My guest today is Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Sycamore is most recently the author of The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award, and the editor of Why Are f*ggots So Afraid of f*ggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Mattilda. You wrote a recent piece, "'Transgender Troops' Should Be an Oxymoron," in reaction to the Pentagon's decision to lift the ban on trans people serving openly in the US military. Can you please get us started? Why did you write this piece?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: As soon as news spread of the Pentagon's impending decision, the two major LGBT lobbying groups, the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBTQ Task Force, praised it as a civil rights victory. To me, it is not a victory for trans people, or for anyone else, to become part of one of the central institutions of global oppression. The US military is currently bombing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and who knows how many other countries around the world. That some out trans person might soon be able to press buttons in Nevada to destroy a village in Somalia or Pakistan is not progress. We don't need more militarism, we need more resistance to this brutality. The trillions of dollars in US military funding siphons resources away from literally everything that matters in this country, from education and health care to housing and social welfare. We need to fight for dramatic cuts in military funding, otherwise we will never have the structural change we need in this country, and around the world.
JB: Naively, I imagined this would be hailed as some sort of moral victory. But, now that I think about what you're saying, I believe there's a lot of merit to your perspective. Are you getting much push back for your outspokenness on this issue? And, did you see this Pentagon decision coming?
MBS: I think the Pentagon is always looking for a new batch of marginalized people to exploit, right? So, in that way, it's not a surprise. I think the ensuing debate over the next year, as the military implements the policy change, will also serve to distract from continuing oppression here and abroad, so, in that sense it's also a smart strategic move. The Pentagon, after all, does have trillions of dollars to think about strategy. And, the strategy of the gay establishment has, for decades, been assimilation into straight privilege, at any cost. It's tragic. Trans people have always been pushed to the side--they call it an "LGBT" movement, but really it's mostly about white gays and lesbians with power and privilege. So, yes, gay powerbrokers are never exactly pleased by this sort of critique. In fact, they have systematically kept radical queer and trans voices out of the picture. They'd much rather argue with some foaming-at-the-mouth Christian fundamentalist who thinks that all queer are going to burn in hell than have a principled debate with other queers.
JB: How did you come by your activism in the first place?
MBS: I grew up in an upper-middle-class assimilated Jewish family where I was sexually abused by my father from a young age, and his economic and professional success camouflaged the violence. I thought that in order to get away I had to beat my father on his terms--go to a better college, make more money, etc. I did go to that type of school, but there I realized that I was only learning how to be my father. I realized I needed to leave school in order to become my own person. I needed to find direct action activism and radical queers, I needed to be able to create my own value system, I needed to be able to define lust and love and intimacy and accountability on my own terms. So, after a year at an elite Ivy League university, I fled to San Francisco, where I found other incest survivors and dropouts, vegans and hookers and anarchists and direct action activists and other assorted troublemaking queers trying desperately to create ways of taking care of one another and challenging the violence of the status quo that were not predicated on anything we had been taught to believe. That's where I learned the most.
JB: That's an awful way to grow up. Did you ever have it out with your dad? Reconcile? How have you dealt with all that understandable rage and betrayal and all the other emotions?
MBS: As a kid, I blocked it all out. There was no other way to survive. I remembered the abuse in the context of my first sexual relationship, after I moved to San Francisco, when I was 19. It changed everything about how I saw the world, and my place in it. Two years later I confronted my father, and told him I would never speak to him again unless he acknowledged the abuse. He was a psychiatrist--he had every means available to do this work. He chose not to. Eleven years later, I learned that he was dying of terminal cancer. I decided to visit him, even though he hadn't acknowledged anything. I didn't want to realize, 10 years down the line or whenever, that I wished I had visited him, because that would no longer be possible. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I mean, it was traumatic and overwhelming, but I felt so present. I was sobbing. I told him I didn't want him to die. I told him I loved him. I didn't even realize I felt those things before, but I wanted to say everything. That's when I really realized that I had changed. I didn't need to shut off my emotions in order to exist in the world, like when I was a child. I was a totally different person. And this whole experience opened up the possibility to write my next book, The End of San Francisco, about all my formative moments, and their undoing. The book ultimately circles around the myths and realities of San Francisco--or anywhere--as a refuge for radical queer visions in community building, it's about the possibilities and failures of this dream, but it starts with visiting my father before he died. That's what made it possible.
JB: A courageous move that has ultimately paid big dividends. Where did the writing come from?