Participating in the American Theater of Trauma


Arts & Culture

© Andreas Sterzing: David Wojnarowicz (Silence = Death), New York, 1989
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery New York

For David Wojnarowicz, this decade has been a renaissance. He plays a guiding spirit in Olivia Laing’s 2016 internal travelogue, The Lonely City, and haunts the 2011 music video for Justice’s “Civilization.” In last year’s retrospective, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, the Whitney Museum reminded us that Wojnarowicz “came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes.” We recognize that decade in our own, and, with it, Wojnarowicz’s anger. Our present is magnetized to his past. His art, as Hanya Yanagihara wrote, “reminds you that there is a distinction between cynicism and anger, because the work, while angry, is rarely bitter—bitterness is the absence of hope; anger is hope’s companion.” In truth, renaissance is a cruel word to give to someone who died at thirty-seven. But we do love him. We do need him.

Some things to know about who we are:

We are trapped in a moment of political terror. We are dangerously close to cynicism, but angry enough to have hope. We are no longer interested in compromise. Men, we agree, have had their chance. White women we can no longer trust to uphold feminism, not while they cling to white supremacy. We are antiracist and antifascist and prison abolitionists; we rejoiced when Bill Cosby received his sentence. We canceled Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and Al Franken with equal fervor. We are uninterested in what they think.

Welcome to we: a disingenuous pronoun that both paid and unpaid pundits alike brandish without consent. I’m often guilty, too: my points are more convincing if I ventriloquize your voice alongside mine. Are we really doing this? Is this what we want? When did we decide this was okay? As usual, Adorno said it best: “To say ‘we’ and mean ‘I’ is one of the most recondite insults.” More often than not, we is an erasure, a linguistic illusion that you or I have endorsed some third person’s opinion, politics, or decisions. Deployed in politicized spaces, the subtext of we—i.e., I didn’t need to ask you—is a violation of political agency.

What’s dangerous in maligning we, however, is how badly I—a cisgender white man living in America—need to hear these voices. Often, the contemporary we is a backlash against centuries of a white cishet male monolith, which includes the we in the Constitution. It’s a backlash voiced by women, people of color, trans and nonbinary persons, and persons with disabilities. As Wesley Morris wrote for the New York Times last year, “Groups who have been previously marginalized can now see that they don’t have to remain marginalized. Spending time with work that insults or alienates them has never felt acceptable. Now they can do something about it.” Morris casts this moment as an inversion of the culture wars of the eighties and nineties, when artists like Wojnarowicz faced censorship and humiliation from the religious right. After pushing their work to extremes and waging costly legal and political campaigns—including, in Wojnarowicz’s case, the very right to survive as a queer artist—the oppressed are now closer to power than ever. “This territory,” Morris writes, “was so hard won that it must be defended at all times, at any costs. Wrongs have to be righted. They can’t affect social policy—not directly. They can, however, amend the culture.” It’s in this sense that we becomes linguistic action. We cosign or cancel speech, endorse or excoriate art, all the while presuming that any I can borrow any you. We amplifies our voices as one, an assumption of power.

While Morris’s essay is a sensitive, observant, and smart examination of ethics in contemporary art, and while I’m grateful to have read and reread it, my first impulse upon seeing its subheading (“Should art be a battleground for social justice?”) was to throw the magazine across the room and tweet something like, “Do we really need another man whispering ‘art for art’s sake’ as he pins us against the wall?” This is what our politics has done to me as a queer artist. I carry so much anger that even the threat of some man saying, Let’s not get carried away, triggers rage.

Or perhaps more exact: revenge.


