Ben Shepard’s book Rebel Friendships is about the lasting bond of friendships forged by those who live on edges of our culture, those dance along the margins, taking part in the forbidden, sex parties, drugs, and the decidedly non-heteroenormative queer lives. This is a story of radical street performances, unpermitted street parties, and those taking part in non-violent civil disobedience, those engaging in jail support and supporting movements in countless ways. Given that all street actions are a form of street theater, students of performance studies, social movements, and social networks will be interested in this innovative study of the lives of those participating in social movements.
Through participant observation and ethnography, the book of case studies and essays mixes biography and scholarly investigation. Early in the book, we are introduced to Shepard the adolescent. Shepard describes the lives of people who had profound impact on his life, in particular his father’s friend Fred Mayer. Fred Mayer travelled the country and the world, but ended up making his home was the decidedly non-queer tolerant state of Texas. Mayer was a brilliant Harvard dropout (who later returned to complete PhD in English) who did just about everything, and defied every stereotype. He joined the navy (and struggled within that confining culture until being given a less-than-honorable sexual state discharge), wrote poetry, joined the pre-Stonewall S&M underground scene, battled substance abuse, and served as an important mentor to the straight, football-playing, Texan adolescent Shepard. Mayer is not in the canon of legendary queer activists, such as Sylvia Rivera or Vito Russo. Reading about Mayer gives us a window in the ordinary yet extraordinary lives so many people lead, in which they engage in struggles of everyday life, but that do not make it into public discourse. His name was not in papers. He wasn’t a spokesperson for a group or an activist. There are many Fred Mayers out there, known to their local communities, but unknown because they were not in publicized leadership roles. They were leaders in their own non-conventional ways.
Mayer was one of many people Shepard chronicles, who led (and some of whom continue to live) amazing, troubled, and complex lives. Shepard brings to life their experiences and adeptness in navigating the closed and closeted pre-Stonewall world while insisting that they live life on their own terms, according to their own codes, connecting the beatitudes of the Beats with the urgent call for authentic experiences. Shepard also introduces us to more familiar names such as Bob Kohler and Silvia Rivera. Personal connection is rarely simple. Recognizing this, Shepard dissects and explores these messy contours while underscoring their personal complexities when it comes to friendship. Shepard writes of the tempestuous relationship between Rivera and fellow activist Randy Wicker. The question is, when is a fight enough to end a relationship? It is hard to suggest that those who cannot endure a fight or cry together are truly friends. Sylvia Rivera’s friendship testifies to this point. Rivera fought with Wicker for years. And the two found reason and hear to forgive each other. The experience is not uncommon in social movements.”
Rebel Friendships can be read is a collection of personal vignettes, autobiographical and biographical while always returning to the unique aspect of friendships formed within social movements. The first half of the book focuses on the beauty of these relationships and the powerful bonds formed between friends. Those who are active in social movements are champions for a better world, with peace, tolerance, harmony, social justice and freedom to be oneself own unique self. One would assume that those promoting these ideals would live these ideals. However, this is not always the case. But we as humans, even stalwart fighters for a better world are complicated beings and full of contradictions.
In the second half of the book, Shepard teases this out in his narrative of recent social movements and activist groups such as Occupy Wall Street and the environmental advocacy group Times- Up! Similar to the pre-Stonewall era, both Occupy and Times-Up! were the focus of police harassment and repression. Shepard describes the “Occu-Family” that the occupiers of Zuccotti park during Occupy Wall Street formed, supporting each other through cold nights in the park and in cold jail cells. Friendships made in adverse situations can be among the strongest of bonds. The extended cases he cites from early Gay Liberation and Occupy offer compelling examples. Here networks formed and supported each other. The intense bonds formed are similar to the well-chronicled histories of warfare and its personal impact on both civilians and soldiers. In times of state and societal repression, strong and lasting friendships are formed in trenches of the battle that activists wage to shake and destroy the foundations of the apathetic social fabric that make up modern American capitalist society.
