Activism, Archives and Academia: Catching up with Michael Bronski

LBGT Studies and Queer Theory emerged as disciplines not because a few academic super stars deemed them so, but because the tireless work of an army of lovers. Michael Bronski was on the frontlines of this fight: organizing, writing, and marching since 1969.

Bronski is most recently the author of A Queer History of the United States (2011), for which he won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Non-Fiction in 2012. He is currently working on You Can Tell Just by Looking and Twenty Other Myths about LBGT People with co-authors Ann Pellegrini and Michael Amico, and The World Turned Upside Down: The Queerness of Children’s Literature.

I took a seminar titled “Smash the State: Coming to a Theater Near You,”  with Bronski when I was a senior in college. The way he lead us through the cinema of counter-culture changed my viewing practices so profoundly that sometimes when discussing pop culture today with one of my former classmates, we just have to say “WWBS  (What would Bronski Say)?”

Martabel: I just read the introduction to You Can Tell Just By Looking. I like how it functions as a sort of primer for debates against (the still present) homophobia that exists in the United States. It seems strategic in the best sense.

Michael:  Did you find it readable?

Martabel:  Yes. I loved the combination of references, from Anderson Cooper and Lady Gaga to landmark legal battles and the queer esoteric.

Michael: We wanted to make it a smart-pop book.

Martabel: Smart-pop is kind of your M.O, no?

Michael: It is, though this is a co-authored book and we all had different views. But we all agreed that smart-pop is important.

Martabel: I want to talk to you about your path from activist to academic and how you continue to straddle those two worlds. Your path to academia is very unusual; it was through activist journalism and not a PhD program.

Michael: Totally. It’s not only unusual but I would say no one else has really done it.

Martabel: How did you pull that off?

Michael: Well I didn’t really plan it; I had never wanted to teach. I thought of it as kind of creepy early in my life because of the power dynamics. You have enormous power over people and that really isn’t fair.  You called me Michael in class but hardly anyone else ever does, its always Professor Bronski. That’s how strong the power dynamic is and I find it strange.

When I graduated college, I got a degree in playwriting and I began getting involved in activism. I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote in high school, I wrote for the high school paper. After college I helped edit for newspapers like Fag Rag. I saw myself as a journalist and then I guess I began seeing myself sort of like a “public intellectual” after about 10 years. 

Martabel: And that happened through your commitment to gay liberation and working on these underground press outlets like Fag Rag?

Michael: Pretty much. It was in 1982 when South End Press said, “Do you want to write a book on gay culture?”, and I said sure! And that was the first time I felt I had a chance to really put something out in the world. I was writing articles and reviews but then the newspapers would be thrown away the next day. So when I was offered the book I thought, well, a book could be in a library and a book can really be out in the world in a different way.

Martabel: You have documented activism but your writing is also an extension of your activism. Do you agree?

Michael: It is, but I would also like to be careful with that because there are plenty of writers who say my writing is my activism and they don’t do anything else in the world.

Martabel: And you do other things in the world.

Michael: Right, I have a long history of going to meetings, helping to publish things not just writing but actually being part of the publishing process, going to rallies, being on committees. I put on this conference called the “Out Right Conference” which was the LBGT writing conference for several years. So my activism is not just my writing. I do think the act of writing and even the act of thinking as activism. But I am a little bit wary of saying, “my activism is my writing”, which some people do.

Martabel: I find that people who say that without a qualifier are not really connected to the “on the ground” problems that come up in organizing. And that’s where a lot of theorization actually happens.

Michael: Right. I completely agree with you. Look at the history of Gay and Lesbian Studies, Queer Theory, Women’s Studies, or Critical Race Studies; each of those began not in the academy but out in the world. And people fought hard to get them into the academy. And now in many cases the academy has professionalized them. I can’t complain; I’m at Harvard and Dartmouth in the elite of the elite. Bu there is a way in which this sort of professionalization has really divorced itself from the underground activism. So I know that when I was first at Dartmouth, people knew me because I had I had written thousands of articles, I mean literally thousands of articles over the past 25 years. Culture Clash was probably the first ever to put gay male culture into a theoretical structure.  People knew me, respected me and used my articles in classrooms but I was never cited in academic books. I can remember at a Gay Studies conference three major academic scholars came up to me and thanked me for all of my work and said that it was really invaluable to them. That made me feel good until I realized that none of them have ever actually cited me in their books. When I started teaching at Dartmouth people is when people started to cite me.

