we need to be more honest with one another.

I think the worst part of our cultures is the way people support and engage in success when that success is predicated on camouflaging violence. I could say that as a child growing up sexually abused by my parents coming from an upper middle class family in suburban Washington DC; I could say that as a young queer activist in the Mission. People talk about accountability but throw each other in the trash, people talk about these bold visions without actualizing them, people twist the language of accountability in order to preserve violence. We have amazing, sophisticated rhetoric in radical queer spaces and so often it doesn’t rise to the occasion. We need to be bolder and more challenging and more welcoming of critique within these worlds we create.

You’re wrapping up your book tour with your December 11th appearance at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. As a Bostonian, your description of how we walk here resonated with me: “In Boston, you really needed to know how to walk… you walk like you're going to die you walk like you're never going to die you're never going to die as long as you keep walking and you walk like you're going to kill, kill with this walk and you walk like no one can touch you. And the truth is that no one can touch you, as long as you're walking. Well, maybe not the whole truth, but that's the truth in your eyes, which is the truth that matters, at least when you're walking.” What has been your experience of re-visiting cities you write about in The End of San Francisco, and sharing stories of these cities with the people who live there now?

What’s struck me over and over again is younger queers are saying, “the things you’re describing are exactly the same now.” In some ways that’s validating, and in others it’s heartbreaking. I’m glad you relate to that passage because the violent homophobia I experienced on the street every day was absolutely ingrained. Getting on the T and having someone scream that I deserved to die and shouldn’t be there, and having everyone pretend like nothing was happening. That happened every few days.  

Being able to project invulnerability no matter what -- that saved me when I was entering the world as a radical queer person. Invulnerability is how I found people like me, existing in a world where people wanted us to die. And invulnerability is how I was able to come to terms with everything that meant something to me. But now, almost 20 years later, I feel like vulnerability is what’s going to save me. Talking about these places of loss, and yearning, and where my dreams reach dead ends – that vulnerability is going to save me now.

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