I was officially excommunicated by the woke left on November 19, 2018. There is a Facebook video of the event, which anyone can watch.
The social-justice left often is described as a manifestation of ideological, political or cultural forces. I no longer believe that to be an accurate description. The behavior on display in that video didn’t originate in a place of reason, but rather the realm of spiritual passions.
I’ve already related to Quillette readers some parts of my story. In 1979, I founded Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which for many years was Canada’s preeminent professional gay and lesbian theatrical company. However, the queer Buddies that exists today was truly born in 1985, when my friend Dr. Johnny Golding (a female philosopher and queer activist) became its president. Dr. Golding spearheaded Buddies’ 1994 move to its now permanent home on Alexander Street in Toronto, a 300-seat theatre (with a licensed cabaret) near the city’s large queer village. I resigned from Buddies in 1997 and handed over the creative reins to Sarah Stanley, a lesbian director. The theatre saw two more artistic directors—David Oiye and Brendan Healey—before lesbian writer/director Evalyn Parry, who still occupies the post, was appointed in 2015.
Given that I have not had an official position at Buddies for the last 22 years—a period during which I’ve made my living as an author, academic and performer—why was it necessary for the theatre I founded to take a leading role in my excommunication? I got my first clue back at a queer-theatre symposium in Vancouver three years ago (one that Parry also attended), where I’d been scheduled to speak and perform. There was pushback against my presence—specifically, because of my identity as a proud drag queen. Various transgender attendees declared that the very idea of drag is anti-trans and misogynistic, and that drag-queen humor is inherently cruel.
Evalyn Parry arranged for a “healing circle”—a ritual whereby a canceled event is replaced with a group meeting. Each participant would be given a moment or two to express themselves, focusing on the wounds that I’d allegedly caused by being a drag queen and speaking openly about my identity. I didn’t say much, as I’d been instructed to listen. People shared their feelings in a random fashion, giving full expression to their thoughts and feelings. (One straight woman, for instance, decided to tell the healing circle that she wanted to have sex with me.) And yet, somehow, the hoped-for “healing” proved elusive. I was simply removed from the speaking program without further ado.
Fast-forward to 2018-19. Buddies’ current theatre season coincides with the 40th anniversary of the company’s founding in 1979. In celebration, Parry scheduled a reading of my 1980s hit play Drag Queens in Outer Space. I was flattered and excited, but also worried about some reprise of the 2016 debacle described above. In the mid-1980s, my play celebrating drag queens seemed risqué and transgressive. In the current climate, it’s seen, by some, as reactionary.
The week before the Drag Queens in Outer Space reading, I happened to buy the book I’m Afraid of Men by Canadian writer Vivek Shraya, who had announced in 2016 that she was a trans woman. The book is presented as an extended attack on what is now called toxic masculinity.
I blogged my objections shortly before the scheduled event. “I’m sure that you have had the best of intentions, and like so many of us, you have had a lot of pain in your life,” I wrote in a blog entry, titled An Open Letter to Vivek Shraya. “But that doesn’t justify its title…What if someone titled their book I’m afraid of Jews?” I also described how, as a young drag queen, I, too, had been afraid of straight men. But I got over that fear, wearing my high heels and mascara proudly when reading poems and plays at lecture halls, theatres and bars filled with homophobic straights. I urged Vivek not to be afraid of men. Then I wrote a second blog post, entitled I’m Afraid of Woke People. And that’s when things really got crazy.
Before she identified herself as a trans woman in 2016, Vivek spent many years as a gay man. In her book, she recounts her many depressing and humiliating experiences, painting a picture of gay men and drag queens as shallow, superficial, selfish, petty and mean. The view of gay men that pervades I’m Afraid of Men reflects the homophobic stereotypes that have dominated western culture since the days when Oscar Wilde mused that “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met lots of shallow, superficial, selfish, petty, mean gay men. But gay men haven’t cornered the market on these traits. And it angered me that Shraya—who identifies as queer—was so viciously attacking our still-vulnerable community.
I think that second blog entry might have been less controversial if it had been a simple, straightforward critique of Shraya’s book. Instead, my post contained a satirical poem written in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. I not only rose to the defence of drag queens, but also invoked camp irony to impersonate Shraya’s wounded-victim voice. I also applied the same caustic tone to the poisonous reductionism of intersectionality more generally, and ended by apologizing for the fact of my very existence.
