Activist or Artist?

It’s the first time we’ve seen one another since the new year, gentle reader.  What have I been doing?  I’ve been having crises about who I am as a person and what I’m doing with my life, naturally.

A number of peculiar things have happened to me since we last spoke, gentle reader.  An English tabloid did a thrilling exposé on me, revealing that my boyfriend knitted me socks for Christmas and that I’m gay.  (I know, you’re very surprised.)  I got into an argument with a porn star on Twitter.  I started wearing more jewelry, but drinking less coffee.  And I started getting up early in the morning to write poems, because I’m worried about myself as an artist and a queer political entity.

God, what a nauseatingly Sarah Lawrence thing to say.

I really am, though!  I spend so much of my time these days thinking about and writing about and working on politics and inequalities and identity and difference, and I love those things, but I miss art.  Which of course isn’t to say that no one can do both at once, but right now I haven’t learned to balance the two.  That’s what I’m trying for right now.

I miss caring more about the poem than what the poem means for the world, but I don’t know how to care about the poem more and still live up to my ideals.  People do this, right?  Audre Lorde did it.  My don, Suzanne, seems to do it.  So many poets have been warriors for justice without freaking out all the time over whether they’re political writers or poets.  Why do I have such a panicked relationship with it?

No, I’m not going to end this column with a clever or even a vague but poignant answer to my problem, because I don’t have one.  I’m sorry.  What I’d like to do is ask more questions.

What are my obligations toward my queerness, as an artist?  Must I always be making art about queers?  This isn’t so much an issue for me, as I tend to make queer art all the time, but what I worry about is whether I’m making helpful queer art.  Is my queer art helping the cause of queer liberation?  Am I telling the straights things they shouldn’t know?  Am I portraying queers in a light that will leave us vulnerable to attack?  I think about these things, gentle reader, and I cannot sleep at night.

More frighteningly: if I am, as a political person, invested in liberation for all oppressed people, what kind of art should I be making?  Should I be making art about myself or people like myself?  People like myself, the people I am around, are largely upper-to-middle class, able-bodied, neurotypical white people.  There are exceptions, but I am an upper class white person, and that has been my life.  Does the world need another novel about white, upper class, able-bodied, neurotypical lives?  I worry, I worry, I worry.

How to balance art and politics?  I’ll let you know when I figure this age old question out, as I obviously will.

Stephen Ira is a queer activist whose poetry and fiction have been published in 365 Tomorrows and Spot Literary Magazine. He co-chairs Sarah Lawrence's trans identity group, Trans Action, and keeps a blog as the Super-Mattachine, queer anti-oppression avenger, at As David Foster Wallace would say, he does things like get into a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it!" He believes there is nothing more radical than kindness.

Be first to comment