Gay Shame—Removed From Neoliberalism?

The political agenda of the radical queer activist group, Gay Shame, primarily combats neoliberal ideologies of consumerism, capitalism, and commercialism (See their website: http://gayshamesf.org/). The group targets homonormative groups that ascribe to this ideology and perpetuate its expansion (Weiss 2008; Mattilda, 2004). This is evident in the group’s “Points of Unity” cited from their website:

  • ·  We will not only critique targets like corporations, but we will also expose inconsistencies within our social groups and so-called “communities”, in order to grow more toward our radical ideals. Whenever possible, we will use humor and satire to get our points across and to critique ourselves.
  • ·  We will call out the greed and consumerism inherent in mainstream gay identity. We are dedicated to fighting capitalism and it’s resulting inequalities.

(http://www.gayshamesf.org/about.html, May 18, 2011)

As Mattilda describes in her book, That’s Revolting! (2004), the annual Gay Pride parade in San Francisco is often a site of conflict as Gay Shame views the event as a homonormative engagement with corporate sponsorship and the commoditization of gay identity. Likewise, corporate construction of gay identity—specifically cited by Mattilda in the case of Budweiser’s sponsorship (Mattilda, 243-5)—prompts the strong, radical demonstration of the group. What I am particularly interested in is the mode/format of this type of activism as the method largely impacts the political stance of the group.

There are notable instances of performance/activist events in Mattilda’s history that complicate the political agenda set forth by the group. In Mattilda’s account of a Gay Shame rally, “we decided to hold Gay Shame in an outdoor public space. We choose Tire Beach, a rotting industrial park on the San Francisco Bay where discarded MUNI streetcars are dumped and a concrete factory borders a small grassy area (Mattilda 239). A major tenet of the group’s argument against neoliberalism lies in the access and “freedom” of public space versus the privatization and gentrification of space. While Tire Beach is suggested to be a public space in terms of real estate, it can be argued that its geography—as an abandoned lot, isolated away from the populous—creates a privatization of space in its removal from the general public. With Gay Shame’s professed attendance to public exposure, this instance provides an example of a seemingly failure of the group to adhere to their own standards of activism.

Likewise, and perhaps more extreme, Mattilda recounts the group’s benefit held at the Eagle (Mattilda 250). As she states, “the Eagle—a gay white male space that was notoriously misogynist and racist (like virtually any gay bar)—represented exactly what Gay Shame was formed to critique. Nevertheless, we agreed to hold the benefit, since many of us had spent money on various costs associated with demos,” (250). Despite the misgivings about the benefit, economic impact outweighed the foundational principles of the group’s fight against corporate consumerism. By engaging in this event for a monetary gain—“financially successful (Gay Shame raised $1,200)” (250)—and holding the event in a private space and a space that did not allow for the radical, theatrical performance that the group depended on, this instance presents another example of the irregularities in the group’s history of political activism.

Margot Weiss addresses the nature of activism from a binary of in/out of the system situating NCSF (National Coalition for Sexual Freedom)—in—at one end and Gay Shame—out—on the other (Weiss 2008). While Weiss does not intend to express an opinion on the effectiveness of one over the other, a comparison is inevitably drawn between the two. NCSF, working from within the system, employs legal and conformist practices in an attempt to create equality for those who are socially and culturally divergent. While NCSF works within the normative structure to create change, Gay Shame pushes from outside the structure in a confrontational manner to generate change. However, as the previous examples indicate, it is difficult for the group to wholly remove themselves from the overarching structure as their ideology demands.

This is particularly interesting to consider in the effectiveness of their performances. In viewing a performance clip presented on YouTube (the format of viewing performance on screen in privacy presents its own problems not addressed here) of “Gay Shame Protest at San Francisco Pride,” there appears to be a lack of interest by the surrounding spectators—or lackthereof. Despite the spectacle of the event and the theatricality of the protest, spectators seem disinterested in the event which causes difficulties in the exposure of the group’s political message. What does this say of the effectiveness of this type of activism? Can a commentary even made through this clip which provides a very selective approach to a singular event? How can this be compared to the more measurable success of the NCSF group in winning legal suits against discrimination?

Both groups foreground intersectionality in their struggles, encompassing all marginalized groups and confronting a range of social issues—Mattilda frequently references opposition to the war in Iraq (2004). What I find interesting in the case of Gay Shame is the uniformity imposed by the adoption of the singular name “Mary” by all those involved in the group. Their reasoning, as stated on their website, “This is so no one is falsely identified or targeted as a “leader,” (http://www.gayshamesf.org/about.html, May 18, 2011) emphasizes a group collective over isolating a singular representative. While effective in establishing solidarity, how does the denial of individuality by the universal adoption of “Mary” problematize the group’s demand for acceptance of those who are unique? By removing individual names, and by extent, individual identities within the group, Gay Shame conforms to the very commercialization it seeks to fight against.

Works Cited:

“Gay Shame Protest at San Francisco Pride”. YouTube. Posted by Arirhodes, 21 July 2010. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HewuNTS-ixQ&gt;.

Sycamore, Mattilda Bernstein. That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2008.

Weiss, Margot D. “Gay Shame and BDSM Pride: Neoliberalism, Privacy, and Sexual Politics.” Radical History Review, Winter 2008, Issue100: 87-101.

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One Response to Gay Shame—Removed From Neoliberalism?

  1. Victoria Heverley says:

    This is the central question – at least in my mind – isn’t it? How can you completely remove yourself from a pervasive system that dictates how visible you are in terms of how much you utilize the conventions of that very system that you purport to hate? Obviously NCSF would have a better chance at getting their point across – they worked within the boundaries of “normal” making those who oppose BDSM stop and think, “oh, well if otherwise they are like me, I guess I can let them get away with this one deviant thing, as long as it is in PRIVATE space.” I’m not claiming this will satisfy all BDSM critics, I’m just saying it gains ground faster than doing everything within one’s power to showcase a group’s differences. However, what does this say about NCSF? It seems as though they are left with two mutually exclusive (and neither too desirable) images to project: One, they are only accepting of BDSM practitioners who are otherwise enmeshed in normative society and two, BDSM practitioners of a veriety of lifestyles are welcome within the group and NCSF lies about their individuality in terms of reaching their goals. Neither sounds very effective to me. You either subject certain people to violence by excluding them, or by including them but hiding it to avoid the “shame.”

    Interesting that the opposing group is called Gay SHAME! But you’re right. How can they achieve their goals and still stay true to their methods? The demonstration shown in the YouTube clip says a lot. Even other Gay Shame members seem bored and disinterested. People walking by on the street are used to a certain way of viewing causes – the heteronormative corporate conglomerative way. Strangely dressed individuals who are presumed to be deviant and unreliable don’t call for much attention. Some people even seemed annoyed, trying to walk through the group without looking in the direction of the demonstrators in the least. So, how do you change the minds of the hetero/homo normative majority when the methods central to your position automatically position you as illegitimate? Using the modes of normativity such as the Eagle, and publishing an obvious commodity – a book – they haven’t seemed to garner much exposure either though. So how do they reconcile this? I don’t think there is an easy answer.

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