Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
I met Johanna at a party in 1998—actually I was talking to her boyfriend first, barrettes in his dyed black hair and painted nails, I was trying to figure out if he was a fag or if he was from Olympia. Johanna came over, and he introduced her. To his credit, he didn’t say: This is my girlfriend. Or: This is my partner. Just: This is Johanna.
Johanna was tall and blonde, and she spoke with a high breathy voice that confused me at first because I didn’t know any women who talked that way, but after a moment or two our conversation felt conspiratorial in the way that meant we were going to become friends. When she came to my first reading in New York, she brought a friend in a leopard print coat named Kathy, and after the reading we went to dinner but Kathy had to go home. We hugged goodbye and Andy was standing there like someone had just smacked him in the face. Afterwards, he said Mattilda, I’m seeing stars!
What do you mean, I said. Andy said Mattilda, Kathleen Hanna came to your reading. That wasn’t Kathleen Hanna, I said—her name was Kathy. Andy said Mattilda, that was Kathleen Hanna, and I figured he must be right because Kathleen Hanna changed his life, changed a lot of people’s lives actually, but by the time I found out about her music and all the other Riot Grrrl bands, that wasn’t the kind of music I liked anymore. Punk was something I was trying to be in high school, I went to Fugazi shows and swayed in the back corner, as far away from the slamming as possible. I had pretty much every album by The Clash, and even wrote a story named after their song “Stay Free” that described the kind of friendships I fantasized about, “We met / when we were at school / never took no shit from no one.” But I was too much of a faggot to be accepted as punk, this was DC at the end of the ‘80s and I wasn’t out I mean I didn’t know anyone who was but everyone knew about me.
When I discovered dance music, it was such a relief—I didn’t have to feel like an alien just because I wanted to look styley and twirl around instead of slamming into people. Sometimes I slammed into someone, but it was an accident. And then when I got to San Francisco in 1992, I was suddenly surrounded by music that called itself punk again, punk music and slam-dancing, except now it was queers who were slamming, queers who sneered at any mention of house, techno—so repetitive, they would say, but really they were saying only fags listen to that, the wrong kind of fags. So I danced to house but lived in a different world, a world of dykes and a few fags who held each other and talked about rape and feminism and thrift stores and veganism and surviving childhood abuse. We made ‘zines and chapbooks and dyed our hair and painted our nails and wrote manifestos and stuck nails through our ears and organized protests and competed with one another for shoplifting excess, shared recipes and tips on sexual health and got angry and crazy and depressed together, but we were in San Francisco so we looked down on Riot Grrrl and everything else we associated with Olympia, and even Kathleen Hanna—we thought we were tougher and smarter and more original.
By this point I lived for house music, so of course that’s when people decided I was punk. Maybe it was because I made out with boys at a dyke bar where we danced to Chumbawamba and Hole and X-Ray Spex and God Is My Co-Pilot and Bratmobile, or because I dyed my hair crazy colors and wore lots of dangly silver earrings and the rest of the things I was afraid to wear in high school, like plaid pants and combat boots. Or maybe because I didn’t care anymore—the rules are different when you finally get away.
Or maybe it was because activism mattered so much to me: ACT UP meetings had become the most important thing in my life. ACT UP meant politicizing everything, and that’s what queer meant to me. You learned by absorbing the room—generations of activism and relationships and contrasting ways of communicating, the laughter between tense moments, the process of committees and affinity groups and consensus. ACT UP meant fighting AIDS because everyone was dying, and it also meant making connections—between government neglect of people with AIDS and structural homophobia and racism; between the US war machine and the lack of funding for healthcare; between misogyny and the absence of resources for women with AIDS; between the war on drugs and the abandonment of HIV-positive drug addicts and prisoners. There were several other direct action groups in San Francisco at the time, and ACT UP ended up doing a lot of coalition actions with BACORR, the Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights; and RAW, Roots Against War, which was people of color against US imperialism; and then WAC, the Women’s Action Coalition. These coalitions basically meant that six of us got together, mostly the youngest people in each group. We were the ones with the energy to take on extra work—we were ready to make flyers and go out wheatpasting and carry torches through the streets.
I don’t remember anyone in ACT UP ever saying oh, you’re so young, and that meant a lot to me too. I was already going to bars and saying I was 23 when I was in high school, and then when I moved to San Francisco this guy who was 26 took me out to the Café San Marcos, which was the only dyke bar in the Castro but they had a dance floor so fags went there too, and then we were standing on the balcony and he asked me how old I was, I said 19 and he started freaking out, pulling people over and saying can you believe it, can you believe he’s 19? So after that I was 23 again, at least in bars.
The gay clubs were always about 95% fags and only a few dykes, or if they were mixed that meant straight with a few dyke or fag club kids, but even if there were only six or seven dykes that was who I became friends with. Even at the places where everything was about attitude, which was most places except when it got late and then it was just about dancing to the sky with crystal in the air. But there was also Junk, which was the only club where it felt like everything at once—dancing, and politics, and sex.
At Junk I didn’t want drugs, I didn’t even drink because somehow it felt like there in that bar we were creating a life together. A bunch of us would head over right after ACT UP and it was the reverse of the other clubs so mostly dykes and a few fags scattered around, although this was the only bar where I actually picked up guys on a regular basis. There was even a point where I decided I would go home with someone every week, and it actually worked, for a little while at least. And I met Derek there, Derek who was always eating whole cloves of raw garlic and he made me think of the person I was trying to become and we made out on the dance floor, all that garlic and sweat. I went back to his apartment behind the sausage factory that night, they had to keep the windows closed during the day because otherwise the sausage smell would overwhelm everything. Pretty soon I was going there all the time and people on the street which was really an alley would throw glass bottles at me, or not really at me but in my direction, they never hit me but shattered in front of me or behind me and I pretended not to notice. Maybe one of them did hit me once: I kept walking.
