Genre Wormhole #4: The White House Lawn
Because I’m writing about self-proclaimed agitprop in this essay — talking about the artistic, political, and activist work of the group The Degenderettes — it feels right to start out with a polemic. I want to gripe about an attitude (perhaps in retreat now?) that shaped my early education around literature: that in art, complexity is synonymous with ambiguity, that both are terms of virtue, and that so-called “political” art is neither. When I consider this fantasy, I think of the hero-worship of male Modernist aesthetes: Flaubert as striver, suffering in order to purify his sentence of the taint of personality: “The man is nothing, the work — all.” (Ignoring that Flaubert is also the writer who said, “Exuberance is better than taste.”)
In high school, I was presented with James Joyce’s Dubliners as the epitome of artistic ambition as well as apolitical beauty. This valediction of a certain type of complexity is itself related to form: the form of the high school class, and the way testing, assessment, and bounded classroom instruction are made more straightforward by imagining literature and art as puzzles to be solved, networks of interlocking symbolic gears. Like the protagonist’s soul, I remember myself swooning over the last sentence of Joyce’s “The Dead”: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
And the closing of “The Dead” is certainly complicated, full of susurrating sound, its metaphor opening out with a rush that expands the writer’s lens to encompass life, death, and the universe. But I want to argue that there are valuable types of complexity other than this, and to argue for the type found in the following polemical sentence: “Trans dykes are good and pure.”
First of all, if a fetish for complexity demands footnotes and scholarly reference, “Trans dykes are good and pure” brings with it a lineage: the work of Gran Fury, the art wing of AIDS activist group ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
The potency of “Trans dykes are good and pure” relates to that of “All AIDS patients are innocent.” Both gesture toward broad-stroke moral values: goodness, purity, innocence. But neither is an example of respectability politics, which would sort out the sheep from the goats, the virtuous Log Cabin Republicans from the bad perverts.
As a concept, “good” is half a binary, carrying with it the shadow of evil. “Trans dykes are good and pure,” much like “All AIDS patients are innocent,” universalizes to ALL (all trans dykes, all AIDS patients) a schema that depends on choosing and sorting for its very existence. (Who is good? Who is pure? Who is innocent? And who decides?)
All trans dykes aren’t literally good and pure, any more than all women are nurturing. But to say “All trans dykes are good and pure” has a purpose other than broad-brush idealization: short-circuiting the logic of judgment itself.
In their artwork, The Degenderettes incorporate and flip the scripts that make trans dykes into monsters, and by doing so critique the ethical position of a normative society that so harshly judges its others. Can the person who separates the good from the bad themself be good? As in the case of “All AIDS patients are innocent,” it is cruel to give oneself the right to decide that some people are good victims, whereas others (such as the immigrant families supposedly “infesting” this country) are worthy only of contempt.
“Trans dykes are good and pure” also reflects the type of reframing and reading techniques that marginalized groups engage in to survive and thrive. The Degenderettes offer an alternative culture and context for “Monster Pride,” in which trans dykes, so often portrayed as the monstrous or “creepy” others of standard purity tests, are good and pure, i.e., not attacked, degraded, or devalued for their very existence.
I also find a poignancy in The Degenderettes’ use of “good” and “pure”: though clearly taking the piss out of these concepts, it gives a nod to a desire for approval that’s hard to shake off. The child’s desire to be good can stay with us, and the vulnerability of allowing oneself to admit that permeates the work alongside its beautifully militant determination (it is a literal shield, after all) to unapologetically agitate for and protect trans people.
I recognize that it’s perhaps a bit much to spend so much time analyzing a sentence that The Degenderettes themselves (in the wall text for their Antifa art show at the San Francisco Public Library) describe as a throwaway. But I want to argue that this work can be tongue-in-cheek while also complex and formally suited to fit the experience it describes.
To call political art simplistic ignores the fact that it must find its form like any other type of art. No one form is univocal, or inherently correlated to a particular politics. To articulate political desire, art with an agitprop dimension must navigate and subvert encrusted notions and ideologies contained in “common sense” narratives.
“Trans dykes are good and pure” doesn’t create its complexity through alliteration and assonance (though there’s a pleasing thud in its monosyllables) but by means of its travels through associative thought, mapping the capacities and lacks of of the entire conceptual universe contained in a word like “good.”
