The Red and Blue patchwork maps that inundated the media during the recent Bush-Kerry elections aroused a tempting historical comparison to the Blue and the Gray—the colors signifying the uniforms worn respectively by Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War. The quarrelsomehistory of the 1860s “War of the Rebellion,” and by extension the contemporary theatrical role-play of Civil War re-enactors, provides a metaphorical lens through which we can consider our current discord. Despite their crushing defeat one hundred forty years ago, Confederate re-enactors are still passionately fighting battles on any weekend of the calendar year.
Living History is a cultural practice founded on the belief that historical events gain relevance and meaning when performed live in an open-air, interactive setting. Civil War re-enactors, also called living historians, create large-scale spectacles that are also arsenals of painstakingly crafted props. Found within the elaborate re-enactor’s kit are a plethora of objects representing accomplished forms of craft, such as stitchery and needlepoint, leathercraft, metalwork, and woodcarving. With the aid of these often-beautiful objects, re-enactors perform elaborate displays of whiteness, masculinity, and nationalism. Is there something to glean from these literal “theaters of war?”
In the act of secession from the Union, Confederate forces formed their own unruly union. What if today’s queers, intellectuals, artists and activists adaptively engage in a Confederate fantasy, despite traumatic associations with the horrific institution of slavery? War role-players can productively remodel the history of the Secessionists versus the Union into an analogous battle between mainstream society and a multitude of countercultural perspectives. Throughout recent history, queer outsiders have united—militia like—to tussle collectively in the face of menacing culture wars. Most recently, artist Allison Smith called to arms her community of queer and artistic peers. Drawing from the practice of civil war re-enactment, Smith invited her community to collectively form their own unique historical event.
In the spring of 2004, Smith organized a “muster”, an assembly of troops for the purposes of inspection, critique, exercise and display. Smith sent out a broadside call-to-arms that asked her dissident peers, “what are you fighting for?” This manifesto invited potential participants to self-fashion uniforms and declare their causes publicly by “enlisting” in a weekend encampment on the Pennsylvania woodland property of artists Mark Dion and J. Morgan Puett. The Muster took place in the days prior to the Republican National Convention. Participants seceded in the countryside evacuating the host city for Republican politicians and delegates. The sixty secessionists at the Muster created campsites that were artistic elaborations of the causes they chose to represent. These tents, costumes, performances and their corresponding props were the unscripted content of the Muster. Although the ethos of Civil War re-enactment infused the event, the enlisted participants were free to reinterpret “civil war” as any contemporary battle—from current events to personal struggles from within, such as failure, convalescence or madness.
At the Muster, Smith fought for “trench art,” or art made by soldiers with the materials of war. She declared this as her cause, proposing that in these times of literal conflict and occupation, we are all working (either overtly or not) within the context of war. The Muster, itself conceived as an encompassing work of trench art, aimed to provide a collective context to celebrate the multi-layered causes of participants, who declared their inspirations in theatrical performances and speeches on a mustering stage. These declarative performances differed from the concurrent RNC protests: participants gathered intimately, uniting through the articulation of amalgamated causes, rather than protesting with solidarity. Playing with war, the enlisted shifted choruses of dissent into a multivalent echo of ecstatic proclamations.
In 1978, the San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed and fabricated a six-striped flag representing the colors of the rainbow as a symbol of gay and lesbian community pride. Engaging in a traditional American craft, Baker dyed and sewed the material for the first flag himself in the genuine spirit of Betsy Ross. According to Baker, the colors of the first Rainbow Flag represented sexuality, life, healing, sun, nature, art, harmony, and spirit. The use of a colorful spectrum also invoked the multicultural symbolism of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Baker’s flag became a lasting rallying symbol, to which the vastly diverse queer community still collectively responds.
