Riese: I want to talk a little bit about Trump. As you touched on earlier, his entire platform is overstating harm while simultaneously insisting that the left is full of crybabies and special snowflakes. How do you think we’ve evolved or devolved as a country to get to this place? Are there any elements of the situation with Trump that you find particularly alarming that you think are being overlooked or aren’t being talked about enough?
Sarah: Well how he got elected is very complex, right, because it’s all these different elements. There’s international intervention. There’s media being irresponsible and exploiting him for ratings instead of critiquing him. There’s an electorate that does not understand how our society works and thinks that you vote for people because you like them instead of what your policies are. There’s the fact that a lot of people don’t like Hillary Clinton, that she didn’t communicate well with people and even though she probably was the most qualified person to ever run for president in the history of the country, she was also a warmonger and a lot people didn’t have good feelings about her. There was the manipulation by the FBI. There was profound sexism which is a huge factor. And then there’s the way that Trump manipulated racism. So there’re so many elements here.
I think the category “how Trump manipulated racism” is probably the most appropriate to what we are discussing now. Because if you take working-class white people who’ve been in this country for 200 or 300 years for whom immigration is a distant memory, and who have worked in factories and mines multi-generationally, and have had no upward mobility, and have problems with addiction, and have not gotten educated, and then their jobs are taken away from them because the factories are globalized, and they lose their social role. The people who are the source of their problem are the white one percent. But, because of racism, the white working class identifies with that white one percent, and then projects their anxieties onto the wrong party. This is traumatized people overstating harm, misplacing blame, and they blame immigrants. Trump is going around saying immigrants cause crime. Immigrants do not cause crime! There’s no evidence that immigrants cause crime. Crime is caused by poverty. So this construction — the inability to challenge racial identification — is really the manifestation of what my book is about.
Riese: Are there parts of what he’s doing now that you don’t think people are paying enough attention to?
Sarah: Today it looks like he’s in trouble, but who knows. There’s so much we don’t know. But we do know that he’s attacking everybody. He’s building an enormous coalition of Muslims, trans people, journalists, judges — it’s remarkable how many different kinds of people he’s uniting so the chances of a popular resistance… the popular resistance is there. The problem is in the Democratic party, which has been sentimentally attached to a system that creates their status and that system no longer exists. The society we lived in under Obama and before this — this neoliberal, dysfunctional, unequal society — we are never going back to that. It’s over. And we can only come out the other end of this. He’s already dismantled so many protections — I mean we’re looking at having to imagine another way of living. So, the Democratic party or whatever party is gonna come up has got to understand that and move forward. Retrogressive nostalgia is not gonna be productive.
Riese: When you’re observing the resistance against Trump, is there anything from your experience with ACT UP or Lesbian Avengers that you think the resistance should be employing?
Sarah: One thing that is bothering me is that students are not responding appropriately. We’re not seeing as much campus activism. We have seen in some ruling class schools and also in some UC schools, this emphasis on the idea that stopping fascists from speaking is somehow gonna move things forward, and I can understand people’s frustration but I don’t think that that is necessarily the most productive strategy. I’m looking for students to have dramatically powerful organizing, especially around questions like sanctuary campuses. And that has not emerged yet.
Riese: Things like protesting Milo speaking or Chick-fil-A opening a store on campus or spending a lot of time jumping on various established smart people saying problematic things about trans folks or gay people or women, and the extensive processing of those statements and the eventual shunning of that person from discourse — is that a distraction?
Sarah: It depends on the example. If it’s a person who has legitimacy in that people are really connected to them and have struggled with them and there’s a relationship and then there’s something that they “don’t get,” I think there is a value in arguing with them. And also there are generational things that are just not gonna be overcome. But if it’s someone who’s created by the media and who is a corporate icon and never had grassroots relationships, that’s something else entirely.
My fear about shutting people down is that as somebody who’s pro-Palestinian, I’ve been seeing a move to equate criticism of Israel with hate speech. And this is the danger of these hate speech rules, because what matters about them is who controls them and if we see legitimate political analysis called hate speech then I think it’s clear that that frame needs to be heavily dismantled, because unless you can guarantee that you’re gonna control its application, which no one can guarantee, it’s quite dangerous. […]
Riese: Okay, this is a question from my friend Natalie, who is a big fan of your work! In Gentrification of the Mind, you take up the “privatization of the family” as reflected in the nuclear family, marriage, monogamy. Though arguably important in de jure equality, this is a narrowing of a queer politic and a shrinking of space for plurality of political projects/struggling together against dominant hegemonic culture, values etc. Could you expand on how this (narrow) construction of family continues to shape and and undermine collective structures of social support, including funding for public services?
Sarah: I don’t know if I can answer that. In the current book my thinking has gone a little bit farther … all studies show that children who are raised in queer families have almost no experiences of violence. I mean this is parents who decided to have children in the context of queer relationships. You know, “chosen children.” Studies show that these families benefit children. So children are doing very well in queer families.