In working on this group of essays related to forms as they’re encountered in visual art, I’ve been thinking about the boundaries where art blurs into political action. Formal devices move out of genres (literature, art, and movies; the archive, journalism, and science fiction) through the viewers and readers of these works, then into politics and social life and back again.
In Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, David Wojnarowicz describes community responses to the AIDS crisis: “I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.”
Close to the Knives, with its description of the form of the funeral and the form of the protest colliding at hypervelocity, was published in 1991. On October 11, 1992, 300 ACT UP members participated in The Ashes Action, in which activists scattered the ashes and bone chips of their loved ones over the White House fence and onto the lawn. The action was timed to coincide with a presentation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt; one of the participant’s chants was “Out of the quilt, into the streets.”
Wojnarowicz took his feeling-state of rage and imagined it actualized in the form of protest. David Robinson, one of the main organizers of the first Ashes Action, cited Wojnarowicz’s words in Close to the Knives as inspiration. While the “Out of the quilt, into the streets” chant was meant to indicate the need for direct action over symbolic representation, it could also be said that The Ashes Action came “Out of the book, into the streets.”
Wojnarowicz’s posthumous influence on The Ashes Action — Wojnarowicz died in 1992 and some of his own ashes were scattered on the White House lawn in the Ashes Action of 1996 — reflects the possibilities for cross-pollination between movement-involved or -adjacent artists and activists. (ACT UP also had its own autonomous art and film-making collectives, Gran Fury and DIVA TV, that did powerful agitprop and documentary work; I’ll be discussing work by Gran Fury in the rest of the essay.)
The Degenderettes describe themselves as “a friendly international feminist & genderqueer agitprop club”; a Mask Magazine interview that’s useful for getting a handle on the group’s history and actions mentions “major chapters” in “San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Toronto, with smaller, tight-knit groups in San Jose, Santa Cruz, Baltimore, New Orleans, Fairbanks, and Western Massachusetts.”
For those of us thinking either of direct action or lending our arts and writing interests to direct action (which I hope, at this point, is many of us) I hope offering a taxonomy of formal traits, properties shared between ACT UP and The Degenderettes, could characterize the merger of art and activism I’m describing and inspire further action.
The Degenderettes share with Gran Fury the ongoing search for visual and kinesthetic — moving — ways to put across political experience, to translate it so as to connect with participants and reach outside audiences. I first encountered The Degenderettes at the Women’s March, flags flying, and was attracted to the visual charge of the pennants and the punk yet inclusive vibe of their group.
In a 1991 interview in BOMB, the members of Gran Fury (interviewed as a collective) said: “The problem with being ‘flavor of the month’ of the art world is that it can disempower others from believing they can be doing the same thing. The truth is, any group of individuals could get together, and are getting together, to get information out on the street.” The Degenderettes, like Gran Fury before them, are skillful at forging group purpose and creating audience desire. (Gran Fury drew techniques from advertising, while Degenderettes member Kayl Cassidy jokingly told me that ze got involved with the Degenderettes for the merch). Unlike consumer advertising, both groups also offer a useful purpose toward which one can put one’s desire once it’s been sparked.
The Degenderettes’ art actions and products are designed to boost queer and trans visibility — the sense that someone has your back — and provide a sense of belonging and security for anyone from a gender-questioning youth looking at the club’s Instagram in isolation to gender non-conforming participants feeling endangered or overwhelmed at a march.
I asked the two Degenderettes members I interviewed, Moose Morales and Kayl Cassidy, about their favorite actions as part of the group. Both cited the die-in from 2017 Pride. Cassidy described the action in detail:
The concept was that the larger LGB crowd, and of course the straights and the capitalism, trample over trans folx. We wanted to make that visible and lasting. We were given a spot in the actual “official” march line-up and we walked with our pennants […] and it was really beautiful, and then when we got to the grandstands, it got even better. It got real. Some of us “died,” taking fake blood shots to the chest (beating their own hearts with little packets to get ’em to pop), and fell to the ground, then others took cans of spray chalk and made body outlines that would remain there after our group marched on. We unraveled a banner that read “PROUD TRANS FOOT SOLDIERS DYING FOR YOUR ASSIMILATION” on both sides so the entire audience could see.