At the same time, one needs to believe in the cause in order to personally suffer for it. Shepard’s book offers case after case of stories and movement struggles to support the point that engaging is never simple or linear. And believing in the cause can lead to intolerance when it comes to difference of opinion. Such intolerances become Achilles Heel of social movements, with internal strife compromising the integrity of activist groups. Shepard fortunately does not neglect the dark side when the bonds of friendships are formed along believe in a social cause. Shepard quotes a friend Philip Paul, “Some people don’t realize how much they hurt their causes by turning their friends into enemies.” Activists as a rule tend to be passionate people holding firm to beliefs. This a double edge sword since such passion can easily lead into intolerance of differing opinions and in-fighting.
One example Shepard cites is the growth and decline of Times- Up! Times-Up!, a local New York City based organization that mainly promoted bicycling as a form of transportation and the community gardens as a locus of community in an increasingly privatized city. While the NYC officials and their private collaborators have been carving up precious little public space and doling it out to developers, Times Up! was a small but loud community of voices championing a city of free of the scourge of cars and unending concrete. And the New York City government and especially the NYPD hated Times Up! along with other groups such as ACT-UP and the Young Lords.
The city used COINTEL tactics to infiltrate groups and sow discord and paranoia among its members. Shepard describes this problem in Times-Up! and the problems of operating that championed openness and community, while at the same time trying to avoid infiltration. He writes, “We spent the summer of 2013 bickering and battling, gossiping and bantering over this. Frustrated with the lack of support, many left the group to start other projects.” Shepard concludes that some groups can handle the conflicts, others do not. “The way one handles the conflicts- the approach to supporting as opposed to punishing or ostracizing those one disagrees with – tells a great deal.”
Rebel Friendships winds through this turf of groups and friendships that have thrived and failed, from personal friends to the assorted names of organizations that are known to those active in social justice.
One important standout of Rebel Friendships is a short biographical chapter of Shepard’s days as a high school and college football player. The chapter “Between Defender, Football and Civil Society” stands out the most in Rebel Friendships. It is a departure from the overall narrative but I found it to be one of the most engrossing parts of the book.
This is a world that many of us in the radical queer world have scant knowledge of and Shepard offers valuable insights into this seemingly strange world in which homoeroticism and homophobia comingle in an odd dance. Shepard describes the casual homophobic jokes teammates swapped against the opposing teams. Over and over again, using terminology often reserved for jocks (and in colloquial derogatory jargon referred to as meat) Shepard aptly notes that difference between high school football and collegiate football in which in the latter, the players were no longer there to have fun and entertain others, they became a commodity. Pieces of meat for the system to devour and throw away once they’ve been made useless through injuries or after they’ve done their four years. Shepard writes “Observing it all now, the game seems to emulate the reified social relations of capitalism itself – both exploitative and competitive.”
These pages are the most powerful part of Rebel Friendships and my one regret is that Shepard did not dedicate more of his book to this. After reading these pages, I’ve found myself wanting more on this topic because it is so contradictory to the depiction of the other lives and lifestyles narrated in the book. The book reveals a call for greater focus on this much understudied, and very important topic as the power of the NCAA continues to grow while students endure indentured servitude throughout their college careers.
Rebel Friendships is a dense book filled with a wide array of events, people, groups and concepts. It celebrates the strong bonds formed among strong minded people, while not being afraid to critique some of the shortcomings that crop up among friends within the social justice movement. As Shepard notes in his conclusion, “Lurking beneath these tales is the messy question, does friendship help support the workings of social movements and the efforts aimed at social justice and if so, how? These questions resound through these tales of comrades past, and the ways in which we remember them, as they help us stay engaged in the movements that support social change.” These are questions that we all must remember and continue to ponder.
— Reviewed by Jessica Rechtschaffer, Columbia University
Jessica Rechtschaffer earned an MA at Columbia University in Religious Studies and a BA in Medieval Studies from Hampshire College. Currently she is Director of Academic Administration and Finance in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. Outside work, she has been active in battles against heteronormativity and the privatization of public space. She is also involved in environmental justice movements.