But actually that time I went home with Derek after Junk wasn’t the first time we met—there was a café down the street, where we’d stare at each other but not say anything. I thought he was hot but snotty so mostly I’d stare at the duct tape on the back of his leather jacket, which reminded me of one of the first guys I had a crush on: I’d spent a lot of time staring at the back of his leather jacket.
Eventually Derek and I would say hi and smile and we knew each other’s names, but it was at Junk where we were sweating so close until we were sweating together. I remember waking up in his bed and then going into the kitchen where Derek was always doing something really involved like making sourdough bread from a starter he’d concocted himself from all kinds of rotten who-knows-what but half the time we were making out in the way that your whole head becomes your tongue and your nose and the other person’s hands it was so much fun to hold hands on the street and hold each other in bed we were holding everything.
Sometimes Derek would twist his head around like he was trying to snap it off or he’d eat a whole pint of Rice Dream and then vomit it back into the container and eat it again. He would keep jars of piss under the bed so he didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night and then sometimes his whole room would start to smell like piss but this was what love meant to me, seeing these things and loving them and I almost forgot to talk about the laughing, sometimes Derek would get out of control with laughing his whole face all red and then I would start laughing and then he would say stop, it hurts, but then we couldn’t stop it was hard to breathe but still we were laughing, no stop, stop! We would talk for hours and hours, days really, we’d go to bed and then wake up and just keep talking which was dreaming and learning and breathing and yearning all at once. Derek’s father had kicked him out of the house when he was 15 because he had a mohawk and that was ten years before we met so he had more stories to tell, at least more stories about the past because mine were still mostly about the future, although in those days everything could change in two months.
Like when I went to the March on Washington in 1993 to do civil disobedience with ACT UP for universal healthcare and we expected hundreds of people but we only ended up with a few dozen. At an earlier ACT UP demo I’d met this boy from Michigan, and we ended up going to protests together, ran through the DC streets at night dancing to RuPaul’s “Supermodel” even though we knew it was cheesy, and then making out with anyone we thought was hot. DC, where suddenly there were a million white gay people in white t-shirts applying for Community Spirit credit cards. Gays in the military was the big issue and what could be more horrifying but here’s the thing: the freaks actually found one another—we were so alienated that we went right up and said hi, I like your hair, I mean that’s what people said to me at least, since my hair was purple and red and green. And I met Zee, the boy from Michigan with a shaved head and the cutest little nose ring like a tiny dot that kind of matched the braces he tried to hide since who had braces at 19 but I thought they were cute and he ended up becoming my first boyfriend, since Derek and I never called ourselves that. I also met JoAnne who later became my closest friend, and even Chrissie Contagious, who was on ecstasy screaming naked from a tree in Dupont Circle.
And then after all the festivities ended there were a few fags with suitcases, and more trash in the streets, and I was making out with Zee in Georgetown, right in front of the all-night restaurant where I used to go after clubs and warehouse parties in high school. Zee and I even went to The Vault, one of the clubs from my high school days and I still liked the music, actually it was better, and afterwards we were making out in Georgetown—that never happened in high school I mean I couldn’t even imagine. Two guys who looked like Georgetown University students came up and said what are you doing? Kissing, I said, and went back to it, and remember how I said everything could change in two months? But sometimes it changed in two days. Or two minutes.
They sprayed something in my eyes and then I was screaming it hurt so much I wasn’t sure I could see and Zee and I went into the 24-hour restaurant—in the bathroom I was throwing water on my face it was so red it looked like spray paint. And they said take this outside, the people working at the restaurant. You need to take this outside. So then we were trying to hail a cab but no cab would stop, I guess I must have looked that bad and when we finally got to the hospital they made me lie down on the table and they put tubes in my eyes and pumped in saline for 45 minutes to flush out the pepper spray, that’s what they said it was: they said it was a good thing I came right to the hospital because otherwise I might’ve lost my vision.
The next day, my parents asked: Why do you have to be so overt?
Back in San Francisco, I did go to a Bikini Kill show once—we arrived early because the space was small and we were worried it would get too crowded—everyone was waiting for Kathleen Hanna to get in a fight with some macho guy, they kept yelling KICK HIS ASS. I hated fights it was depressing. Oh, and then the thing people were whispering: Is she, or isn’t she? As in queer.
But I thought I was going to write about New York. So I met Johanna at a party in 1998, but what was I doing at a party? I never really liked parties, even in high school they were boring, but this was Dasha’s party—I must’ve met her at Dumba, the anarchist space in Brooklyn started by four people who wanted to create an alternative to the misogyny and homophobia at ABC No Rio, the storied anarchist space on the Lower East Side where punk bands often played. I met Gina at Dumba too, I thought she was so cute with her shaved head and lip ring and we would flirt with each other in the way that dykes and fags flirt. Later she lived at Dumba or maybe we met when she was already living there, but anyway Dumba kind of became a space for a queer outsider culture that didn’t really exist elsewhere in New York.
That’s when I was looking for activists again—I’d taken a break from direct action for several years, I was trying to figure out how to engage in activist groups without taking everyone’s anger into my body. That’s the pattern I’d noticed in San Francisco after I remembered I was sexually abused, before then I thought it was okay because I knew these people really weren’t angry at me, they were angry about the issues.
In ACT UP meetings you had to be ready for someone to tear you to shreds any time you said something—no, you didn’t have a right to speak about people with AIDS if you weren’t HIV-positive, or to talk about women with HIV if you weren’t a woman, and I’m not sure who had the right to talk about prisoners with AIDS, because none of us were in prison, and definitely if you said something kind of wishy-washy or unprocessed then several people would jump on you at once. You had to become incredibly meticulous, critical, and alert in order to say anything—luckily I was good at that. And it was an emergency, we were trying to save people’s lives.