The stitched rainbow icon of queer nationhood would later become a ubiquitous sign at annual gay pride parades—ceremonial reviews of queer nationals in cities across the globe. The procession of troops we associate with American parades fittingly relates to the history of the New York gay pride celebration. In fact the pride parade commemorates the genesis of queer mustering: the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Regarded as the foundation of the gay rights movement, the rebellion was incited by patrons at a gay bar The Stonewall Inn when New York City police raided the establishment (then a frequent practice of homophobic harassment). Throwing cobblestones and bottles, queer patrons galvanized bystanders into action and sprang to arms in a spontaneous act of resistance. Like the Civil War’s legacy, this historical revolt became mythologized as a queer “War of the Rebellion.” The chain of Civil War associations multiply when considering The Stonewall Inn’s namesake—none other than Thomas J. Jackson, one of the most revered of all Confederate commanders. Jackson’s immovable presence at the Battle of Bull Run likened him to a stone wall. We can purposefully conflate the heroic icons of the Civil War and the foundational revolt of queer dissidents to consider a radically revised Confederate position, or rather a separatist form of queer sovereignty.
In 1990, another group of queer secessionists, Queer Nation, emerged at the gay pride parade. The founders were four victims of anti-gay violence who distributed an inflammatory broadside manifesto emblazoned with the words “I Hate Straights…Queers Read This!” Adopting many of the confrontational direct action tactics of the affiliated AIDS activist group ACT-UP, Queer Nation is also credited for affirmatively reclaiming the typically derogatory word queer. Though Queer Nation was visible as an organization for only a few years, its separatist provocations would have a lasting effect. The organization’s name overtly suggested that queers constituted a countercultural nation that at war with the predominantly homophobic society.
In the same year, Senator Jesse Helms proposed—and Congress passed—legislation that required the National Endowment for the Arts to fund projects according to new “standards of decency.” By targeting queer, feminist, and AIDS activist artists, Helms successfully rallied the government to withdraw public art funding nationwide. This controversy sparked a national campaign for the freedom of expression, and thus “the culture wars” were waged between artists and the newly elected Bush administration. Furthermore, the residual Cold War fueled the militaristic temper in the United States as the Gulf War was launched in 1990. Without a doubt, these culture wars and the military conflicts in the Middle East remained unresolved.
Fourteen years later in 2004, the second Bush Administration strategically foregrounded “the gay marriage issue” to overshadow the waning support for a “war on terror.” As one particularly useful strategy, Republicans generated panic about same-sex Civil Unions to effectively sway the presidential vote in favor of George W. Bush. Indeed many queer people don’t want to get married, and for others, the issue of marriage is a profound civil rights struggle. Nonetheless, denying queer citizens equal representation, including-legal protections, tax credits, housing and healthcare-makes them second-class citizens. In this sense, the conservative onslaught against queers and their “unions” extends beyond the issue of marriage.
So, when New Jersey Governor James McGreevey resigned from office because of a personal scandal, and sternly declared, “I am a gay American”, it seemed like he was resigning to a separate queer nation. In the face of the current moral conservatism, we must consider what it means to be a “gay American.” Although queer people are too diverse to have a common cause, the Bush Republicans’ antagonism of our unions provides a unifying experience of being against their Union.
A Union of Secessionists
As of the time of this writing, plans are in the works for a second Muster on New York City’s Governors Island sponsored by the Public Art Fund. At the next Muster, we will contrarily act out the wide range of causes we are fighting for on an even larger scale. Although the spontaneous outcome of the next Muster will only be revealed during the event itself, perhaps we could unite under the common banner of secession. For Smith, an oxymoronic “Union of Secessionists” forms a polyphonic voice—filled with contradictions and overlapping declarations—from the fringes, in the trenches, and outside of the dominant Union.
In many respects the Muster functions as a dramatic commemoration of The Stonewall Rebellion, while claiming Stonewall Jackson’s Civil War era secessionist ethos. Engaging the militia rhetoric of Queer Nation’s activists and the prideful craft of Gilbert Baker, we might form knitting armies, postal systems, Abraham Lincoln personas, maddened cheerleader fatigues, archery tournaments, or unexpected critical tools for these ongoing culture wars. Smith’s rapidly spreading broadside manifesto reads:
But when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to solidify the political bonds which have connected them with another, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should Declare the Causes which impel them to the confederation.
What are you fighting for?