- Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure by Sara Warner
In Acts of Gaiety, Sara Warner offers a crucial reevaluation of politically resistant feminist and lesbian/gay performances from the 1960s to the present; in so doing, she traces a performance lineage that complicates the rise of queer theory in academia on the one hand and the concomitant turn of LGBT movements to conservative social agendas on the other. Warner opens with two central theses. First, she argues that queer theory, with its focus on the disruption of sexual categories, tends to read earlier contestations of gender and sexuality as essentialist, thereby obfuscating the disruptive effects of these earlier interventions in their historical moments. Second, she argues that this historical forgetting looms large in the current alignment of LGBT activism with neoliberal political goals that contrast sharply with the agendas of earlier feminist and lesbian/gay activists.
In response to these academic and political developments, Warner recalls specific “acts of gaiety,” performances profoundly disruptive in their moment but largely ignored in historical narratives at present. Such scandalous acts challenged norms of sex and gender while likewise critiquing poverty, racism, and international imperialism. Given her focus on the obvious exuberance generated by these past acts of gaiety, Warner at times overlooks the joy to be found in present-day performances—including those that uphold some aspects of the status quo while contesting others. Consider the lesbian couple who fully acknowledge the social and economic privileges that accrue to legal marriage, yet still beam for the camera after obtaining their marriage license. Still, Warner rightly recuperates the earlier “acts of gaiety” she details in her text, as they offer a crucial opportunity to rethink the scholarship and politics of the present.
Warner offers careful case studies of acts of gaiety, beginning with the early theatrical exploits of radical feminist and lesbian Valerie Solanas. These days Solanas is best known for trying to assassinate Andy Warhol, but she also wrote plays, confronting prejudice against women and lesbians in her efforts to enter the Off-Off-Broadway scene of the 1960s. Warner offers a valuable reading of the early Solanas play Up Your Ass, long thought lost but found by Warner through painstaking archival efforts. The play follows butch lesbian Bongi Perez as she flirts with women, hobnobs with drag queens, turns a male trick in the bushes, and cavorts with a homicidal housewife. As Warner observes, the trashy sexual satire of Up Your Ass holds its own with the plays that won Jack Smith and Charles [End Page 299] Ludlam fame on the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway circuit; the fact that Solanas was blocked from producing her play testifies to the obstacles faced by women and lesbians even in the ostensibly freewheeling Off-Off-Broadway scene.
Next, Warner confronts battles over same-sex marriage by contrasting the current drive to legalize such marriages with the disavowals of marriage by feminist and lesbian/gay activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Warner wins kudos for tackling this contentious issue, but the immensity of the topic calls for a book of its own; here Warner risks flattening history in her shorter chapter-length study. Consider how Warner contrasts two “zaps”—quick, guerilla-style disruptions of institutional places and practices—during the early years of gay and lesbian activism. The first was a 1969 zap by politicized lesbians called The Feminists, who occupied the NYC Marriage License Bureau to decry marriage as a mode of female subjugation. The second was a 1971 zap by men from the Gay Activists Alliance, who stormed the same Bureau to agitate for same-sex marriage rights. Warner deftly analyzes the actions of these two groups. Yet to conclude that the two zaps “reflect a fundamental difference between lesbian feminists and gay men over the issue of marriage at a key moment in LGBT history” (90) elides the fact that other gay men were busily critiquing marriage at this time. Indeed, Warner effects such an elision...