But then I was part of a new activist group where we held a sleep-out on the steps of the Mayor’s house to call attention to the Matrix Program, his corporate-backed plan to rid downtown San Francisco of homeless people, we arrived with sleeping bags and got arrested pretty quickly but we got a lot of press. Activists from RAW had invited specific people from other groups to join them in challenging Matrix, and after our sleepover we started holding meetings at the Coalition on Homelessness to figure out what to do next. We were going to target Gap because Don Fisher, the head of Gap, was one of the big funders behind Matrix, but first we had to agree on our decision-making process, if it was going to be democratic majority or consensus.
I was the person most in favor of consensus, since I thought it worked so smoothly in ACT UP—but most people didn’t have that experience: they thought consensus was an unworkable fantasy. There were other people who were in favor of consensus, but they didn’t say anything during meetings because of the way the people with the most power would get up and literally start screaming at me: How could you even think of consensus we’ll never get anything done you’re holding up the group there are important things we have to accomplish.
Since we hadn’t decided on our process, we kind of had to use consensus at first anyway. I would sit there so calmly and describe how consensus worked in ACT UP, how it was the best way to ensure that everyone could participate in decision-making. And then people would stand up and attack me. And after a few of these meetings I realized oh, actually it’s not okay when people tear each other to shreds, I mean it’s not okay for me because I hold it all in my body. Just like with my father’s rage.
This was the period where sometimes I thought my father was following me down the street, at night I worried he was under the bed, behind the curtains with an axe, I would ask my roommate Camelia to look. She was the first incest survivor I’d met, and it was her mother who was a dyke who had abused her and this took apart a lot of illusions at once.
Camelia would look under my bed and say no, there’s no one there. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and everything in my room was my father’s eyes I needed to get up to turn on the light but I was too scared, all I could do was lie there in terror. Or I would be sitting on the bus and suddenly I couldn’t figure out what people were doing, how they were going on with their lives and then I would remember oh, we’re on the bus, I can get off the bus and then when I got off I would tell myself no, my father is not following me, my father is not following me down the street, my father isn’t even in San Francisco. But then I would get that sudden panic anyway, just before turning around and I would shake and stop breathing at the same time, my whole body covered in sweat but okay, okay, it’s not my father, there’s no one there.
When I moved to New York in 1997, it was harder to find people—you needed to know someone in order to know someone. I knew Ananda through Andy, and she invited me to join a group called the Fuck the Mayor Collective although the name kept changing. It was a small group of queers who made stickers exposing Giuliani’s “quality-of-life” campaign as a brutal push to gentrify neighborhoods in Manhattan previously considered unsafe for tourism and real estate profiteering, while dismantling social services, criminalizing people of color, and removing any hint of sexual culture from the public realm. I got involved right before the group began planning a big event called Gay Shame—the idea was to create a radical alternative for queers to make our own culture and share strategies for resistance instead of swallowing the corporate “pride” agenda. I volunteered to MC the event, which really did open up space for queer troublemaking. Most people there were young and white, but still we were dedicated to a queer analysis that foregrounded race and class, and Dumba became a place where we could find something, or someone, or sometimes nothing but punk bands, and you already know how I felt about punk bands, but at least they weren’t the same nothing that surrounded us on the billboards inside people’s hearts.
I guess I met people at Dumba—that’s helpful—I’m trying to figure out where to meet people now. Anyway, the good thing about meeting Johanna was that we were both driven but not driven like most of New York—Prada shoes and a penthouse—I was driven to figure out how to use radical queer direct action to confront the violence of the Giuliani regime, and public sex as a way to escape and connect and writing as a way to connect and escape, and Johanna was a painter and zine-maker and then she started making music with Kathleen. We both did drugs, but didn’t really want to do drugs, except when we were doing them, or maybe Johanna did, but I didn’t. We didn’t really go out together, because Johanna mostly went to straight hipster parties and I mostly went to sceney East Village gay bars, so instead when we got together we talked a lot, about sex work and sex outside of work and what was the difference, and we talked about New York and all of its layers of violence and then the West Coast since that was where Johanna was from and I felt like I was from the West Coast too, even though I grew up in DC I really grew up in San Francisco.
I never believed that whole West Coast-East Coast thing until I moved to New York where there was no flamboyance except money. Whatever the trend of the moment, everyone in New York was working it. If you met someone at a bar, the first question they would ask was: What do you do? Or, they would decide ahead of time, and say: Are you a stylist? Or: Are you in fashion? I mean that’s what they would say to me.
But after Gay Shame, June of 1998, I was finally finding activists in New York, and then, in October, when the murder of Matthew Shepard became front-page news, a few people decided that something angry had to happen immediately. They called everyone they knew, and in just a few days about 20 of us planned a political funeral where we would march through the streets in midtown at rush hour in order to interrupt business as usual and broadcast our rage. We were invoking a history of political funerals in ACT UP: it was important to distinguish this protest from a vigil, where everyone is silent. We were not interested in being silent.
We went out and flyered every gay bar we could get to, as if this was the ‘70s and bars were still community spaces—we expected 1000 people if we were really successful, but we actually ended up with 10,000. That was because of the internet too, but we didn’t really know that yet. Or, I didn’t. The cops started attacking us instead of letting us march in the street so most of the marshals got arrested right away, and I was the one person in charge of front-to-back communication, this was before all my physical pain started. Or before I noticed. I was running back and forth through the crowd as the cops were swinging their clubs and charging us on horseback and in the end I remember standing in Madison Square Park, hours later when there were maybe only two other marshals left. We held a press conference, and I stood next to a protester with blood dripping down his face, blood from police batons and we were on all the TV stations saying: This is what happens when queers try to protest homophobic violence.
Afterwards, we tried to create a large-scale radical queer activist group, but we got stuck in endless discussions about what our mission statement and tactics would be and the meetings became smaller and smaller. Some of us formed an affinity group called Fed Up Queers to do targeted actions—at first the idea was that we would only meet when someone came up with an idea for an action, so we wouldn’t get bogged down in process. But then we went from one action to the next, since someone always had an idea, sometimes there were several ideas at once and we were always meeting.
When Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African man, was gunned down in a hail of 41 NYPD bullets, there were protests but no one was getting arrested and we decided to raise the stakes. We wanted to block the Brooklyn Bridge during rush hour, but we only had eight people who could risk arrest so we said okay, we’ll block the bridge with eight people. We measured the width of the bridge, bought chain so that we could cover several hundred feet, scouted the location, planned it all out. But when we got there, we found cops waiting in the exact spot we’d chosen. Since this was a covert action, we had obviously been infiltrated but we didn’t think about that right away, instead we went to plan B but plan B wasn’t possible either. So we chained ourselves across Broadway in rush-hour traffic, except the person forming the middle link somehow disappeared—that was the infiltrator, the only time in an activist group when we’ve know for sure.
We blocked the street anyway; the chains made it more dramatic because the cops had to bring out electric saws to get the locks off, and we were right near the permitted demonstration organized by black church leaders, the action we were supporting. So we were lying in the freezing cold February streets with reporters bending over to ask what a bunch of queers, most of us white, could possibly be doing blocking traffic. That’s not what they said exactly, but it’s what they meant. I said we’re here because unarmed people of color are being gunned down on the streets of New York, and it’s a state of emergency.
It was a state of emergency. With direct action, it’s always a state of emergency and that’s good because you’re on alert, ready to intervene. And it’s hard because you can never do enough. It’s why I got involved in Queeruption, which started with four people in a car on the way back from a queer writer’s conference: Scott, Kathryn, Jesse and me. And Taylor in Boston. All of the others had attended anarchist gatherings where they felt inspired by the politics but marginalized as queers, and they wanted to organize a queer anarchist convergence. I wasn’t that interested because it didn’t sound like direct action, and I wasn’t even sure I was an anarchist—I’d never felt comfortable in anarchist spaces because they’d always felt so straight and male. But I guess that was the point.
We started holding weekly meetings at Bluestockings, the feminist bookstore Kathryn had founded. We decided to hold Queeruption over Columbus Day weekend in 1999, so I figured we needed an anti-imperialist direct action: I suggested we target the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of US colonialism, connecting NYPD murders of unarmed people of color, the US occupation of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, police attacks on queers at protests in New York, and the never-ending crackdown on public sex— we would be bringing hundreds of queers to New York, and what could be a better opportunity to make these connections?
We actually started to plan this out, the few people who were interested—this was before activists were regularly branded as terrorists: we even wondered if we could get Lady Liberty to drip blood-red paint; would we occupy the Statue, or should we try for an elaborate banner drop? We figured out theatrical stunts for people who didn’t want to get arrested, talked about whether we should do something on the ferry or wait until we got to the island. Then I had to leave for a trip to the West Coast, so I told the direct action working group to go ahead and plan the action without me.
When I got back, no one had planned anything because the larger group had decided our action wasn’t queer enough. But then I was at a Fed Up Queers meeting, or I guess it wasn’t officially a Fed Up Queers meeting because our meetings weren’t open to the public, but it was something related, and some guy showed up in office clothes like some of the gay men who came to the Matthew Shepard political funeral, the gay men who I thought might become politicized after suffering police violence but mostly that didn’t happen. Anyway, this guy told us about one night when he was cruising the Ramble in Central Park, and he went behind a bush to piss, and behind the bush there was a cop who arrested him for public indecency. In jail, the guards incited the other prisoners against him and they raped him while holding a razor blade at his neck; soon after he got out of jail he tested HIV-positive.
This guy was asking us for help—he didn’t know us, or even know much about our politics and in a way that made it more important. I realized oh, this could be the Queeruption action—it was obviously queer, right? And so, at the next general meeting I proposed the idea: we would take back the park with a queer carnival to connect the entrapment of gay men while cruising with the arrests of trans women on prostitution charges just for hanging out on the street, with police targeting of queer activists at protests—all of these were attacks on queer visibility. We would challenge the cops in the park and at the same time create our own idealized queer space for the evening, a place where queers of all genders could cruise together and celebrate with the pageantry and play of public confrontation.
But then Kathryn said: I don’t understand how this action relates to lesbians. And since most of the people in the room were lesbians who were there because of Kathryn, the proposal went down. You see how activism works. This was so different from organizing with Fed Up Queers—that group was mostly dykes too, but no one ever asked: How does this action relate to me? Because we knew that wasn’t the point.
Don’t get me wrong—there was plenty of drama in Fed Up Queers, but a different kind of drama. People would get in screaming fights about what time we should meet or the wording of a flyer, but then afterwards you would realize they were really arguing because somebody was sleeping with someone’s ex-girlfriend. I didn’t find this out until much later because I didn’t have a history with these people: we were making our own history but that was different.
Kathryn and I did have a history—she was the one who’d invited me to help plan the Matthew Shepard political funeral, and then we were always in conversation while she got ready to open Bluestockings, and she and Scott and I bonded because we were all vegan, there weren’t many vegans in New York. Especially not vegan queers. So I sat down with Kathryn and figured out how to get her support, which meant the support of the group, and then I organized pretty much every aspect of the action and basically harassed people into going, and we actually ended up with over a hundred people. The crowd was multi-gendered and intergenerational and even included a few Stonewall veterans, Sylvia Rivera and Bob Kohler, and we marched into the park that night with queers in dragged-out glory chanting campy slogans like “Push, push, in the bush!” and we actually found a cop hiding in the bushes. We caught him in the glare of our flashlights and then the head of the park precinct came out to talk to us. I remember yelling: Is that blood on your hands? And we marched back out of the park, no arrests, it was amazing.
