White Crane, Fall 2008 Interview with Chris Bartlett

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What is the most powerful experience of community you've had among queer people? CHRIS BARTLETT: I've been lucky to have many such experiences, but if I were to choose two, they would be my participation in ACT UP in the early nineties and my experiences of Radical Faerie communities over the past fifteen years. I was incredibly lucky to have the experience of participation in ACT UP, in both the London and Philadelphia chapters. It was the first powerful experience of intergenerational queer culture that I had ever had—and it was invigorating, inspiring, and set the standard for me of what queer communities could and should look like. Key themes: an understanding of gay liberation and queer liberation—the interconnection between queer political agendas and the agendas in reproductive rights and feminism, black civil rights, transgender liberation- and other movements —in opposition to an agenda that was purely gay in nature. The importance of elders—even though some elders were only ten years older than I was at the time. And the importance of group action. ACT UP demonstrations were impassioned, focused, and usually fun. I saw that a relatively small group could make drug prices drop, create access to housing, and impact the media story. After that, I really believed that almost anything was possible. In the Radical Faeries, and in particular in the Philadelphia Faerie Circle and at Short Mountain, Folleterre and Destiny Sanctuaries, I have seen how queer people can share a vision of community, put it into reality, and create a sanctuary where anyone can show up when s/he most needs help, support, love, food, shelter, or any other need, and have it seriously addressed by a group of people who have learned how to marshal their resources to distribute them where they are needed. The most remarkable thing is that the faerie communities make this happen with an informal style of leadership that allows the person with the right skills to jump in where s/he is needed. Faerie carpenters, electricians, magicians, firetenders, cooks, shamans, artists—all available to meet the need as it develops. CM: What is community in the queer world? CB: More and more, I have come to believe in a concept I call "microcommunities". These are communities of small groups of people with shared interests who are watching out for each other and can provide resources for each other when they are needed. Examples include leather clubs, youth groups, ballroom houses, two-step dancing groups, potluck dinner groups, sports teams, issue-orient activist groups, and coops and other shared housing groups. I think that queer community is made up of the social networks of these microcommunities—their synergies, shared interests, and impact on a particular geographic area. I would encourage those who seek queer community to plug into a few of these microcommunities and to spend the time necessary to become a part of them. As with many group experiences, the payoff often comes some time after one is vested in the community—when one is viewed as having made a lasting investment in the welfare of other microcommunity

members, they will insure that your needs are met in order to keep your energy and investment flowing. CM: What is the power of queer community? CB: Queer community power is correlated to the importance of each microcommunity's survival to its members. ACT UP and the Radical Faeries, for example, are powerful because they fulfill a real need for their members—whether that is a need around health care access, or reduction in loneliness, or provision of housing or food. Queer communities in particular are powerful because they stand intentionally outside of (though often related to) traditional communities that are based upon family structure and local geographic proximity. This frees these communities up to include members who are often most in need of community—the outsiders, the eccentrics, the very old and very young. Queer community works best in my mind when it is most accessible to the queerest among us. CM: How do you define queer community? CB: I think that queer communities defy definition in their diversity and multiplicity— but I would see these microcommunities sharing some common features: 1) being welcoming of LGBT people (or at least some combination of the letters—I think it is fine for various microcommunities to be exclusive in their membership—the proliferation of multiple microcommunities mean that not every community needs to be open to all, though an inventory should be completed to insure that resources are accessible to the microcommunities that need them—and that there is a recognition that privilege often leads benefits to accrue to one microcommunity instead of another. 2) providing an access point for LGBT individuals to fulfill their personal missions and dreams; and 3) providing a locus for transmission of culture from one generation to another of LGBT folks. I often look to the Jewish community as a powerful analog to Queer community. Jews have created a way to provide access to community resources to a diverse body of people who consider themselves Jews. This provides strength to individual Jews in fulfilling their personal destinies, but also provides access to the transmission of culture, history, and different meanings of identity. CM: Now come on, is there really a queer community? Really? CB: I'll repeat what I said before: I think that queer community is made up of the social networks of specific LGBT and other queer microcommunities—their synergies, shared interests, and impact on a particular geographic area. The real queer community is claimed by those who believe in it—it does not exist independently of participation—so it exists for those who need it and make use of it. Related to this point about microcommunities, I feel that American cultures are top heavy in the direction of individualism—so many individuals don't even know community when they see it or are a part of it. It seems almost trite to say it, but the trend of American commercialism has been towards removing people from an experience of connection to their local communities—whether through regular interactions with shopkeepers, or through unions or social or religious groups, or interaction with one's neighbors. So the experience of community for many Americans seems quite queer (in the old fashioned sense), and communityphiles in our midst must take a stand for the existence of the microcommunities that matter. I view a stand for microcommunities as one of my intentional roles. CM: Isn't queer community just defined by sex? I mean honestly?

