How Sinema subverts the radical conventions of queer politics

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In January 2019, every field organizer who worked on Kyrsten Sinema’s campaign was invited to see her sworn in as a U.S. senator. I regretted not going when I saw the photos: She’s standing in a pencil skirt with a bright pink rose design, smirking at Mike Pence, who holds the Constitution, not the Bible, for her to lay her hand on. Her lipstick is bright red, her hair in playful curls. Her arms are bare, a dig at Senate tradition. I had never seen someone so campy become so powerful.

Before working on Sinema’s campaign, I spent a year with AmeriCorps VISTA in Benson, Ariz., a rural, conservative town of 5,000 where I was one of just 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 risks are too great. I thought Sinema, who as a child was homeless and was bullied for being queer, would know what people who live fragile lives need to survive.

This was because for much of her life, Sinema seemed like the kind of liberal overachiever Alison Bechdel often lampooned in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” She’s a bisexual atheist who worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign before getting a social work degree and a PhD 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 does vote for. Still, she adheres to the long-established tenets of queer activism that enabled her political rise: Provocation gets 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 preoccupied with showy 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 “emphasizing style … at the expense of content,” expressing a “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ and of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Sontag noted that “homosexuals” were the self-appointed arbiters of camp, which was fitting, as camp was at once a private code and a set of “flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation.” While Sontag’s description from 60 years ago mostly holds up, there’s a notable exception. “The Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized,” she wrote.

That was before the AIDS crisis.

Every minority group struggles to get attention, but AIDS activists were successful because they relied on the spectacular features of camp, turning the once-private pandemonium of the closet into public spectacle. It helped them turn attention into resources, and resources into respect and power. To protest the 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 showering the floor with fake $100 bills. Burroughs Wellcome dropped the price of AZT four days later. When Sen. Jesse Helms described queer people as “morally sick” and fought funding for HIV research, AIDS activists unfurled a giant custom-made condom over his house in Virginia in 1991.

ACT UP demonstrators embraced vulgarity and public disruption — which police used as a pretext for policing queer life for 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 seem respectable. They could turn shame, a weapon long wielded to control sexual minorities, against the brittle institutions failing them. Among many victories, ACT UP members made AIDS treatments more accessible, expanded research, and showed their opponents they would not be passive victims.

Earlier in her career, Sinema got attention for irreverence, too. She once referred to Arizona as the “meth lab of democracy” and came out to a reporter by saying: “Duh. I’m a bisexual.” She protested the Iraq War in a tutu, and, according to reporting in Mother Jones, suggested signs that read “Bombing for Peace is like F—ing for Virginity,” recalling the ACT UP slogan “Women don’t get AIDS. They just die from it.” But unlike many politicians, Sinema has remained flashy, strolling the Senate in pastel wigs and neon sundresses. She has dismissed attempts to parse her style, telling Politico she finds it “very inappropriate. I wear what I want because I like it.” But her outfits call attention to themselves and to her. One of her subtler clothing choices was a coat inscribed with the word “LOVE” dozens of times, which she wore during Trump’s impeachment.

Perhaps the campiest thing Sinema has done in her Senate career was giving a little flounce 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 at a drag show. But on C-SPAN, it stuck out as a perfect example of style flying free from content — with a twist. Camp is the vernacular of the underdog, and when someone as powerful as a U.S. 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, the comedian Jaboukie Young-White joked that he aspired someday to “be the first queer senator of color to vogue while gutting education funding.”

While AIDS activists used camp to achieve specific goals, Sinema’s spoils are less clear. She says she supports the filibuster for the sake of “bipartisanship,” but the Senate is still as divided and sclerotic as ever. President Biden’s large infrastructure bill became law with bipartisan votes, but the Inflation Reduction Act passed this past week along party lines. Even after the Supreme Court ruled that states can force women to carry their pregnancies to term with no exceptions and suggested a willingness to curtail LGBT rights, Sinema has opposed an expansion of 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’s been censured by Democrats in her own state.

Of course, ACT UP wasn’t always popular with the Democratic Party. Its activists interrupted Bill Clinton’s campaign speeches, heckling him to take a stronger stance on AIDS funding and research, which he’d resisted. The organization pushed its establishment allies to be more aggressive in helping the sick and stigmatized. Sinema, by contrast, makes Democrats 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 into arguments about what to abandon — Child care? Affordable housing? Clean energy? — until negotiations collapsed. This past week, her main demand for the Inflation Reduction Act, a slimmed-down version of Build Back Better, was to remove 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 picture to Instagram in which she sports a pink newsboy hat and pink glasses, sips sangria, and wears a silver ring that spells out “f— off.” It’s enough to make Susan Sontag smile, a return to a version of camp that feels flashy and vague. But while Sinema leaves it unclear who she might be rebuking, presumably it’s 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 punching up. A senator implicitly punching down at people she represents isn’t 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 narrower, pushing for marriage equality and open military participation — markers of respectability. Sinema navigated these shifting currents more deftly than any other queer politician her age, and the chasm 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 defers to wealth and respects arcane and regressive Senate rules. She’s among the most powerful queer politicians in American history, but her power is conservative — to maintain rather than liberate. Though many queer people enjoy more acceptance today than ever, closeted teens in Arizona and others like them still need the protection of federal civil rights law. Legislation that could help them — indeed, legislation that could help so many vulnerable people — has passed in the House but languished in the Senate because of the filibuster. What a loss, and what an embodiment of the politics of the era, that Sinema is unabashedly queer in a way that does so little to improve anyone’s life but her own.

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