I want to believe we need Wojnarowicz’s art, but I can only say that I need it. I burn for its juxtapositions, the shadows in his photographs, and the narrative ambition of his paintings—exuberant perversions of renaissance epics. Close to the Knives, his “memoir of disintegration,” immolates me entirely. Like many queers in the seventies, Wojnarowicz grew up neglected and abused, prostituting his body by the time he was fifteen. As an artist, he received no formal training—only critique from other queer artists, including his one-time lover, Peter Hujar, whose body became one of his subjects. Hujar’s face and hands and feet, photographed on his deathbed in 1987, found their way into one of Wojnarowicz’s collages, lacquered over with a fiery indictment of the society that let this happen to a man he loved; and then Wojnarowicz, too, died, with so much art left unmade.

Reading Wojnarowicz today—that is, in his words, “in a country where an actor becomes the only acceptable president … a man whose vocation is to persuade with words and actions an audience who wants to believe whatever he tells them”—empowers me. Art “can be reparatory,” Morris writes, “a means for the oppressed and ignored to speak,” and Wojnarowicz’s anger makes me feel as if it’s my right to demand silence from those I perceive to have oppressed queer people, or even those who just don’t have the luck of being queer. I feel as if it’s my right to shun artworks in which I don’t recognize myself or my friends. To not see oneself mirrored in culture feels like abuse, every renewed act of erasure newly unbearable.

While Morris writes about art specifically, his essay reflects a tendency in discourse overall toward separating, totally, that which we call bearable from that which we decide is not. This is the subject of Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. “At many levels of human interaction,” she writes, “there is an opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve.” As social creatures, communication and negotiation are human responsibilities. Activities that work against communication—shunning, silencing, and enlisting the power of the state to punish rather than resolve—shirk this responsibility, and are unfortunately common among vulnerable persons, for whom withdrawal and refusal are often the only communication skills they possess. This leaves both parties trapped—one behind a locked door they won’t open, the other outside. Schulman describes her struggle to understand her colleagues, who, despite their liberal politics, have developed an “almost prescribed instinct to punish, using the language originated initially by a radical movement but now co-opted to deny complexity, due process, and the kind of in-person, interactive conversation that produces resolution.” This language is that of “abuse,” which has a perpetrator and a victim.

In situations of abuse (ask yourself: is this a power struggle or does this person have power over me?), victims are indeed blameless. But Schulman’s thesis outlines how what often feels like abuse is instead conflict—a point of pain in need of resolution, arrived at only through honest and open communication, which can, and often does, hurt: “the collapse of Conflict and Abuse is partly the result of a punitive standard in which people are made desperate, yet ineligible, for compassion.” The state and its systems of power withhold assistance and compassion from those who are not “eligible.” This creates a system where the identity of victim is desired, if only to ensure one is met with compassion instead of derision. “This concept,” Schulman writes, “is predicated on a need to enforce that one party is entirely righteous and without mistake, while the other is the Specter, the residual holder of all evil.” Anyone who endured the punditry after the 2016 elections will understand why labeling oneself an economic or demographic victim can be toxic. In a sociological refusal to communicate, 63 million voters escalated decades of capitalist-driven conflict by turning their pain into a sacrosanct identity, regardless of how it would, and has, hurt millions of people far more severely than any pain, however legitimate, those voters felt.


Schulman’s ideas on conflict, communication, escalation, abuse, and repair encourage us to accept individual responsibility, however small, for as many of the conflicts in one’s life as we can stand. Yet it remains necessary to distinguish these conflicts from abuse. What’s interesting about Schulman’s essay is how it intersects with urgent questions of speech, de-platforming, and “cancelation.” Her insistence upon open and respectful communication seems like an inversion of the tactics of silence, shunning, exclusion, and sometimes of violence used by antifascist groups for decades to combat authoritarian politics. The strategies of antifascism contradict everything Schulman says in her plea toward mutual understanding and conflict resolution, but only in the way that shouting over Ann Coulter, for example, seems like an infringement upon her right to incite violence through “free speech.” The error here is to call fascism a conflict.

