Center for Sex & Culture intern Marilyn Roxie interviewed Carol Queen, author, sexologist, and founder of the Center, in March 2011 for an LGBT American History class assignment. Here now are the contents of the interview, ranging from youth group organization in the ’70s to sex-positivity, from her involvement with Good Vibrations to the founding for the Center for Sex & Culture, plus a guest appearance from her partner, Robert Morgan Lawrence!:
Marilyn Roxie: In the ‘70s, you had founded a gay youth organization and I wanted to know what was the process for starting that out and how did you get going on that?
Carol Queen: Well, in 1975, actually 1974, I was 17 and I started college a year early, and I wanted to go to college and come out. I was already bi-identified and really there was nothing for me to connect with in my small mountain town that I grew up in Oregon, except figuring out who the gay teachers were and trying to get them to give me support and that, then as now, is dicey because teachers are often a little fearful of reaching out to queer kids. So, I mean I did get some support, but I went to college, and at college it turned out, not only was the bisexuality part a little challenging to people, but, I was too young to go to the bar, which is where all the other people really came together and connected. The bar scene, this was in Eugene, Oregon in the ‘70s, and it was not the only LGBT space in town, but it was almost the only LGBT space.
There was kind of an organization already going on on campus and it was a kind of radical gay men’s organization and that was about it. And there was nothing for underage youth to do or to attend or any place for them to get support. I got put on a panel on gay youth at the first gay pride week at school that I attended, which was in ‘75. I got to know two young gay men, both of whom were really adamant that there needed to be something for people under 21. And so, one of them was 14 and one of them was 16, and I had just turned 18 at that point. We got together and started to organize and founded this group. It was called Growing Alternative Youth, because that spells GAY (laughs), so GAYouth. We kind of became a non-profit by attaching ourselves to the metropolitan community church branch that had just started up in Eugene, so we became the church’s youth group in effect, but really, we and the church had nothing to do with each other ever again, it was just that they were kind enough to give us that support. We would hold meetings and every once and awhile we would hold a youth-only dance, things like that, we did that kind of stuff. Once we took a field trip to Portland where there was an all-ages disco, a gay disco, there was no alcohol served there, so it could be an all-ages space.
The most exciting thing we did was sue the city school district in Eugene for the right to advertise in the high school newspapers about our group. A straight student from inside tried to buy an ad for us, who was friends of ours, and they refused, well actually they let her buy one ad and then people freaked out and they stopped her. So, then they had tried to get us completely shut out from the school and even though we weren’t getting very many people from the school we knew that that’s where gay kids who weren’t out would be likely to see that there was such an entity. Because if they weren’t already part of the LGBT community, how would they find out about us? So that was the whole point. We got a lot of attention from the lawsuit, we filed a lawsuit against them, and we might have won, except that after like two years had gone by, it takes forever to do these things…after we got representation from the ACLU, it was really exciting, it was one of the first LGBT/ACLU things that I know of, certainly in Oregon. It turns out that the school district was able to do this legal maneuver where it required us to give all of the names, ages, and addresses of all of our members. We couldn’t break peoples’ confidence like that. We just couldn’t. They were like, “We’ll find out if anyone’s a sex offender or something”, they made the argument to the judge and the judge accepted the argument, but really, of course none of them were sex offenders and a lot of them weren’t 18 yet, and we just had to drop it.
That kind of led to the demise of the group but the other thing that led to the demise of the group was that the leaders were getting to be close to the age where people had to stop affiliating with the group, because we had an overlap of a year or two after people turned 21, but then people had to split because we didn’t want it to slowly age into a non-youth group anymore, we wanted the direction to stay in the hands of people who were under 21 and nobody stepped up to take it, so that’s what happened.
MR: I mean, as far as the names and addresses thing, it’s interesting how that’s a recurring theme with different things that when gay people try to organize and they publish things in the papers…The thing that surprised me about this group is, I don’t remember the particular circumstances, but there was a school in the 90s that tried to form a group and there was a big media hoopla about that [referring to 1995 Gay-Straight Alliance at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah], and this was way before any of that.
CQ: I don’t know that any of the other youth groups got into any trouble, any kind of controversy, because if my understanding is correct, there was one here in San Francisco already, one in LA already, and there was one in New York already, which makes sense because those were the three hotbed cities of LGBT organizing in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Particularly the ‘60s and ‘70s. Of course in the ‘70s, then it spread all over everywhere, it really caught fire after Stonewall. We, I think, as far as I ever found out, were the first group to try to organize in a small-ish college town, in a state that wasn’t necessarily completely liberal. Eugene’s a very liberal city but it was surrounded by Oregon which was not liberal at all, in all of its particulars.
We weren’t the first people to be exposed in that way, that would be the people who would get busted way back when, even today they still do that, in some states or some counties where somebody is caught, you know, cruising at a bus stop or something, their name will get put in the paper. But, that was strategically done all the time back in those days because so many people were in the closet and so many people, even if they weren’t, stood to lose so much if their names became very public, they’d lose jobs, you know the drill, they could lose everything so that was the issue.
