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Sex and Sensibility

Mattilda Sycamore laments the gentrification of our sexualities

The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Semiotext(e), 280 pages.

Recently, I called a crisis hotline after receiving a correspondence that frightened me. Well, I didn’t actually call. I used the “chat live” feature on the website. There were eight people ahead of me. I tinkered with this review and waited for half an hour. A text box appeared. I’m sure it was a real person, but I felt like I was talking to a bot. What I wanted was connection, a human voice, breath, a name. I wanted to even feel the energy of someone thinking of the right thing to say, risking a mistake. Why didn’t I just call?

“I don’t know the difference anymore between desire and loneliness,” Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore writes in her latest book, The Freezer Door, a lyric tirade against gentrification—of our minds, our sexualities, our cities—and the persistent, collective longing and loneliness it produces. This book, this intervention, was written well before the coronavirus was a quiver in our lungs. And yet it’s a bizarre gift that we get to read it now, quarantined as we are in the American nightmare and acutely attuned to our fear and disconnection.

The author of three works of fiction and an award-winning memoir, it is the nonfiction anthologies edited by Sycamore, such as Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? and Nobody Passes, to which this new book is most directly related. Intended as acts of disruption to the status quo, including the ways in which we perpetuate harm and isolate ourselves from one another, these collections rely on the open call to bring together work of a diverse array of writers, activists, and thinkers. By populating these collections with writers outside of celebrity circles, Sycamore opens us to the desire of the unknown, the stranger that gets to become something else. Though divergent in their individual approaches, the contributors all share Sycamore’s perpetual skepticism of power: a feminist politics that questions power rather than seeks to obtain it in the existing system. Questioning is essential because these systems thrive on the collective oh well indifference of the masses. If all of life is suffering, Sycamore demands we ask why.

Connection, its lack thereof, and the vagaries of desire are the work’s animating forces.

In Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, Sycamore and writers like Eric A. Stanley, CAConrad, and Debanuj DasGupta call into question the commodification of male desire, the normalization of gay culture, hypermasculinity, and femmephobia, in addition to the disintegration of communal networks of care. Many of these problems are rooted in the desire to pass—as “acceptable,” as straight, as a man. Nobody Passes examines multiple communities, including those of mixed raced, immigrants, and the disabled, and their various motivations for trying to pass, whether that is to avoid violence or obtain socioeconomic and political power. Taken together, these anthologies invite new ways of critically engaging with perceived ideas, and they call on the reader to create new, perhaps unorthodox connections.

Drawing on her the work in these books, as well as her years as activist and instigator with groups like ACT UP and Gay Shame, Sycamore politicizes the roots of human suffering in The Freezer Door. Connection, its lack thereof, and the vagaries of desire are the work’s animating forces. It’s not quite a memoir and yet, like her fiction, it spirals into nonlinear, associative magic: passages about cruising for sex, meditations on grief, and an imagined dialogue between an ice cube and the tray that holds it, both imprisoned by and dependent upon the freezer. We roll with a speaker alienated from her gay peers and viciously disturbed by the horror and harm they are willing to ignore: gay men chanting “USA” in the bar because a football team won, gay men that have become willing marketing tools for HIV/AIDS prophylactic PrEP, an expensive once-a-day pill made by a transnational pharmaceutical company and typically only available to those who are wealthy and white. “I say this from twenty-five years as an avowedly queer person in the world, a faggot and a queen and whatever else, twenty-five years that these gay men have not loved me back so I can be fairly certain they never will,” Sycamore writes.

Exhausted by the drabness and complicity of her peers and struggling with chronic illness, Sycamore nevertheless persists in chasing fugitive pleasures: leaning against trees and letting flowers brush against her hands, making friends in gay bars, dancing, fucking in public parks, on apartment stoops, in parking garages. As I read, I felt both heard and implicated, as though I could reach through the sentences and maybe even touch something close to an actual body. To say oh yes, I feel this too, and maintain eye contact the whole time.

The Freezer Door unfolds in contemporary Seattle, a city “that is and isn’t a city,” writes Sycamore. “But I guess that’s what every city is becoming now, a destination to imagine what imagination might be like, except for the lack. Some terrible things are worse than other terrible things, but this doesn’t mean we need more terrible things.” It is easy in a place like Seattle to always pin the blame of our loneliness on something mysterious and unnamable, but its origins are political: displacement has been fueled by the tech boom and left unchecked by feeble politicians. Sycamore looks at such violence and states very clearly that this is what happens when the individual becomes gentrified.

People say it’s the Seattle freeze like this is some kind of cute local popsicle flavor, but really it’s just the gentrified gaze, the suburban imagination in the urban environment, the white picket fence in the eyes—people don’t come to cities for that surprising interaction anymore, they just want to redraw the borders from the places they aren’t even escaping.