CB: To the extent that we find some of our similarities and differences in the arena of sex, it is part of how we come together (and not) in queer communities. I don't underestimate the power of sexual connection to bring together people of diverse backgrounds, classes, races, experiences. Samuel Delaney has written powerfully about sex as a bridge between differences in the old world of pre-Giuliani 42nd Street, for example. It is not surprising that some of the most energized microcommunities of gay men come together around sex--- internet (Manhunt, Adam4Adam, etc.), bathhouses, and other sexual venues. But it is interesting to think about how these communities may operate more as collections of individuals, rather than as communities with a shared ethos or understanding of community. I believe that we will see the Internet as an increasingly important venue of community participation, so I think that one of the challenges of community organizing is envisioning how to create powerful microcommunities on the internet that are more than a mere assemblage of individuals, but instead are opportunities for group experience and sharing of resources. When we talk about microcommunities, and the diversity of them, sex is just one of the cements that holds together participants. It's also shared interest, affection, loyalty, understanding the benefits that social networks involve, spirituality—and sex is part of all of that, but it is just a part. CM: How did you first find community among the homos? CB: I came out as a gay man in 1986 in college at Brown University, which had a powerful group of queer activists who inspired me to take a shot at a life in organizing in these communities. Stephen Gendin (publisher of POZ and early ACT UP organizer), filmmaker Catherine Saalfield, radical faerie and Short Mountain resident Sandy Katz, and queer researcher Bill Jesdale were all part of my early network of inspirational thinkers and organizers. I was also lucky to have an incredible heterosexual ally in philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who was pushing Brown to take LGBT studies and civil rights seriously. Martha showed me the importance of marshalling allies outside of the obvious LGBT suspects. CM: Is there really a queer community or are there separate communities for gay men, lesbians, bis, and trans folk? Can these really be thought of as a unified community? CB: I view these all as powerful microcommunities that can organize independently and, at times, come together for joint organizing where that is appropriate. One of the powerful things about microcommunity organizing is that allows us to do independent work around particular experiences and identities, yet come together to cooperate on projects that require cooperation. I think that the power of cooperating microcommunities is frequently greater than the sum of its individual parts' power, so we should always be looking for opportunities for such cooperation. For instance, ACT UP's power was augmented significantly by its work at coalition building in the poor people's movement, the harm reduction movement, and the pro-choice movement. Likewise the Faeries have participated in AIDS activism, prison reform, the antinuclear movement, and other progressive causes. Such cooperation allows for an important increase in power for the microcommunities involved.

I will say that we have much work to do to educate LGBT people about gender identity, feminism, bisexual politics, and other issues raised by the diversity of LGBT experience. The revolution in gender and sex that is being brought about by the trans movement has many benefits for all LGBT people—we should be educating ourselves in those lessons and participating in the revolution. There seem to be few places where gay men in particular, but also other LGBTs, can learn about the power of feminism (and its connection to fighting homophobia). Bisexual politics are almost invisible from our agendas, and again, I would say that bi politics are key to helping LGBTs of all gender and sexual identities to have freedom around the ways they live as queers. CM: So you are a smarty schooled in Oxford, mentored by the best gay leaders of our time (the late Eric Rofes, New York City’s Gay Center Executive Director Richard Burns). What is the path we are on as gay people? CB: I imagine that queer people and other people on the avant garde with regard to gender and sexuality will continue to positively challenge the politics of our Western cultures. We are at the front lines of redefining family, community, work, spirituality, aging, health, and many other concepts that can use some redefining in the next decades. Harry Hay, one of my faerie mentors, believed that queer people naturally play a role in bridging difference and acting as translators and liaisons. In an increasing multicultural and globalized culture and economy, queers will be key players in helping people with significant differences to understand each other. Not just any queers, of course—many LGBTs will happily assimilate within the existing concepts, but queers as I understand—those willing to challenge, expand, reenvision, will continue to play their natural role of transformers of the status quo. I also think that queers will be on the cutting edge of creating spaces for innovative expression of sexual and gender identities. We'll need to be cautious about exporting particular ways of "doing gay" to cultures for which those models are inappropriate. We can't export sexuality and gender identities the way that we do Coke or McDonalds, for example. But we will need to take a look at how we challenge homophobic cultures (I think, for example, of the hanging of homosexual teens in Iran) to create spaces for their queer citizens. Otherwise, we must look for opportunities for sanctuary for those queers who need it. CM: Name three queer people who have changed your life and tell me why. CB: Eric Rofes and I became friends in the early 90s and I was captured by his passion and his love for gay male communities. We worked together to create a Gay Men's Health Leadership Academy, which has worked with over 200 gay men and allies. His vision, which inspired me, was of gay communities that were powerful, inspired, and largely working—and that we should focus on the assets of these communities and seek to make them even stronger. Ben Singer was the first person who seriously took on the task of educating me about trans communities. I had a real epiphany in my conversations with Ben—an understanding that trans politics are in fact broader than and inclusive of LGB politics--that it is perhaps gender expression that is at the root of both our challenges politically and the access to opportunities for transforming societies to give full opportunity to its citizens regardless of gender identity or expression.

Mandy Carter, organizer of SONG, Southerners on New Ground, is a black lesbian from Durham, NC. Mandy inspired me to believe that we could do community organizing anywhere, that we should always look to impact our hometowns and states (which we know best) and to believe I a truly multicultural and multiracial approach to our work.

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