After some back and forth between me and Parry, I was informed that she was canceling the reading of Drag Queens in Outer Space due to the “problematic” nature of my poem. In place of the reading, she’d scheduled a “long table” in the tradition established by feminist playwright Lois Weaver (founder, along with Peggy Shaw, of New York’s fabulous Split Britches theatre company). The long table was to be “a community discussion focused on intergenerational issues and allyship,” a longer and more formal version of the “healing circle” I’d witnessed in 2016. She mentioned—parenthetically, I thought—that I was free to attend…as a spectator.
I was warned by friends not to attend the long table. They said it would be akin to a public lynching. And they were right. I didn’t go. But I watched a livestream. And I was indeed “woken” by what I saw, though not in the intended manner.
I can see how the spectacle would bore anyone who is not personally affected by the underlying issues, or who doesn’t share my (newfound) fascination with woke religious ritual.
From start to finish, the long table took almost three and a half hours. Surprisingly, my name was seldom spoken out loud, even by those who were clearly there to denounce me. There also were a few who defended me, describing me as a kind of King Lear-ish “foolish, fond, old man”—doddering, perhaps even demented, and deserving of more pity than scorn. When Parry tried to justify her decision to cancel my play by quoting from my blog posts, you can hear a voice ask faintly, “What exactly is so bad about Sky’s woke poem?” This question wasn’t answered, since it was incidental to the real subject of the Buddies long table: the spiritual and emotional lives of the congregants
The structure of the meeting was explained upfront by a moderator: “One chair should always remain empty. If at any point someone comes up to join the table, and there is only one empty chair, someone else at the table must self-select themselves and leave the table.” This structure allowed people to come and go. Some spoke at length about whether or not they had a right to speak. Early on, for instance, a person spoke about their mixed white and non-white roots: “And with this level of privilege”—they touched their face gently and made what really did seem like a prayer motion—“The fragility that comes…these feelings…of…of…of fear and pain…are also real.”
There were tears and there was anger. There were hands literally raised, as if to god (or gods). Several people rambled about unrelated personal and career problems, using the long table as a sort of therapy session. Some read poems. There was little actual dialogue, but rather a succession of inward-focused monologues. Everyone seemed lost and lonely. The most common theme was that people felt unsafe, and it was vaguely asserted (or, in most cases, simply assumed) that my criticism of a book was connected to this feeling of despair and vulnerability. At what, in retrospect, seemed like the climax of the event, one especially dramatic person wailed, through tears: “Right now…sitting in this room, I do not feel safe. I…do…not…feel…safe. Home was not safe. Ceremony was not safe…I’m screwed. Where is a safe space?”
I do not mean to diminish the agony of these participants; as I believe everyone in that room did passionately believe in their own victimhood. In fact, most or all probably would benefit from actual therapy.
I am not a member of a religious faith, and my familiarity with religious ritual originates mostly from watching Sunday-morning television. However, I was born into a Protestant Congregationalist church family. And having being raised in New England, in an area settled by Puritans, I’ve learned of the Shakers—a religious group known for abjuring sex and participating in frenzied dances of worship (hence their name). In Quaker worship, people sit in silence until “the spirit finds them”—not unlike the attendees at the Buddies long table, who sat through the proceedings until moved to speak.
The very term “woke” is itself full of religious connotations, going back to the first Great Awakening that swept English-speaking countries in the 18th century. In its modern political sense, “woke” has African American origins, its first recorded usage being in 1938, when folk/blues singer Lead Belly sang, in Scottsboro Boys, that everybody should “be a little careful when they go along through there, stay woke, keep their eyes open.” (The title of the song referred to a group of black Alabama teenagers who’d been falsely accused of raping a pair of white women in 1931.) In recent years, the term “woke” has been widely used to describe those who’ve attained doctrinal purity in regard to the social-justice movement. While that movement is secular, it seems to fulfill many of the psycho-spiritual appetites once served by religion.
I am older than almost all of the people who attended that long-table ceremony. And so I have some perspective on shared aspects of their background and ideology that they might take for granted. One thing that pretty much everyone in that room had in common is that they were raised by social media. Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr supply the only real community they know.
Yet while group denunciations can superficially supply a tribal spirit of bonding, social media is fundamentally a lonely place. We all crave actual, living, human contact. We all crave laughter, tears, and the human touch.
