Think You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby?
Originally mobilized around queer issues, Los Angeles-based artist-activist
group THINK AGAIN has also tackled everything from gentrification
to globalization while holding up a mirror to progressives that
often don’t want to "dilute"their message by
including gay rights.
That said, THINK AGAIN has not always touted the gay rights party
line. Their 2000 mobile billboard campaign Popping the Question
brought art activism to the streets with slogans such as the cheeky, "So
you’re in love; what do you want, a medal?"and "The
question isn’t whether the state should marry queers; the
question is whether the state should marry anyone."
Nadxieli Mannello sat down with THINK AGAIN’s S.A. Bachman
and David Attyah to discuss queer politics, family values, and
why gay marriage is looking so damn straight.
I came across your work through the antiwar movement, but
for those who don’t know you can you tell us what brought
THINK AGAIN together?
David Attyah: S.A. and I began to work together in the mid ‘90s
under the Clinton administration when there was another mainstream
question on the board. We were together one night around
S.A.’s kitchen table and she looked at me and said, "You
know, I don’t think I can bear another Gay Pride parade where
the focus is on whether or not we can get the attention of AT&T." That’s
very much what was going on during the Clinton years when gay politics
were focused on getting mainstream attention via an acknowledgment
in public life rather than in domestic life. We produced
a set of postcards together and took them to Pride and started
talking to people on the street about queer and coalition politics.
And to this day our first impulse remains. Our goal is to explore
the extent to which we can use art to prompt a political conversation.
You’ve chosen to go beyond just queer rights to address
a multitude of issues and made their interconnectedness the heart
of your political stance, what made you decide to do so?
David: S.A and I come out of a particular tradition of queer politics
as opposed to gay and lesbian politics. Queer politics are based
on a certain number of things, including the idea that we’re
not just talking about rights and privileges for people who identify
as gay. We’re talking about an understanding of sexual
possibility and freedom that includes liberation for women, liberation
for queers of all types, and by extension includes a critique of
gender roles in the culture. We certainly believe that there
are no queer issues that are not also issues of class, gender,
So it’s not a contradiction for us to do work on the rape
of women in Juarez in the same year that we’re doing work
on militarization in the Bush administration or we’re dealing
with gay marriage. It allows us to move out from this idea that
political issues are naturally separated and that it’s the
natural terrain of women to only be interested in women and queers
only in queers. We work against that, towards the idea that
if you are progressive and have a sense of social justice that
you are by nature interested in all of these and interested in
working on all of them together.
Popping the Question addressed gay marriage, social discrimination,
and legal benefits with a slew of great slogans including, "We
know you want security, but does someone have to recite marriage
vows to get healthcare insurance?" Can you tell us a little
more about that campaign?
David: I just want to point out that at the time we did the Popping
the Question campaign the issue of gay marriage wasn’t
really on the national agenda. Part of the reason why the project
is still important and timely is that Bush has really upped the
ante with 1.5 billion dollars to encourage heterosexual marriage
and initiatives to link welfare to marital status. Now
we’ve got his willful confusing of the terms "the
legal institution of marriage"and "the moral institution
S.A. Bachman: Popping the Question is really typical
of the kind of thinking that THINK AGAIN is interested in. We wanted
to not only talk about these issues in the most personal terms
but also to reveal the multi-billion dollar wedding industrial
complex, for example — linking people’s individual
sense of what they want in their own emotional and personal life
to what legal institutions are saying and the global economy that
produces the material objects involved in these rituals. The project
is pretty deliberately designed to try to move people up and down
those levels of experience, from the personal to the political
and back again.
Do you think, as a recent issue of the Socialist Worker suggested, "Those
who dismiss this battle for gay marriage as an embrace of bourgeois
morality are missing the context in which this fight is taking
S.A.: One thing I do want to say at this moment is that we are
well aware that denying rights to lesbian and gay couples and granting
them to straight couples is a clear example of homophobia and should
be expressed as such. That goes without saying. And even though
this is not the issue that we want to see at the center of the
debate it’s meaningful to see the mayor of San Francisco
talk back to a homophobic power base in this country and try to
set a precedent. We’re just troubled to see so many queers
jumping on the marriage issue so uncritically.
