Gender Trouble in Queer Paradise by Tavia Nyong'o

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Still from Future St. videos, designed by production designer Daniel Leyv.

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The intense and singular black queer musical genius Julius Eastman once introduced an incendiary series of his compositions (including one titled “Gay Guerrilla”) with the following commentary:

In the case of “guerrilla,” that glorifies “gay.” That is to say, there aren’t many gay guerrillas, I don’t feel that gaydom does have that strength. So therefore I use that word in the hopes that they will. You see, at this point, I don’t feel gay guerrillas can really match with Afghani guerrillas or PLO guerrillas. But let us hope that in the future they might… That is the reason that I use “gay guerrilla”: in hopes that I might be one, if called upon…

Eastman’s comment from the dawn of Reagan’s counter-revolution resonates in our own reactionary political moment, when the mainstream victories of the LGBT movement have left us polarized between, on the one hand, a cynical conformism that accepts liberal tolerance as the best and only paradise, and, on the other hand, a radical, emancipatory striving for something else.

The utopian margin of Eastman’s gay guerrilla—the margin between gay rights as it is and gay liberation as it could be—forms the bone of contention between a queer dad and his son in a suburban home in near-future California. The pair are caught in a familiar familial drama: the conflict between tradition and independence. The dad appeals to his son by reminding that he too was once a rebel. Reminiscing over footage of a decades-old gay rights rally, the dad tries to transmit his nostalgia: “Your father and I met at that rally, Remy.” The teenage rebel will have none of it. He hates “that song,” he isn’t hungry for dinner, and he won’t wear the “nice track suit” dad bought him, preferring to wear off-brand clothing. Most grievously of all, the son wants to hang out with women and experiment with his sexuality. Dad explodes that, “Your friends [are] non-compliant with all the norms. This is not what we fought for! Your father died defending our way of life, Remy.” “Call me Baby Jihad!” comes the punk-ass reply. As was the case with Eastman’s aspirational militancy, self-naming comes to the fore once again as a battleground upon which pragmatism and utopianism meet.

The suburban scene quoted above is from Future St., a new play by Alexandro Segade that takes up this dialectic of cynicism and rebellion, as displaced onto a California overrun by what queer academics and activists might call “homonationalism.” Homonationalism refers to a cultural politics in which Sixties and Seventies-era dreams of a same-sex paradise free of homophobia and sexism have become colonized by a conformism that reproduces hierarchies of race, nation, gender, and sex. To riff on Judith Butler’s famous Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, we might say the subject of Future St. is gender trouble in queer paradise. Segade revisits classic gay tropes of camp and cross-cuts them with strands of L.A. noir, science fiction, pop culture, and superhero narratives, all in the service of a timely meditation on the prospects of queer militancy. If a certain form of gay male sociality has sought refuge from sexual difference within the fantasy of “clone” identities—identities which also tend towards monochromatic whiteness—Segade’s play traverses those male fantasies with queer-of-color élan.

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Nicholas Gorham and Brian McQueen in Future St., performed at the Broad Museum, Los Angeles, June 1-2, 2017. Photo by Dicko Chan.

Future St. is set in an America in which homosexuality has triumphed over heterosexuality, cloning has replaced sexual reproduction, and California has seceded from the mainland United States to form the gay male state of “Clonifornia.” A one-act play performed recently at Bard College in New York and at the new Broad museum in Los Angeles, Future St. bucks the art world trend of embracing performance while dismissing theater. Segade is one performance artist unafraid of the word “rehearsal,” and his comfort with theatricality extends a genre some in the art world dismiss too hastily out of an anti-theatrical prejudice. Developed out of Segade’s MFA thesis at UCLA, Future St. reflects a political situation in California that impacted him personally: the artist married his husband Malik Gaines during the brief legal window before Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, passed in 2008. Future St.prolifically uses references from popular culture to explore a hypothetical scenario of complete gay assimilation and homo-hegemony. Part of the disorientation of such near-future fictions—one thinks of Octavia Butler’s 1998 novel Parable of the Talents, which uncannily anticipated the rise of Donald “Make America Great Again” Trump—is our confusion as to whether we are not already living in this future. Everything that is beyond belief has already been imagined and enacted in Southern California, and despite this, our addictions to statecraft and normativity continue unabated, with the majority continuing to drive past the utopian undercommons without even noticing them. Segade’s play, that is, enacts a queer-of-color critique that is attuned to de-colonial solidarities and remains dissatisfied with the pragmatic pursuit of an attainable normal life. But, similar to Eastman, he is not ready to assert that he has achieved that stance: the play ironizes a “woke” political stance more than it attempts to embody it. In an interview, the artists sums up his ambivalence in the following way: “What would happen if a society were built to affirm my identity, rather than destroy it?”