Moose Morales also mentioned that the conversations planning the die-in included a historical dimension, invoking the way “Trans erasure from the LBGTQ+ community and from Pride” forgets that “the community in general was created by Trans women of color.” From an art perspective, the action draws power from this layered political and historical thinking and the multi-faceted involvement of the audience as both proud and complicit. Marchers following The Degenderettes’ contingent can be drawn into the communal power of their call-and-response chants. However, if marchers wish to continue on the Pride parade route, they must literally walk over (“trample”) the fallen trans bodies’ chalk outlines.
Another commonality between Gran Fury and The Degenderettes is the presence in each of a collective structure that offers participants rewards other than those of the standard art career with its promise, however elusive, of art market remuneration or accruing individual cultural capital. ACT UP’s libidinal atmosphere has been well-documented in contemporaneous accounts, histories, and in films like How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger: not only in terms of actual cruising, which was certainly happening, but also in the joy of doing politics together in a sexy, charged atmosphere despite the terrible losses of the ongoing AIDS epidemic.
An activist in United in Anger described her time in ACT UP as marked by “joyful living combined with serious politics.” ACT UP, at least for some, brought joie de vivre (coupled with a sense of efficacy) to a grim time. I asked Morales and Cassidy about what Degenderettes membership had offered them. Both mentioned the sense of community; Morales also described the security that Degenderettes membership had given them in their gender identity, and how that increased comfort had also led to a greater ability to live with mental health issues without being defined by them.
Cassidy talked about what The Degenderettes offers the queer community as a whole: “We try to create what is absent, fix what isn’t quite right, talk about what’s being ignored […] We consider accessibility in everything we do, and I wish the world was more like that. I hope the small changes, the awareness we bring, can eventually reshape the world.” Ze also described what The Degenderettes offers to zir and other members specifically:
“…On the ‘small’ scale, DG is important because it keeps its members alive from day to day. It’s a bit of a darker place to go than what you’d expect seeing our colorful art. You’d think we’re all about the passion, but a lot of it is rage and deep sadness. It’s exhausting, and […] a lot of self-care and group-care goes into keeping us moving. We’re tired. But we’ll still be here for anyone who needs us.”
In United in Anger, ACT UP members speak about how their actions were met with trepidation by some in the mainstream gay community, who feared that confrontational activism would alienate the straight majority and thus lose the ground the movement had gained in the ’80s. But the ACT UP activists felt (to paraphrase) that if you lose the approval of people that you think liked you because you’re fighting for your life, they probably didn’t like you all that much to begin with.
The Degenderettes are also willing to confront, to provoke, and to put their bodies on the line. They do so because they are fighting for queer and trans lives. That is, they provoke in part to grab attention, as good agitprop should. But they share with Gran Fury both a love of visual art that comes through in a strong aesthetic sense — the desire to, as Cassidy says “tint everything with our gay little hands” — and the belief that ART IS NOT ENOUGH.
The Degenderettes derive power from their willingness to take risks, to disrupt the status quo, and to walk up to lines that occasion civility-obsessed liberal hand-wringing: violence and vandalism. Their representations of violence are symbolic, abstracted, and portrayed as defending the community from transphobic threat. For instance, the group has presented color guard shows twirling brightly-painted baseball bats in lieu of batons. The San Francisco Public Library exhibited shirts worn by The Degenderettes who “died” at the 2017 Pride die-in, bloodied with The Degenderettes’ own fake blood, as well as their baseball bats and versions of the labrys painted with the trans flag colors scheme.
As for vandalism, The Degenderettes crowd-sourced a campaign to produce gender-neutral bathroom stickers of a crumbly eggshell vinyl, difficult to remove, that could be used to improve the standard, gender-policed bathroom. This campaign used the threat (or promise) of an illegal but ethical act — making a bathroom accessible to all genders — to draw attention to the lawful but cruel status quo, gender-segregated bathrooms that expose trans and gender non-conforming individuals to harassment.
The Degenderettes have been excoriated for “promoting violence.” I want to explicitly defend this aspect of their work as a worthy heir to the rage David Wojnarowicz felt when he wrote of dumping the bodies of AIDS victims on the White House lawn. The Degenderettes invoke violence in their work in order to thrust the violence that is done to queer and trans bodies into the faces of those who inflict it.
