Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Rox Samer and Raffi Sarkissian (Part II)


So, totally unplanned, we both chose to turn to humor, together inadvertently arguing for its pervasiveness and endurance across feminist and queer activism and culture. Also, what we’re both noting is finding it in unusual places. Gay marriage activism circa 2008 and lesbian feminism in 1970s make for strange bedfellows, as they say. In a way, though, they are both historical periods affiliated with sober or somber figureheads (or at least who we picture as not having the greatest senses of humor). They’re thought to be unfunny. How much of that is stereotype? How much of that is the most well-known media of these times and these topics? Why are we both digging into these archives and finding humor?


For me, it is that it just keeps coming up in a lot of the things that I’m researching. I agree to an extent when you say it shows up in unusual places, but I feel for both of us, the more we find them the less these places seem unusual.


Yes, it gets less surprising.


And the more it makes sense that these are the spaces where you would find this kind of humorous and irreverent politics because, as you started to point out, we are certainly not seeing anything like that in the movement leaders, through the major figureheads, especially in hierarchical organizations where there is more pressure (whether from outside or within) to be “on message,” to abide by the politics of respectability. For example, drawing on my work on Proposition 8, an alliance of major LGBT organizations essentially came together to form the committee that would front the No on Prop 8 campaign back in 2008. The campaign relied on a marketing firm to construct the messaging, including all the TV ads. Not only were these ads what you would expect from typical campaign spots—serious, alarmist, attacking, defensive—but they also lacked any explicit LGBT representation and outreach to communities of color. So the grassroots video-based campaigns we saw spreading on YouTube (a couple of which I linked to in my opening statement) were implicitly responding to the rigidity of the “official” campaign by playing around with content (the type of arguments against the proposition), representation (the people and communities voicing their stances), and genre (challenging what campaign ads or PSAs look like). Even the ones not using comedy outright were still playing with genre and formats, and I think that is more broadly what we are both seeing in our archives: play and performance.

And this is coming from communities on the ground, those who are affected, those whose daily lives are most impacted by the homophobia we see informing the practices and ideologies on the right. Whether self-described activists or simply affected and ally constituents, they took to the emerging-at-the-time affordances of digital video distribution—remember, this is the first presidential election cycle since YouTube came on the scene in 2005. These participants were not just responding to the conservative Yes on 8 campaign, but to the conservative and mismanaged politics of our own No on 8 campaign, run by those figureheads of the mainstream LGBT movement. It became an outlet and an invitation to use creativity and collaboration. Humor becomes one of the mechanisms that activists and participants without as much power use to cope with the barrage of negativity and to (re)commit themselves to their battles, personal and collective. When I interviewed some of the creators of the “Gathering Storm” parodies (a couple overlapping as prior No on Prop 8 activists too), some upon reflection pointed out the function of these playful and parody breaks as a release valve for the tensions and feelings from the more intensive work of political organizing. Others pointed out how the creative process, which included comedy and collaboration, was their form of organization and activism.


I like these connections between our two archives and the balancing of serious and the silly (which is central to Susan Sontag’s theorization of camp). I’m not sure mine is camp. Part of me wishes I could claim it was. But looking at feminist fanzines of 70s there is a similar simultaneity of very serious discussion speaking to gendered lives and experiences but often by way of genre, either through science fiction or fantasy novels or other media dealing with alternative worlds or futures or looking to developing technologies but through a more speculative mindset learned through such close fannish engagement with concepts of futurity. One case in point is the subject of cloning, which mid-century was developing and which a number of these feminist science fiction authors and fans were paying attention to. For many, the interest stemmed from the possibility that cloning could be wielded for freedom, namely freedom from cis hetero patriarchy and the position assigned to people born into certain bodies and people born into others (an early theorization of which many of them had also encountered in Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 The Dialectic of Sex).

