Prior to working on the Sinema campaign, I spent a year with AmeriCorps VISTA in Benson, Arizona, a rural, conservative town of 5,000 where I was one of the 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 gay kids in town don’t date until they move to Tucson after high school. The risks are too great. I thought Sinema, who as a child was homeless and bullied for being gay, would know what people who lead fragile lives need to survive.
Indeed, for much of his life, Sinema seemed like the sort of liberal overreach Alison Bechdel often ridiculed in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” She’s a bisexual atheist who worked on Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000 before earning a degree in social work and a doctorate 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. Yet she adheres to the long-established tenets of queer activism that have enabled her political rise: provocation pays you more than propriety. Hierarchy exists to be flouted. But Sinema embodies these ideals in an empty and diminished way, showing how modern queer politics has become more concerned with ostentatious defiance than materially bettering the lives of the vulnerable.
In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp'”, Susan Sontag describes camp as an aesthetic “emphasizing style…at the expense of content”, expressing a “love of the overdone, the ‘off’ and things- be-what-they are not.” Sontag noted that “gay people” were the self-proclaimed arbiters of the camp, which was fitting, as the camp was both a private code and a set of “flamboyant mannerisms susceptible to double interpretation”. While Sontag’s description of 60 years ago mostly holds up, there is one notable exception. “The Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized,” she writes.
It was before the AIDS crisis.
Each minority group struggles for attention, but AIDS activists have succeeded because they have relied on the spectacular features of the camp, turning the once private pandemonium of the closet into a public spectacle. It helped them turn attention into resources, and resources into respect and power. In protest against pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and its price gouging of AZT, then the most promising anti-HIV drug, AIDS activists dressed up as bankers and disrupted the opening of the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989 by chaining themselves to the VIP balcony and flooding the floor with counterfeit $100 bills. Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT four days later. When Senator Jesse Helms called gay men ‘morally ill’ and fought against funding for HIV research, AIDS activists deployed a giant, custom-made condom above his Virginia home in 1991 .
ACT UP protesters embraced vulgarity and public disruption – which police used as a pretext to police queer life for much of the 19th and 20th centuries – because even in 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 they lack. 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 drew attention to his irreverence. She once called Arizona “democracy’s meth lab” and spoke to a reporter, saying, “Duh. I’m bisexual. She protested the war in Iraq in a tutu and, according to reports of Mother Jones, suggested signs reading “Bombing for peace is like screwing up virginity,” recalling ACT UP’s slogan “Women don’t get AIDS. They just die of it. But unlike many politicians, Sinema remained flashy, walking around the Senate in pastel wigs and neon summer dresses. She dismissed attempts to analyze her style, telling Politico she found it “very inappropriate. I wear what I want because I like it. But her outfits draw attention to them and her. One of her more subtle clothing choices was a coat that had the word “LOVE” in it dozens of times, which she wore during Trump’s impeachment.
Perhaps the most campy thing Sinema has done in his Senate career was giving a little flight in March 2021 before voting against a minimum wage increase in a coronavirus relief bill. It was a small gesture, one that wouldn’t have registered in a drag show. But on C-SPAN, it stood out as a perfect example of flying style without content – with a twist. Camp is the underdog vernacular, and when someone as powerful as a US senator deploys it against people making $7.25 an hour who are on the verge of homelessness, add even a little flair at a procedural vote is insulting. When the C-SPAN video went viral, comedian Jaboukie Young-White joked that he yearned for one day “to be the first queer senator of color to be in vogue while slashing education funding.
While AIDS activists have used the camp to achieve specific goals, Sinema’s spoils are less clear. She says she supports the filibuster in the name of “bipartisanship,” but the Senate is still as divided and ossified as ever. President Biden’s big infrastructure bill became law with bipartisan votes, but the Cut Inflation Act passed last week along party lines. Even after the Supreme Court ruled that states can force women to carry their pregnancies to term without exception and suggested a drive to curtail LGBT rights, Sinema opposed expanding the court or prosecuting. other reforms likely to protect its constituents. Her independence won her the affection of her GOP colleagues in the Senate, but she was censured by Democrats in her own state.
Of course, ACT UP hasn’t always been popular with the Democratic Party. Its activists interrupted Bill Clinton’s campaign speeches, heckling him to take a tougher stance on AIDS funding and research, which he had resisted. The organization has pushed its establishment allies to be more aggressive in helping the sick and stigmatized. Sinema, on the other hand, urges Democrats to act stingier and think smaller. Last fall, she and Sen. Joe Manchin III derailed Biden’s Build Back Better bill, insisting on a smaller budget that forced Democrats to squabble over what to give up — custody. ‘children? Affordable housing? Clean energy? – until negotiations fail. His main demand last week for the Cut Inflation Act, a slimmed down version of Build Back Better, was to scrap a tax on private equity firms.
Sinema also uses the camp to respond to criticism. Six weeks after her viral minimum wage vote, she made headlines for posting a photo to Instagram in which she sports a pink newsboy hat and rose-colored glasses, sips sangria and wears a silver ring that speaks “f — off”. Something to make Susan Sontag smile, a return to a flashy and fuzzy version of the camp. But while Sinema is unsure who she might reprimand, it is probably her most prominent critics, who include many of her most vulnerable constituents. Secular challenge is common in queer activism, but almost always as a way to get noticed. A senator implicitly hitting the people she represents is not on the side. It’s insulting.
When protease inhibitors became available in 1995 and made HIV treatable, the rebel solidarity of the AIDS crisis began to fade. National LGBTQ groups have become more centralized and their interests narrower, pushing for marriage equality and open military participation – markers of respectability. Sinema has navigated these shifting currents more deftly than any other queer politician of her age, and the gulf between her style and her substance is a product of her role as a politician between two eras. In style, she has the provocative flair of her ACT UP ancestors, but in essence, she defers to wealth and abides by the dark and regressive rules of the Senate. She is among the most powerful gay politicians in American history, but her power is conservative – to maintain rather than to liberate. Although many queer people are more accepted today than ever, teens locked up in Arizona and others like them still need the protection of federal civil rights law. Legislation that could help them — in fact, legislation that could help so many vulnerable people — passed the House but languished in the Senate because of the filibuster. What a loss, and what an embodiment of the politics of the day, that Sinema is shamelessly queer in a way that does so little to improve anyone’s life but his own.