This notion of the gentrified self is not new. In her 2012 book The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman writes of gentrified thinking arising from a privileged social position that sees its dominance as “simultaneously nonexistent and as the naturally deserving order. This is the essence of supremacist ideology: the self deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement.” She positions this kind of gentrification in relation to the history of AIDS activism and the whitewashing of the gay rights movement. In 1973, trans activist Sylvia Rivera famously commandeered the stage during the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in New York City, where she called out the white middle class gay and lesbian community for abandoning BIPOC, trans women, sex workers, and incarcerated queer people in pursuit of civil and property rights for themselves. The gay white middle class colonized the desire for freedom but limited it to their issues because those ends were dubbed as palatable, the most likely to pass in Congress. In the long term, the rowdy, disruptive activism of groups like ACT UP and firebrands like Rivera were sanitized or sidelined, and the attention turned to legal gains often attributed to politicians who seem fine to continue letting people, disproportionately Black Americans in the South, contract and die of AIDS.

Nobody Passes also explores the origins of this gentrifying impulse but from two different angles: the idea of passing, and the fears of femininity and of each other in the gay male community. Efforts to “pass” drive assimilation, whether that is the way in which European immigrants endeavored to become “white,” or the way a queer individual makes choices to try and pass as straight or cisgender—both parties sacrifice something of themselves in hopes of acquiring the social or monetary benefits of being identified with the white capitalist class. It is the drive to pass—as white, as straight, as male or female—that secures the divisions between individuals because in order to pass, someone else must not pass, someone else must be subjugated, ridiculed, or be denied access.

It is in these short-lived moments of pleasure and connection that such an alternate horizon may be glimpsed, however obliquely.

Likewise, the enforcement of an ideal of hypermasculinity limits the possibility of love for one another, or the land. Sycamore is scoffed at by various characters throughout The Freezer Door for her intimacy with plants and trees just as it also wakes other people into their own tenderness. At one point, Sycamore briefly dates a man that seems trapped by his own desires for a mainstream dating life—a life that he is utterly incapable of attaining. And though Sycamore urges that their time together and their intimacy can take on so many different forms, he abruptly disappears without any resolution. Sycamore often finds herself in the elegiac mode, lamenting failed connections, abrupt departures, the stultifying tropes of masculinity. How do you repudiate male socialization and hypermasculinity when the methods you’ve used, self-determination and will, are the very tools of masculinity? In abiding by these standards, Sycamore argues, we circumscribe our imagination and our desires—even as we clamor for more possibility, more choices, more ways to be. We can’t simply will our way into connection and nourishment. In this moment when people can simply “state their preference” on hookup sites, we commodify desire; it becomes like shopping on Amazon, yet another way that people can mask their scorn, racism, and internalized homophobia as an innocuous consumer “preference.”

While consumer choices proliferate in the gentrified city, the possibility of being surprised vanishes, and our sense of what a city can be suffers. Blame the dictates of the “walled-off suburban mentality,” writes Sycamore: “keep away from difference, avoid unplanned interaction, don’t talk to anyone on the street because this might be dangerous.” In one of the sparkling anecdotes in the book, Sycamore catches the eye of a cutie at a bar. “He comes over to introduce himself and when I hold out my hand, he does that thing like he’s confused that I’m not offering a proper masculine handshake.” So Sycamore goes in for a kiss, remembering the “joyous and commonplace” act of “faggots kiss[ing] hello,” and he turns his head so her lips land on his neck. She tried: the risk of failure is just as potent as the “success” of making out with a beautiful stranger during the day on an apartment stoop that’s not yours, or the “straight” bicycle messenger that knows how to thrust, calls you his lover, then never rings again. It’s this same desire that draws her into the present moment and makes vulnerability not only possible but a source of joy:

I take off my scarf, coat, mittens, sweater, shirt, tank top, shoes, and socks, and then I dance right there on the cement. I dance for the sun on my skin, for the way my body suddenly feels alive, for the way I need this in spite of the glances from the few people around. Who don’t want me around. I dance for them anyway.

But these moments are fleeting: “We drink eight glasses of water a day . . . But there’s always a thirst.” Like her desire, Sycamore’s sentences grow on the page, they second guess themselves: “How do you write what you really feel without feeling what you really want?” We start with desire and we are left with longing, the hope desire will rise again. But the gentrified mind is less likely to entertain risk. It is a muscular effort every day to crawl out of this trap of unrelenting sameness—and the only way, Sycamore argues, is to find and nurture unorthodox desires that draw one out of proscribed roles. Desire for public sex with strangers, reimagined relationships, new horizons of solidarity, what she calls the “communal possibilities of desire in everyday experience.”

The Freezer Door is a personal cry, a protest, calling out to us: You know you feel this too. So look at me. Sycamore offers us possibility through the language of desire: to act on the thing you want by feeling and risking disorder. However, as the lyrical recurrences of the book demonstrate, Sycamore and the people she encounters are stuck in a loop: everyone is doing the same things and expecting different results. The willingness to expect the different result can make us feel alive, especially in those moments when we are surprised, but they never bring lasting nourishment. If we must constantly resist violence, which includes the gentrification of our minds, our communities, and our relationships, we will only have the resilience for brief moments of surprise at best before we are thrust back into the cycle again. Ephemeral pleasures are not a destination, and Sycamore is uncertain she will ever truly experience the queerness she longs for. But it is in these short-lived moments of pleasure and connection that such an alternate horizon may be glimpsed, however obliquely. The book starts with one sentence on a white page and ends the same way. We are left with thirst.