Thursday, December 20, 2007

Noah Berlatsky: Introduction

The gay utopia is an imaginary future in which gender, sexuality, and identity are fluid and in which pleasure is unregulated by either external or internal censors. It's a place where taboos dissolve and sublimation vanishes; every relationship is erotic, every action sensual.

The idea of the gay utopia is hardly new. Visionaries like Shulamith Firestone, Samuel Delaney, and Moto Hagio were talking about it decades ago. Ther term itself doesn't have as broad a currency, and I'm not quite sure where I first heard it used. But, in any case, both Bert Stabler and I have used "gay utopia" for some time to refer to politics, art, or writing in which the boundaries that separate pleasure, freedom, and self collapse in a polymorphous haze.

For me, the term "the gay utopia" is at least slightly ironic; I'm too much of a pessimist to believe that sexual freedom will actually bring about the millennium. At the same time, an interest in, or use of, the gay utopia unites much of the art and thought that has meant the most to me over the past few years. So, partially out of my own ambivalence, I wanted to put together a forum in which folks with various backgrounds, perspectives, and interests could respond to the gay utopia with enthusiasm, skepticism, both, or neither.

This symposium is the result. It includes writers (Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzanne Bachner), activists (Jennifer Baumgardner, Julia Serano), artists (Neil Whitacre, Paul Nudd, Lilli Carré, Bill O'Brien), comics creators (Dame Darcy, Johnny Ryan, Edie Fake, Dewayne Slightweight), academics (Matt Thorn, Lelah Fern), purveyors of online smut (EyeofSerpent, Vom Marlowe), a clothing designer, a singer, and a cephalopod. And as you browse this site, you will find the gay utopia located in Regency Romance novels, in capitalism, in shoujo manga, in alchemy, in animation from the 1920s, in LiveJournal slash communities, in the orgasm, in an explicit children's book, in an insect-sex-zombie apocalypse, in horror movies, on an alpaca ranch, and in the public appearances of Anne Heche.

Such a wide range of responses suggests that "gay utopia" as a term is enormously flexible -- or, less charitably, that it is incoherent. Several contributors leaned toward the latter interpretation. Lev Olsen for example, in the introduction to his novel excerpt, very delicately suggests that gayness and sexual freedom need not have very much to do with one another. More explicitly, anthropologist Anne Lorimer, literature professor Eric Berlatsky, and (in an e-mail) fetish artist Michael Manning all pointed out that there is nothing especially "gay" about fluid identities -- on the contrary, many gay people have quite stable genders and sexualities, thank you very much. Why, they variously asked, didn't I use "bi-utopia" or "third wave feminist utopia" or "polymorphously perverse utopia"?

I don't have a good answer to these objections. Still, I prefer "gay utopia." It's shorter and less technical sounding, which is a plus. But, more than that, I like it because it opens up possibilities. The term "gay" has been around for a long time -- it is tied to the past, to nostalgia, and to a whole range of identities, as Lelah Fern notes. And, in this forum, those identities peer out around the edge of the polymorphous bi fluid eroticism that I've chosen to refer to as "gay utopia". The quietly goofy affection in Ariel Schrag's contribution; the frustrated romantic comedy in Lev Olsen's, the bittersweet isolation of Ursula K. Le Guin's or Nishizaka Hiromi's, the eccentric domesticity of Rebecca Field's, the tactile blue-collar masculinity of Paul Mullins' -- those are gay utopias too. So, while it's probably true that "gay utopia" is not the most accurate term I could have used, it did seem, in part because of its ambiguity, like a good way to start a conversation.

In the gay utopia, one's personal obsessions are always fascinating to others. In the real world, things often don't quite work out that way. So I've been very lucky to find so many people willing to think about and engage with the topic of this forum. In putting the Gay Utopia together, I've had a chance to reconnect with many old friends, meet some new ones, and work with many of my favorite artists and writers. It has been an incredible experience, and I am enormously grateful to all the contributors who agreed to devote their time, their effort, and their genius to this project.

A couple additional thanks: Edie Fake, who I think is one of the absolutely best graphic designers in the world, very kindly agreed to draw the site banner and Adult Content graphic. Aubrey Beardsley also contributed some flowery elements (such as the one just above the last paragraph), and I wanted to thank him for having had the decency to die so long ago that I didn't need to ask his permission. Marcy helped me with color schemes, editing, and encouragement, and didn't threaten to divorce me even when I hogged the computer or kept using our Netflix account to rent horror movies which she didn't want to see.

Finally, I wanted to thank Bert Stabler, with whom I have been collaborating, in one way or another, for the last decade. As I mentioned above, this is really his forum as much as it is mine. He suggested and put me in touch with many of the contributors, edited my entries in the forum, helped me clarify my ideas, and provided bottomless wells of enthusiasm whenever my own began to flag. His essay, "The Glory and the Hole" sums up most of this forum's important themes and ideas. I've placed it at the end of the symposium, but it's also a good place to start.


Edie said...

This is a good time
This is the best time
This is the only time to come together

Exploding like the seed of a natural disorder.

