Margot Weiss talked with Ryan Conrad, Yasmin Nair, and Karma Chávez, three members of Against Equality, a queer online archive, publishing, and arts collective that challenges the political vision of mainstream gay and lesbian politics—especially inclusion in marriage, the U.S. military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation. They have three anthologies: Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage, Against Equality: Don’t Ask to Fight Their Wars, and Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You.
I’d love for you to begin by talking about the reception of Against Equality’s work. So much of what you do straddles the seeming “divide” between academic or intellectual labor, and activist or political work.
I’ve toured extensively with the Against Equality anthologies and have been lucky to engage all sorts of folks in conversation about our project. While on tour I found that many folks from all sorts of backgrounds (urban/rural, formally educated/self taught, etc.) were hungry for our critique and eager to relate it to their local activist work. The separation between intellectual labor and political organizing seems dubious at best—most folks I met on tour were critically engaged with both.
The reception to our work is unique because of how we have positioned ourselves. Our three anthologies are entirely self-published and are distributed through our self-managed website along with the help of the activist publisher/distributor AK Press. In this publishing process we seized the means of production of knowledge, which is an explicitly activist gesture for an intellectual project. This has allowed us to exist inside and outside academia in interesting ways. For example, our books are taught in university classrooms in the United States and Canada, but they are also used as tools by activists to challenge the [End Page 845] neoliberal politics of mainstream gay and lesbian organizations. We’ve received numerous e-mails from activists thanking us for the work we do while sharing stories about giving copies of our books to friends and family they are hoping to challenge. Often these stories are about trying to convince their friends and family that their energy would be better focused elsewhere than on the resource-sapping gay marriage campaign trail.
We’ve found that the greatest resistance to our work comes not from the right wing but from the purported left. Often, we are told that our work is too “intellectual” or that it is simply analysis that cannot serve peoples’ immediate political needs. For instance, those of us who work with prisoners often face the criticism that newsletters and analysis are too much for them. In fact, historically, what has threatened the prison industrial complex the most is intellectual work done by prisoners—and the documents and manifestoes that emerged from Attica are proof of this. Revolutions occur through and with intellectual struggles and debates.
Some of this anti-intellectualism comes from a privileged set of leftist critics (both academics and public intellectuals) who have, I think, a view of the “proletariat” or “the working class” that is both romantic and condescending. There’s a great deal of fetishization of “class” and “working people” lately, with the Occupy movement—which is not an anticapitalist movement but one composed mainly of people angry that capitalism has not worked for them. I’ve always been struck by the American/U.S. refusal to think about economic inequality—which is what marriage, war, and prisons are all about, really.
One important thing also to consider, and Yasmin offers this critique frequently, is that the “left” we are talking about as somewhat anti-intellectual or anti-academic isn’t much of a left at all anymore. If supporting gay marriage is a leftist position, for example, then the left doesn’t exist. The so-called left, in this regard, colludes with the right—the folks in Arizona banning ethnic studies or in Texas trying to bar the teaching of critical thinking. It is crucial to see how these are manifestations of similar logics.
You’ve mentioned that AE is sometimes seen as too intellectual for activist circles and too activisty...