What does it mean to be radical? How can people from marginalized communities work to disrupt dominant systems of power and control? These questions have exploded recently, particularly after some crusty critics moaned about the lack of radicality in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and artists furiously took to social media in response. But, what is radical actually supposed to look like? Is it marching in the streets? Throwing bombs like the Weather Underground? Requesting to have your work withdrawn from an exhibition months into its run? Writing Instagram screeds? Reposting memes?
Or can it be as simple as caring for one another and maybe having a little fun too (ok, maybe more than a little)? Can pleasure seeking be understood as political–ecstatic experiences that can suggest the creation of other worlds? Or should it mostly be shelved as hedonistic escapism? Maybe you can do both–disrupt and have a good time?
Writer Larry Mitchell and illustrator Ned Asta seem to think so in their landmark book The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions, which was self-published in 1977 with Calamus Press and recently republished by Nightboat Books. As Mitchell writes, “Some of the faggots are trashy. In fact, with the inspiration of the outcast women, the faggots developed ‘trashy’ into a high art form of disruptive behavior. When the men talk about the freedom of work and dirtiness of sex, the trashiest faggots move fast to the nearest public place where danger from the men is always present and proceed to spend endless amounts of time having glorious sexual pleasure.” See–I told you being trashy was revolutionary.
A “part-fable, part-manifesto,” as performer Morgan Bassichis describes in the new edition’s introduction, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions outlines how “the faggots and their friends” undermine the domination of “the men,” presumed to be the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, through collectivity, pleasure, and more than a little cum guzzling. The faggots aren’t the only ones resisting the men, though. There are the fairies who “live in trees and caves and bushes,” the queens who “display infinite weirdness to the world,” and the women who love women who provide wisdom throughout the text. Mitchell emphasizes, “it takes all kinds to make the revolutions.”
The book traces the lives of Hollyhock, Heavenly Blue, Loose Tomato, Pinetree, Moonbeam and others as they live, love, fuck, party, eat decadent desserts, and ultimately survive in the falling empire of Ramrod, led by the hilariously named Warren-And-His-Fuckpole. Theirs isn’t the only example of collective living, which includes other communes like the House of the Heavy, Horney Hunks, the Gay as a Goose Tribe, and the Boys in the Backroom.
Asta’s illustrations are interspersed throughout the text–sometimes with entire pages of drawings of the faggots, queens, fairies and women who love women, and other times with fantastical swirls around repeating sections like “Faggot Wisdom” or “Women Wisdom.” There’s something just so 1970s about the illustrations, and its not the copious body hair. They give me warm fuzzies. Asta’s presence alone, as well as the credit the text gives to the influence of feminist thought informing gay liberation, is incredibly refreshing. It’s not one big sausage-fest like so many of the other artifacts of that era.
Inspired by Mitchell and Asta’s life in communes such as Lavender Hill in Ithaca, New York, the book feels like a small treasure, a care package from another era providing a witty blueprint in creating chosen family and world-making outside of dominant institutions. Though it was out-of-print for years, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions was certainly never out of circulation, exchanged between friends and lovers throughout the years. But, why has it maintained consistent relevancy, and why does it feel so essential now?
At a time when queer identity and even queer politics seem to easily slide into mass marketability, it can be exhilarating to look back and try to recapture a time when we didn’t seem to be stuck somewhere between social media influencers, corporate sponsorship, and impenetrable academic theory. In particular, the queer thought and experimentations in communal living that developed shortly after Stonewall, though not without their own issues, project an intoxicating sense of freewheeling utopian possibility and excitement in what it means to live radically together. And while, sure, most of these communes didn’t last, maybe that’s okay. Utopia isn’t meant to be forever.
It’s an important reminder because collectivity isn’t necessarily something that concerns the wider culture in 2019. Between Trump and his nutcase followers’ batshittery and the rest of the political spectrum’s online virtue signaling, it feels as if everyone wants to tear each other apart on the way to success, fame, or some form of digital political righteousness. As Tourmaline asserts in the preface, “We have been taught so forcefully, especially in the deeply conservative time that we live in, that we must look out only for ourselves and indeed conserve our resources. That, our resources are what others have deemed valuable–money, time, material things. But the faggots have other ideas.”
However, the collectivity of The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions isn’t the only aspect makes it such an electrifying read and a valuable document. To me, what I found most exciting was its emphasis on pleasure. I mean, the book even starts with a toast. “Let’s drink to the old faggots who were there and helped make this happen just by being there,” reads the inscription. Exactly. Cheers, queers! Today, we seem to associate being radical with seriousness (and more than a little combativeness). But, Mitchell and Asta have an appreciation that joy, fun, or pleasure didn’t mean you were apolitical escape artists, but that decadence was a part of living radically as well. Much of this seems to have come out of Lavender Hill. Bassichis explains in the introduction: “Lavender Hill opted for delight over dogma.”
Pleasure here doesn’t just mean sex, though there is plenty of that. It can also be glorious desserts: “they gorge on fresh fruits from the fairies and whipped cream, on spicy cakes and gooey frostings, on thick puddings and on fresh pies.” It can be pleasure like friendship or caring for one another when someone especially needs it. It can also be beauty. Mitchell writes, “The faggots cultivate beauty and harmony and space since these are states that the men do not know about. The lucky faggots live in the most beautiful places and make love in the most beautiful places and dance in the most beautiful places. Since the men are blind to beauty, they do not know that the lucky faggots live in the most beautiful places. And the lucky faggots do not tell them. instead, they ask the unlucky faggots to come and join them.”
This pleasurable radicalism is portrayed stylistically in the text through an infectious sense of humor and a real knowledge of camp, whether laughing at the dreamboats calling them “Mister Bullshit,” or the description of Loose Tomato who “drinks too much of the men’s deadly elixers,” to “piss in empty wastebaskets, throw up on the carpet before dinner and walk naked in the streets” (sounds like a party to me). As Mitchell and Asta show, camp can be quite politically engaged. You just have to know how to read it. One of the worst things Susan Sontag did in her “Notes on Camp,” other than the Tiffany lamp bit, was say that camp was somehow apolitical: “It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized–or at least apolitical.” Wrong, Mary!
For example, take this bit of “Faggot Wisdom”: “There is more to be learned from wearing a dress for a day than there is from wearing a suit for a lifetime.” True, yes. Political, sure–just see any recent video of Billy Porter talking about the subversiveness of wearing dresses on the red carpet. But I can also imagine it slurred from the end of the bar, which is exactly how I want my political manifestos to read.
And the significance of this unique camp-coded humor is even recognized in the text: “The faggots have never been asked to join the vanguard. The faggots, it was noticed, do not know how to keep a straight face and the vanguard demands constantly straight faces. The faggots, it was noticed, want only to eat so they can play love play while the vanguard demands endless talk about the hunger of others and the seriousness of work. “ Precisely. Who wants to be a part of the vanguard anyway? It’s better to exist outside it, un-seriously. But, this revelry, love play and inability to keep a straight face doesn’t mean they’re any less serious about the coming revolutions: “The strong women told the faggots that there are two important things to remember about the coming revolutions. The first is that we will get our asses kicked. The second is that we will win.”