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Stephen Low on "Gay Shame"

Cover of "Gay Shame": Woman and pearls

David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub, Eds.

Gay Shame (Book + DVD)

University of Chicago Press, 2009
395 pages

Reviewed by Stephen Low

In 2003 the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor hosted a generative yet controversial conference titled Gay Shame. Seven years later, conference organizers David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub have compiled essays, spoken-word texts, art works, interviews, short documentary films, video performances, and images that were either inspired by, inspiration for, or a product of the conference proceedings in the anthology and accompanying DVD also titled Gay Shame. Most all of the diverse collection of contributions to the anthology and DVD were provided by the distinguished community of scholars, activists, and artists who attended the conference not only as presenters but also as active participants in the conversations it facilitated. Reflective of the vast scope of this book, the contributions are divided into six categories: “Gay Shame,” which offers an introduction to both the conference and the volume; “Performing Shame,” which examines shame as an affect produced and reflected through performance; “Spectacles of Shame,” which considers imagery, both popular and erotic, that induces shame; “Disabled Shame,” which explores shame in the lives of those living with disabilities; “Histories of Shame,” which concerns shame in LGBTQ histories; and lastly “Communities of Shame,” which examines shame and its relationship to identity politics.

Halperin and Traub begin the volume with an essay titled “Beyond Gay Pride.” This essay introduces the reader to the motivation behind the conference, the contentions and conflicts that arose at the conference, and how and why the anthology came into being. Specifically, this essay considers gay shame as a response to the increasingly commercial, corporate, and hetero- normative atmosphere of gay pride festivities. Halperin and Traub write that “the goals of gay pride require nothing less than the complete destigmatization of homosexuality, which means the elimination of both the personal and the social shame attached to same- sex eroticism.” They claim that “Gay pride has never been able to separate itself entirely from shame, or to transcend shame. Gay pride does not even make sense without some reference to the shame of being gay.” Through both the conference and the book that emerged from it, Halperin and Traub intend to open up discussion that “consider[s] some alternate strategies [to gay pride] for the promotion of queer sociality.”

Many of the contributions to Gay Shame were inspired by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay titled “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity,” published in the inaugural issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (1993) and republished in the volume. Sedgwick argues that shame is the foundational affect that promotes identification, specifically queer identification. Furthermore, Sedgwick’s essay posits that “shame both derives from and aims toward sociability” and is essentially an act of performance. Sedgwick concludes by asserting that shame “generates and legitimates the place of identity—the question of identity—at the origin of the impulse to the performative, but does so without giving that identity space the standing of an essence.”

Douglas Crimp’s essay, “Mario Montez, For Shame,” was influential both within the volume and at the conference itself. Crimp’s essay claims that shame is a point of production—in terms of both cultural production and the production of identification—by providing an analysis of the shameful performance of Latino drag queen Mario Montez in Andy Warhol’s Screen Test #2. Crimp argues that shame exemplifies and highlights the difference posited in Sedgwick’s first axiom of Epistemology of the Closet (1990): people are different from one another. Crimp’s short essay had been published before the conference was planned, but, as Halperin and Traub write, was “well suited to [their] conference.” The essay was distributed to all participants at the conference, and Screen Test #2 was screened on the opening day, followed by a performance work by Vaginal Davis. The following day was reserved for a discussion about the essay and the performance, which “proved to be a defining moment for the conference as a whole.” Specifically, many of the conference participants took issue with the lack of discourse concerning race in Crimp’s essay and were inspired to consider the questions, “Who gets to feel shame?” and “How does race influence how shame is experienced?” In the anthology, Taro Nettleton considers Warhol, whiteness, and shame in her essay “White-on-White: The Overbearing Whiteness of Warhol Being,” and Rita Gonzalez’s interview with Frances Negron-Muntaner from 2004 discusses shame as experienced by Latino/a subjects.

The DVD, a bonus feature included alongside the already diverse collection of writing, provides alternate methods to access the images, themes, topics, and concepts presented at the Gay Shame conference and in many of the texts written before and after it. Terry Galloway’s performance piece “Tough,” the transcript of which is offered in the book proper, is performed by Galloway on the DVD. The video of this performance by a self-identified disabled person brings a particular kind of shame to the viewer, who, after reading the text of the performance in the volume, sees many of the preconceptions about disability exposed as ignorance and prejudice in the video. Specifically, Galloway willingly “shames” herself by applying make-up and then attempting, unsuccessfully, to wipe it off. As Galloway speaks of shame and disability through speech marked by her hearing impairment, her audience becomes aware of how, in the world dominated by the hegemony of “able-bodied” people, disabled bodies are marked by shame in their day-to-day experience.

Also on the DVD are two documentary films, ToTaLLY KICKball or The Philosophy of Activity-ism and Enactivism: The Movie, that discuss queer activism and its limits. Though not necessarily engaged in the theoretical project of conceptualizing gay shame, the information presented through these documentary films and the pieces of writing that accompany them considers gay shame in contrast to the history of Gay Pride as a form of activism, a perennial activist event that has arguably lost its grassroots activist bent in the past twenty years. The film Enactivism makes specific reference to the activist organization Gay Shame that sponsors the Gay Shame Awards, which distributes awards to members of the LGBTQ community who marginalize many of its members in efforts to assimilate into the mainstream by vying for equal marriage rights or the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Overall, the anthology and accompanying DVD provide a fascinating glimpse into the dynamic and controversial conference event while representing the scholarly, artistic, and activist engagements with the concept of gay shame. Personal reflections, artistic performance work, investigative documentary film, conference critiques, and scholarly essays offer diverse points of entry for readers (and audiences) to immerse themselves in the rich, elusive, complicated, and controversial concept of gay shame. Though the anthology cannot present a clear and concise argument, methodology, or theoretical framework, it does present opportunities for productive and generative conversations concerning the failure of gay pride and the potential of gay shame.