Virus in the System

The radical collective Gay Shame keeps the flame of anticapitalist queer politics burning.

As a direct action collective emerging in the early 2000s, Gay Shame SF has cut a distinctively radical profile. It has organized principally against the gentrification of San Francisco’s Castro and Mission districts, as well as against corporate Pride celebrations and the prison industrial complex. Describing themselves as a “virus in the system,” Gay Shame declares a “new queer activism…to counter the self-serving ‘values’ of gay consumerism and the increasingly hypocritical left.” Their various actions across more than 15 years of organizing have included the Gay Shame Awards, a Goth Cry-In, and support efforts for Michael Johnson, a Black gay man currently incarcerated in Missouri for “reckless infection.” In keeping with their collective structure of non-hierarchy and anonymity, Gay Shame members conducted this interview while identifying as various “Marys.” Mary Rumpcleft, Mary Lou Roadblock, Mary Radclyffe, and Mary Devors’ of Gay Shame discuss queer–corporate collusion, prison-themed Pride parties, and why queers hate techies.

What is Gay Shame’s relationship to negative affect? Specifically, of course, to shame, but also to “bad feelings” like hatred, disgust, and repulsion? What role does shame play in your actions and organizing?

MARY RUMPCLEFT.— None. This question has dogged us for years. Our work is handily dismissed in this way, as some decontextualized outlet for discontent. Gay Shame is a response to the false promise of corporate Gay Pride. It’s not about the performative indulgence in misery for the sake of itself; it’s not very different from how states of emergency have catalyzed other movements. Gay Shame works within a tradition of radical political critique that uses direct action, like Queer Nation, ACT UP, Fed Up Queers, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, etc. There is that Sylvia Rivera quote where she talks about how hard she fought yet still she’s always depressed when June comes around. It makes you wonder what it was all for. It’s the people who have been dropped by the false promise of progressive politics who get the most out of our work.

You know what was beautiful about that night? To see the brothers and sisters stand as a unified people. But I do get depressed when this time of year comes around: for 30 years I’ve been struggling and fighting, and I still feel like an outcast in the gay community. —Sylvia Rivera

What specific disappointments does Gay Shame address in its critique of corporate pride?

MARY LOU ROADBLOCK.— I’m not sure if we are disappointed as many if not all of us have never had much faith in Pride™. Some of our first actions in the late ’90s and early 2000s were part of a long genealogy of radical trans and queer activists that know Pride™ is nothing more than a marketing scheme for corporate expansion. We know that Pride™ is now (and has been for a long time) a primary tool to promote everything from environmental destruction and Israeli apartheid to cops and rainbow tanks. If you think we are being hyperbolic, check out the lineup of this year’s Pride™ parade contingents. It will include all this, and much worse.

Can you speak about the history of Gay Shame, and how its priorities have either shifted or persisted over the years? Were there points at which the collective seemed strongest or most in danger of breaking apart?

MARY LOU ROADBLOCK.— Gay Shame started in the late ’90s in NYC. There, in its first incarnation, it was organized as an alternative to NYC’s Gay Pride because of its allegiance to capitalism, liberal white supremacy, and the state. A few years later Gay Shame SF was formed. Here it was also imagined as an alternative to Pride, and brought together musical acts, political speakers, free food, art, zines, and other aspects of DIY culture to build an anticapitalist queer space. Yet, at the first Gay Shame in SF, a number of us noticed that people would listen to the bands and DJs, and then when the more directly political conversations would happen, people would turn away and chat with their friends. We decided to learn from this, because we wanted to think of ways to bind partying to the politics so that the pleasure that people got from partying would be politicized through a radical queer analysis.

In binding partying to politics, I’m reminded of how Gay Shame has confronted Pride parties that align with racialized and state violence. I’m thinking, specifically, about your actions against Kink.com’s prison-themed party in 2014, which resulted in some of your members’ arrests. What kinds of lessons can be gleaned from your protest of that “Prison of Love” party?

MARY LOU ROADBLOCK.— When we were organizing the protest against Kink.com, we wanted to make it clear that we were protesting Kink.com as a multimillion-dollar business and not as a “part” of the kink community. Our banner for that action read, “Pro-sex, anti-prison, queers 4 abolition.” We also wanted to be as clear as possible that we were, and are, pro-sex and pro-kink. Kink as a sexual practice has been attacked from both the left and the right, and that was not our issue with Kink.com. We organized that action because they were throwing a very expensive, “prison-themed” circuit party that was being called out by many formerly incarcerated people, including [Stonewall veteran] Miss Major. The action ended with three protesters, all people of color, being arrested and booked into jail. Peter Acworth, the owner of Kink.com, wanted any- and everyone associated with the protest prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The irony that people protesting a prison-themed party landed in jail was not lost on us. Again, the polemics of our analysis could not match the ridiculous horror of the actual situation.

Let’s talk about your “Queers Hate Techies” wheatpasting campaign. Why do queers hate techies?

