Mattilda Berstein Sycamore doesn’t like to be called gay. Instead, she prefers the term queer – a word that she believe carries a stronger connotation of the kind of all around liberal defiance she hopes to embody.
Sycamore, a queer activist and author based out of Seattle grew up in Washington, D.C. in an assimilated upper middle class Jewish family. She was sexually abused by her parents at a young age, but her parents were able to hide the abuse through a veneer of their outward success. She felt pressure to beat her parents’ torment through educational accomplishment and eventually landed herself at Brown University. Staying only a year, she realized academia wasn’t the place to express herself and moved to San Francisco in the early ’90s to live among “radical queers and direct-action activists and freaks and outsiders and sluts and whores and transformative radical politics on the streets of San Francisco.”
She will be on campus to read and sign her most recent book, “The End of San Francisco”. The reading will take place on Thursday, April 4, in the Ben Linder room of the Erb Memorial Union at 6 p.m.
So, did you start your work around the gay rights agenda in San Francisco?
Yeah, when I first arrived in San Francisco in the early ‘90s I guess that’s where I first was involved in ACT UP in the early ‘90s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. You know, that was a radical, direct-action activist group centered around challenging the government’s role in facilitating the deaths of so many queer people and others due to aids. ACT UP in San Francisco at that time centered around universal healthcare and prisoners with AIDS, women with AIDS and needle exchange. The term “gay” to me has become such a normative term based on accessing straight privilege that it’s a term I would reject. I am in favor of “queer,” which is a more liberatory, fluid and transformative category based on challenging all hierarchical norms and creating something defiant and transgressive and challenging the status quo and creating our own way of living with and loving and taking care of one another.
What do you personally hope to prove or facilitate through your writing and your artwork?
For me, especially writing – but, you know, all forms of art – have sort of been the one thing that I have had access to in order to express myself and the world that means something to me. So, really I write in order to stay alive. It’s the way that I can make sense of the world and its contradictions and express the complications and vulnerability and histories. The book in particular — “The End of San Francisco” — it’s an emotional history. I’m talking about the people and places and moments of loss and connections and fear and transformations that have sort of made and unmade me. That’s why I write, in order to express contradictions and complications and intimacies that I experience in the world. Usually, these are worlds that are not really allowed to exist in most media outlets.
Do you think that there is a significant difference in queer lifestyle between the early ’90s and today?
Coming of age then and moving to San Francisco and living in a radical outside culture of queers and freaks definitely gave me a certain kind of lens that I think doesn’t quite exist in the same way now, just in terms of the possibility for living outside of straight or gay normalcy and trying to challenge convention and the limitations of the world around us and to create something else. There was a little bit more possibility in certain ways, but at the same time it was a really desperate time because everywhere around us we could see people dying of AIDS and drug addiction and suicide. I would find out about elders, like artists or activists or writers that I respected mostly in obituaries, or I would go to a movie by a director and think “wow, that was amazing,” and then within two years they had died of AIDS. In that sense, it was a very desperate time. In the book I’m really resisting nostalgia because I think that nostalgia has a certain kind of violence because it sort of creates the false idea of some sort of golden age, and I don’t think that we really have golden ages, I think we need to make that in the moment we exist – whenever that is. There are different possibilities and different limitations at different times, and the important thing is to find a way to exist in challenging and comforting ways at the same time.
By sharing your memoir, what kind of an impact do you hope to make, specifically on a college age audience here at the University of Oregon?
I think it’s interesting. I did an event in Portland and afterwards a few people came up to me and kept telling me how important they thought that my book would be for youth in particular — you know, teenagers and people in their early twenties. The book is really vulnerable, you know? I’m challenging the conventions of a memoir – I think “memoir” kind of creates a kind of false simplicity to peoples lives – and for me I don’t want to follow that tidy, linear narrative. Instead, the book is kind of everywhere at once. I’m talking about drug culture and I’m talking about club culture and I’m talking about sex work and I’m talking about activism and I’m talking about surviving sexual abuse. The book starts in my childhood, but I think the formative moments of the book are starting in the early ’90s. To me, the early ‘90s weren’t that long ago, but I realize that for people who were born in the early ‘90s the kinds of activism and relationships and community building that existed then – that may or may not exist now – this provides a very unique way of really looking at that time period, not in an analytical or theoretical way, but actually through talking about relationships and community building and loss, all at once.