MR: I’ve noticed obviously a lot of your writing is sex positive and, what I was going to ask you about is a sex negative undercurrent on the other side…At different points in time when you were writing about things or promoting a kind of sex positive attitude, what was the climate like in queer and feminist communities as far as differing on certain points?
CQ: That’s a really great question. I came to the sex positive feminist party a little bit late in terms of, you know, who really got it rolling, that was the women who did On Our Backs, it was the women who were at the Barnard Conference – which you’ve studied about already? (MR: Yeah.) – sort of that range of the activists, many of whom are a little older than me, although probably one of the most famous ones is Susie Bright and she’s just about my age. Her memoir is coming out this spring, by the way, so that’s pretty exciting, I just started reading it last night. I came to the sex positive activist world through my studies in sexology. I came to San Francisco specifically to attend the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, which I did, it took me forever to graduate, but I (laughs) started in 1987 and graduated in 1998 after many, many years of dropping out or only doing part of the year, stuff like that, which in my experience is always what the really over-committed activist college student tends to do, like “I can’t do all this stuff, there’s a ballot measure I have to work on, I guess I’ll drop out of school again until it’s over.” That’s how I did it. I always knew I would go back, but I dropped out of school a bunch of times in order to do projects and stuff like that.
The Institute was the place really that introduced me to the notion of sex positivity and the minute I heard the term it all just kind of clicked for me, it was like “Oh! This explains so much.” It doesn’t just largely explain homophobia, I mean there are things about homophobia that aren’t exactly about sex positivity and sex negativity, but a lot of it is about that, and people squicking out about somebody else’s sexual practice. And the other thing that it did was sort of solve a little mental problem that I had been chewing on for awhile which was why were all these various sex-related issues essentially separate from one another in activist terms. There weren’t that many people who came out and started talking about LGBT issues and wound up talking about sex work, and heterosexual open-relationships, and things didn’t get compared and put together in a way that the issues of one type of sexuality and activism around that sexuality could shed light on others. There were kind of walls up between all those and, to a significant extent, that’s still true today but there is much more ability for us to sort of think past those boundaries now than there used to be. This notion of sex positivity is one of the things that really makes a difference for it.
It’s really important to me personally because I didn’t ever feel like I could stay in one box. So, I came out as a lesbian, but really I was bi, and then I was bi, but then I was kind of interested in BDSM, and I was curious about that, and so there wasn’t any one community where all the people that sort of matched me were because I didn’t match very successfully, it seemed. Of course, one way that you deal with that is you go to a bigger city where there’s a bigger pool of people to meet and go, “Oh! There are some people more like me here than there were in a smaller city.”
The notion of sex positivity was one that I embraced really eagerly, really immediately, started to write about it, as soon as I started to write. I’m probably one of the 3 or 4 people who is most associated with the term now, just because I use it all the time and I’ve been using it for over 20 years. I’ve seen it sort of come into the culture more. I had literally never heard it before, in 1987, so that shows you how much change there’s been. Every once in awhile you see it in the New York Times or something, it’s pretty amazing.
The “sex negative” feminists were the best example of what the opposite, or the converse, of sex positive people were, just because of all that stuff that had gone down at Barnard and all of the discourse around it, all of which had made its way into the feminist writings that I was seeing. So, some of the feminists were arguing on one side versus the other. It was very much an issue in the 80s. Anybody who was not a just strictly mainstream feminist, who really were only talking about jobs and paychecks, were not talking about any of the cultural parts other than that, everybody else knew about it. Anybody who was sexually other-than-heterosexual knew about it, and plenty of heterosexuals knew about it too.I think the thing that was most notable to me as I sort of started to pay attention to this stuff, and I started getting involved in the dialogues myself, was that the other side didn’t want to come out and debate us. This is still true. I talked to somebody two weeks ago who is a notable pro sex-work, pro porn speaker on the east coast and a college had gotten her and another woman who is very much an anti rising star right now to debate, and the anti said “I’m not going to debate anyone.” So, this is still really their strategy.
Because of this strategy in a way I have gotten much less backwash from this stance than you might suspect. Susie really broke ground and some of the others, Pat Califia and Dorothy Allison and several of the others who were at Barnard and known for those things got much more flak than I ever did. I think it’s also partly because I really do try to speak across the spectrum. I really try to bring everybody’s identity into the mix and to discuss so I think that people tend to not feel like “It’s just a bunch of lesbians acting up over there.” because I try to make sure to say that men too are affected by this stuff. I just think that the culture sort of shifted a little bit more in a sex positive direction, at least in a way, in a superficial way because of course you can think of millions of ways that it hasn’t at all, that anti-sex, religious feelings are still very much what they were, there’s laws on the books, all that stuff is still real. At the same time, when you look at pop culture, many of the points that we were trying to make in the ‘80s and early ‘90s have really gotten embraced pretty much. Maybe not in a deep way, some of that embracing is a little shallow sometimes, but still, embraced and used and sort of riffed on. I really think that I have had much less personal effect, certainly negative personal effect, than, one, I anticipated I would when I got started, and two, that others have had.
The other thing that I would say about this is that I think part of the reason for this is that almost everyone wants sex to be positive, you know, this idea of sex positivity even if people can’t imagine how to get there themselves and so they can’t really believe that anybody else feels that way…most people don’t want to feel bad about sex. Some of them may want sex to just leave them alone altogether forever, but most people hope that they will have a good sexual experience, or relationship, or life, right?