A primary goal of Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is to illuminate the “trans-historical terror of fascism,” which is never a “defeated” enemy but a constant reactionary threat as long as inequality and suffering are tolerated. History is not fixed or written but being written. The post-Holocaust slogan—“Never again!”—is not a fact, observation, or conclusion, but a plea for understanding. As Bray writes, “History is a complex tapestry stitched together by threads of continuity and discontinuity… [Anti-fascism] is an argument about the historical continuity between different eras of far-right violence and the many forms of collective self-defense that it has necessitated across the globe over the past century.” It could indeed happen again—maybe tomorrow—and one needs to recognize it, contain it, and drive it back out of sight. These tactics don’t seek to understand the conflict and work toward resolution because there is no understanding, nor resolution; there is, in fact, no conflict. Fascism is abuse, and its evangelists know it. As Bray says, “The point here is not tactics; it is politics.” Just as an abusive parent or partner has no right to demand that his victim sit down and hear his case (again: “power over,” not “power struggle”), a political system that is predicated on the oppression and elimination of human beings from the populace based on race, legal history, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship, or ability has no right to a national platform, and merits resistance over resolution. Fascism assumes a false mask of victimhood—one that seems like a “politics in conflict”—in order to undermine those who’d speak against it. But fascism is not a politics in conflict: it is a politics of abuse on a national and transnational scale. Antifascism seeks a way out of trauma; fascism governs with it.


At the Morgan Library in New York, I saw Peter Hujar’s portrait of David Wojnarowicz, gaunt and severely shadowed, dark-eyed, a cigarette in mid drag; and I felt it, around my neck. Love there, and admiration. Grief. Seeing how Hujar saw his ex-lover, friend, and fellow artist seized me entirely. I didn’t understand why I was trembling. It just happened as these things happen—and, for me, are happening more and more. Last year, T magazine ran a special issue on the early eighties in New York. On one page, Edmund White remembered friends, writers, and artists who’d died young: “I was just thinking of Allen Barnett, who lived to publish one book of stories … He was so angry that he had to die.” On another page, the faces of over a hundred artists, choreographers, writers, performers, designers, and cinematographers “lost” to HIV related illnesses. I had no choice: I sobbed. The same thing happened with Tom Bianchi’s Polaroids of Fire Island in the early eighties, in which young men, naked or mostly naked, smile there on the sand, playing and drinking and fucking and loving each other with no idea what awaits them. “I could not have imagined,” Bianchi writes, “that my Polaroids would so suddenly become a record of a lost world—my box of pictures a mausoleum, too painful to visit. When I reopened the box decades later, I found friends and lovers playing and smiling. Alive again.” Even this, reread so many times, is hard to transcribe.

I began having sex with men in 2006. HIV is not only a treatable illness, but, thanks to PrEP, easier to avoid contracting than ever. I’ve lost no one to AIDS. I was a child when it decimated queer communities across the world. Because of this, it’s taken me a long time to understand that there is still trauma here, that for me to look back and see what has happened, and to see the people—the Reagan administration, state and local governments, charity organizations, and “normal Americans”—who stood by and let it happen, is for me a trauma I’m allowed to feel. It’s traumatic to know how many influential figures called it punishment, called it God, and how many millions nodded along with them. It’s traumatic that I believed, long after the documented success of antiretroviral therapy, that HIV was certain death. It’s traumatic to imagine myself and my friends in that other decade, losing all the men in my life I love and have loved, all while someone laughs on television, where they are paid to say, You had it coming.

Yes, they called me faggot, bullied me and threatened me; yes, I pushed myself so deeply into the closet that I thought I was someone else, hurting a lot of people in the process; and yes, I carry scars from those years when I craved physical pain instead of pain I couldn’t articulate. But no one I love died, not like that. Nor do I understand these intense reactions as merely empathetic, because I feel them a hundredfold more strongly than when I encounter the pain of people suffering in other situations. Instead—to adapt a phrase from Bray—this feels like transhistorical queer trauma. Not long ago, people like me suffered unimaginably and died in isolation, cut off not only from civil and social apparatuses but often their families; and this happened because those people were like me. Through shunning, violence, intimidation, and legislation, a society had so othered LGBTQ individuals that their drawn out and brutal deaths seemed permissible, even desirable. And alongside those deaths, what was a few million drug users, homeless persons, and black Americans living in abject poverty? Because of white supremacist and heteropatriarchal ideologies, a virus became a weapon of the state, allowed first to proliferate and then, once activists had pushed back hard enough, to be contained, managed, and controlled by federal subsidies and corporate pharmaceutical research.