But the thing about the months of planning that led up to that action, and the whole Queeruption gathering, was that it drained me so much that afterwards all I could think about was coke, I mean I thought about coke the whole time but I kept thinking not now. Afterwards it was time, time for cocktails and coke. It started at Starlight women’s night, partying with the style-dykes and this time some of them actually knew me outside of this other part of me. But then I would end up at the after-hours coke den right around the corner from The Cock, by this point I knew the dealer at The Cock but sometimes he wasn’t around and even if he was around sometimes I needed somewhere to go after the bars closed, so I would end up at the coke den talking to these horrible people—straight Eurotrash and decaying lifetime cokeheads and maybe a few gay boys trying not to act too gay because everyone knew the owner was homophobic.
If the owner was there he was usually the only black person, presiding over the bar in over-the-top 1970s pimp style, issuing demands with the wave of one hand while using the other to hold at least one tiny blonde woman close by his side. The blonde woman would snort rails out of his private stash and giggle uncomfortably, and it was hard to tell how much he believed in his performance but you could tell everyone working for him did: they would glance nervously over at him or ask you to put a shirt on because tank tops suddenly weren’t allowed or they’d command you to keep buying cocktails so the bar would look legitimate, and that was the most irrational part because the bar was illegal so wouldn’t it look more legitimate if they weren’t selling alcohol?
I would get so high I couldn’t speak it didn’t feel high it just felt like someone had locked my brain and these people were talking and then I needed to do another bump. Rush to the bathroom to shit again because of all the laxative in that terrible coke and then back to the bar to act like I could listen. For a few weeks that led to a few months I would even carry coke around, do a bump or two while walking through the East Village and then the lights would become softer and brighter at the same time and once I even did a bump in the bathroom during my queer incest survivors support group.
I can see how the exhaustion had already started, maybe I didn’t know about the physical pain yet, but I definitely knew about the exhaustion. Sometimes I would get so tired in the middle of the day that I would have to sit on the side of the street downtown and close my eyes and try to meditate while everyone streamed by. One time I went over to Johanna’s house—she was showing me how to make vegan borscht, which was pretty much the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted, and just before we sat down to eat I went into the bathroom for a quick bump, did that make the borscht taste better?
So it turned out Johanna and Kathleen were starting a band with Sadie Benning, and Le Tigre’s first show took place at Dumba on a freezing, snowy day in the winter of 1999. Or maybe it was 2000. The album says ’99, but the crazy thing about that show was that there was a line that went down the street in the snow—there had never been a show like that at Dumba. This huge crowd of riot grrrls, or post-riot grrrls, since Riot Grrrl was over or maybe it wasn’t really over because there was this huge crowd. There were people who had driven from Illinois and Ohio just to see Kathleen, and Kathleen kept saying: Who are all these people?
Johanna said Kathleen, there are whole websites dedicated to you, and Kathleen said really? I guess the truth is that every time you do a show, you worry that no one’s going to show up, I mean that’s what happens for me and maybe that happened for Kathleen too but at the time I just thought she was being fake. I was biased against her because I thought she was a star, the way people lined up afterwards to talk to her but no one else in the band, all these women in leopard print coats with vintage dresses, clunky heels and big purses.
But what was it about Kathleen Hanna, or Riot Grrrl? Gina says: All that spoken word about getting raped and screaming about it, talking about what you’re not supposed to. And: All those songs where Kathleen is shrieking and you’re trying to figure out what she’s saying and it takes forever but then you eventually figure it out and I discovered Riot Grrrl in 1997 so I was a little late but I dropped out of school and went back to my mother’s house and bought a drum set and put an ad out to start a band because I needed to hit stuff and scream and get angry and snobby about it. And: Even years later, at that Le Tigre show at Dumba, there was something about staring at Kathleen Hanna putting her guitar strap on, knowing about someone’s struggle and seeing them exist anyway and sometimes that’s how I feel about you.
But I don’t know why I’m writing about Riot Grrrl—I mean, Riot Grrrl never meant anything to me. When I lived in Seattle, I never even went to Olympia, although Andy was always trying to get me to go with him. I didn’t really understand what was there, except a small town and a bunch of scenesters and I wasn’t interested in either. I was never much of a Courtney Love fan, but when I heard that song at the end of the second Hole album where she sings, “When I went to school… in Olympi-ah-ah-ah-ah… and everyone’s the same,” I was floored—that’s pretty much how I felt about Valencia, the epicenter of dyke hipster San Francisco. So maybe that’s why I didn’t want to go to Olympia; it sounded like Valencia.
In 1997, I traveled from Seattle to San Francisco for a queer writers’ conference, where I met Thea Hillman and Elizabeth Stark. We went to a panel where Jennifer Levin said you can’t write anything truly great until after you’re 30. Elizabeth, who had just written her first book, raised her hand and said: I’m 26, and I’ve already written something truly great. I was 23. There were things I knew then, that I couldn’t possibly know now, and there are things I know now, that I couldn’t possibly know then.
But back to that first Le Tigre album—I was excited that they were trying to make dance music that was actually political, homemade and messy, and not just empty except for that feeling in your head: they were actually trying to represent something. In one song, they managed to name-drop Leslie Feinberg, Angela Davis, Dorothy Allison, Marlon Riggs, and even Mab Segrest, the author of Memoirs of a Race Traitor. David Wojnarowicz. Like in the early ‘90s when we would exchange books to start a conversation that was our lives.
After that show at Dumba, Andy said how come you’re not in the slideshow? I wasn’t sure how I felt about all those names—something was exhilarating but it also felt like cheerleading. Although I was glad Andy was thinking about me: we all want our place in history. Maybe that’s what it felt like Le Tigre was trying to create, even if some of their lyrics were a bit cheesy, like “Giuliani, he’s such a fucking jerk.” Still they were trying to express this time in our lives, especially on their second album, an EP, where they start by screaming “Get off the internet—I’ll meet you in the street,” something I can still relate to, and at one point they count off the 41 bullets the cops used to assassinate Amadou Diallo, making a protest chant into a piece of artistic documentation, and what could be more important? I mean more important for music. I mean they made me think I could make music.