What would happen in such a homotopia? Nothing good, from the look of things in Future St.Whereas queer culture today is increasingly polymorphous in its sexuality, cacophonic in its gender expression, and militantly anarcho-leftist in its politics, Future St. envisions a scenario wherein homonormativity has won out over queer wildness, state-sanctioned monogamy has crowded out promiscuity, and married gay cops surveil and punish all expressions of fugitive sociality and deviant desire. Segade’s outlandish premise—that “gayzillionaires” have backed a new constitution written by mega-corporations and boy-banders are state media—hits uncomfortably close to home in the age of Peter Thiel and Milo Yiannopoulos. The Stepford gays of Clonifornia meekly comply with omnipresent surveillance and performance monitoring in depictions that smack of sharp social commentary about gay life in the age of Grindr.

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Still from Future St. videos, designed by production designer Daniel Leyva.

Curated by scholar and critic Jennifer Doyle into a performance series on the subject of feminism at the Broad, Future St. has plenty to say about the sexual politics of gay men at a moment when sodomy is legal but abortion increasingly is not. The plot centers around Sonny (played by Segade), a naturalized citizen of Clonifornia: he tested positive for queerness as a child and was separated, kicking and screaming, from his mother; she’s since joined the Mother’s Brigade of incarcerated intellectuals. Revolutionary black feminism is part of the political unconscious of this play: repressed in our dystopian present, it returns as a symptom. Sonny’s a 41-year-old unemployed private investigator, married to a clone who’s hauled in for interrogation when his extramarital dalliance with the gay guerrilla Remy land him in hot water with the sex police. His infraction is less one of sexual infidelity,which, like other gay male predilections is regulated and monetized in Clonifornia, than it is his suspected sympathies with Remy’s rebellion against a gay male monoculture.

Feminist science-fiction and art are equally important sources for Segade’s theatrical strategies, as reflected in the casting of famed painter Lisa Corinne Davis as Sonny’s mother. For a play about a gay male utopia, Future St. is positively saturated with the return of the feminine repressed. The play is narrated by feminized A.I. holoscreens who may or may not have acquired collective sentience. Like the new TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set in a North American Christian theocracy and based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, Future St. feels very much of this bewildering moment in gender politics, a moment in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity,” as the poem goes. And, like The Handmaid’s Tale, gender trouble is central to Segade’s concerns. There are differences between them, of course. Atwood’s vision warns of a future in which the militant faithful have restored patriarchal values and re-enslaved women, while Segade’s feminist insight is into the pyrrhic victory of gay uniformity achieved by ejecting women entirely from the social order. As the clone consort to the Governador tells Sonny at one point:

Females disrupt male societies. The Same-Sex Treaty signed with the Gynarchists mandates that males and females with monosexual biomarkers be segregated into our distinct territories, in order to foster proper epigenesis. For our part, we cannot harbor female bodies. Yet, we pride ourselves on diversity, even if everyone here in Clonifornia has a penis. Genes can only do so much: culture does the rest.

As with most Gen-X art school kids, Segade is steeped in critical theory, which he gently satirizes throughout. But the target of his satire is not leftist “groupthink” or campus “political correctness,” as with many right-wing American commentators, but rather with the failures of mainstream gay politics to think beyond the limited frameworks of tolerance and formal equality under neoliberalism. He is especially attentive to our techno-fetishistic dependence on digital technologies that promise to cater to our individual needs and desires, while actually turning us into constantly monitored and quantified sources of value extraction in the process.