I’m not stupid enough to think “never again” calls for anything but constant vigilance. In February of 2018, the White House proposed a 20% cut in the nation’s global HIV/AIDS fund, which would lead, according to a report issued by, to “nearly 300,000 deaths and more than 1.75 million new infections each year.” On June 1 of this year, the president logged onto Twitter and mentioned how we would “celebrate LGBT Pride Month and recognize the outstanding contributions LGBT people have made to our great Nation,” despite everything his administration and party have done to strip trans persons of their safety and their rights, to obstruct federal and state protections for queer families and workers. It’s especially tempting to ask this transphobic autocrat what he believes the T stands for when he reminds the nation to celebrate LGBT people, but that’s beside the point. It’s not ignorance that emanates from the White House. It is not a politics in conflict. No matter how many rainbow emoji the president tweets, his queer politics is death, hate, and exclusion. It is a legacy of abuse, and perhaps it’s only natural to feel it across generations, to break down sobbing when I discover another artist or writer or human being who was, not that many years ago, “so angry that he had to die.”


Those 63 million votes: was each an act of abuse? I want to say yes—I believed they were for a long time. As Bray indicates, “It is clear that ardent Trump supporters voted for their candidate either because of or despite his misogyny, racism, ableism, Islamaphobia, and many more hateful traits.” For me and the people I love, these votes felt cruel, and while I’m no longer sure about saying yes, I don’t question my choice to end every relationship I had with anyone who used their vote to inflict such irresponsible, widespread harm.

Every fascist regime has snuck into power through legal means with a relatively small majority. In the 1930 elections, shortly before Hitler was appointed chancellor of the Reichstag, the Nazis received 18.3% of the vote. When Vittorio Emanuele III appointed Mussolini as prime minister in 1922, after 30,000 blackshirts marched theatrically on Rome, the PNF only held thirty-five of more than five hundred seats. In 2016, Trump received over 2.8 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. As I write this, there are thirty-one states—plus D.C.—with party registration. In those states, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 12 million; yet Republicans currently control sixty-seven of the ninety-nine state legislative bodies and hold a majority in the Senate. Supremacist ideologies don’t need that many fervent supporters; what they do need is indifference. In the case of Trump voters, Bray continues, “it is always important to distinguish between ideologues and their capricious followers, yet we cannot overlook how these popular bases of support create the foundations for fascism to manifest itself.”

Here is where the difference between conflict and abuse becomes a societal urgency. I’m not going to mince words. The Republican party, championing Islamophobia, denying and exacerbating climate change, stripping trans persons of their rights, supporting police brutality against the black community, incarcerating immigrants and separating children from their families—in short, committing crime upon crime against humanity—is a global terrorist organization rooted not only in white supremacy, but the supremacy of wealth. It’s hard to see class in America—to see poverty as an identity—because the American fabrication is that today’s poor, through obedience and hard work, will be rich tomorrow. It’s a story that hides an oppressed class in plain sight of people who serve as a ready-made voting base for the rich, as long as the rich grant them whiteness, heteronormativity, male supremacy, or some other power over those more deeply oppressed. These are those who might not champion the oppression of others, but go along with it as a price paid for a seat at the table.

It’s difficult to accept responsibility for this transaction, so enticing is its reward: state-sponsored victimhood. To take an example from Schulman, the white queer community doesn’t want to hear that today, “with gay marriage and parenthood prevalent, and the advent of gay nuclear families and normalized queer childbirth … white queer families realign with the state that held them in pervasive illegality less than a generation ago.” At the same time, this community still sees itself as unable to do harm, so entrenched is its history with victimhood. To challenge this is perceived as antiqueer ideology: of course we have the right to families, to suburbs, to lattes and plaid. But so, too, do white queers, in their newfound positions of power, have newfound responsibility to uphold the greater community, and to use their privilege to resolve conflicts with the trans community and queers of color, not to mention other oppressed and persecuted communities.