MARY RADCLYFFE.— When people want to “smash capitalism,” what are they really referring to? Activist messaging often casts its desired political engagement narrowly to maximize effectiveness, like ACT UP’s “Drop the Debt” or our own “Free Michael Johnson.” This is vital work. Those without power should demand everything. What about power relationships that are so endemic and of such a scale that they constitute a soft but ongoing emergency, and are overlooked because Lenin didn’t leave a firm go-to reprimand? San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley has placed us in the premier location to witness the devastating cultural phenomenon of “Tech.” As opposed to some pop-cultural conception of “capitalism” as anonymous corporate evil, people here have witnessed something far more complex. One of the most troubling features of “Tech” is its deep entanglement with values that will be remembered one day as “progressive.” Take the case of Moxie Marlinspike, the anarchist developer of the Signal app who also worked for the State Department. If the San Francisco Bay Area is going to be remembered as a haven for a certain kind of “woke” culture or politics, it must also be remembered as the place where Twitter, one of the biggest displacers of public Black life in the Tenderloin neighborhood, commissioned a nonprofit to throw a Black Lives Matter mural up in their lunchroom. “Tech” is a juggernaut driven by the profit motive, and no amount of neoliberal workplace diversification will drive back down the real estate values it inflates, or undo the US military application of its big “disruptive” ideas.

MARY LOU ROADBLOCK.— When we are talking about “Tech,” we are also using it as shorthand for all the brogrammers and “Beckys who techie” who now live in multimillion-dollar condos and call the cops on people sleeping on the street. Every month “Tech” hires thousands of mostly white and mostly male brogrammers who are disgusted by Bay culture and are furious that there is no parking for their Teslas. In other words, our hate is not simply about the economic brutality they reproduce, although it is that too. But the already normative culture of SF liberalism is also getting even more deadly for any and all of us who live against its drives. It feels, in many ways, like the world is crumbling down around us. At least two of us have recently been evicted from our long-term homes so they can be flipped into a “safe home” to raise Baby Jagger and Baby Maddison. Modern Times, the bookstore Gay Shame has met at for the last 12 years, has in that time been evicted twice and now no longer exists. Eviction is not only about liquidating those people who formerly made a world here, but also about replacing it with worlds even less disruptive to the flows of capitalism.

“Queers Hate Techies” positions Gay Shame against the YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”) Party and other pro-development forces in San Francisco. In what ways have your actions been devoted to dispelling the “build, build, build” attitude characteristic of tech-backed organizations, like SF BARF (Bay Area Renters’ Federation)?

MARY DEVORS’.— When not sharing heirloom crushed oats with Trump’s gay best friend, Peter Thiel, Sonja Trauss and Laura Foote Clark are busy running the YIMBY Party. The YIMBY Party is a tech- and construction-funded fake “activist group” whose purpose is to provide a “community” voice in support of building more luxury condos in SF, and now many other places. More or less they have mimicked anti-eviction activists but flipped the message to align with the desires of capital. In other words, they are the children Reagan always wanted, spouting every line of neoliberal “trickle-down” ideology. They argue that if you build more luxury condos, somehow, homeless people will eventually be housed. They traffic in all the stupid “supply and demand” rhetoric that even the most conservative economists no longer support. “Trickle-down” housing is making developers even richer, while evictions continue to render so many (including many of us) now homeless. They are among the deadliest forces that we are currently trying to battle because they front like they are pro-renters, and even name themselves “renters’ federations,” while pushing forward anti-renter policies. If you see one of them, throw something and run.

MARY LOU ROADBLOCK.— Also, it’s not that they are just well-intentioned but “misguided” people. YIMBYs are cops and executioners by other means. Their white nationalist politics lead them to accuse Latinx activists of being “xenophobic” for not wanting rich white techies buying their homes and evicting them. Just yesterday there was a vigil for Iris Canada, a 100-year-old Black resident of SF who had lived in her apartment for over 50 years. She was evicted a few weeks ago, locked out of her home while she was away at a seniors program. Her family names the stress of the eviction, and the fight against it, as Iris’s killer. Housing speculation does not mean that people just can’t have spacious and cheap apartments. For most people in rent-controlled units (like Iris), their only options are homelessness or death. This is all going down in the context of the massive evisceration of Black social life in SF (which has a longer but recently accelerated history). “Tech” is structurally anti-Black, and working to include a few Black people in its death-worlds is not going to stop the killing.

You’ve hosted a number of support actions for Michael Johnson, who is still serving a sentence for “reckless infection” under Missouri’s draconian HIV criminalization laws. How does Johnson’s case reflect Gay Shame’s political commitments? As a “virus in the system,” how has Gay Shame grown in relationship with HIV/AIDS direct action and activism?

MARY LOU ROADBLOCK.— We have worked against prison and incarceration in a lot of different capacities, and the ways that Michael Johnson was placed in the crosshairs of the anti-Black, HIV-phobic and ableist “legal system” pulled us toward his case. We started by contacting him directly; then everything we have done, from political education to writing and posters, has included his input. Through this work we have been able to build a relationship with him that has directed this work. However, because of the ways HIV/AIDS is still understood, even by people on the “left,” this solidarity work has been particularly hard. People who have supported our other anti-prison work sometimes fall back on the racist logic that he “did something and must be punished.” Our demand, by contrast, is fairly simple: “Free Michael Johnson, decriminalize HIV, and celebrate Black queerness.”

What kinds of actions is Gay Shame planning for the future?

MARY DEVORS’.— We are currently organizing a new iteration of the Gay Shame Awards, where we award the most violently hypocritical gays and their BFFs. The awards will be in San Francisco at 7pm the Thursday before Pride™. Bring your friends, your anger, and your most devastatingly grotesque look.