<Book Review>
Queer Political Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure, and Social Movement . Benjamin Shepard. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Ben Shepard’s new book, Queer Political Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure, and Social Movement, is a groundbreaking study of the powerful role the ludic played, and continues to play, in queer organizing for social change. Play, Shepard argues, was vital as a resource for this movement, both in the streets and behind the scenes, in affinity group meetings and life-sustaining social and sexual interactions. “Play is both a creative and combustible ingredient within contentious movement interaction, but its influence has been historically obscured,” he argues (20).

Shepard, a prolific scholar and Assistant Professor of Human Services at New York School of Technology/City University of New York, draws on his own experiences as a longtime activist (with groups ranging from ACT UP and Housing Works to Reclaim the Streets, the Times UP Bike Lane Liberation Front and many more), as well as scores of invaluable personal interviews with many queer activists in this study. The resulting insights and analysis are groundbreaking and constitute a significant contribution to this field. Shepard also shows great command of the scholarly conversation around play and social movement organizing with an interdisciplinary approach that engages with Cultural Studies, Performance Studies, Queer Studies and social movement theory with great aplomb.

This work is a truly a case of praxis in action; the engaged scholar examining his own and his comrades’ actions under a frankly critical light so that ever better questions can be asked regarding future action. The author does not shy away from conflicts within this movement—conflicts from which real lessons can be learned. This includes battles over practical policy priorities, ideology and performative style between activists over time and in different groups/campaigns. Conflicts between assimilationists and Leather Men, between “serious” gay political activists and those who want to party and cruise while they fight the power; these conflicts are explored seriously, but with humor, throughout this work. Queer playfulness is also used to satirize the dogma of the humorless sectarian Left as well (121).

The range of this study is impressive, especially as that range of case studies coheres and stays deep, with thick description and telling details, “differences that make a difference,” found throughout. Shepard begins with interviews and a historical take on Jose Sarria and his creation of the vital gay club the Black Cat in San Francisco—located conveniently across from the city jail, so that Sarria could sashay his darkly comic drag act across the street with his friends and patrons to sing “God Save the Queens” to their imprisoned queer compatriots within. His study shows the wide range, and deep connections, between disparate groups such as the Church Ladies For Choice, a satirical street theatre group who confront anti-choice activists face-to-face with outrageous queer satire, to Housing Works, an innovative nuts-and-bolts New York City group that has successfully created affordable housing for people with AIDS. From SexPanic! to Syringe Exchange, from GranFury to Circus Amok, disrupters and service providers all fall within Shepards analytic purview.

Shepard examines the value of raw sexual playfulness and allure as a powerful sustaining and building force for the queer movement. One of Shepard’s favorite quotes, aptly chosen, is Ginsburg’s famous rumination: “What if Chicago [1968] had been an orgy instead of a riot?” Much deep thinking about the bounds of heteronormative power structures follows from that simple but provocative question, and Shepard teases it out with great zest and thoughtfulness. He interviews multiple witnesses to the famous Stonewall Riot, veterans of the GAA and the GLF, with the question of play, pleasure, and sexuality as a frame. Shepard has found some brilliant insights from his interviewees: One organizer “who is a bottom in her personal relationships,” argues that “Bottoming and lobbying go hand in hand. The bottom is the receptive partner, the receiving source ... : A good bottom has to be able to talk to power in ways that do not enrage power, that cuts through power. That’s just Lobbying 101." (67) This is just one example in Shepard’s book of a queer activist cannily theorizing their own sexuality and its tactical value in political hard-nosed negotiating and policy lobbying—a real contribution to the scholarship and understanding of queer activism.

Shepard does not shrink from the dire and grim in this text. In fact, the existential terror and sorrow that lurks over the shoulder of these activists is a key aspect of his analysis. He is sure to locate the defiant playfulness that he documents so thoroughly in its deadly context. While ACT UP’s members cheerfully disrupt and harass their policy opponents, they are also grappling with death itself, immediate and cruel, in their own lives and that of their lovers and friends. Many of the interviewees have faced violent homophobic oppression, not to mention the passive but murderous violence of policy which let AIDS run rampant for years without seeking a treatment or cure. The playfulness is a sustaining source of strength in the face of despair as well as a creative engine for new and ever more disruptive and surprising actions. Playful sexuality attracts many new members to the meetings of the group, but many of those members are also struggling with the grief at the loss of loved ones, and the playful atmosphere provides solace. Shepard finds many historical connections with his theoretical sources along these lines: He dutifully notes that Huizinga himself, a master scholar of play, perished in a Nazi prison. Throughout, Shepard charts the emotional landscape of a movement in crisis—in fact, in many ways, during the 80s and 90s, this was a movement of crisis.

Shepard uses qualitiative analysis to make a strong argument for the tacticality and utility of play. Playful approaches to meeting facilitation—and even ACT UP’s annual talent shows for its members (91) keep people interested and coming back for more. Play can lead to a creative outlet for anger, rage, and sorrow in the form of carnivalesque spectacular protest techniques. The “dark play” of queer activists such as Action Tours’ disruptive “Zaps” of TV studios and other targets, banner drops, and using balloons to block surveillance cameras, etc., made a mark on the public consciousness, but they also created thrills and tight bonding among the “secret agents” of change themselves.

Shepard affirms the anti-rationalist aspects of social movements as equally important as the rational. The joys of protest are as compelling as number crunching, facts, and figures. However as one of his interviewees affirms: "one needs to be careful not to go too far with play and actually mess up your message because it’s important to be serious" (106).

Shepard has a unique angle on queer activism as a vital component of late 20th-21st century community organizing and activism as a whole. Further, this work adds a needed conceptual perspective of play as a unifying but complex through-line in the history of queer social movement organizing. This text is an invaluable read for scholars of social movement history and queer studies.

     — L. M. Bogad

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