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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Students contemplate queer identity and community in a timely moment

*Trigger warning: sensitive language is used in references in this article

Where does the need for community come from? This is the question Professor Aaron Lecklider asked his students during their Zoom discussion in AMST/ENGL/HIST/WGS 257L: Queer Literature and History in the 20th Century US. The reading for the week was the 1977 novel, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions by Larry Mitchell, and Professor Lecklider asked students to consider this question of community, “in a timely moment,” as he phrased it. This class meeting fell in the middle of election week, where the stress students experienced made the discussion of community and its role in queer identity carry a poignant weight. The opportunity for such a discussion in this course and others like it is made possible through funding from the Mellon Foundation.

The book in discussion is an allegorical, non-narrative fable set in the fantasy world of Ramrod where “faggots” live a communal lifestyle with each other and their friends, making art and awaiting the next societal revolution. Mitchell wrote the novel in response to the lack of queer literature available, and the subject matter is related to his time living in Lavender Hill, a queer commune in 1970s New York. Though it spent years out of print, unknown to the wider world, it was read through photocopies and PDFs before finally being reissued by Nightboat in 2019 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The novel has remained an important work of fiction for queer communities, largely because of the ideas of community it elevates.

“Living with a bunch of other queer people in the middle of nowhere for an extended period of time is appealing, even knowing the history,” a student wrote in the chat. Another student added to this by saying that this idea of community wasn’t possible for most queer people at the time. This student insightfully observed the ways that Mitchell “others” straight and white people in his novel, creating an ironic reversal of the real world that “paints queer people of color as the norm.”

In 2017, the novel was adapted into a stage production by Morgan Bassichis at The New Museum that incorporates audience interactions, stand-up comedy, and songs. Professor Lecklider showed the opening scenes from a recorded production and asked students to respond with observations of the play.

“There’s a juxtaposition between the sad and bittersweet tone and the imagery of magic and faeries,”  a student noted, adding that there was a “yearning for community” in the tone of the performance. “It felt really interactive, like the audience was really close to the action. It really plays on the sense of community they talk about in the novel,” another student observed. This interaction was impactful for multiple people, as yet another person echoed this by writing in the chat that they “interpreted the interactive aspects of the performance as an attempt to create community.” 

For many, one of the impactful aspects of the plot was how only queer people can communicate with “faeries” in the narrative. Because “faerie” has been a derogatory term used to refer to queer people, students saw this as a reclaiming that allows queer communities to take back a word that has been used in other contexts to depreciate them.

The reclamation of the language around queer identity is a major theme of the class as well as of Mitchell’s novel. While “queer” has been fully reclaimed as a broad term for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as the name of the field that this class belongs to (queer studies), the use of the word “faggot” in the title of Mitchell’s novel is language that is still in-process. For some, like the characters in Mitchell’s novel, it is a badge of honor to identify in this way, and an expression of power to have control over language that has been used elsewhere to harm. For others, the term can be triggering because of personal experiences in which this term was used pejoratively. When uttered outside of the community this word still bears the weight of its othering ability, but for some within the queer community, there is celebration in identifying with a word used historically to ostracize.

This discussion falls within the broader course goal to provide a historical and intersectional overview of queer literature in the twentieth century. The texts include studies of the Harlem Renaissance, gay literature of the 1960-70s, and lesbian pulp, with particular emphasis on the importance of historical research methods and archival work. One of the key assignments in the course is a poetry analysis where students will choose three poems from Napantha: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color,edited by Christopher Soto, and connect the poem to the historical context of queer literature. This assignment allows students to engage in research and their own interpretive readings to see queer experiences represented in history.

The end of the discussion of Mitchell’s novel was an emotional one. In the midst of a pandemic, political upheaval, and numerous other situations that students are facing globally and personally, a meditation on community and queer identity is a welcome reprieve as they await the next revolution.