MR: As far as the negative output I think that the angle that you take, especially in incorporating the wide diversity of wants and desires that people have, is almost hard to argue with, perhaps…(laughs)
CQ: Well I try, you know, I feel like it’s so important because I feel like when I was primarily affiliated with the LGBT community, in the first place there were also the issues around were lesbians really included, were bis really accepted, were trangendered people really accepted… those still are live issues now but they aren’t as bad as they were 20, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. But, I would always hear people say, “Well I’m straight, I can’t go to the gay parade.”
On the one hand, it’s easy to say, “Don’t be such a baby. The LGBT community needs to have a pride movement, and they didn’t send you a personal engraved invitation in the mail because you’re not LGBT and they think you’re doing just fine, thank you very much.”, even if they’re not. And then the discussion about, well are they doing fine, and if not, why not? And what are the elements that are alike in the two kinds of oppression, or the five kinds of oppression, really? How do we learn from the fact that plenty of straight people also feel repressed around their sexuality, what do we learn from that?
MR: I mean, I think that the kind of work that the queer community has done on unraveling things about gender and sexuality, has kind of drawn back the veil about what straightness even is in the first place, I really do. (CQ: Absolutely.) And I know that your work has certainly done that, and lots of the other people that I’m studying about, and it’s really helped. I think that’s what a lot people are afraid of, too, because this paragon of normalcy is kind of being shredded away bit by bit, but I really do think that it’s made a big difference, because…
I know I’m supposed to be interviewing you (laughs), but as an aside, when I was about a teenager I identified really strongly with gay guys (CQ: Mhm.) and I was attracted to gay guys but I was like, “Am I not trans enough because I don’t want to take hormones, I don’t want to have a male name?” and all this other stuff (CQ: Right.) and it wasn’t until I read your writings and figured out more things that I was like, “I don’t have to do any certain thing, I just have to do what makes me feel comfortable.” It’s just made a huge difference to me.
CQ: Well, thank you for saying so. I think the whole point of sex positivity is that we all deserve to get that message that as long as we have figured out how to be consensual with other people that we’re okay the way that we are, generally. Sometimes we have some skills to learn, and sometimes we need to figure out how safer sex applies to us, and all of those kinds of specific things that, in certain instances, make sex more difficult than ideally it might be. But, those are all things that can be tackled. And you figure out, where are the gay guys that are bi enough to hang out with a woman, you just figure that out, and of course it helps to be in a place like the Bay Area to figure those things out, but I will tell you I’ve travelled all around the country and its all going on out there as well.
The thing about the normalcy-busting of it all is that that normalcy was always kind of a myth (laughs). If you really look back you find all of these kinds of issues going on, with the exception of people actually getting gender reassignment, but still cross-living sometimes, the surgery hadn’t caught up, the drugs, the hormones hadn’t caught up, but the gender questions and issues were there already. It’s like, you know, our last three generations sort of seemed to pretend like we all invented all this stuff, oh we totally didn’t, it was all there before. I’m giving a sex history in San Francisco tour tomorrow and this stuff’s been going on in San Francisco from the get-go. If I knew anything about the native peoples who lived here before, I’d probably find something there too, I just don’t have the right…who has inclusive of sex and gender 200 year old sex history of peoples that have largely been chased away from the area? That stuff is continually so challenging to find.
Sort of seeing through cultural differences remains one of the really big issues with sex-positive thought and even LGBT organizing to some degree, I mean the LGBT community has been pretty mindful of trying to get to culture and race and other kinds of differences, but the U.S.A. in general is not as good at that as it could be (laughs) so it stands to reason that the sex positive community could be better at those things too, but I think the inclusivity part…I mean once you expand the notion of multi-cultural into this kind of cultural identity that includes the sex and gender orientations it also, if you’re lucky, helps you turn a mirror back on the notion of diversity as it’s usually thought of and as a race, culture, religion, class kind of a thing, because you need both things to get a holistic idea of what we have been doing and why. Why could somebody be an out-homosexual and have many lovers while people were getting thrown in jail for homosexuality across town? It’s because of class, that’s why.
MR: I think that it’s taken awhile for people to understand the intersections of different aspects of peoples’ identities and how that makes a big difference in all of that stuff. It seems like obviously people have been writing about that sort of thing for a long time and speaking about it, but it seems like it’s just now starting to seep into the masses on a bigger level.
CQ: And you don’t find good information about it just anywhere, either, you know they don’t really teach this stuff successfully in high schools around the U.S. There’s some attempts but not…you know, the sex stuff they’re scared of in the first place and the race and class stuff is always on the chopping block because of the right-wing, so it’s a big question. It’s a really big question. You know, we’re lucky to be in this community again where that set of issues is just better understood and sort of more embraced, but even here…
MR: As far as San Francisco, part of the reason I always wanted to live here is where I lived before was in Amador County which is pretty much nowheresville (CQ: Right.)…
CQ: Much like where I lived in Oregon except we had more rain than you did, I think.
