Homo equals homogenous: Interview with Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein
- Published: 18 April 2010
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Fitting into the mainstream establishment is not on trans queer activist and writer Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein’s agenda, and she is quite willing to forgo the ‘straight privilege’ that many in the queer community still seek. She spoke with Cath Davies.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore might often described as gender-bending, and sometimes still referred to as ‘Matt’, but she is happy to use female pronouns these days, arguing, “I'll take she, thank you. I think we should all have the ability, opportunity, and experience in choosing our own gender, sexual, and social identities – I mean, as long as those choices aren't imposing violence on anyone else. That's the dream of a queer identity, right?”.
And queer living is very important to Mattilda, from her activism in groups such as ACT UP (early '90s), Fed Up Queers ( late '90s), Gay Shame, and numerous lesser-known, sometimes unnamed, troupes to her regular articles, essays, interviews, reviews, and stories found in numerous publications including the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Bitch, and The Gay & Lesbian Review, her monthly column for Maximumrocknroll and her column in the feminist magazine Make/shift.
Once quipping that 'homo now stands more for homogenous than any type of sexuality', fitting into the mainstream establishment is not on her agenda, and she is quite willing to forgo the 'straight privilege' that many in the GLBT community still seek.
Take, for instance, her stance on same-sex marriage, a current hot topic in countries around the globe, noting in a LiP article that many queers would not benefit from it at all, and the little-discussed observation that 'those not entirely "male" or "female" would need to accept gender tyranny' in order to participate.
“Queers have created new models for living with, loving, and lusting for one another, but now the gay establishment wants to throw away those outsider visions for any taste of straight privilege it can get its hands on,” she tells The Scavenger. “Gay marriage, gays in the military, gay cops – it’s like they take the grossest aspects of mainstream straight power, and if you put the word ‘gay’ on it then suddenly you're a pariah if you don't support it.
“Gay marriage is not a dream, the end of marriage is a dream,” Bernstein-Sycamore continues. “Same with the military – we need to be fighting for military abolition, not inclusion. The end of the prison industrial complex, not our place within it. I mean, any random straight person knows that marriage is a dead end, and now gay people are busy shoring up his crumbling institution and giving it a new look.”
She argues strongly that as a community we need to be spending more of our time, money, and energy on basic rights and needs “like housing, healthcare, food, gender self-determination and sexual splendour for all” and wasting less resources on “reimagining the dominant markers of straight conformity as the ultimate signs of a success” (unless cultural erasure is the goal!).
Direct action has been an important tool for Bernstein-Sycamore, and the use of humour and theatre essential. “I wouldn't be able to do anything if I wasn't laughing all the time,” she says. “I mean, I laugh at the most horrible things … The only way for me to survive such a horrifying world is to respond with pageantry and to take satire to extreme levels of disastrous excess. That's what direct action is for me – a public spectacle to draw people's attention to the real spectacle.”
She finds inspiration and hope in all sorts of activities around her, from people “fucking in the bathrooms at City Hall” to seeing how “some of the trans women working the streets in my neighborhood turned such a glamorous 2 AM runway even though the conditions of their lives might sometimes be desperate. I feel very hopeful about emerging trans, genderqueer and gender defiant subcultures and the possibility to change everything”.
Bernstein-Sycamore’s written work is a reflection of all of this, and rarely pulls any punches, whether discussing issues of gender, sexuality, politics or sex work. Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters remarked about her book So Many Ways To Sleep Badly, “Sycamore has boiled life and times down to a resin that you could almost grind, cut up and snort. There is no one else on this planet that could write this book. Dare I say it's a classic? Yes, and I dare you to read it.”
And well-known 'dykon', author Michelle Tea states, “Mattilda's brilliance makes stream-of-consciousness a lifestyle, a state-of consciousness. This is an entire lived life's worth of heartshaking honesty, arch observation, searing vulnerabilty and craving and seeking, all in one breathtakingly poetic (and hilarious) book. Life is hard, I'm in tears, Mattilda's book is simultaneously the cause and the comfort.”
Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein’s latest book is So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. Keep up to date with Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein’s writings, touring, reviews and access some of her previous work at her website.
Cath Davies is a gentlefag and scholar.
Image: Courtesy of Mattilda Sycamore-Bernstein