-June Jordan excerpt of "From Sea To Shining Sea"


I have to thank you for all the compliments you have paid my work over the past few years, and the opportunity to create new work for your symposium. However, I have to say I take outright offense at your introductory statement where you and Bert Stabler claim proprietorship over the term "Gay Utopia." You are gravely out of your depth with this statement; the idea of "coining" Gay Utopia is to negate it, to commodify an innately anti-capitalist concept.

The utopic idea in attempt and practice, one of liberation for repressed peoples and understanding and compassion for fundamental humanness, is naturally prone to failure and regrouping, dispelling the myth of permanence, learning and tasting our magic. I would argue "utopia" is intensely psychic, psychedelic and only tangentially academic in the ways it circumvents language. I witness every day the way that capitalism corrupts meanings by trying to sell it under false pretenses. The power of language, written, spoken and visual, is corroding with each co-opted idea misused to create false desires and misinformation through advertising and propaganda. The utopias which our hearts thirst for actually exist in a realm beyond marketing, the "polymorphous haze" an un-ironic feeling you evoke when you talk of the transcendance of " the boundaries that separate pleasure, freedom and self."

The concept of Gay Utopia is the same and should be treated the same as any other utopic thirst and thrust by radically motivated people. The utopias of all persuasions and permutations are very real and very unified with each other and these utopias are all the ideological "property" of the people who identify as being their potential and occasional inhabitants. This accounts for the creativity, mutiplicity, and individual direction and growth of the contributors of your online forum. We all come to our found and created utopias in different ways but when we say "Gay Utopia" and claim ourselves as gays, and everyone can, it means that we are going for the throat.

The Gay Utopia and all Radical Utopias are where people realize the world is trying to fuck them up and that they have personal power to do something about it.

The Gay Utopia and all Radical Utopias are actually states of being, monumental tastes of freedom we fight for and work towards, temporary autonomous zones, energies to create with and plunge into.

To claim it is to un-name it, to annihalate its power as language. The Gay Utopia has been an un-coined term used by people marginalized in current systems to help harvest energy to create, bring joy to each other, love and learn. It stands united with all the other seemingly "coin"-able prefixes for "utopia" as fundamentally un-coinable, free and radical. To try to lay claim to this catchy language is to try to turn an important political idea and energy into just another term, to cast it off like "generation x," "cyberpunk" or "electroclash," i.e. to package and "cash in" on the perceived style.

Please amend this article releasing your claim and curatorship of this term and reaffirm its unclaimable nature, otherwise I'm afraid you're just a colonizer crashing the orgy.

Edie Fake

Noah Berlatsky said...

Hey Edie. Thanks for your comment. Did you read Anne Lorimer's essay? She takes me to task for similar reasons. You might enjoy Jennifer Baumgardner's too -- she's coming from a different place, somewhat, but definitely feels I'm presumptuous.

I'm not sure if this will help, but...I'm not claiming the term as my property, nor suggesting that my interpretation of it is more righteous or privileged than anyone else's. I think I say I and Bert came up with it in this context, but it's certainly been around before (there's a novel called "This Gay Utopia" google informed me, for example.) As I tried to make clear in the Intro, other folks in the symposium had different ideas about what it meant, which I thought was a good thing.

I think any language is at least arguably about colonizing the orgy. It's about breaking experience down into manageable bits, which means robbing it of its immediacy in some sense; domesticating it. On the other hand, I'm not sure I agree that orgies are themselves revolutionary; revolutions are as much about words (claiming gayness) as about actions, in a lot of ways. I think "gay utopia" can be a useful way to think about various issues -- I hope that's the case with the forum, anyway.

Part of that thinking through involves disagreements. As you know, I admire your work hugely and am exceedingly grateful for your participation in the forum. I certainly didn't mean to offend, and I hope this experience isn't hopelessly embittered for you, even if you are forced to conclude that I am in various ways misguided.


Noah Berlatsky said...

Hey Edie. After sleeping on this and talking to Bert, I think you're correct that my originating claims went too far. I've altered the relevant paragraphs accordingly.

Thanks for your feedback, and my apologies for claiming too much for myself. Take care,


dark abacus said...

Hey, it's Bert. I commend Edie for his comment-- I was uneasy about the origin of the term, and I don't know when I started using it, but it's certainly after I met Edie and his friends. I admire the community I think of as engaged in the "gay utopia," but I don't exactly consider myself a member (not quite worthy in my sensibility, mostly). And I definitely commend Noah for being big enough to realize that terms and ownership are charged and iffy. To what extent I let myself be portrayed secondhand as claiming it, I'm sorry.

Edie said...


Thanks for making those considered changes, no hard feelings.

Edie Fake

dark abacus said...

One more thing. I'm trying to write an article about progressive art practices in Chicago, and, in asking for help, I've gotten a lot of great help, but I've also gotten a shitstorm of criticism for, basically, word choices, as well as for not doing a ton more work than I have time for.

I want to make it clear that my very dear friend Noah succeeded in doing something beautiful in organizing this blog. And, while Edie is one of my favorite living artists period, and Noah should have to answer for public statements that make dubious claims. I wish there were generally a lot more humility and warmth in the world of people involved in "liberatory" projects.

Thank you, Noah.