So I went to the Rainbow Book Fair this weekend, and cooed over all the new presses, the courage of self-publishers, writers of sci-fi, porn, roman noir, and the wan, smoldering poets. At the same time, I tried to quell a growing and uncomfortable awareness at how much has changed in our community, wondering if it had to do with books themselves.
You don’t see them all that much anymore. On the subway it’s all tablets all the time — and Angry Candy, Crushed Birds, or whatever. Our bookstores have gone, too. And not just the queer ones.
They had these wonderful wooden planks called shelves, and on the shelves little bundles of paper printed with a bunch of words that stayed right where you put them. No swapping out for another story. Just one that you could actually touch and thumb through. Smell the pages. I’m aroused just thinking of it. Though there were obvious limits like the weight. You could only pack a few on vacation. There was also that business with covers. A drawing of a guy in leather and chains might seem discordant next to the worn New Testament a woman mutters over on the F train. Not an issue on your Kindle.
Queer bookstores were practically churches. At Judith’s Room, a mostly dyke place I found when I first came to New York, they had a bulletin board where you could advertise for roommates or sell your lesbian couch. And you knew that if somebody saw the ad, you had to at least have a few things in common. Probably cats. And all the books and magazines jostled up against one another. The anti-porn rag, Off Our Backs, was next to On Our Backs, the pro sex thing. Together, they had a little conversation that you miss now if you stick to the narrow recommendations generated only by your previous browsing history at Amazon, where you’d never mistakenly grab Octavia for Judith Butler.
It often seems the insides of our books are changing, too, getting more and more segregated, smaller and benign, just like our community seems to be. Except for events like the Rainbow Book Fair, when do we ever combustibly rub shoulders? The L meeting the G meeting the T meeting the B, not to mention the ethnic mix in a brutally ghettoized city? If we were split before, what would you call it now when the physically isolating Internet is paired with a growing acceptance that no longer forces us into each other’s reluctant arms? In the age of mass media, mass terror, multinational globalization, is the LBBT community actually going to succumb to an excess of niche marketing? Oh, woe is me.
If I’m not careful, I’ll turn this into one giant, whiny lament, the perverse tendency among those of us who came up as activists and remember the sense of community forged in groups like ACT-UP, Queer Nation, and the Avengers, somehow magically forgetting all the in-fighting and misery, the times we wanted to kill each other, yeah, not to mention what spurred us into the streets to begin with. All the violence and loss, invisibility, even the actual dead.
We find ourselves regretting the onset of marriage and baby strollers, the politicians who can spell l-e-s-b-i-a-n, even the drug cocktails fighting AIDS (no, not that). We rip down the institutions that we helped build and denounce them for becoming, well, institutionalized and institutionalizing. And when we are done bemoaning them, let us continue to stare grimly at the young who stare back grimly at us for our failures in confronting bigotry in our own community and leaving them with equality, rather than liberty, and the old refrain, “This Used to Be.”
Yes, let us all gnash our teeth, rend our clothes — as fashionably as possible — and wallow in ashes and despair. Because nothing else good will ever emerge again. Nothing as radical or chic. Funny coming from me, I know, a de facto historian with a memoir mostly about the Lesbian Avengers. But my intentions weren’t to recreate the past, just re-graft a missing episode where it belonged and see what grew next on the vine. Maybe nothing. Maybe some extraordinary thing I couldn’t begin to imagine.
I swear, in the new gay year, I’m going to try to do that more. Instead of talking about the good old days, I’ll begin to imagine the future starting from where we are right now. I’m not even sure what I want. Do you?
Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger. Demand it in your local library.