How Sinema subverts the radical conventions of queer politics

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In January 2019, all field organizers who worked on Kyrsten Sinema’s campaign were invited to see her sworn in as a United States Senator. I regretted not going when I saw the photos: she’s standing in a pencil skirt with a bright pink rose design, smiling at Mike Pence, who has the Constitution, not the Bible, to put his hand on. Her lipstick is bright red, her hair in playful curls. His arms are bare, a dig at Senate tradition. I had never seen someone so campy become so powerful.

Before working on Sinema’s campaign, I spent a year with AmeriCorps VISTA in Benson, Arizona, a rural, conservative town of 5,000 where I was one of the few openly gay people. I loved living there, and the people I met welcomed me into their lives. But I also learned from my friends that most gay kids in the city don’t come out until they move to Tucson after high school. The risks are too great. I thought that Sinema, who was homeless as a child and bullied for being queer, would know what people with fragile lives need to survive.

That’s because for much of her life, Sinema seemed like the kind of liberal overachiever Alison Bechdel often pitted against in her “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip. She is a bisexual atheist who worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign before earning a social work degree and a doctorate in “justice studies.” Today Sinema is among the most conservative Senate Democrats, blocking much of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda and moderating the legislation he votes for. Still, he adheres to the long-established principles of queer activism that enabled his political rise: provocation gets you more than ownership. Hierarchy exists to be ignored. But Sinema embodies these ideals in an empty and diminished way, showing how modern queer politics has become more concerned with flashy defiance than material improvement in the lives of vulnerable people.

In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,'” Susan Sontag described camp as an aesthetic “that emphasizes style . . . at the expense of content,” expressing a “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’ and by things-being-what-they-are not.” Sontag noted that “homosexuals” were the self-appointed arbiters of the field, which was appropriate since the field was both a private code and a set of “extravagant mannerisms open to double interpretation.” While Sontag’s description of 60 years ago mostly holds, there is one notable exception. “The sensibility of the Camp is detached, depoliticized,” he wrote.

This was before the AIDS crisis.

All minority groups struggle to attract attention, but AIDS activists succeeded because they relied on the camp’s spectacular features, turning the previously closeted pandemonium into a public spectacle. It helped them turn attention into resources and resources into respect and power. To protest the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and its price hike of AZT, then the most promising HIV drug, AIDS activists dressed up as bankers and disrupted the opening of the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989 chaining himself to the VIP balcony. and showering the floor with fake $100 bills. Burroughs Wellcome dropped the price of AZT four days later. When Senator Jesse Helms described queer people as “morally sick” and fought against funding HIV research, AIDS activists rolled out a giant custom-made condom at his Virginia home in 1991.

ACT UP protesters embraced vulgarity and public disruption, which the police used as a pretext to police queer life throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, because even in the 1980s, queer people were treated with such contempt that activists were less constrained by necessity. look respectable They could turn shame, a weapon long used to control sexual minorities, against the fragile institutions that failed them. Among many victories, ACT UP members made AIDS treatments more accessible, expanded research, and showed their opponents that they would not be passive victims.

Early in his career, Sinema also attracted attention for irreverence. He once referred to Arizona as “democracy’s meth lab” and told a reporter, “Duh. I’m bisexual.” She protested the Iraq War in a tutu and, Mother Jones reports, suggested signs that read “Bombing for Peace is Like F—ing for Virginity,” recalling the ACT UP slogan “The women don’t have AIDS. They just die from it.” But unlike many politicians, Sinema has remained flashy, strutting around the Senate in pastel wigs and neon suits. He has rejected attempts to analyze his style, telling Politico that he finds it “very inappropriate. I wear what I want because I like it.” But their outfits draw attention to themselves and to her. One of her more subtle clothing choices was a coat emblazoned with the word “LOVE” dozens of times, which she wore during Trump’s impeachment.

Perhaps the most Sinema has done in his Senate career was give some flack in March 2021 before voting against a minimum wage increase in a coronavirus relief bill. It was a small gesture, one that wouldn’t have registered in a drag show. But on C-SPAN, he stood out as a perfect example of freewheeling style, with a twist. Camp is the vernacular of the underdog, and when someone as powerful as a US senator deploys it against people making $7.25 an hour and teetering on the brink of homelessness, adding even a little of style to a procedural vote is insulting. When the C-SPAN video went viral, comedian Jaboukie Young-White joked that he aspired to someday “to be the first queer senator of color who is fashionable while defunding education.”

While AIDS activists used the camp to achieve specific goals, Sinema’s loot is less clear. She says she supports the filibuster for the sake of “bipartisanship,” but the Senate remains as divided and sclerotic as ever. President Biden’s big infrastructure bill passed into law on bipartisan votes, but the Lower Inflation Act passed last week along party lines. Even after the Supreme Court ruled that states can force women to carry their pregnancies to term without exception and suggested a willingness to restrict LGBT rights, Sinema has opposed expanding the court or seeking other reforms that can protect their constituents. Her independence has won her the affection of her Republican colleagues in the Senate, but she has been censured by Democrats in her own state.

Of course, ACT UP was not always popular with the Democratic Party. Its activists interrupted Bill Clinton’s campaign speeches, and have challenged him to take a stronger stance on AIDS funding and research, which he had resisted. The organization pushed its establishment allies to be more aggressive in helping the sick and stigmatized. Sinema, on the other hand, makes Democrats act more greedily and think smaller. Last fall, she and Sen. Joe Manchin III derailed Biden’s Build Back Better bill, insisting on a smaller budget that forced Democrats to argue over what to scrap: Child care? Affordable housing? Clean energy? – until negotiations collapsed. Last week, his main demand of the Inflation Reduction Act, a scaled-down version of Build Back Better, was to eliminate a tax on private equity firms.

Sinema also uses pitch to respond to criticism. Six weeks after her viral vote on the minimum wage, she made headlines for posting a photo on Instagram of herself wearing a pink hat and pink glasses, drinking sangria and wearing a silver ring that says “f— off” . It’s enough to make Susan Sontag smile, a return to a version of camp that seems gaudy and vague. But while it’s unclear who Sinema might be reprimanding, it’s likely to be his most prominent critics, which include many of his most vulnerable constituents. Profane defiance is common in queer activism, but almost always as a way of kicking it. A senator implicitly bashing the people he represents is not camp. It’s insulting.

When protease inhibitors became available in 1995 and made HIV treatable, the rebellious solidarity of the AIDS crisis began to fade. National LGBTQ groups became more centralized and their interests narrowed, pushing for marriage equality and open military participation, indicators of respectability. Sinema navigated these shifting currents more skillfully than any other queer politician of her age, and the chasm between her style and substance is a product of her role as a politician between two eras. In style, it has the defiant style of its ACT UP ancestors, but at heart it defers to wealth and respects the arcane and regressive rules of the Senate. It is one of the most powerful queer policies in American history, but its power is conservative: to hold rather than to liberate. Although many queer people enjoy more acceptance today than ever before, Arizona’s closeted teens and others like them still need the protection of federal civil rights law. Legislation that could help them — indeed, legislation that could help so many vulnerable people — has passed the House, but languished in the Senate because of the filibuster. What a waste, and what an embodiment of the politics of the time, for Sinema to be shamelessly queer in a way that does so little to improve anyone’s life but his own.

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