These discussions of topics such as cloning and alternative reproductive futurity would happen in feminist fanzines in letters of comments, structured symposia, or even through reviews of recent science fiction publications or other media. Often humor comes in and contributes to such discussions through the editorial work of fanzine editors, who choose, among other things, when to solicit fan art and where to place it in relation to these more textual contributions. In the case of Janus, Jeanne Gomoll, one of the fanzine’s editors worked professionally as an illustrator and included many of her own illustrations across the pages of Janus. Often quite cute, this art brings a levity to these heavy topics, providing a kind of sideline commentary that is endearing, witty or both. For example, in one of these articles on cloning, titled “If the Sons of All Men Were Mothers,” the author Ctein worries, having read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, that when women are “freed” from reproduction, they’ll nonetheless retain the “chains” of patriarchy. The article includes a header of a cartoon of a giant sperm—a very friendly, smiley sperm—who is saying, “Let one who is without kin cast the first clone.”[1] So while the author of the article is pessimistic, the sperm stands in for those who would like to hold open the possibility of freedom with (if not through) cloning and is slyly naming for whom the stakes are highest, i.e. queer and trans people, those denied support and access to normative forms of reproduction. To me this “silly” or playful image reads as a queer/trans pushback to what could often be a super straight and cis discourse around reproductive freedom. And I think this relates to what you’re researching, as in both cases the most serious of conversations are being done through humor that doesn’t simply counterbalance but paradoxically underscores their very stakes.


This notion of stakes also informs a great deal of my approach and analysis of these grassroots and ordinary video campaigns to both Prop 8 and “A Gathering Storm,” being as the two cases are explicitly about same-sex marriage. I think it is easy for many, especially those of us whose politics are quite left of assimilationist moves, to dismiss the work of these videos and their participants as not high-stakes. Yet, as I mentioned in my opening statement, the rhetoric and strategy animating the arguments by Yes on 8 organizers and the National Organization for Marriage are plainly rooted in tried and true homophobia. And that is what many of these videos are responding to. They were also attuned to the exploitative racial politics of the original ad and how so much of the right’s fear-mongering is tied to an exploitative appeal to communities of color. This was one of the ways several “Storm” parodies used humor and satire to mount this critique. My favorite line, for instance, is when one of the subjects in “Response to NOM’s Gathering Storm” claims the gays “are taking away my Asianinity.” There is much more to mine here, but I also want to turn to considering some more recent activism beyond marriage.

A complementary example is the more recent direct action group Gays Against Guns (GAG), which formed following the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 (and has since opened up multiple chapters). GAG follows more directly in the footsteps of ACT UP/AIDS demonstrations and street theater. GAG is not part of my formal research, but I have been following their actions on social media. Given the gravity and urgency of gun violence, their events expectedly confront this seriousness head on. A staple of their protests is the inclusion of striking white figures:

“Our Human Beings usually make an appearance—silent, veiled, dressed all in white, they bring a somber, memorial energy to our actions. They’re not vague performance art—each one represents a particular victim of gun violence. Most of us have been a Human Being at least once—it’s very moving.”[2]

 At the same time, they are unapologetically irreverent (and fabulous) in their tactics, language, and iconography, particularly their protest signs and street paraphernalia. A witty sense of play and creativity drives many of their activities—showing up in drag at rural gun shows, staging a mock funeral to mourn the presidency, and “My Bloody Valentine,” a February 14 event personifying the union of deadly moneyed politics and the NRA. They have also recently started a podcast where they combine reporting on the gun violence epidemic with contributions from Sing Out, Louise! —"a resistance singing queertet performing in and around New York City.” While most of their activism seems directed toward street protests, as opposed to the video productions I cover, much of their work spreads across different media and networked platforms. (See here for trailer on documentary about GAG).


You gesture to what I know you write about at greater length elsewhere about connections between these materials and queer activism from the seventies and on. This time what I was also reminded of when watching these videos was the activism of the Lesbian Avengers. These intersectional or multivalent points you’re discussing, whereby these videos are not exclusively or even arguably mainly about gay marriage itself but the sexism and particular forms of homophobia undergirding the vitriol of anti-gay marriage activism, are reminiscent of the points made the Lesbian Avengers in some of their earliest actions. The Lesbian Avengers started out as a New York City activist group coming out of ACT UP in the early 90s. They were very much informed by the practices of ACT UP but wanted to extend zap actions and the like to address issues outside of AIDS, including hate crimes and various pieces of anti-gay legislation and policy being initiated around the US. At one of their first actions (and it may have been their very first) they addressed changes in the New York City public school curriculum. This was the era of multiculturalism and there was much discussion as to what was going to be included if curriculum was going to become more diverse. Some folks opposed the inclusion of gay and lesbian history in particular, so on the first day of school the Lesbian Avengers showed up outside an elementary school in the district where such opposition was strongest and handed out purple balloons to children that said, “Ask About Lesbian Lives.” The five and six-year-old kids loved it. They were like, “BALLOONS!” But many of their parents wouldn’t let them keep the balloons, and the kids cried.