That same impulse is what inspires “kinksters” to dress up in leather and gather for a party at a hotel (even if they don’t have sex), or comic geeks to meet up at a convention centre, or RuPaul fans to leave their computers and flat screens for a moment, run to a gay bar and watch the show with friends. In the past, people would go to church on Sunday, shop in public markets, and watch the same TV shows at the same time and talk about them over the office water cooler the next day. This was community—in the days before we worked at home, shopped on Amazon, and thereby curtailed our daily gatherings in the public sphere.
* * *
In their classic historical analysis of the Salem witch trials, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, authors Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum explained that the infamous trials weren’t a product of a sudden, random bout of social panic, but rather occurred in the context of longstanding economic and political tensions between Salem Village (populated mainly by struggling, poor Massachusetts farmers) and Salem Town (populated in large part by newly prosperous merchants). Salem Village’s pastor—a man by the name of Samuel Parris—would take a leading role in the prosecution of local “witches.” So would a Salem Village family, the Putnams. While the accusations of witchcraft were, of course, ludicrous, the class-based grievances that stirred up the area and created a sense of tribal enmity were very real. Impoverished villagers fighting for their own church began by turning their accusations again a black servant, and then quickly moved up the social ladder. “The witchcraft accusations against the powerless, the outcast or the already victimized were not sufficiently powerful for them,” the authors wrote. “They were driven to lash out at persons of real respectability—persons, in short who reminded them of the individuals responsible, so they believed, for their own reduced fortunes and prospects.” As in many episodes of mass hysteria, a widespread sense of paralyzing fear and powerlessness had created a gateway to unhinged conspiracism.
Think about those young woke long-table attendees and their prospects. For many of them, the future must seem uncertain, even nightmarish—climate change, jobs replaced by machines, income inequality, racist populism. In their hopelessness, they lash out at those who are more rich and powerful, which, to them, seems like everyone. As they have no political power and see no hope of getting it, they seize the moral high ground wherever they can, and make accusations that they hope will hurt someone who has more than they do. “Unable to relive their frustrations politically, the members of the pro-Parris faction unconsciously fell back on a different and more archaic strategy,” Boyer and Nussenbaum noted. “They traced those who threatened them not as political opposition but as an aggregate of morally defective individuals.”
The term “morally defective individual” more or less describes how I am now seen in Canadian avant-garde LGBT theatre circles. I won’t elaborate on the difficulties this has created for my life. However, I am genuinely saddened by the fact that I now have no contact with the theatre company I founded 40 years ago.
Vivek Shraya is an internationally fêted transgender author, performer and media star, praised in Vanity Fair and fawned over by the CBC. She is in her late 30s, while I am an old gay man whose heyday was rooted in a past age when I was fighting for gay and lesbian liberation. (We are both now university professors.) When I wrote about Shraya’s homophobic book on my blog, I saw myself as speaking truth to power. But such is the creed of intersectionalism—whose tenets inform the woke faith’s liturgy—that I am the one seen as having power.
It is but a short jump from this ordering or privilege to the idea that I—an effeminate gay man, drag queen and veteran of the AIDS crisis—have personally oppressed the whole community. It is a frighteningly doctrinaire way of seeing the world. And I have every reason to fear woke people. So do many of us.
When I think of Salem, I identify with Susannah Martin, who didn’t even live in Salem, but in nearby Amesbury. Martin, a mother of eight, was 48 years old when she was accused of witchcraft—an old lady by the standards of the era. Other, mostly younger people claimed that she had performed supernatural horrors, including bewitching a man’s oxen so that they ran into a river and drowned. Before eventually being hanged, she was forced to submit to bizarre tests, such as a physical exam to determine whether she had a “witch’s tit” that served to provide sustenance to the devil’s minions.
Many of Martin’s accusers hadn’t even met Martin—or any of Massachusetts’ so-called witches. Likewise, I knew few of the people I saw on that long-table video. I’m not sure if I can ever forgive them for lending their voices to this ugly attack on me. But at least I feel I have come to understand the sad religion to which they have pledged their loyalty.
Sky Gilbert is a Canadian writer, actor, professor and drag performer. He teaches creative writing and theatre studies at the University of Guelph. His book of “anti-essays,” Small Things, recently was published by Guernica Editions.
Featured image: Screen grab from November 19, 2018 Buddies in Bad Times long-table discussion.