MR: I had to go through the ‘Yes on Prop 8’ signs everywhere (CQ: Yeah.). I was teaching a school workshop at a predominantly Mormon school and they would bring things up to me and I couldn’t say a word, and it’s so different here (laughs), and I’m so relieved to be here and talking to you, and taking classes, and it’s just incredible to me, the difference is just mind-blowing.
CQ: Yeah, it really is, and I’m so glad you’re here too because I know exactly what it feels like to be in an environment like that, although we didn’t have Prop 8 then, but we had some…in the late ‘70s the thing that was happening was the beginning of the human rights laws in cities and counties, the anti-discrimination laws, so instead of marriage what people who were right-wing organized against was giving “special privileges” to LGBT people around…you know, could you throw them out of a restaurant, could you kick us out of their job, that kind of stuff and I should say, “us”, and that went to the ballot too, and any time something like this goes to a ballot, you really start to see who’s under the rocks, both on your side and on the other side, it’s pretty interesting.
MR: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about was the forming of this Center which is now in a different building, I wanted to know more about how that had gotten started.
CQ: Well, early in the…this has to do with how my partner Robert and I met and what we did in our early, early years together. We’ve been together for 22 years – wow…wow, that’s a long time! – we met at San Francisco Sex Information. He was already on the training staff and I came in as a trainee and joined the staff the next year. I had already started at the Institute and we almost immediately started to do workshops together. Robert and I would travel around the country whenever we found a place where we could do a workshop, it was interesting to go there and, A, do the workshop and B, check out what was going on in that particular locale.
So, when Good Vibes-like sex shops opened up in Boston and Seattle and in different places, we would go to those places and Madison, Wisconsin is another one, we would go to the S&M organizations and clubs, we would go to conferences and conventions like, probably most notably the very first ever Texas bisexual conference. We were sharing the hotel with baptists, it was awesome (laughs), like, culture clash. The baptists were sneaking around drinking out of brown paper bags so it was like, okay…some of you may actually come over to our bisexual club, but actually I think you’re too busy being excited being able to have drink (laughs).
So this moving around was exciting but we didn’t have as many places to teach in San Francisco as we wanted to, and this is very ironic because we hardly teach at all anymore because we’re so busy running the Center, but…one of the things behind the Center was us wanting to have a place where we could do any kind of teaching that didn’t just necessarily involve talking, but could also involve demonstrations or even, “Okay, people who came to the class, now it’s time to try a hand-job out on your partner.” kind of live stuff, so that was the thing that was really missing in San Francisco was, outside of the BDSM community, which was more about spanking and knot-tying and things like that, certainly at that time, there wasn’t a place for live sex in workshops and classes.
We wanted to incorporate that because we felt like, for some people, being able to observe or to participate, you know obviously not everybody wants to do that, but for those people who are comfortable with that, it’s a pretty profound way to learn stuff and it is different from reading a book or seeing a pamphlet or any of that so we wanted to be able to do it. We sort of started on the road to the Center for that reason…our founding myth is kind of awesome, we’ve already started to talk a little bit about these issues without thinking that we would tackle it ourselves, when Betty Dodson, the mother of masturbation, said to us, “I don’t really have any place in San Francisco that I like to give workshops either. You kids should start a place.” Betty’s like, almost 30 years older than I am, she calls us “you kids” all the time, you know I’m over 50 now, but she’s older, so…
We kind of looked at each other and went, actually…we probably should be the people to do this, because we had connections and relationships and roots in all these different communities, so sex positivity and diversity wasn’t just something that I think is important to talk about, it actually describes my affiliations, and Robert’s too, to a really substantial degree. So, we wouldn’t be coming from one community and then trying to open the doors to other communities, we would have relationships everywhere.
Then, we started to talk about it and then we talked and talked and talked for years and years and years and then finally, one of our friends who is a computer geek guy and had just made a bunch of money in one of the booms, the bust was just around the corner, but it wasn’t there yet, said, “I’m tired of hearing you guys talk about this project. I’m going to give you $4,000 and I want you to get a lawyer and I want you to write up the incorporation papers and get your non-profit status and get going.” And we were like, thank you! And that’s exactly what we did, we used his money and got our non-profit status and then it was four more years, at least, before we actually raised enough money and found a place that we could afford to start the very first Center location and this is now our fourth location in seven years, and the reason we’ve had different locations in seven years is mainly because we’ve shared locations each of the other three times.
People think it’s such a good idea at the outset and then…somewhere along the line, something happens in our programming that makes somebody go, “Oh my god! Oh, I didn’t know you were going to do that!” Like, look, we said we were going to do sex stuff, information, performance, teaching, live action demos, everything for people of all orientations as long as they were over 18 and it was all consensual, what about that line made you think that nobody would come and have a jack-off party, or a fisting class, or whatever it was that in each case made people get squicky. So each time we’d been like, this isn’t actually a safe a space as we thought, and we probably should go and see if we can find a better one and this is a better one because not only is it on the ground floor, so our friends who are on wheels can come in here, but also…because we’d been putting them in freight elevators and apologizing and we couldn’t ever call ourselves accessible, really, for all these years now. But the other reason is because we have this whole building ourselves, we don’t share it with another entity so, I think we will be able to put down our roots in a new way here.