Martabel: The academy granted them permission to cite you?

Michael: And I hadn’t changed at all. The only thing that changed was that I was getting paid more money than I had before.

Martabel: Now the path for doing queer theory or LBGT activism is even more professionalized, which limits the conversation in all sorts of new ways. I know that institutional privilege and other kinds of privilege, have enabled me to pursue the trains of thought I am pursuing, so I am implicated but nevertheless disturbed by this.

Michael: I think you’re completely right. It’s an even bigger problem when the people in the academy do not think it’s a problem or take into consideration that there is a world outside the academy. I think that it’s a big problem if you only include “professional” voices.  When we want to bring someone to campus to address a certain topic the conversation starts with, “Is there someone at Columbia or NYU who is published on this?”  There are plenty of other people who haven’t published anything but are great speakers and are actually leading the movements. The other big problem is that the academy actually has tons of stuff, money, books, library, venues to give grants classrooms, etc. I believe the academy has to be far more open to people. For example, open your libraries! Dartmouth and MIT are exceptions that open their libraries to the community. But in most universities community activists cannot use their books, archives, collections, private papers, etc.

Martabel:  The Schlesinger Library at Harvard is an exception, which is not surprisingly the Women’s Studies library. It extends to digital archives as well. The recent suicide of Aaron Swartz due to criminal prosecution by JSTOR makes those stakes very clear.

Michael: Yes, completely. That’s a perfect case and point. It is tragic. People not affiliated with the universities at MIT and are able to use the libraries because the librarians are connected to the community and fought for that access. It wasn’t because of the institution.

But to go back, I think in LGBT or Queer Studies we are actually training people in the academy who really have no connections to those communities on the ground. LGBT studies is not chemistry, it’s more complicated.

For me its more interesting to teach this because I actually lived through it, and then there are younger people who are teaching it but only from what they learned in the academy. Its not their fault but it makes things into “historical facts” in a strange way.

Martabel: I feel paralyzed by the responsibility of speaking about movements that I have not lived through. Which was what was so difficult about working on my thesis about ACT UP. I would find moments of academic confidence but then I would read or hear a personal anecdote about the time that would bring me to tears or feel like a punch in my stomach.

Michael: Which is great, we should all have a certain amount of humility.

Martabel: Your work, as Tim McCarthy would say, in the belly of the beast. Not only are you working in the academy but also you are working through and within pop culture. In many ways, you are more critical about finding resistance in pop culture than your colleagues. I know for instance, you do not find anything progressive about Lady Gaga. But nevertheless, you are looking for resistance. What is your take on pop culture in this moment of tremendous support for marriage equality and an unprecedented amount of LBGT visibility?

Michael: I love pop culture. Pop is both both mass culture and consumer culture; you always have to approach it looking both ways. I have come to be very Frankfurt School about it. If you think something is so transgressive, like Gaga or Madonna, you have to ask how transgressive can it really be if they are billionaires?

Martabel: Right, and the people who starred in Paris is Burning are not.

Michael: You really can’t think about the politics of pop culture without thinking immediately of consumer culture. But I think the reason that people don’t is because we all live in a world in which there is so little to enjoy that when we get something that pleases us, we really loathe criticizing it.

Martabel: I know, I love TV for that reason…

Michael: …but its pretty horrible.

Martabel: Of course.

Michael: LGBT people have been so starved for visibility that we will really take almost anything. My role as a critic is to actually enjoy this stuff so I can write about it in a way that values what that part of the experience is but also to critique that pleasure in a political context.

Martabel: I think that’s become increasingly accepted as a way to engage with material, acknowledging your pleasure in it. It  is a really positive turn in academia. I think space was opened up by queer and feminist worlds.

Michael: I think so. I learned about it growing up reading Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag.

Martabel: Who talk about pleasure.

Michael: Who talk about the pleasure of the text. To talk about the pleasure of the experience, while at the same time you want to keep a discharge. It took me a while and a bit of negotiating for me to be able to sit through a movie and to enjoy what I was able to enjoy while still thinking critically of it – it’s two different brain functions.

Martabel: But you feel like now you can kind of employ them simultaneously.

Michael: Yes, but it took practice. In retrospect I think I always kind of did because from the age of 12 I  knew I was gay but I was sort of on the outside of things.

Martabel: An outsider now on the inside. Thanks for your time Michael!

Michael: You’re welcome!