How Sinema subverts the radical conventions of queer politics

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In January 2019, all field organizers who worked on Kyrsten Sinema’s campaign were invited to watch her take the oath of office as a US Senator. I regretted not going when I saw the pictures: She’s standing in a pencil skirt with a bright pink rose design, smiling at Mike Pence, who has the Constitution, not the Bible, to lay her hand on. Her lipstick is bright red, her hair in playful curls. Her arms are bare, a grave in Senate tradition. I had never seen someone so combative become so powerful.

Before working on Sinema’s campaign, I spent a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Benson, Arizona, a rural, conservative town of 5,000, where I was one of only a few openly gay people. I loved living there and the people I met welcomed me into their lives. But I also learned from my friends that most of the gay kids in town don’t come out until they move to Tucson after high school. The risk is too great. I thought that Sinema, who was homeless as a child and bullied for being queer, would know what people living fragile lives need to survive.

This was because, for most of his life, Sinema seemed like the kind of liberal high priest Alison Bechdel often echoed in her cartoon “Dykes to Watch Out For.” She is a bisexual atheist who worked on Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000 before earning a social work degree and a Ph.D. in “justice studies”. Today, Sinema is among the most conservative Senate Democrats, blocking much of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda and moderating the legislation she votes for. Still, she clings to the long-established tenets of queer activism that enabled her political rise: Provocation gets you more than propriety. Hierarchy exists to be overridden. But Sinema embodies these ideals in an empty and diminished way, showing how modern queer politics has become more concerned with ostentatious defiance than with the material improvement of vulnerable people’s lives.

In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” Susan Sontag described camp as an aesthetic “emphasis on style … at the expense of substance” that expresses a “love of the exaggerated, the “off” and of things-being -what -they aren’t.” Sontag noted that “homosexuals” were the self-appointed judges of the camp, which was fitting since the camp was at once a private code and a set of “flamboyant manners susceptible of a double interpretation.” While Sontag’s description from 60 years ago is mostly accurate, there is one notable exception. “The sensibility of the camp is disengaged, depoliticized,” she wrote.

That was before the AIDS crisis.

Every minority group struggles to gain attention, but AIDS activists were successful because they relied on the spectacular features of the camp, turning the once-private pandemonium of the closet into a public spectacle. It helped them turn awareness into resources and resources into respect and power. To protest the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and its price-fixing of AZT, then the most promising anti-HIV drug, AIDS activists dressed as bankers and disrupted the opening of the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989 by chaining themselves to VIP -the balcony and shower the floor with fake $100 bills. Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT four days later. When Senator Jesse Helms described queer people as “morally sick” and fought against funding for HIV research, AIDS activists unfurled a giant custom-made condom outside his Virginia house in 1991.

ACT UP protesters embraced vulgarity and public disorder—which police used as pretexts to politicize queer life throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries—because even into the 1980s, queer people were treated with so much contempt, that activists were less constrained by the need to appear respectable. They could turn shame, a weapon long used to control sexual minorities, against the fragile institutions that fail them. Among many victories, ACT UP members made AIDS treatments more accessible, expanded research, and showed their opponents that they would not be passive victims.

Earlier in his career, Sinema also received attention for disrespect. She once referred to Arizona as “the meth lab of democracy” and came out to a reporter by saying, “Duh. I’m bisexual.” She protested the Iraq War in a tutu and, according to reports in Mother Jones, proposed signs that read “Bombing for Peace is like F—ing for Virginity,” reminiscent of the ACT UP slogan “Women don’t get AIDS. They just die from it.” But unlike many politicians, Sinema has remained flamboyant, strolling in the Senate in pastel wigs and neon sundresses. She has dismissed attempts to analyze her style, telling Politico that she finds it “very inappropriate. I wear what I want because I like it.” But her outfits draw attention to herself and her. One of her more subtle clothing choices was a coat emblazoned with the word “LOVE” dozens of times, which she wore during Trump’s impeachment trial.

Perhaps the most campy thing Sinema has done in her Senate career was giving a little flounce in March 2021 before voting against an increase in the minimum wage in a coronavirus relief bill. It was a small gesture, one that wouldn’t have signed up for a drag show. But on C-SPAN, it stood out as a perfect example of style flying free of substance — with a twist. Camp is the parlance of the underdog, and when someone as powerful as a US senator deploys it against people who make $7.25 an hour and teeter on the brink of homelessness, adding even a little flair to a procedural vote is insulting . When the C-SPAN video went viral, comedian Jaboukie Young-White joked that one day he aspired to “be the first queer senator of color to fashion while removing education funding.”

While AIDS activists used the camp to achieve specific goals, Sinema’s prey is less clear. She says she supports the filibuster for reasons of “bipartisanship,” but the Senate remains as divided and sclerotic as ever. President Biden’s major infrastructure bill became law with bipartisan votes, but the Inflation Reduction Act passed last week along party lines. Even after the Supreme Court ruled that states can force women to continue their pregnancies without exceptions and suggested a willingness to curtail LGBT rights, Sinema has resisted expanding the court or pursuing other reforms that might protect her constituents. Her independence has won her the affection of her GOP Senate colleagues, but she has been censured by Democrats in her own state.

Of course, ACT UP was not always popular with the Democratic Party. Its activists interrupted Bill Clinton’s campaign speeches and pushed him to take a stronger stance on AIDS funding and research, which he had resisted. The organization pushed its established allies to be more aggressive in helping the sick and stigmatized. Sinema, on the other hand, makes the Democrats behave more miserly and think less. Last fall, she and Sen. Joe Manchin III derailed Biden’s Build Back Better Act and insisted on a smaller budget, forcing Democrats into arguments over what to give up — child care? Cheap housing? Clean energy? – until the negotiations broke down. Last week, her main demand for the Inflation Reduction Act, a slimmed-down version of Build Back Better, was to eliminate a tax on private equity firms.

Sinema also uses camp to respond to criticism. Six weeks after her viral minimum wage vote, she made headlines for posting a photo on Instagram of herself wearing a pink newsboy hat and pink glasses, sipping sangria and wearing a silver ring that spells out “f— off.” It’s enough to make Susan Sontag smile, a throwback to a version of camp that feels flashy and vague. But while Sinema leaves it unclear who she might rebuke, it is likely her most prominent critics, who include many of her most vulnerable constituents. Profane defiance is common in queer activism, but almost always as a way of breaking up. A senator implicitly bashing people she represents is not camp. It’s insulting.

When protease inhibitors became available in 1995 and made HIV treatable, the rebellious solidarity of the AIDS crisis began to wither. National LGBTQ groups became more centralized and their interests narrowed, pushing for marriage equality and open military participation—markers of respectability. Sinema navigated these shifting currents more deftly than any other queer politician of her age, and the gulf between her style and substance is a product of her role as a politician between two eras. In style she has the defiant flair of her ACT UP forebears, but in substance she abstains from wealth and respects arcane and regressive Senate rules. She is among the most powerful queer politicians in American history, but her power is conservative—to sustain rather than to liberate. Although many queer people enjoy more acceptance today than ever before, Arizona’s closeted teens and others like them still need the protection of federal civil rights laws. Legislation that could help them — yes, legislation that could help so many vulnerable people — passed the House but languished in the Senate because of filibusters. What a loss, and what an embodiment of the era’s politics, that Sinema is unabashedly queer in a way that does so little to improve anyone’s life but her own.

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