When I moved back to San Francisco at the end of 2000, Le Tigre ended up playing right around the corner from my house—they performed with Chicks on Speed, a band who was becoming part of the art world by satirizing the art world but their beats were wild and broken and that’s the kind of sound I craved. I can’t remember if this was before or after Le Tigre played at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, in spite of the festival’s infamous policy of excluding trans women. And right outside stood Camp Trans, organized to protest the exclusion and create an alternative space. But Le Tigre played at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I wonder if they stopped at Camp Trans to say hello, hi, thank you for buying our album.
Even if you don’t have idols, there are those moments when your idols let you down. Like that time when I saw Dorothy Allison read, and I rushed to the front to be the first person to talk to her: I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me as a queer incest survivor. She nodded her head but looked right past me to the woman next in line, opened her arms and hugged that woman who she didn’t know any more than she knew me, this woman in a line of women and then there was me and oh how I wanted that hug.
Back to that Le Tigre show in San Francisco, I remember going backstage to say hi—I’d just come from Sugar’s birthday party down the street, and when I told her I was going to Le Tigre she said oh, how much are tickets? Twenty dollars. And at that she went off—when she was a teenager in Santa Rosa she wanted to organize a Bikini Kill show, and Bikini Kill had this rule that they would never do a show for more than five dollars. That was an ethic a lot of bands from that time held onto, I remember it from Fugazi shows in DC. And Sugar couldn’t find an all-ages space cheap enough in Santa Rosa so she organized the show in a field with a generator, they used car headlights to illuminate the not-quite-stage. Backstage at the Le Tigre show, Zee complimented Kathleen on the slideshow, and Kathleen said oh, we got a new projector, and it was $2000, but we figured we could just raise ticket prices. It was how she said it—like she didn’t even remember that person who insisted on $5 shows. So what about those moments when someone else’s idol lets you down?
But Andy says: Mattilda, by the time of that first Le Tigre show at Dumba I had already moved to Berlin.
That’s right— you saw them perform in Berlin. But do you remember that zine about class privilege in Riot Grrrl that Mary made, what was her last name?
I can’t remember.
That zine called Rich Girls Make Art, or maybe it was a manifesto—was it a manifesto, or a zine?
That was a drawing in a zine, a drawing of a knife and on the knife it said, “Rich Girls Make Art.” I think I have that zine somewhere, along with Kathleen Hanna’s zines. For some reason I just loved Kathleen Hanna, she wrote that zine where she defined community as anyone you come into contact with—and I was never the type of person who became a fan of anyone, but Kathleen Hanna was an exception.
Speaking of rich girls making art, in 1992 I drove cross-country in my parents’ cherry red Saab 900S, previously the third car in the hierarchy of the driveway, after the newer, fancier Volvo and newer, fancier Saab, safe cars for your kids to drive and that’s what I was doing except I’m not sure about the safety part. I was driving out to meet Elyse, the first person who I trusted—we’d met our first year in college where finally I’d realized it was okay to need someone , and we were moving to San Francisco for the summer, just the summer we said but we knew better. We didn’t know, but we knew.
We made a list of all the cities that sounded interesting, cut out the ones on the East Coast because they were too close and even Toronto or Chicago didn’t sound far enough. We decided against Mexico City because we didn’t speak Spanish, and then we just had to choose between Seattle and San Francisco, Elyse always liked flipping coins to make big decisions.
But driving there on my own was a different story, I kept getting so tired that I would see myself falling off the road I mean I wouldn’t see myself until I was falling and then I had to swerve back. Coffee and NoDoz and a few stops to stay with the parents of people I didn’t know that well, or didn’t know at all because it was Elyse who knew their kids but I tried to pretend, and there was this one rest area where I remember stopping, turning up my music to dance which was how I stretched, throwing some trash in the garbage and then working a few dance moves on the sidewalk. This attendant came out of the rest area with rubber gloves going up to his elbows, pulled my trash out of the garbage can and put it in a separate bag, a blue bag like maybe you would use for something bloody in a hospital and then he looked at me and said: If you don’t leave now, I’m going to call the cops. What do you mean, I said—isn’t this a rest area? He said: If you don’t leave now, I’m going to call the cops.
But then there were the girls at other rest areas who would stop and say: I like your hair! I was working the goth bob except it was magenta, dark tulip the label said, and then in the back the shaved part was fluorescent green, green apple. I ended up getting a flat tire in the middle of Kansas, and I had no idea how to change it; some guy actually stopped his truck and helped me. Then there was a rest area in Wyoming or not quite a rest area but this abandoned store where you could buy gas except there wasn’t any gas so I went inside for coffee or Trident. Back then I chewed a lot of Trident, I would eat a whole pack of 18 pieces in an hour and on my way out these guys behind me said: Should we fuck him first, or kill him?
Later, I remember looking at those crazy plateaus in the desert, mountains that ended too soon and I thought they couldn’t possibly be real, someone was hiding something. But I wasn’t hiding, that was the good part.
New York had always been my childhood dream but I realized I needed to get much further from DC so I ended up in San Francisco. San Francisco was supposed to be just like New York, except on the West Coast and always foggy, so when I got there I was kind of confused because where were the tall buildings? Elyse had arrived earlier and she’d found us a sublet — we were surprised because people had told us it would be so expensive that we’d have to share a room, but actually we each ended up with our own room for $300, which didn’t seem that bad.
