How Sinema subverts the radical conventions of queer politics

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In January 2019, every field organizer who worked on Kyrsten Sinema’s campaign was invited to see her sworn in as a U.S. senator. I regretted not going when I saw the photos: She’s standing in a pencil skirt with a bright pink rose design, smirking at Mike Pence, who holds the Constitution, not the Bible, for her to lay her hand on. Her lipstick is bright red, her hair in playful curls. Her arms are bare, a dig at Senate tradition. I had never seen someone so campy become so powerful.

Before working on Sinema’s campaign, I spent a year with AmeriCorps VISTA in Benson, Ariz., a rural, conservative town of 5,000 where I was one of just a few openly gay people. I loved living there, and the people I met welcomed me into their lives. But I also learned from my friends that most of the gay kids in town don’t come out until they move to Tucson after high school. The risks are too great. I thought Sinema, who as a child was homeless and was bullied for being queer, would know what people who live fragile lives need to survive.

This was because for much of her life, Sinema seemed like the kind of liberal overachiever Alison Bechdel often lampooned in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” She’s a bisexual atheist who worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign before getting a social work degree and a PhD in “justice studies.” Today Sinema is among the most conservative Senate Democrats, blocking much of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda and moderating the legislation she does vote for. Still, she adheres to the long-established tenets of queer activism that enabled her political rise: Provocation gets you more than propriety. Hierarchy exists to be flouted. But Sinema embodies these ideals in an empty and diminished way, showing how modern queer politics has become more preoccupied with showy defiance than with the material improvement of vulnerable people’s lives.

In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag described camp as an aesthetic “emphasizing style … at the expense of content,” expressing a “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ and of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Sontag noted that “homosexuals” were the self-appointed arbiters of camp, which was fitting, as camp was at once a private code and a set of “flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation.” While Sontag’s description from 60 years ago mostly holds up, there’s a notable exception. “The Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized,” she wrote.

That was before the AIDS crisis.

Every minority group struggles to get attention, but AIDS activists were successful because they relied on the spectacular features of camp, turning the once-private pandemonium of the closet into public spectacle. It helped them turn attention into resources, and resources into respect and power. To protest the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and its price-gouging of AZT, then the most promising anti-HIV drug, AIDS activists dressed up as bankers and disrupted the opening of the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989 by chaining themselves to the VIP balcony and showering the floor with fake $100 bills. Burroughs Wellcome dropped the price of AZT four days later. When Sen. Jesse Helms described queer people as “morally sick” and fought funding for HIV research, AIDS activists unfurled a giant custom-made condom over his house in Virginia in 1991.

ACT UP demonstrators embraced vulgarity and public disruption — which police used as a pretext for policing queer life for much of the 19th and 20th centuries — because even into the 1980s, queer people were treated with so much contempt that activists were less constrained by the need to seem respectable. They could turn shame, a weapon long wielded to control sexual minorities, against the brittle institutions failing them. Among many victories, ACT UP members made AIDS treatments more…

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