Life

Following the Pansy Path

Forty years after its initial publication, does The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions have anything to offer the queer present?

An illustration of a lavish dinner party with queer personalities.
Ned Asta/Nightboat Books

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In 1977, author Larry Mitchell formed Calamus Press to self-publish his first book, The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. The slim volume was originally conceived, according to Mitchell, as a children’s book complete with whimsical illustrations by his friend Ned Asta, a fellow member of the Lavender Hill queer commune in Ithaca, New York.

In short, simple passages, the book describes the lives of “the faggots” and their various groups of friends—the “strong women,” the “queens,” the “queer men”—as they attempt to survive and find joy, beauty, humor, pleasure, and freedom in Ramrod, an empire in decline dominated by the oppressive, militaristic “men.” In The Faggots and Their Friends, Mitchell depicted queer life as it was beginning to emerge from the shadows in the late ’60s and ’70s, as communities formed and a movement blossomed. He turned his observations of pre-AIDS gay culture into a kind of parable conveying its values and conventions—such as they were—and imparting lessons meant to sustain future generations of queer people, with the ultimate goal of guiding them toward the social and sexual revolutions Mitchell hoped to see. Here is the queer world, here are its tribes, here is how they managed to survive and even thrive within a system of oppression. Beauty is currency; sexuality is sustenance. But more valuable than that is friendship—which usually involves some degree of sexual intimacy. Pleasure will keep you going. So will humor, possibly more effectively.

Out of print since 1988, a new edition of The Faggots and Their Friends was recently published by Nightboat Books. It is at once heartening and chilling how relevant it remains more than four decades later. The various queer tribes and their individual quirks and characteristics are likely recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary LGBTQ culture (though Mitchell’s characterization of all women as nurturing earth mammas could stand to be complicated). Faggots—whether we embrace the reclamation of the term or not—persist in our pursuit of pleasure. We still cruise; we still create. We still run headlong toward our fantasies and embrace those discarded by mainstream culture, sprinkling them with fairy dust and reviving them as camp. “Some of the faggots are trashy. In fact, with the inspiration of the outcast women, the faggots developed ‘trashy’ into a high form of disruptive behavior.” Yeah, that tracks with the rambunctious queer scenes in places like Bushwick.

An illustration of queer friends having fun in a utopia-like dreamscape.
Ned Asta/Nightboat Books

The (drag) queens, still fearlessly irreverent, are even more visible today, embraced by a generation of fan girls thanks to VH1. The (radical) faeries still have their gatherings in their mountain retreats. I don’t know that we have a term now for Mitchell’s “queer men,” but you know who they are: The gay suits who concern themselves with respectability politics, who just want to get married, a few of whom probably still think the rest of us are setting a bad example, embodying “stereotypes” with our scantily clad antics at the pride parade. Some of them, corrupted by Reagan-era neoconservatism, probably became today’s Log Cabin Republicans. And it’s hardly a stretch, within Mitchell’s woolly, loving cosmology, to read gestures toward today’s genderqueers and pansexuals of all stripes.

As much as he relished taxonomy, Mitchell recognized the fluidity of his categories long before we spoke of sexuality and gender as spectrums. “All the men could be faggots or their friends,” he writes. And later: “There is more to be learned from wearing a dress for a day than there is from wearing a suit for a lifetime.” Mitchell is invested in dismantling boundaries—between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, between sexual categories, between gender, but most importantly between people, a project that today’s radical queers continue.

More troublingly, the descriptions of Ramrod’s disintegration and the men’s hostility toward the faggots and their friends are echoed in Trump’s America. “Everyday the faggots and their friends can see, hear, and feel Ramrod’s empire disintegrating as the men lose more and more things they never owned in the first place.” Is it even possible to read that without stressing out over the apparent failures of American democracy or the wave of illiberal populism sweeping Europe? Mitchell recognized that social progress breeds backlash: “The men’s viciousness will grow as their panic increases.” And yet, you have to wonder whether he could have predicted just how bad it would get: the upticks in anti-LGBTQ violence as pro-LGBTQ sentiment increases even among younger conservatives, the push to limit legal protections for queer and trans people post–marriage equality. “It’s been a long time since the last revolutions and the faggots and their friends are still not free.” Word.

Reading The Faggots and Their Friends for the first time in 2019, I am of two minds about the philosophy it imparts. The vision it presents of a different way of being is heartening. I want to believe that we can set aside the master’s tools and open a magic portal within ourselves, to a more peaceful, loving world. The simple language Mitchell employs to convey queer values gives queer culture the weight of wisdom passed down through the ages. In the decades since it was published, bootleg copies of The Faggots and Their Friends were passed around like an occult text. I want to give a Xeroxed copy to Pete Buttigieg.

An illustration of a queer man in a helmet offering "Faggot Wisdom."
Ned Asta/Nightboat Books

The artist and activist Tourmaline, who wrote the preface to the new edition, has described The Faggots and Their Friends as “an invitation to be dependent and reliant on each other’s care.” Mitchell’s involvement in queer communes like Lavender Hill was a reaction to the alienation and loneliness of the closet. Before Armistead Maupin wrote his tales of “logical families” filling the void left when LGBTQ people were rejected by their biological relatives, Mitchell was turning the notion of chosen family, of radical queer communities, into a quasi-spiritual wisdom. I can’t think of a more necessary ethos at a time when social media has left us paradoxically more disconnected than ever. The Faggots and Their Friends is a timely reminder that human connection is essential for revolution, not to mention survival. As the strong women advise: “We gotta keep each other alive any way we can ’cause nobody else is goin’ do it.”

At the same time, however, I’m uncomfortable with what seems to me like Mitchell’s ultimate strategy of divestment from the world of the men. “The fairies have left the men’s reality in order to destroy it by making a new one.” When I read that, I can’t help but think of those people who want to terraform Mars instead of passing legislation that could effectively combat climate change. The closing passages of The Faggots and Their Friends seem to suggest a kind of nihilism. “They begin to know … that they cannot be free until this dance is stopped,” Mitchell writes of his queer tribes. “The faggots and their friends and the women who love women can … stop and do no-thing.”

My friend, the performance artist Dan Fishback, points out that queer culture has often flourished most in separatist environments—New York’s ball scene, the leather community, faerie communes. But in 2019, tuning in, turning on, and dropping out—doing “no-thing”—isn’t an option. It’s tempting, for sure; our individual efforts can feel futile in the face of … you know, everything. But we’ve seen what happens when we lose faith in democracy, when we sit out elections, and stop paying attention. It may seem like a revolutionary strategy to retreat to the gardens of the faeries, to unplug and go off the grid. But who gets left behind when we do that? Which of our friends suffer from our disengagement? And how long before the men find their way into those gardens?

The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions reads today almost like a sacred text from the queer past. As with any sacred text, our job is not simply to receive its wisdom, but to engage with it (passionately, critically, seriously) and apply it the best way we can to the world as we find it today.

The cover of The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions.
Nightboat Books