I met Elyse at an ice cream social at the school where we both went to escape, except it wasn’t what we were trying to escape to and that’s how we ended up in San Francisco. Growing up, college was always the answer, the way to get away. I’d gone to the same school from second grade to 12th, and when you go somewhere like that there are always people who see you exactly like you were in second grade, those 10 years don’t matter, there’s still that kid with his own reading group he was so far ahead, that kid who traded stickers with the girls at recess, that kid with glasses who wanted to be friends with the teachers because other kids were too scary. Sure, by this point you’re reading Sartre and obsessing about freedom, going out to clubs with the girls instead of trading stickers, and talking back to all the teachers because you know you’ve outgrown them. Sure, you’re encouraging people, other kids, not to think about parents or teachers or other kids or anyone telling you to die, inside or outside it’s the same thing. But the truth is that the first time you really know your effect on people is when you get to college, even though it isn’t away in the way you thought it would be, it’s still away.
Maybe even at the ice cream social, where you meet Elyse, her big hair chopped short and stuffed into a black-and-white scarf tied around her head like a bandanna, silver hoop earrings. Elyse looks at you with an intensity that makes you think: she’s crazy, I like her. You are definitely not eating ice cream, but the social is right by your dorm. You’re wearing a Lollapalooza t-shirt, black of course, the first Lollapalooza so people still think it’s cool. This is Brown University, where Amy Carter went and you remember in fourth grade when her parents, the President and his wife, sent her to public school in DC, the public school right down the street from your private school; she was in junior high when you were in elementary and people talked about Amy Carter going to Hardy. That’s what people talked about in DC, certain parts of DC. Later, at Brown, Amy Carter got arrested, she got arrested for protesting something.
Soon I would get arrested for protesting, but when I first arrived I felt like people could finally see me. Elyse had grown up in a small town in northern Maine, just across from the Canadian border, a town where people spoke French almost as much as English, a paper mill town; the student population at Brown was larger than the population of her whole town. Elyse was raised by a single mother on welfare and now she’d arrived at this school with so much privilege it was hard for her to leave her room. Her room was on frat row, and even though there weren’t really frats at Brown there were frats on frat row. I would come over to meet Elyse to go to the dining hall and then the library, where sometimes we’d stay so late we’d get locked in.
Elyse described how her mother, who was a nurse, decided to quit her job because she realized she could work all the time, barely have enough to live on, and rarely see her kids, or go on Aid to Families with Dependent Children and have the time to raise them. I’d grown up in a school where there were Senators’ kids and no one really cared, a Rothschild and a DuPont and more lawyers and doctors and bureaucrats than you could count. It was the school for guilty liberals, so the people everyone called rich weren’t necessarily the people with the most money, but the ones who didn’t hide it, who didn’t ask if they could borrow a few dollars at recess and then never pay you back. But at Brown there were so many kids who came from boarding school, and that felt like a whole other world. My roommate was the son of a German industrialist, he was 21 and had blonde dreads and he didn’t like living in the dorms so his parents bought him a house, a huge old mansion so close it was practically on campus, and then a bunch of his European friends moved in with him. So then I had two beds in my dorm room and Elyse stayed over a lot, in the morning I would make her coffee because she had a harder time getting up. At night, we’d read our journals to one another and process every detail of our lives—this felt crucial, studying could wait. Until it couldn’t wait any longer, and then we’d head over to the smoking room in the basement of the library to gaze at all the other stylish procrastinators.
People must have asked if we were sleeping together, but it didn’t matter in the way that it would have mattered before. I wish I could say that our relationship started differently than my relationships with girls in high school, friendships that began when someone had a crush on me and I wanted to make it more, more meant something else. But the truth is that Elyse had a crush on me and we talked about it, talked about sleeping together—we’d always known we were queer, but now we could acknowledge it as a way to dream. Everyone’s bisexual was still the way to talk, or everyone’s potentially bisexual but soon it became clear that the potential in that direction on my part would probably stay potential.
When you go to a school like Brown, they tell you not to get overwhelmed, not to get overwhelmed because you’re used to thinking you’re the smartest person but now you’re surrounded by so many others who are used to thinking the same thing. I wasn’t overwhelmed at all—there were smart people and there were clueless people, just like anywhere else. The difference was that it was actually okay to be smart—smart and creative and strange at the same time, and that made me feel stronger and stranger too.
So let me tell you about SAMA, Students for Aid and Minority Admissions: we took over University Hall, the main administrative building, and it was a big deal. We were protesting the university’s policy of openly excluding potential students based on their inability to pay: the university called this need-aware. So we took over the building and 253 people got arrested—the cops brought us downtown to jail in busses, late at night but right to court where they charged us with five misdemeanors, which included a $2000 fine if convicted. We were there until 2:30 am, it must have been a special proceeding just for us but I don’t remember realizing that. I do remember thinking about the irony of the university trying to force protesting students, many on financial aid, to pay a $2000 fine, we talked about that a lot.
After that arrest, I would go to SAMA meetings every day. Sometimes there were several meetings in one day, usually instead of class, which made sense because this was where I was learning everything, everything I wanted to learn. Two other first-year students and I wrote a 17-page document for the SAMA press kit about how need-aware was a racist and classist policy. Since we were at Brown, our struggle became national news—the Washington Post did a story a few days later, CNN came to campus, we were trying to get Jesse Jackson to support us.
The university denounced us, they called us violent, they continued to press charges. At one point, the new president of the university agreed to meet with us, or 12 of us who represented the steering committee. Or maybe we were the steering committee. Now I don’t believe in steering committees, but I didn’t know that yet. Anyway, we met with the president, and it was eerie because he knew all of our names before we introduced ourselves; he came right up to me and said hi Matt, not even Matthew like on my registration, shook my hand and looked me in the eyes. We’d smuggled in a tape recorder because we knew he would lie and we wanted proof. At some point the tape ended and there was a click—I don’t know how he knew this meant we had a tape recorder, thinking about it now I guess he probably knew in the same way that he knew our names ahead of time. Anyway, he became enraged and the meeting ended.