The Degenderettes’ work recognizes that, much as we might wish we could avert our eyes, we as a society are faced with the threat of fascism and the reality of overwhelming state violence. Civil institutions have been captured by the interests of corporations and the wealthy; laws and the courts are themselves brutal and/or are disregarded by those who are supposed to uphold them. Politeness is not (and has never been) an adequate response to such conditions.
Both ACT UP and The Degenderettes combine their gift for provocation with an inspiring expanded-field view of what constitutes their proper political terrain. While some factions within ACT UP were driven exclusively by the hope of “getting drugs into bodies,” many insisted that fighting the AIDS crisis had to include pushing for universal health care and housing. (In a Gregg Bordowitz video, Jim Eigo says “And healthcare, as AIDS activists know, is a right.”)
The rifts in ACT UP are well-documented, but so are its solidarities. Though many of the most intersectional affinity groups were led by or consisted of lesbians and/or people of color, white gay men participated in intersectional campaigns and actions as well. In the film United in Anger, ACT UP member Maxine Wolfe speaks out to dispel what she sees as the “ACT UP myth of the selfish white gay man”: “My affinity group was twenty-four people. Seven of them were women. Of the others, the men, many had HIV, and many are dead at this point. They spent four years working on our campaign to expand the CDC’s definition of AIDS to include women, poor people, and drug users.”
The Degenderettes, in their turn, also work intersectionlly. While focused on gender and on their ongoing work of community defense (reliably showing up, patched and flagged, to hold space for trans and genderqueer people at marches) they make work in support of Black Lives Matter and start campaigns to agitate against bigotries in each chapter’s locale.
In the Mask Magazine interview, Scout Tran describes the founding moment of The Degenderettes as itself an alliance, one between “a group of feminists who liked to shoot guns together, along with myself and some other highly visible genderqueers who needed to surround ourselves with friends who gave no fucks.”
I want to give attention to the solidarity displayed by The Degenderettes, which complicates their self-presentation as “asshole queer layabouts with a really good selfie game” (as Mask Magazine would have it). While The Degenderettes are motivated by mischief, as it serves their confrontational purpose, and are adept at getting eyeballs on their actions (I love that Sasha Velour is buying the merch), their knowledge that “ART IS NOT ENOUGH” means they’re willing to step away from a gesture if it becomes counter-productive.
A recent post on The Degenderettes’ Facebook page explained that they had canceled an action involving fake bricks at Trans March because of concern that twitchy cops would target vulnerable members of the community for violence. Those who offer misleading descriptions of The Degenderettes as thoughtlessly provocative miss the fact that the group uses their artwork in service of their community, not the other way around.
I neither want to idealize The Degenderettes in opposition to others, nor for this essay to come across as shaming for artists or political actors (i.e. all of us) struggling to come to grips with our current crisis. I was struck by United in Anger‘s description of how it took five or six years for the shock of the AIDS epidemic’s rising toll to wear off enough for a militant response to coalesce.
Space for grief and shock and fear was needed in order for anger to arise. These emotional responses continue to be valid and worthy of recognition within oppositional action: ACT UP’s Ashes Actions have been described as providing a “release of convulsive grief” for their participants. The protesters in United in Anger shout, “Stop killing us! Stop killing us!” and the rage in their voices is indistinguishable from the sorrow.
During ACT UP’s Stop the Church action in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, protesters chant “We’re fighting for our lives,” and call out “Stop killing us! We’re not going to take it anymore! Stop it! Stop it!” and “We’re fighting for your lives, too.” Whatever else we are looking to put into our work, surely part of it must be to communicate that we are fighting for our lives, that we are not going to take it anymore, and that we’re fighting for your lives, too.
Form is neither above us nor below us. We live beside it and within it. Desire for what does not yet exist leads one to create and test new forms. To do this collectively can be politics, or art, or both, depending on what kind of form is being made.
So let’s think carefully about forms, those created by ACT UP and Gran Fury and The Degenderettes; by Ellis Martin, Joel Gregory, Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, and Sofía Córdova. Those made by James Joyce, who described himself as “a socialistic artist.”
Let’s think about it as we find ourselves surrounded by suffering and violence and wondering where to go: Let’s take it to the White House lawn.