The way that we think about what our mission is is so broad, that it’s kind of weird, and in fact one of our big issues is, in spite of what I said about having roots in all of these different communities, people who don’t know us don’t necessarily get that and so people who are new to town, newly come out, whatever, will hear about the Center and see that there’s something for gay men at the Center and they’ll think it’s for gay men, and they’ll see the calendar and see something for swingers and they’ll think the Center is for swingers, and they’ll look at the calendar and see a sex work thing and they’ll think it’s for sex workers, and they won’t think it’s for themselves if it’s for somebody else, which all by itself, to me, illustrates the most fundamental challenge about sex positivity and sexual diversity, which is that people tend to group with people that they think are like them and that they think they’ll feel comfortable with and there’s a discomfort factor even among some comfortable people, generally, about people who are different from them.
In order to overcome that, from the first place, maybe in order to overcome that, you need some bisexuals to start the ball rolling, maybe, I don’t know (laughs) that’s just a theory, I’m just throwing that out there. But, you really need to be able to put it out on the table to say, just because somebody else is just because somebody else has a home here doesn’t mean you can’t have a home here. The whole point is to make a sex positive space for anyone who needs and wants it.
I didn’t predict that that was going to be the biggest conceptual challenge when we started, actually, in retrospect I should’ve known it, but I didn’t really predict it, I thought all of our challenges were sort of going to be operational and raising money, stuff like that, and indeed they have been, I mean any non-profit especially, when its young, go through that, but the part about the sex and gender identity piece is so fascinating to me, I mean, I’m…at some point I’m going to write about it, but I don’t even feel like I’m ready yet, you know? It’s very deep. I think it’s very, very key to what makes people not easily able to embrace the notion of sexual diversity in sex positivity, because that’s a key element of sex positivity. People go, “Oh I’m sex positive, I like sex.”, it’s like, yes, that’s great and that’s not an irrelevant element, but, you can hate sex and still be sex positive, because you could realize that you haven’t had the right set of circumstances to have good, pleasurable sex yet and yet you can know that those circumstances are out there and you could strive for them, and you can not have had sex at all and still be sex positive, so just because you like sex is not the only definition of it. It’s that, great, you’re in a place where you like sex, and other people have the right to that also – super-important and not always the thing that the pop culture discussion of sex positivity really deals with.
I think it’s still really important to talk about this stuff, I mean I’m not quite working on a book, but I’m outlining a book right now that’s going to have some stuff like this in it because I think, now enough people have heard the term sex positive that it’s about time to unpack it some more and help people who are embracing that notion kind of know what, at least, I think they’re embracing (laughs).
MR: What I’ve noticed when I’ve tried to…I don’t go out of my way to explain my own situation to just anyone, there’s certain people I feel more comfortable talking with and what I’ve noticed is, even with the people that I feel comfortable talking with, there’s still a general misunderstanding of what gender even means, about different possibilities in the way of physical sex or orientation, it seems like it’s really hard to open up a discussion when people aren’t even sure how to define the terms that are being discussed.
CQ: Right. And of course, we all get, almost all, really poor sex education in high school. You know, we can get to college and start to get the sex ed that we deserved to have when we were 14, 15, 16, and were starting to really have questions burn in a lot of us, it’s not like young people wait until they’re 18 to get curious. This isn’t the location for young people to get their questions answered, we made a clear, distinct decision to be 18 and over so that we could bypass the harmful-to-minors discussion that we knew would come if we let youth in to do anything here, even if it was a level of sex education that was not very far removed from what they ought to get in high school, so that’s for other people to do and for us to support from afar, but, once people get to turn 18, then they start to be able to figure out, well, okay, what did I learn, what are the gaps – everybody knows there are gaps, it’s just not necessarily clear what those are when you get started – and where do I find the correct information that I can trust to fill the gaps in?
Plenty of people just do it on the hoof, they go have sex and start to figure it out, and some sex is better than other sex and you learn things that way. Having sex is not a bad way to learn about sex, it’s like a lab (laughs) but, it’s nice to have some guidance, a handbook, something. I think that the way in which people have to get their information in a piecemeal fashion is another thing that helps take them out of the mode of diversity and acceptance of everybody else. Because there’s this notion that people learn to have sex because it’s natural, and it’s not always that natural, and I don’t mean it’s unnatural by saying that either, I mean it sometimes is very hard to figure out for people well into adulthood, middle age, age, what things would turn them on, or their partners on, what things would affect them in the most erotically positive way? It’s not easy to know that stuff if you don’t have enough information.
So, part of the idea of sex positivity to me really is an attempt to get people to be comfortable with one another and diversity, but another thing is to get people aware that they deserve to have access to the information they need to be who they are, to even discover that in the first place. This society cannot be said to be sex positive in that respect, it just can’t, it does not give everyone access, certainly equal access, to basic knowledge about pleasure and protection, maybe basic knowledge about protection if you’re lucky.
MR: As far as figuring my own self out, I mean the only reason why I was really able to know is because of reading romance and erotic stories, that’s really the only way that I stumbled into it, if it wasn’t for that, who knows how long I would’ve been befuddled.