Part of being a Gen X queer, however, is in breathing the exhaust fumes of a theory rocket that never quite took off. A recent lament by artist turned trend forecaster Dena Yago puts it well:

My professors propagated the fantasy that alterity provided access to an otherwise of multinational capitalism. Armed with identities shaped when an “outside” or “another world” was possible, they maintained that the other is always outside, and always subversive to “dominant” culture. With practices emerging in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, punk negation, slacker refusal, institutional critique, and art-as-activism were put forth as viable tactics for resistance. But to my cohort, the proposal of simple opposition over immanence did not feel appropriate or effective in resisting the conditions of our moment; it felt romantic. A strategic sense of imbrication seemed to better address the layered complexities of the reality at hand.

Correctly anatomizing the cynicism of the intellect, this quote from Yago falls a little short of accounting for the radicalism of the will. While capturing the conformism of the majority of police clones and boy band clones in Future St., the quote fails to anticipate a wildcard like Baby Jihad, who rebels against gay monoculture by embracing bisexuality and dating a woman (a woman who turns out to be a former gay male clone who has come out as transgender). At least in fantasy, Baby Jihad is the “gay guerrilla” Eastman dreamed of. He is willing to lay down his life for the cause, and when he is captured, he is tortured in scenes reminiscent of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. But what exactly is he fighting for? It is on this question Future St. enters into the terrain of the queer paradisiacal. Baby Jihad doesn’t actually know. He is clearer about what he is willing to give up—his conformist comforts and even his life—than what the insurrection against homonationalism will actually bring about.

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Still from Future St. videos, designed by production designer Daniel Leyva.

The role of the mother in the play, I would speculate, represents this repressed and buried revolutionary potential. The link between human Sonny and clone Remy is key. Sonny, unlike Remy, bears a separation trauma from his mother, and thus interrupts the fantasy of gay Clonifornia as an unmothered world. (Early in the play, there is a flashback of Sonny’s separation, which we then learn is being replayed on the “mnemonic scanner” in a police interrogation room, stuck on traumatic loop. “Makes you glad you never had a mother,” one clone cop says to another.) Sonny’s mother turns out to be imprisoned somewhere in the same facility he is sent to. At one point she addresses the audience:

Where are the mothers now? In the shadows, planning […] In the solitude of the prison system, we taught ourselves telepathy. Separated by the architecture of the institution, we speak without words, commiserating, but not forever. What can a mother do? We have infiltrated the cloning labs in the Headlands, Central Valley, and Santa Barbara.Dormant operatives await radicalization with the turn of a psychic switch. Stealth attacks, subliminal propaganda, night terrors. The Mother’s Brigade never uses force. We will punish these boys. We promise.

The hauntological mother who appears as a phantasm is the Ghost of Gender Trouble Past to whom, we are led to believe, the future might actually belong. Segade’s speculative scenario works as a madcap literalization of tropes and processes that were once understood as metaphorical, but have become enacted in contemporary plastic queer and trans incorporations. Here, for instance is, how Butler puts the matter in Gender Trouble:

In effect, the loss of the maternal body as an object of love is understood to establish the empty space out of which words originate. But the refusal of this loss—melancholy—results in the failure to displace into words: indeed, the place of the maternal body is established in the body, “encrypted” […] and given permanent residence there as a dead and deadening part of the body…

While quoting this passage might make it seem like I’m interpreting Segade through Butler, I’m actually more interested in the opposite: how Segade’s play works as a dramatic introjection of Butler. Certainly, one way of reading the speculative drama of Future St. is how it takes the most outlandish concepts from the theory toolkit—like incorporation, introjection, and encryption—and subjects them to a vivid actualization. Incorporation is the psychoanalytic term for how losses that cannot be spoken are physicalized: they are encrypted in the body. Our depressions and melancholy spring forth from these inarticulable and inconsolable losses pertaining to pleasure and desire. For Butler, this is the genesis of gender.

