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Think You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby? THINK AGAIN
Naxieli Mannello

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, and race.

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 of marriage."

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 place?"

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 right now.

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 that addressed.

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 or not.

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 the inside?”

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 Proceeds from A Brief History of Outrage support the donation of graphic materials to activist organizations, queer youth groups, and schools.

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