Politics as Play: A Queer Perspective

Benjamin Shepard, Queer Political Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure, and Social Movement (New York: Routledge, 2010).

Contemporary queer politics seems to be dominated by issues of social inclusion such as gay marriage, open military service, and adoption rights. These pragmatic concerns reflect the logic of privatization advanced by neoliberal ideologies, which tend to privilege private “rights” over public well-being (e.g. universally affordable healthcare, housing, and good education). At stake is a contested understanding of what democracy entails for queers today: should homosexuals seek inclusion into state legal apparatuses and mainstream hetero-social life under the heading of “equality”? Or, should queers devote political energies into exploding such aspirations and forging novel ways of being? Given these questions, Benjamin Shepard’s Queer Political Performance and Protest offers a welcome reminder of some of the radical goals and tactics that have defined queer politics over the last 50 years. While Shepard does acknowledge some of the more conservative, assimilationist aspirations within queer political histories (from homophile movements in the 1950s and 1960s to sex panic in the 1990s), his primary goal is to chronicle struggles against homophobia, violence, sickness, death and sexual moralizing that have invigorated the more radical imaginations within GLBT activism. In doing so, Shepard demonstrates the diversity and uniqueness of queer world-making and, more importantly, the necessity for creativity in political action.

The book is organized chronologically, analyzing specific cases and events in queer history in order to highlight the elements of fun, pleasure, and theatricality that Shepard argues are unique to queer political action. Shepard begins the book with the story of Jose´ Sarria, a San Francisco cabaret singer and drag performer who ran for political office in 1961, years before Harvey Milk entered the scene. Drawing on interviews with Sarria, Shepard shows us how Sarria’s performances – inspired by Weimar-era cabaret – became a platform for vocalizing against homophobia and police harassment as well as an occasion for queers to recognize common political concerns and cultures. Shepard then focuses on the years around and following the Stonewall riots, when groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and Radical Faeries began to advocate sexual pleasure and freedom as legitimate and necessary goals. Although it would hardly be possible to locate a single, cohesive queer movement during this time, Shepard emphasizes how sexual play in performances, bars, and gay baths was pivotal for developing a pluralistic queer community which sought to de-pathologize homosexuality and, more generally, to acknowledge sex as part of public life.

Shepard brings us next to the time immediately following the outbreak of HIV/AIDS, narrating the profound work and impact of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACTUP. Shepard demonstrates how playfulness, theatricality and fun were intertwined with ACTUP’s more serious agendas such as: condemnation of the state’s attacks on homosexuality and its inaction around AIDS; addressing complacency within the gay community; countering the social isolation of gays brought on by the epidemic; and later, in various ACTUP spinoff groups, fighting homelessness and poverty as well as establishing needle exchanges for drug-users. Central to Shepard’s argument is that the creative, theatrical elements of ACTUP’s political tactics were indispensable not only in getting its messages across to an often hostile public but also for keeping its own members’ spirits high in the face of death, fear, and loss. For Shepard, the freshness and fun of ACTUP’s projects and weekly meetings was precisely the condition for its political resiliency. One of the most interesting of ACTUP’s creative tactics were the so-called “zaps” – high-profile political pranks such as interrupting the CBS evening news or dropping a pro-choice banner on the Statue of Liberty. While maybe considered silly, childish, or unserious compared to mainstream models for political protest that utilized “normal” channels, ACTUP’s zaps not only sent pointed messages to a large audience but perhaps more importantly became a means of community-building and solidarity within the movement since these zaps required so much planning, organization, and risk.