CQ: Yeah and you go, “What do I respond to in that?” And what kinds of scenarios do you see being presented to you, the reader, and you go, “Oh, do people really do that?” I think that that actually is probably the commonest…books, porn for some people, bouncing off of things that you see in mainstream culture, like the movies and especially cable TV, and some non-cable TV these days, but those kinds of images that are out in the culture now for almost anybody to have access to them, if they want to or choose to, and of course people are so often left fearful about sex because a lot of people don’t choose that.
MR: Another thing I was going to ask about is, how had you gotten involved with the Good Vibrations store, how did that come about?
CQ: Well, it was…the way I know Betty Dodson, the mother of masturbation, is because one of my instructors at the Institute told me, when I was going to New York in the late ‘80s that I should look her up and kind of put us together. Then Betty did one of her masturbation workshops in San Francisco a year or so later, so I signed up and one of the people at that workshop was Joani Blank who founded Good Vibes. There she was and there I was and we met and did the whole workshop all weekend together and at the end of the weekend she said, “How would you like to come work in my store one day a week?”, because it was hard to get one person on Saturday, they didn’t want to work on one day. And I went, “Oh, I would love that. Sure.” because I was just basically, wasn’t working at that point I was still in school and so I had the time.
I started and as soon as I got there I went, okay this is great, in the first place, it was so great to be able to talk to people about the toys and answer their questions about sex and it was just great, and so much a dovetail…like, I thought I would be doing something public health-related like when I started the Institute, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic when I started, and I thought I would be teaching safer sex workshops at a non-profit or something. It didn’t even occur to me to think about, was there anything private sector at all that would allow me to use the skills I was developing at the Institute and to do stuff that would make me a living and it just didn’t even cross my mind. Then I got this one day a week job and all of a sudden I realized, oh this is a place where I could do the stuff that I do, and I could do it here. So, I told Joani that if she wanted to give me more hours that I wanted them, and she did. For awhile I worked the mail-order call center phones too, so I talked to people from around the country and I was already doing San Francisco Sex Information, so I had that piece, doing a lot of talking to people about sex at that point, like much more intensely even than I do now.
We had a retreat, the staff and Joani, we all, like 12 of us at that point, maybe not even that many, and we had a retreat one weekend and talked about the future and somebody suggested that I start to do educational workshops for the staff, we already did the workshops for the people in the public, those were already set up and going, and I started to do continuing education workshops for the staff and they would tell me what they wanted to learn more about and I would go and research it and teach the workshop and then, a little while went by, and I went, “Let’s turn this into a department, let’s make it be like an official part of Good Vibes,” so that we can do it continually, but also we can say that we do it and that makes us more distinct from all of the other companies, even more distinct than we already are. So, everybody went, “Cool, let’s do that.” So, I became the first director or manager, or whoever, like the convener of the education department, and around this time also Joani was busy selling the store to the staff and we were a co-op for awhile, and so that became my role and I was still working the store but I was also doing these workshops and teaching. Then, once I got my doctorate, I got a new title which was staff sexologist, the first one ever I think, of any company like ours, although there are a couple more now that have hired themselves some sexologists.
By the time the education department thing came together, and the part about owning the business with everyone, at that point it began to feel to me like, “Oh, this is what I’m going to be doing for my work trajectory, I don’t anticipate that I’m going to leave”, and I still don’t anticipate that I’m going to leave, although I’ve obviously got myself a whole other level of work started here, I sort of wear three hats now and have for awhile. The Center, Good Vibes, and my writing and other stuff that I do. So, I keep really busy, but I grew up in the country where sometimes I was bored. (laughs)
MR: I was going to ask you, how do you manage to juggle these things that you do?
CQ: Well, I mean in a way, it’s completely dysfunctional, in a way I just take on all these things to do and I just…every time a ball lands in my hand I throw it up in the air again and catch another one, I just do it. I don’t think I would ever suggest to another person in so many words that they should set up a life that’s patch-worked in this way, although I’m aware that other people do this, not just in this field. I mean plenty of people actually work this way, it’s very possible I would work this way in whatever I was doing, so as not to sort of get into any kind of rut and so as to always have something a little different on my plate each week, each day, that keeps me feeling lively and I think it’s good.
I don’t know any other way to be, really, but part of the answer to the question is that I have…I really lean on Robert to help sort of, certainly to help with this, other things too. I have a great team of people that I work with at Good Vibes who help keep me organized around what I’m supposed to be doing over there. The thing that I’m sort of in charge of myself is what I’m writing and when I’m writing, and I even recently have gotten hold of somebody who is going to represent me as an agent, which I haven’t had all this whole time, in hopes that her presence in my life won’t just get me book gigs, but that I’ll have somebody to answer to, and to say, “Oh yeah, it’s almost ready. Oh yes, I’m working on a chapter this weekend.”, so that there will be people at all points, in all of these things that I do, who sort of help make sure that I continue to roll down the track because it’s true, I’ve got a lot going on and it would be easy to drop balls, and I try so hard not to. It comes out in my e-mail etiquette though, because sometimes people have to write to me four times before I even write them back, not because I didn’t see their e-mail the first time necessarily, although sometimes I didn’t, but because I’m like, “Oh, I’ll e-mail them back tomorrow.” And then tomorrow is just as busy, busier than today was or yesterday was. If I had any advice for anyone around this, it would be, try not to learn in college to do your paper on the very last day that it’s due, because that will make you think that you can just do that.