And then one week after our University Hall occupation the Rodney King verdict was announced; there was a forum in one of the largest halls on campus, right next to University Hall. You know what they say about kids in ivory tower institutions living in a bubble, we had that conversation a lot—that’s what kids in ivory tower institutions like to talk about. I didn’t think I was living in a bubble, that’s for sure. But there I was helping to forge a struggle for racial and economic justice, and I didn’t even know the Rodney King verdict was about to take place. I’m not even sure I remembered who Rodney King was. For weeks beforehand I’d flyered for the upcoming SAMA action, talking to mostly blank faces about the importance of need-blind admissions, and then those four LAPD officers were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King, the famous video broadcast across the country yet somehow they were still not guilty. For days, people rioted, especially in LA and I remember going downtown to join the protest in Providence, and then back to organize more SAMA actions.
Our University Hall takeover was the culmination of several years of activism on the part of students, including a 164-page report presented to the administration the year before, involving research, analysis, and recommendations—students were doing the university’s job. And paying the university at the same time—what a racket. We sent out press releases and held press conferences and went flyering and tabled and made banners and signs and held pickets and organized another big demo where we planned to encircle University Hall. We got faculty and administrators involved and contacted other schools protesting for equal access in Rhode Island and across the country, and I even kind of remember a march through downtown. What did it lead to, all this struggle—years of struggle, really? Nothing, that’s what it led to. Not a single structural change at the university. And that’s where I learned the most.
Elyse and I also learned a lot from taking ecstasy that was actually acid, although I wouldn’t find out it was acid until years later. Kayti sent it to me—she said it was Joy, ecstasy in tab form, pure MDMA, and it was joy the way you could see the structure of things, the structure you were trying to escape. One time Elyse and I walked by one of those emergency fire alarm things and it fell over, crashed to the sidewalk, no alarm and were there really sparks? Another time we were gliding above the ground and we made up songs for the cars: Don’t run us over, that’s bad, because then we would be dead, and that’s sad. Sad was one of the ways we connected, we could finally say it—every day was another opportunity to break down, and to break down the breaking down, and this didn’t necessarily feel hopeful but it felt, we felt, we were feeling.
Of course, we felt trapped in different ways. Late at night on weekends, we would often end up at Dunkin’ Donuts, after whatever party ended and we were still high. We smoked a lot of pot: it made us crazy and we loved that, we loved being crazy so late at night we’d end up at Dunkin’ Donuts. I was eating things I would never eat if I wasn’t high—I’d outgrown anorexia but I was still frightened by fat, what could be worse than donuts although they had muffins too, I tried to stay with muffins. And we would smoke pot in the back of Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes we would pass out there, and in the morning people would come looking for us, our friends.
If we left before morning, tripping over ourselves and I would start to feel disgusting, back in my body the way I usually felt out of my body. I would hurl the donuts or muffins into the street and I remember Elyse was stunned that I would throw something away like that, something you could eat. I don’t think she told me, not right then. She was spending more on books than her mother had for food. Once, her mother sent her a rug, a woven Guatemalan rug in the style that was very popular at the time for fratboys who drank Cuervo and wore ponchos, a gesture of care and I took one look at it and said: That’s tacky. I might’ve even said: Get rid of it. Or, if I didn’t say that, it’s what I meant.
When I’d first arrived at Brown, I felt a social ease that I’d never experienced before—this was one of the things that gave me a certain kind of status. Or maybe it was the other way around, sudden social status gave me a certain kind of ease? At first I felt an intoxication from this shift, but then I began to feel like I was inhabiting a role that represented everything I’d always wanted to challenge. Elyse and I were becoming an item for the disaffected kids on campus, the ones with dyed hair who studied semiotics, older students, they saw our confidence and came right up to befriend us, bring us to parties where only upper-class students were invited. I mean upper-class as in older. We were the new item, a prize traded for avant-garde cachet: I’d never been that kind of item before and it made me feel grandiose and then emotionally dead.
Elyse and I would talk about who was crazy and who was insane, crazy was good but insane was even better. One night Elyse saw the world in blocks, she was surrounded by blocks, fetal position on the ground her eyes in permanent panic from a Robitussin high. When we were on mushrooms, I got scared because Elyse was on a different level of reality, I wanted her to come back to this level but she kept changing her sweatshirt and her expression. You keep on changing, I will not know who you are—Elyse left a note: Death is room temperature.
Maybe that was it—we were finally finding a place where we could be dramatic and then talk about it: my body felt like broken shards, I was ruining my life to beat my parents on their terms, I’d come to Brown to look for activism and instead there was so much apathy, why were people so apathetic? And scheming—everyone was scheming, like there was some high-stakes game to find it, find it now, it was me, us, have you tried this yet? Try it. Everything in my life had been leading up to this point.
I grew up believing that I was evil, that if anyone ever saw my true self they would know I was a monster that deserved to die. And I didn’t want to die, except when I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to know that and so I knew that I always had to hide everything. I had to hide everything so they wouldn’t know.
They were parents and teachers and kids at school—grandparents too, and everyone else I might encounter. I wanted them to think I was perfect. Since I always did well in school it was always assumed that I would go to a good college, I mean that was assumed for everyone in my school, but some of us would go to college, and some of us would excel, and I was one of the kids who everyone believed would always excel.
This was childhood: I needed to do better, better than my father—he went to Oberlin, medical school, became a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist—I had to go to a more prestigious school, become more successful, buy a bigger house, make more money; this was the only chance I had, the only chance not to die. Except then I started to realize that was death too. That’s when I knew I was trapped.
“Anyone You Come Into Contact With” is an excerpt from The End of San Francisco by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a memoir forthcoming from City Lights Publishers in April 2013. Described as “a cross between Tinkerbell and a honky Malcolm X with a queer agenda” by the Austin Chronicle and one of “50 Visionaries Changing Your World” by Utne Reader, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of two novels and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. She lives in Seattle, WA.