I was reminded of this action (and it’s documentation by Su Friedrich and Janet Baus in the video documentary Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too) in the”Darkness” parody video you shared where one of the subjects worries that her kids will go to school and learn that “gay marriage exists.” Both actions/texts call attention to the banality of what is being opposed by the right—kids are going to learn—namely, that lesbians and gay men, that queer people, exist, that’s all. That’s the threat. And arguably what handing out those balloons to children thus reveals is the deep wells of hate and fear feeding the protesting of such banality. In showing up outside school grounds and handing out balloons that say, “Ask About Lesbian Lives,” the Lesbian Avengers revealed that it wasn’t just about school curriculum or queer history or the existence of queer history but the persistent belief that children and queer people should not mix. Many Americans could not (and still cannot) think of queerness and kids together outside of the stereotype of queer people as pedophiles. Another way of putting this, which is made ever the more evident in your parody videos, is the threat queerness poses to heteronormativity. Many queer scholars would like to hold open a gap between gay marriage activism or gay rights and queer politics, but the responses gay marriage inspires reveals that, for those on the right, even something so basic and normative as gay marriage threatens to throw the whole system into a state of chaos. Marriage becomes redefined and heteropatriarchy that much more unstable, revealing its fragility in the face of repetition with a difference once again.


Yeah, in fact I decided to look up to see if National Organization for Marriage was still around, and sure enough they are recycling the same arguments, most recently against the recent iteration of the Equality Act in Congress. In high contrast, LGBT rights and discourses in the decade since Prop 8 and “A Gathering Storm” have made impactful strides and moved onto more intersectional movements. Here, I am thinking about campaigns like Undocuqueer, #FreeCece, and the aforementioned GAG, not to mention queer visibility and representation in broader movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. What has changed the most since 2009 is the wider palette of digital platforms that individuals and communities are using and adapting to their needs and desires. Consequently, how and where we see, experience, curate, and interact with these flows of engagement is also constantly changing. And I think this is still tied to the idea of play, with both content and genre, that we have been discussing. Twitter, for instance, has become the go-to platform when it comes to the spread of memes and generally playing with the formatting boundaries of its platform. This also brings me back to the part of your opening statement where you bring up the archival Instagram accounts you follow and the way they serve as a prophylactic of sorts to the constant stream of “new” content. I follow some of those and similar accounts (like @lgbt_history) and I too enjoy the temporal interruptions they provide. Instagram seems to be making more inroads into the ways we use video as well. And I know you’ve been working on a project along those lines.


Yes! I’m currently developing a project on “Trans Instagram.” I study how trans celebrities, artists, and activists and their followers create a counterpublic through their circulation of selfmade images and media of trans life. Obviously, in many ways trans celebrities are using the platform as cis celebrities do—to promote their TV series and shows and create a “brand.” But there’s also so much to what they photograph and share and how that exceeds such frameworks too. One of my favorite examples is Trace Lysette’s Instagram stories about her plants. That Lysette names her plants and interacts with them in the ways that she does has nearly nothing to do with her appearances on Transparent or Pose, but it does provide a window in to the life and mind (and sense of humor) of one fabulous trans person, which in and of itself provides a much needed silly and banal supplement to the few (and quite often tragic, fetishizing, isolating or otherwise melodramatic) representations of trans people on TV. Depending on one’s own curation of one’s Instagram, such a “story” might flow (ala Raymond Williams) into another, if very different, trans “story” and that one into yet another. I like to joke that, as a trans person, Instagram is my trans TV.


That’s a great example not just of the functions of particular content people are posting, but also how we configure it into spaces and narratives of both political and personal value. Whether through content, aesthetics, or genre, all these examples attest to the sustaining practice of humor and play in the politics of queer cultural production. And I think you’re really onto something by conjuring Williams’ flow in this new context. Dare I say, queer/trans/feminist activism is ordinary?


Rox Samer is an Assistant Professor of Screen Studies in Clark University’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts. Rox is currently working on a book manuscript, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, as well as a documentary film, Tip/Alli, on the work, life, and influence of feminist science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon, 1915-87).

Raffi Sarkissian is a lecturer in media studies at Christopher Newport University. He earned his PhD from the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. His research analyzes LGBTQ representation in popular culture and digital video activism, queer film festivals, and the politics of award shows. He has published articles in Spectator journal and an edited volume on Queer Youth Media Cultures.



[1] Ctein, “Future Insulation: If the Sons of All Men Were Mothers,” Janus 12-13 (Summer/Autumn 1978), 44-6.

[2] Gays Against Guns, “GAG: A Primer.” (accessed March 29, 2019)