MR: I was going to ask you, as far as the queer community in San Francisco today, what do you think the kind of climate is as far as getting certain things pushed forward? I mean, the thing is that gay marriage is a big issue right now, but there’s a lot of people that talk about marriage as being assimilating, you know, and all this other kind of stuff, what do you think the kind of climate is on the direction that is being headed for as far as activism is concerned?
CQ: I think that the two things that I see right now with the LGBT community are indeed that question of marriage, and not just whether people are getting together behind activist push for gay marriage, same-sex marriage, but also the whole question of, if that’s what the majority of the community is really focusing on, then where does that leave all the other issues, sort of the question of, should this be the point of the wedge? And I see some controversy around that, you know, I think it’s a valuable discussion, I also however, and I’m not really a pro-marriage person at all, but I’m certainly pro same-sex marriage because I feel like if there are a lot of people in our community who feel as though that’s an extremely important goal for them and a civil right, and that their lives aren’t complete without it, or without the potential of it, and they feel oppressed, rightly, if they don’t have it, then it’s a civil rights issue and, even though it’s not my personal issue because I very likely won’t ever get married because that’s just not my thing, it would be cold of me to not support that desire on the part of people for whom it is extremely heartfelt.
I hope that they can think comfortably in terms of the whole discourse about it, about whether marriage really is all that and will be all that to them, and will it change their life the way they want it to and all of that, because as I like to say, with no disrespect meant to anyone, a vote for same-sex marriage is a vote for same-sex divorce. People cannot expect that that’s the be-all and end-all of equality issues, it’s a profound equality question but it’s a profound equality question in a culture that thinks that marriage is so important, and isn’t very good at it. So, I’m all mixed about it as you can tell, but I think it’s good to be mixed about this particular issue and I am mixed in a way that I cannot imagine disrespecting the marriage equality deal, that just doesn’t seem like it’s an option for me, even though, and I don’t disrespect the marriages even though I don’t respect marriage per se (laughs), if that makes any sense.
MR: No, I understand what you’re saying. I mean I think that a lot of times with these kinds of issues, it would be…sometimes things have to be achieved in blocks, like there’s people who want to abolish gender for example (CQ: Yeah.), people who want to abolish marriage, and it’s like, well hold on a moment! (laughs)
CQ: Let the people get to the gender of desire, preference, and identity before we throw it all out. Yeah, I mean it’s kind of a baby with the bathwater thing. And the other thing that I think is currently a really interesting issue, and I don’t know that it’s being talked about this way so much, but when I see the history of the LGBT community in San Francisco, I mean I guess I’m thinking about this because of this tour thing that I’ve been working on, I see two main things coming into being and interacting with each other, and those two main things are organizations, activists, and support and those kinds of organizations, and economic entities, businesses and like, gay bars, LGBT-oriented stores or restaurants or…just the way the Castro is, especially has been, a gay neighborhood, mainly because of the kind of businesses that are located there drawing in residents who visit and that gives a dense community of people for organizers to communicate with and give support. So, there’s sort of both things going on at the same time.
To have a really robust LGBT community of the kind that we have in San Francisco, and that was a pioneer city for certainly other places, I think you need both of those kinds of things. I am concerned, I noticed this during the last sort of big recession ten years or so ago with arts organizations, many of which were also queer, and that’s happening now too I think as well, but where if the money is really tight, it’s hard for those entities that help keep a community organized and thinking of itself as a community, places to meet, and ways to go out and identify as LGBT, even when they’re going grocery shopping or something, those things are at risk and the economy has been so challenged for the last couple of years that I actually worry about that part of the LGBT community in San Francisco and the way that when money gets tight, activist and non-profit entities have a harder time and they may go under so the whole infrastructure of what brought so many people here in the first place is more at risk than it is in better times.
The city and its queer community has ebbed and flowed in lots in different ways and contexts, so I don’t think that it’s all going to go away, but I think that there are arguments to be made that the community has to figure out ways to revive itself and its identity, and if people get too too lazy about it, complacent about it, there ultimately will be less of what they needed in the first place that brought them here, or that made their lives quite rich. If we don’t have critical mass around those kinds of things, does San Francisco stay as LGBT positive as it has been for the last couple of generations? I don’t know, it would be very interesting to see whether cultural changes in a community like ours could erode enough to make it be less a queer positive city, I don’t want to see that happen, but it would be interesting to see if it would and it’s something that in the back of my mind I think, is something that we all ought to be a little conscious of.
MR: One of the things that we were talking about in my class, just yesterday actually, was whether gay neighborhoods like the Castro are relevant anymore, because the point should be an increased diversity and acceptance, but on the other hand, as this sort of thing happens, it’s like, well is this really a gay space anymore, so that does seem to be a very relevant thing.
CQ: If there’s real assimilation, complete, then that means that there won’t be any dangerous places for LGBT people anymore, and there won’t be any places where LGBT people are not accepted, and saying it that way makes you see how far away we are from real assimilation. Robert?
