dangerous, life-giving, & impossible to withhold
radical love letter #43
In 1987, Douglas Crimp published an essay called “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” in which he takes to task racist theories about the origins of AIDS, homophobic PSAs about the “gay men’s disease,” and, perhaps most powerfully, the homonormative anti-sex crusader and gay playwright, Larry Kramer. Kramer was known in the queer community for being dismissive of ACT UP-style radical politics and for his belief that “the gay leaders who created this sexual liberation philosophy...have been the death of us.” Crimp says, in contrast, that ‘this sexual liberation philosophy’ is exactly what will keep queer people - especially margainlized queer people of color, drug users, and trans people - alive.
Covid is not AIDS, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the responses to our current pandemic in relationship to my queer history, especially as more and more people who were practicing abstinence-style quarantine are pushing the boundaries of what they are willing to risk. I count myself among the group of people who started the pandemic adhering strictly to the rules of staying home, of never being outside of my apartment without a mask, and feeling judgmental toward people who didn’t. For understandable reasons, these choices were quickly politicized in a bipartisan framework: people who wore masks and stayed home were liberals who cared about keeping people alive, people who didn’t wear masks and weren’t staying home were conservatives who didn’t care about keeping people alive. Of course, that divide is not nearly so clean, particularly when we consider how many people don’t have homes in which to shelter, don’t have access to masks, and when essential workers of all political varieties couldn’t stay home.
Further, the advice from the CDC, newspapers, and non-right-wing-Twitter, was to only interact less than 6 feet apart with “people in your household.” This inevitably benefited not just people who had physical homes in which to live, but very specifically, monogamous people who live with their partners/bio-families. And as Trump rejected masks and closing businesses, it was etnrenched that if you were a good person, you agreed to guidelines that inherently privileged models of the nuclear family. Unfortunately, for all the possibilities of love and care it may offer, our current model of family is also, as Sophie Lewis notes, an “anti-queer factory for producing productive workers, rife with power asymmetries and violence.” And yet, the pandemic asked seemingly “progressive” people to align themselves with upholding this ambiguous unit as a locus of safety.
Just as my queer elders didn’t, I’m not suggesting we move forward with a reckless disregard for human life. As an anarchist, I see it as part of my raison d’etre to care most about the people for whom our system cares the least, and that’s many people who will be hardest hit by Covid: incarcerated people, immunocompromised people, houseless folks, and the elderly. Still though, it behooves us to pause when we are told that protecting human life must simultaneously uphold systems that harm us. (This, of course, is not so different from arguments we hear about the police.) And we might also want to give pause at abstinence-like models of remedy. We should also think critically when the onus of stopping a pandemic falls to individuals and their actions rather than structural forms of care and support. In acknowledging this, we have the opportunity to find nuance that I think could be life-saving as we move into another month of Covid times.
I get the hesitation to push back against any of this, though. The first time L and I left Minneapolis, I felt immense guilt. We decided to go camping outdoors for a lower-risk attempt at a trip. Even though we were likely going to be at less risk than we were during the protests in June (and the mutual aid work I continue to do in the community), it felt, psychologically, more dangerous, and certainly it felt less acceptable. My risk tolerance for righteous activities like protesting was much higher than it was for something pleasurable like time in nature. But it also seemed, at a certain point, nearly impossible not to bend the rules for some deeper forms of connection and for some real pleasure. Based on my Instagram feed, I wasn’t the only one whose risk tolerance was expanding.
“Pleasure activism” is a term popularized by adrienne maree brown that asserts the quest for pleasure as a necessary part of liberation work. And that pleasure is something that already is - and should more easily be - accessible to marginalized people. (As a raised-poor person I can assure you that poor folks find and make room for pleasure and joy, and do so more frequently and intuitively than wealthy people might guess). Amb’s words feel particularly potent for us in this moment of Covid: “pleasure is a natural, safe, and liberated part of life...we can offer each other tools and education to make sure sex, desire, drugs, connection, and other pleasures aren’t life-threatening or harmful but life-enriching.” Pleasure activism insists that pleasure begets pleasure, and that in denying ourselves forms of real connection (from which pleasure blossoms), we are letting capitalism win.
I am left with far more questions than answers, but I think they are worth asking: how can we all adjust to what is likely many, many more months of mostly-quarantine and also make safer-space for the things that are life-enriching? How can we make life-enriching things accessible to people during Covid, and also remember this as a model toward more inclusive spaces for our immunocompromised comrades, even after the pandemic has passed?
Can we keep each other safe and also keep joy alive? Can we both make responsible individual decisions that protect the most vulnerable among us, and also direct our ire toward the State rather than toward our friends who have decided to consensually hang out with other friends without masks? Can we concede that a quick, masked hug between two consenting adults may be something toward which our bodies begin to urgently move? Can we draw on the spirit of our queer ancestors who knew that connection is all at once dangerous, life-giving, and also impossible to withhold?
In the early 90s, working-class femme, sex working lesbian AIDS activist Amber Hollibaugh wrote this:
“Like everyone else, we are vulnerable and must take the steps necessary to learn how to protect each other’s lives. No one else will do it for us, and no one will do it as well. We have been taking risks to love each other for millennia. Now we need to expand our understanding of who we are and what we do in order to understand the many ways we need to go forward. Our communities are fabulously sexual and inventive, and we can support each other in taking the steps each of us needs to be safe, erotic, and powerful.”
I want to expand our understanding in order to move forward. I want to keep us safe and also I want to remember what we’re staying alive for. I want us to believe in a way forward that has nothing to do with further entrenching state control, and everything to to do with a commitment to better - and more sustainably - loving and caring for one another.
love & solidarity,
Read, Watch, Listen.
On Covid and consumption. This interview with adrienne maree brown on Finding Our Way (shocked, I’m sure). The youth organizers of Chicago who laid the foundation for defunding the police. How the foster system punishes the poor. Brandon Taylor and Garth Greenwell on queer aesthetics. And from Barry Lopez: “My goal that day was intimacy—the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland. This simple technique of awareness had long been my way to open a conversation with any unfamiliar landscape. Who are you? I would ask. How do I say your name? May I sit down?”
After the devestating explosion in Lebanon last week, consider supporting the Labanon Herbal Collective Response, a “group of healers, herbalists, local medicine makers, activists, and educators, on the ground.”
Bike rides. Watching old movies (last weekend we did kind of a marathon of Best in Show, Ghost, and Mystic Pizza). Finding a Lynda Barry book in a free library. So many butterfly friends on my walks. A beautiful closing of the Dream Hive workshop. Movement on the big life decisions, and feeling excited! Supportive coworkers. Cold brew. WAP. Letting myself use “the fancy conditioner.” Watching Gossip videos with JH. Our local coffee shop. The 70 year old woman who hangs out at the aforementioned coffee shop, always stylish with her jet black bob, big red sun hat, and some Lefty book in her hand. The kitties, of course. Sunsets. Less time on social media. The fact that we are closer to fall. & Rainstorms. <3
If you enjoy this newsletter, please consider sharing with a friend or posting to social media. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, please do! More eyes on this helps new(ish) writers so much! Thank you! <3