What I’m worried about is the mothers. The mother role in the queer family appears to be the same as the mother role in the straight family, which is one of martyrdom, sacrifice and guilt. And because so many lesbian mothers end up as single mothers, I mean this is a trend, but anecdotally, their lives end up being completely controlled by the fact that they are mothers but also their legitimacy is completely controlled by the fact that they are mothers. It’s almost like a “psychological prison,” especially in my generation, where simply to be a girl was a problem and to be a lesbian was the worst thing you could possibly do, but perhaps later if you had a child then your family would forgive you and bond with you, and then gay people get more legitimacy as gay people. Even though the system does nothing for mothers and undermines families that don’t have money! But anything that has to do with familial normalization has benefited queer people in terms of legislation. So the only grounds on which you matter are that you’re a mother, but you’re still stuck in this system where you’re a martyr in order to be a mother. I’m very concerned about my generation of queer women who are mothers and who are caught in this bind and particularly the role — now that adult children are much more dependent on their parents emotionally, especially in the middle classes and higher, and that there’s this psychological expectation that independence and autonomy is delayed, I fear that this generation of queer mothers are enslaved to their family units forever, and that their own personal happiness and their own personal evolution, separate from being a mother, is something that has really become not just second place but no place. So I question how good the queer family structure is for women. Especially in a country where women are earning so much less than men.
Riese: Which you talk about in Stagestruck also, the double negative —
Sarah: A female income vs. male income.
Riese: — so if you’re looking at these women that you’re concerned about, what can be done to make them not slaves to this paradigm?
Sarah: I don’t know the answer. But I think that the fact that we have legalized gay marriage, for example, but we don’t have legalized protection from anti-gay discrimination, just shows that social legitimacy exists only in the realms in which we resemble straight people and their concerns. In the realms in which we do not resemble them, the realms in which we are different, we have no legitimacy at all. And I think that that’s psychologically harmful.
Riese: Also in Stagestruck you talked about how lesbians are expected to go home and care for elderly parents, which I’ve definitely observed, like the straight people are allowed to go off and get married and have kids but if the lesbian is single then she’s expected to take care of the parents —
Sarah: It’s like you don’t have a life if you don’t have a child! Especially if you don’t have a son. If you have a son then you have a life because you’re doing something important which is you’re raising men.
Riese: Pivoting a bit — in Gentrification of the Mind, you express some degree of hope that there might be an alternative and independent art scene building up as a departure from the then-current state of art and literature. Do you still feel that way? Do you think it has improved?
Sarah: There’ve been a few queer female works that have really broken through and have gotten a lot of corporate approval lately. But what’s interesting about them — to look at Transparent, Fun Home, and The Argonauts — is that they’re all about family. That is not to denigrate those works; that has nothing to do with their inherent value or the achievements of those artists. But none of them are about difference.
Riese: You don’t think Fun Home is about difference?
Sarah: It’s about a family that has contradictions and tragedies, but the relational construction is the familial one and that’s the one that the straight world likes. I have yet to see a work embraced by corporations that actually shows, for example, the real way that homophobia functions or real queer sexuality. There are works that show ultra-religious people being homophobic, just like there are works that show ultra-white people being racist. But there are not works that show how it actually functions or how these systems function, because the pieces that get picked out to be rewarded on some level reinforce the dominant culture’s image of themselves as tolerant. They’re comfortable with the image. If you go back to AIDS representation, there was the same issue. Philadelphia, the film that won an Oscar, is based on the idea that a gay man has AIDS and he’s being discriminated against, so he goes to a homophobic lawyer because in the psychology of that film there are no gay lawyers.
Riese: I remember seeing that in the theater — I guess it was in the early 90s, so I was 10 or 11? I totally bought that narrative and assumed it was real.
Sarah: It’s absurd. Not only ahistorical, it’s the opposite of the truth. It’s a fantasy. Of course that person would go to a gay lawyer, that’s what those people did. But they have to construct that the straight person is the savior. And why is he the savior? Because he bravely overcomes his prejudices. And that’s how they construct straight heroism. The whole thing is insulting.
Riese: As someone who has written extensively about the difficulties lesbian playwrights face to get their work produced, were you surprised by the success of Fun Home?
Sarah: I’m a playwright and I understand how the theater works, and the forces that decide decided on that one.
Riese: Do you think Dykes to Watch Out For would’ve made a better musical?
Sarah: That’s funny. […] If you look at it from the book side of the book business … it’s a graphic novel. Interestingly, there is a history of queer work being allowed to thrive in forms that are not considered the blue ribbon form. You can’t have a lesbian novel be a national bestseller, but you can have a lesbian graphic novel. You can’t have a multi-character play in a traditional format, shaped like an O’Neil play or a Miller Play, but you can have things that are sort of performance arty or solo, in a form that they don’t consider to be “The Form.”
Riese: Do you think that’s true in poetry?
Sarah: Poetry’s different because it doesn’t sell. I mean that’s not always true, because Claudia Rankine’s Citizen has sold 200,000 copies, but that’s very rare. Poetry’s different because there’s no money attached.
Riese: Who are your favorite writers right now?
Sarah: Claudia Rankine. Rabih Alameddine, I’m very loyal to him, I think he’s a great writer. I just read Sex Museum, an LGBT studies book by Jennifer Tyburczy, a very very smart highly interdisciplinary book about the display of sexuality in museums that i thought was really smart. I just read Emily K. Hobson’s Lavender & Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, about the gay left in California during the Nicaraguan revolution and the whole thing about queer solidarity groups.