Put another way, the manner in which Segade treats the gender melancholy of queer paradise is anti-metaphorical and anti-explanatory. Rather than working through the theory (as I briefly attempt here), he literally acts it out. But this acting out is anticipated in the theory itself: Butler writes that “incorporation literalizes the loss on or in the body and so appears as the facticity of the body, the means by which the body comes to bear ‘sex’ as its literal truth.” A literalization of a literalization, the queer paradisiacal appears to leave no room for exit from, or refusal of, this factual body, just indefinite malleability and intermittent explosion: like the steadily ratcheting intensity of a Julius Eastman composition, ever modulating towards peak chromatic saturation.

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Still from Future St. videos, designed by production designer Daniel Leyva.

The evasion of gender melancholy through compulsory gay male homonormativity is of course a familiar feature of recent queer debates. Segade addresses these debates through nods to mainstream fandom of muscular heroism. In addition to feminism and noir, Future St.has some fun with the conventions of our currently hegemonic superhero narratives. Segade has skewered these narratives elsewhere for deviating from the anti-normative principles of their early comic-book form through their translation into billion-dollar, global Hollywood blockbusters. The gay guerrilla Remy is derisively-named a “mutard,” a clone with unexpected mutations. He can take control of the body of any man whose semen he has ingested, and he can deliver a knockout blow through use of his devastating side-eye. At one level, these powers allow the play to camp contemporary daddy-son dynamics between Generation X and Millennial queers. But Baby Jihad’s abilities also play out as an unorthodox take on the X-Men storyline. His powers reflect a post-camp or even anti-camp queer sensibility: one that is less driven by a gay send-up of the comic conformism of gender and race, as with traditional camp, and more by an intense affinity for the abstract utopias, dystopias, and heterotopias represented in the Marvel Universe. “The X-Men’s corner of the Marvel Universe’s overall continuity is a baroque entanglement of paradoxes” Segade has written in his critical commentary on recent Marvel narratives. “X-Men is about a community of mutants facing extinction … [and] has long been a site for a speculative interrogation of the construction of sexuality, veering between essentialist rhetoric and the fluidities of queerness.” Segade’s post-camp sensibility chooses to alter the established history of normativity; to “ret-con” it. Rather than enable a single utopian horizon, ret-conning ensures a perpetual and ever-increasing tangle of incompatible pasts, presents, and futures. Ret-conning normativity is another sign of the plastic paradisiacal.

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Alexandro Segade, Nicholas Gorham, and Brian McQueen in Future St., 2017. Performance View, Live Arts Bard Biennial: We’re Watching, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, April 2017. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Live Arts Bard.

If we bring José Esteban Muñoz’s well-known exegesis on “queer utopianism” to mind, we can think of Segade’s play as introducing us to the problematic phenomena of the “queer paradisiacal.” California, has been sold in the settler imaginary as a “paradise” for self-discovery, self-invention, and the pursuit of fame and fortune. Future St. indexes the dark side of that dream, particularly in its latest techno-fetishistic incarnation. Utopia may finally be too dialectical a concept to account for the flat plasticity of the paradise Segade depicts. Where utopia—particularly in the Blochian lineage of Western Marxism in which Muñoz moves—is secular and revolutionary, paradise is filled with a spiritual enthusiasm and a neoliberal individualism. The queer paradisiacal is attuned to an era of an endless war on terror consumed on screens from afar, an era in which Florida nightclubs become targets for mass slaughter, and an era in which gated communities are privately policed to keep undesirables from disrupting the pursuit of white happiness. Intimations of queer utopia appear in Baby Jihad’s militant stance against the homoconformism of his upbringing—a pragmatism he hyperbolically combats with a weaponized “death glare” that lays those it hits flat out. When Sonny joins Baby Jihad for a fatal tryst at the illegal squat on Future St., he sets in motion a sequence of events that culminates, in at least one of the scenarios that can be construed as an ending, in nuclear apocalypse. As a work of performance theater, Future St. fascinates for all the ways it recognizes how homosex in a speculative utopia is—to borrow lyrics from Zayn that are entirely in keeping with the boy-band world Segade has built for us—both “our paradise, and our cold war.”

Tavia Nyong’o teaches American Studies and Theater Studies at Yale University, and is the author of The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009).

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