<Book Review>
Queer Political Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure and Social Movement.
by Benjamin Shepard.
[New York and London: Routledge, 2010 | 320 pp.]

In Queer Political Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure and Social Movement, Benjamin Shepard charts the construction and development of a queer activist aesthetic in the United States. He theorizes the importance of “play” as an ideological construct in the queer community, as well as its potential to help queer (or straight) activists and scholars broaden our definitions of what counts as social activism in the West. Through a series of case studies, Shepard illustrates how “play keeps protest fresh,” asserting that by refusing to reproduce societal norms, queer activists have been able to achieve their goals and have fun doing it (272). Shepard invites activists and scholars on the edge of burn-out to snatch a page from the queer community’s standpoint on social justice, using the politics of playful, pleasure-seeking tactics to their own advantage and self-fulfillment.

Shepard’s stated goals for the book are: “to contribute to an alternative framework for an understanding of social movement activity and sustainability [and] to offer a series of case studies that draw from and name a few novel organizational and political practices found within social movements” (17). Chapters include discussion of play and world-making, play as pleasure, play as resilience, playing by different rules, play and panic, and activism as circus. By exploring several different faces of play and the circumstances which allowed each to surface as an activist tactic in the queer community, Shepard is able to reinforce dramaturgically his argument of play as an ever-changing phenomenon. Shepard articulately adapts his theorization of play to encompass a variety of social organizations and situations across the last half-century (including the work of Jose Sarria, the Gay Liberation Front, the Cockettes, ACT UP, SexPanic! and Circus Amok), thereby underlining his authority to claim play as a versatile and organic political tool.

Shepard begins his book with a definition of play as “the exhilarating feeling of pleasure, the joy of building a more emancipatory and caring world” (1). He references the historical imperative of playful approaches to activist work outside the queer community (seen in the work of Dadaists, Yippies, Punks, and DIY’s, for example) as a genesis for the theorization of play. Shepard chooses, however, to focus on how the fight for social justice has been linked to queer community-building practices and aesthetics, and how understandings and uses of play have grown and changed over time. Shepard cites the annual New York City Drag March as a quintessential example of play-in-motion, as a model for the way the queer community is able to utilize pleasure as a resource in the fight for visibility and equality.

Shepard chooses to move chronologically through history, allowing the reader to learn along with the queer activists as they are described. As the narrative moves though time and space, Shepard’s theory of play is tested through the trial and error processes of those who have utilized it. For example, when describing the work of ACT UP, Shepard states, “the question always remained, how to advance fresh tactics into organizing that could result in practical shifts in people’s lives….For many members, it also had to be fun, or else they would not do it” (103). In this way, Shepard is able to illustrate both the internal struggles of the group itself and how play was able to solve problems for ACT UP on multiple levels (getting people in the room as well as getting the word out to the public in new and interesting ways).

The book also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the tone of the writing reinforces the argument Shepard structures. The book is rife with sentence like this: “The aim of such performative protest is to represent the idea that another world is possible and do it with panache” (12). As evidenced here, Shepard isn’t afraid to play with alliterative sounds in his writing, and techniques like these reflect the thought and detail evident throughout. These techniques are a pleasant bonus to sound theorization, however, rather than an attempt to make up for shoddy research. Shepard ensures his readers will believe that play is a viable tool for activism by the end of the book because he has shown us numerous ways in which it has been made successful in the past.

In a pair of less skillful hands, Shepard’s argument structure could degenerate into a series of case studies which merely exemplify current theorization of play. But as tactics of play pass through each organization, Shepard allows his theory to pick up nuances based on the surrounding historical, political, and affective circumstances described. In a further discussion of ACT UP, Shepard describes the 2005 Gay Pride March’s use of a van that said, “Fuck Bush!” A quote from member Bob Kohler explains, “With the old ACT UP, it wouldn’t have worked….Because then they needed the die-ins.” (129). Here, Shepard marks the progression of the use of play within ACT UP itself, asserting that the same strategy of play cannot always transfer outside its immediate context.

Kohler’s quote is also representative of another important rhetorical strategy utilized with great success – large chunks of quoted text. Repeated use of outside quotes provides the reader with richer sense of the multitude of desires and motivations experienced in a particular historical moment, and in the activists’ own words. Additionally, it allows Shepard’s voice to tie the strands of play theory together without seeming like a puppet-master controlling the strings. By allowing the reader to enter the psychology of these activists, Shepard uncovers play as the unspoken force motivating queer activism, whether or not it was articulated as such in the moment.

Overall, Shepard has a clear and concise writing style which is a pleasure to read and he structures a strong argument which is consistently believable. Take for example, this paragraph:

This ability to connect is one of the survival skills necessary to survive catastrophes such as AIDS. Viktor Frankl (1963) emphasized that those who forged tight bonds had a much better chance of surviving the concentration camps during the Holocaust. If the politics of play and pleasure is about anything, it is about helping people stay involved in their communities. Herein, the play of exchanging phone numbers and flirting is also part of an expanding tribe (Maffesoli 1993, 1996). It involved taking apart soul-crushing alienation and replacing it with an authentic struggle; connection, affect, and fun served as vital ingredients. (92)
In passages such as this, Shepard manages to locate a good balance between theory, data, and argument, allowing them to flow seamlessly and work in tandem to build his case.

But lest the reader finish the book thinking play could solve every problem in the modern world, Shepard shifts tone in Chapter 5. When recounting the dissolution of SexPanic!, Shepard asserts (as the members realize it) that play is not and can never be an end in itself when it comes to social activism. This point is further developed in the conclusion where Shepard lays out the strengths and limitations of play in two bulleted lists. Shepard concludes that while play is an undeniably useful strategy in the fight for social justice, it is only one tool among many and can never replace strategy and hard work. Rather, play can only be seen as a supplement to them – a way of keeping the work from stagnating and ceasing to be effective.

Shepard concludes that play is useful insofar as “people are often inhibited from their bodies, their passions, or their capacities for change” (271). Play opens up a space for activists to forge connections, realize their own power, and keep from being overcome by the stress and strain which are natural results of any prolonged social work. But Shepard asserts that play is part of “a broad redemptive struggle to create a better world—queer, straight—for everyone” (265). While the book is certainly written with an audience of queer theory scholars in mind, the questions and ideas Shepard illuminates could have ramifications in many fields of study, including performance studies, theatre arts, communication, and social work itself. The conclusions Shepard draws about the usefulness and limitations of play as an instrument of social justice would benefit not only theorists, but activists in any stage of their political work. I would argue that anyone looking for a way to inject life and vitality into everyday experience could find at least a partial answer with the singing, dancing drag queens Shepard so charmingly describes.

     — Dana Sayre, Texas A & M University

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License..