(Carol Queen’s partner Robert Morgan Lawrence comes in)
RL: May I? (CQ: Of course.) The thing is, that kind of assimilation into the current society, LGBT will cease to exist because you’re identified not only about our orientation, but about the sex that we have …And, as I see it, the 300-something gay bars that were existing in this town 20 years ago and now there’s 30…hello, I’m Robert (MR: Hi.)…you see very few, the idea of assimilation is actually happening. In the sex culture of San Francisco, the public sex culture of San Francisco, is moving more away from sex as the computer culture takes over, more on Craigslist, that sort of stuff…so we’re seeing an assimilation of the sex culture into a culture that is trying to no longer be willing to even call it sex. The hipster Mission population calls it “art”. You go to an art show and then there’d be people fucking all over the room, this is not about sex, this is about “art”. So, even the word itself is becoming an anathema. So, there is some assimilation but I’m not sure it’s of any help, the loss of bars that we had, the loss of pick-up places, and changes in common culture. By the time you get from sex to art, the next thing that happens is “not”.
CQ: Well, we all know that art is not safe in our culture, so yeah, Robert’s point is well-taken.
RL: Sorry for barging in.
MR: No no, it’s okay.
CQ: There’s a way of…Robert gets involved in all of my interviews. (RL: No I don’t!) Yes you do.
The way that we understand what the purpose and the goals of us coming together in community even are includes those questions like what role does sex and the culture of sex play, what kind of relationship range is appropriate to us and do we want, how much diversity of all kinds do we mindfully include and make space for in our community? There’s so many different things and you know, ordinarily I wouldn’t say what I said in the second point about the economy and stuff, I’m just so aware of the way that San Francisco is a very expensive city to live in and that, while there are plenty of other places around the country that have gotten much more queer-inclusive and queer positive over the ensuing three decades or so since San Francisco sort of became the gay capital of America, and you really can go somewhere else and live a good life somewhere else and plenty of people have done so, and not everybody wants to live in a city.
Still, if the ability of people who want a community like this gets too affected by the economy, it will affect the community, it affects the ebb and flow. And, certainly, it sends people out who might not be ready to leave, it affects our institutions, it tends to make people more conservative, often, although there’s another side to that too, I mean, all the stuff we’ve been seeing playing out in Madison, Wisconsin, although it doesn’t appear to have a sexuality-related connection, is one way that hard economic times bring out conservatives and progressives to duke it out, in sort of more brilliant and excitable terms than otherwise might be the case.
MR: As far as the assimilating versus having different spaces thing, I think the way people can have an all-or-nothing attitude about things…there’s a difference between accepting and assimilating, and celebrating difference, and it’s just odd how there’s usually people on this side and that side, there’s not really a lot of moderate feelings about that sort of thing.
CQ: When I was becoming an activist in the ‘70s, the word that everyone used was right to privacy, that was true though the ‘80s, and is still in many cases true, although it’s the more conservative side of the LGBT community that talks in those terms, and you know, I mean who can argue against the right to privacy? We should have the right to privacy. What that’s shorthand for is, if we are quiet enough you will leave us alone, and that’s a version of the closet and you can’t expect everybody to live that way, because in the first place, not everybody is physically able to project a normative, closety look. The genderqueers can’t, often, people who are, even if they don’t identify as genderqueer, men who are fey and women who are butch can’t, often, and there’s just…I think when people believe that it’s possible for them to find a white picket fence, marry, adopt a kid, have a life, you know, go to work, go to church, of course all of those things are wonderful, individual elements for people to desire and to want to have as part of their life, that’s not true of everyone, but it’s fine for it to be true for those people it’s fine for, but even if they’re the people who could pull that off, they still wouldn’t be protected from discrimination.
Unless they get that through their heads, that we don’t yet have a world that protects all of us, the desire for privacy is, at best, a temporary safe space for them. That’s why we have to have out places, and we have to have out places where we brought the whole city along into a space of acceptance, which is largely a description of San Francisco, not 100% of course, but largely, we have a city that gets it around this issue and if it were not there to show other cities and other communities and other activists in other places what can be achieved, then I’d worry that we’d be lost.
MR: Even a lot of straight allies of LGBT people seem to expect that, as long as they don’t flaunt their queerness (CQ: Right, right.) then they’re fine, they can do it in private just as long as we don’t have to see any elements of it in public, seems to be a popular, unfortunately common, attitude.
CQ: And then some of them whine because they don’t feel like they’re welcome at pride because they’re jealous because they want to go flaunt! Or, of course, they get drunk and flaunt every single weekend. Yeah, some of the old arguments are still very much part of our issue set today.
I think that looking at history, the part of history that I’ve lived, but then the part of history that I know about through others and the work of historians, is that it changes a lot, and it’s the same. There are still things that are so comparable to what went on in our community in the ‘70s, in the ‘50s, in the ‘30s, in the teens. Now it’s a different era and it looks so different and yet there are these similarities that continue, both really positive and things that are challenging that we need to continue to work on. It’s one really good reason to learn a little history, is to get a perspective on the past and the kind of light that it shines on the present.
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