There is a similarity in action, Schulman says, in both the supremacist and the victim. This is born of refusal: “For the Supremacist, this refusal comes from a sense of entitlement; that they have an inherent ‘right’ not to question themselves. Conversely, the unrecovered traumatized person’s refusal is rooted in a panic that their fragile self cannot bear interrogation.” For the conflicted, seeing their pain mirrored in another can become a way to justify pain: at least she feels what I feel, or even at least he’s worse off than me. What this creates is an ongoing and mutually reflective theater of trauma in which everyone is a victim, exempt from responsibility, beyond repair.

We live in a misogynistic, racist, homo- and transphobic, ableist, violent, and viciously unequal country whose relatively small population (4.4% of the world) and vast wealth (25%) leave us, individual voters, responsible for the fate and future of this planet as its oceans rise and reefs die, as its air grows increasingly contaminated and water less potable. To feel so powerless and yet accountable for the future of the human race means that the sheer number of traumatized persons living in America is staggering. We are rooted in a country created by two concurrent genocides and supported by two centuries of wars, spectacular terrorism, theft, and global oppression. What’s worse, as Schulman argues, traumatized persons, through their actions, amplify and spread trauma to others by shunning, bullying, silencing, scapegoating, and threatening; they cling to what little they’re given as payment for their complicity in worldwide destruction at the profit of a small minority of white, wealthy men.


What use am I, and who is profiting from my trauma? How has my pain been weaponized and turned against others to stoke greater conflict? These are questions every American should ask themselves, particularly as we enter the nauseating theater of the 2020 elections and what lies beyond.

Conflict is profitable. Not only is this obvious in two hundred years of U.S. foreign policy, but in millennia of art and entertainment: escalation is dramatic, and drama, if it doesn’t affect us directly, is cathartic. It’s fun to say, Did you see what he said about her? and to watch a conflict get worse. There’s a reason journalists crank the apocalypse up to eleven every time the president tweets. It keeps readers coming back. Resolution is boring. Resolution is unprofitable. A played-out resolution is not a drama but an education: you too are responsible, rather than, watch this. Resisting this is not easy, fast, or efficient—three values Americans cherish. To be conflicted, to explore one’s accountability in a relationship, this is not what makes an individual spectacularly eligible for compassion. Only victimhood opens that coffer, and whoever screams loudest gets the prize.

What is needed is a queering of compassion. To move beyond the truly rare (but extant) binaries of perpetrator and victim, it’s important that every individual recognizes their existence in a continuum of conflict, and seeks to resolve and repair rather than escalate and destroy. We—and here I do mean every single one of us—must question individual guilt, which is rooted in action, rather than shame, which is entrenched in identity. Because when we insist upon the binary—that everyone is either perpetrator or victim—the cost is literal human life. One need only to look to all the Black Americans murdered by police, summoned by a white neighbor’s perceived victimhood, amplified by the aesthetics of entertainment.

The we I want to belong to is the we that recognizes our vast diversity of pain—the we that understands we’ve been assigned this pain for someone else’s profit, and that we need no longer give them want they want. To reserve compassion only for victims deemed eligible is to accept an arbitrary division, one in which the state can deem some of us worthy of aid and exclude others, meanwhile ensuring that the victims never speak to one another, competing as they must to remain in their places. Is it so revolutionary to say that every human being is eligible for compassion? That men and women of any gender or sexuality, any skin color, any ability, any legal or migratory status, any age, receive the same compassionate understanding as any other, responsible only for their actions and not the identities coerced upon them by others? To believe otherwise is to let fascism shatter our society.


Patrick Nathan is the author of Some Hell.