The final chapters bring us to the late 1990s when concerns for public health, economic revitalization, and urban “quality of life” became coded attacks on sex, especially queer sex. Within the gay community, many conservative critics such as Michelangelo Signorile and Andrew Sullivan complained that AIDS prevention measures were not working because of the turpitude of gay culture, with promiscuous sex allegedly leading to higher infection rates and gay men therefore seen as reckless – even murderous – predators. More generally, sex had become a national obsession, from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the Disneyfication of Times Square, which in New York City led to zoning laws giving the city power to arbitrarily decide which bars or bookstores could stay open and which ones closed. It is this context that SexPanic! (a group in which Shepard himself was involved) began to advance their pro-sex agenda: to stop closures of porn shops, bars and gay nightlife; to promote sexual liberation and de-stigmatization; and to resist state monitoring of gays’ sexual practices. As with ACTUP, SexPanic! incorporated fun and lightness into their weekly meetings, a necessary practice Shepard argues because it assuaged the conflict and fear that often emerged within the group. SexPanic! also utilized creative tactics to communicate their ideas – teach-ins, pranks, controversial print ads and stickers, performances. Later, groups such as Circus Amok and Fed Up Queers (FUQ) created impromptu street performances and carnivals to convey a similar pro-sex message.

Queer Political Performance and Protest is a fascinating and necessary book as much for readers familiar with the history of queer politics as for those who are new to it. A primary strength of the book is Shepard’s extensive use of interviews and first-hand stories in his analysis. The range and diversity of the stories he relays gives the book an intimacy and immediacy rare in academic social science. The stories show us the range of possibility for queer activism, its successes and failures, and the importance of storytelling itself – of remembering. At the same time, Shepard is alert to the historical milieu and political stakes of the movements that he chronicles. Because of this, the book offers an expansive and multidimensional account of the struggles that queers have faced in the last 50 years and their creative, often radical means of protest. While the book appears at times to be sprawling or disorganized, Shepard grounds his discussion as a whole with the concept of play. For Shepard, play encompasses various political goals (such as recognition of pleasure, affirmation of life, visibility) but also the kinds of strategies and tactics unique to queer activism (theatricality, creativity, humor.) In all of the events and case studies he examines, Shepard demonstrates how play in some iteration or another is a primary component of both the content and means of queer protest.

As play takes on different meanings in the book’s various chapters, we see that it functions more as an organizing theme than as a theory. Shepard’s aim is simply to describe the importance of play rather than to explain it. Certain questions come to mind but are not taken up; for example: Has play been a necessary part of other social movements or is it something unique to queer movements? In the latter case, did play emerge as a conscious tactic or is it the effect of queers’ marginalization? Is play also part of queer political life in non-urban places? Where does play fit into contemporary queer theory, especially in relation to recent works in the field that draw, as does Shepard, from Marxian thinkers of social change, knowledge, and aesthetics?1

Throughout the book, Shepard makes frequent reference to Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, a seminal text in its theorization of how play and the erotic fit into social protest. Yet a contradiction emerges in Shepard’s work in that he overlooks the fact that Marcuse does not address sexuality but rather the erotic in general; in fact, Marcuse later condemns sexual pleasure as a “one-dimensional” instrumentalization of the erotic, a type of “repressive desublimation.”2 Thus, Marcuse’s advancement of play as political must not be viewed as specific to sexuality or sexual subjectivity (as Shepard seems to argue) but to the surplus repression associated with the performance principle endemic to work within modern capitalism. So, while Shepard effectively sustains play as a compelling theme for thinking about queer politics, the question remains – particularly in light of Marcuse’s work – whether play is unique to queer social movements or whether it can also be found in other contemporary social movements. Indeed the blurring of work and play that is concomitant with post-Fordist production or with late capitalism suggests that the entrance of play into the “work” of social movements might be a more generalized trend – a trend we may see addressed and elaborated further in Shepard’s forthcoming companion volume on play and social movements. Nonetheless, Queer Political Performance and Protest is a fine contribution to scholarship on social movements. Part of its success is that Shepard performs a kind of playfulness in the text itself by intertwining stories, interviews, and personal anecdotes with thoughtful, incisive analysis of queer social movements. Above all, the book is an essential reminder of the distinctive character of queer political life and its ongoing – even crucial – need for creativity and pleasure in its imaginations.


1. See Kevin Floyd, The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, which draws largely on the work of Georg Lukacs and also Herbert Marcuse; and Jose´ Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York: New York University Press, 2009, inspired by the work of Ernst Bloch as well as Marcuse.

2. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, 73–76.

2010 John Andrews
Department of Sociology Graduate Center, City University of New York Jandrews@gc.cuny.edu

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