And on the topic of context, I think we need to realize that we’re
living a post-9/11 moment. Something that always comes back to
haunt me is this article I read on the change in furniture design
post- 9/11 — suddenly big stuffy chairs and oversized
sofas are back in style because people want to feel safe and secure
in their own homes. There’s a collective consciousness around
the issue of security that impacts marriage coming to the foreground
And which doesn’t take into consideration the needs
of a growing "uncoupled" population . . .
S.A.: Right, because again there’s the argument, ”I
just want to express my love; it’s a private matter." But
no one is talking about the fact that privileges should not have
to exist based on coupling of any kind. One of the main texts in Popping
the Question talks about marriage being an institution of
discrimination and one of the main targets is single people. One
thing we know is that in recent years families have gotten more
complicated and more multigenerational. People are living with
parents and grandparents and with friends and roommates for much
longer for economic reasons and certainly we would like to see
David: And we need to distinguish these two issues. We’re
talking about the legal phenomenon of marriage and then we’re
talking about relationships in society. As S.A. has pointed
out, we’re interested in de-coupling rights and privileges
from people’s marital status. For example, the Bush administration’s
proposal linking welfare benefits to whether or not poor people
stay married is ridiculous. We are absolutely opposed to the idea
that one’s legal status under the law has anything to do
with whether you choose to take a traditional long-term partner
On the flip side there’s all this talk about whether gay
relationships are legitimate. Why are we talking about making
only our romantic relationships legitimate? If any group in society
should understand the value of friendship it should be gay and
lesbian people, or the value of alternative housing situations
or the value of intergenerational parenting . . .
So one of the concerns we have as we race towards gay marriage
is, for example, the gay male communities’ long history of
best friends being essentially medical caretakers in the face of
AIDS. What we’re not doing is talking about a very long tradition
of deciding you’re not going to have your healthcare decisions
made by your biological family or the person that the law has decided
is contractually obligated to do so. And I guess that’s the
shorthand way of saying, well, what about the young woman who wants
to raise a child herself with the help of her two best friends?
How did we get to the point that we’re now going to use gay
people to leverage an argument about traditional family values
such that a woman can’t do that?
What do you say to people who argue gay and lesbians could
engage more fully in reforming social and family organizations,
healthcare benefits, and the conferring of legal rights "from
David: Transformation becomes quite interesting for us; this idea
that if you work within the system you can achieve a certain kind
of transformation. I think we could have a really big debate
about what we’ve really achieved with the L Word and Queer
as Folk on television. One could argue that we’ve
mainstreamed gay culture and that’s a good thing. S.A.
and I are generally people who don’t agree that working from
the inside leads to transformation… I mean after a decade
of AIDS activism I challenge someone to find a condom in a school
in a suburban or rural community. And from the vantage point
of other attempts to mainstream gay politics and get people into
mainstream life, the cynical answer is that visibility is achieved
for queers in only decidedly upper middle-class ways where we get
to be consumers and television characters that have law degrees.
We haven’t necessarily seen that starting in the
place most palatable to mainstream heterosexual upper middle-class
culture leads to the most political change. And one of our concerns
is that gay marriage will move forward and continue to de-politicize
the range of things queer people are interested in organizing for. Do
we really believe that once gay people have achieved a certain
level of marital security and status in this society that they’re
going to go to bat for reform of sex education in schools (which
doesn’t privilege abstinence and marriage) or for revisionist
history in schools that includes gay and lesbian people….?
S.A.: Let alone fair labor practices or universal healthcare or
a living wage. Historically at its worst the gay and lesbian movement
has remained largely silent on issues pertaining to class, race,
and sexual difference, not to mention misogyny in certain ways.
And there’s no reason to think that once marriage rights
are in place the silence is suddenly going to disappear. I just
don’t see that.
What are the next steps then? How do we define an agenda and
mobilize people in a way that there’s cross pollination
of ideas and support?
S.A.: One of the things we have on our agenda is a project titled Priority
List, which encourages people to address exactly your question
about defining agendas and give us feedback on the issues they
think are important. Then, of course, we’re interested
in taking all those local issues and linking them both to the
personal and to the global.
For more information on THINK AGAIN and their new book A
Brief History of Outrage, visit www.agitart.org. Proceeds
from A Brief History of Outrage support the donation of
graphic materials to activist organizations, queer youth groups,