I have never been to a Ron Athey performance. I never went to any of the clubs he frequented; I’ve never met him in person. I wasn’t even alive for most of his career, and I was three years old when he premiered one of his most iconic performances, Solar Anus (1998). But I know that he has made massive contributions to queer life and art. When I first moved to New York, in 2017, I loved parties like Bubble_T and Papi Juice, where the language of intersectionality was creating POC-centered queer spaces. And so I showed up to Ron Athey’s first institutional retrospective, Queer Communion at Participant Inc, eager to learn from a queer elder, but also wary. Would my friends and I fit in? Would I find traces, in his work, of the queer intersectionality that I had found elsewhere?
Walking through the exhibition, I kept looking at the people in Athey’s performances: comfortingly weird and queer, for sure, but also still mostly white. The scenes in his pictures reminded me of so many queer parties I had been to before Bubble_T and Papi Juice that were also “diverse,” where a lack of an explicit POC center meant an implicit whiteness. And then I noticed other hints of the artist’s relation to whiteness: his upbringing in an extreme Pentecostal religion, his self-described position as “white trash,” and then, in a vitrine under the section “Literature / Tattoo / BDSM,” an essay titled “Flirting With the Far Right,” where he reflects on a swastika tattoo on the back of his neck, and offers a first-hand account of his brief infatuation with, exploration of, and eventual disillusionment with 1980s LA punk skinheads. Intrigued by this discovery, I looked for more material on the relation between whiteness and his work, but found that the essay and his swastika tattoo drew no more than a passing sentence in the catalogue, tucked into a section about his body and tattoos.
Race, or whiteness for that matter, is not the central focus of curator Amelia Jones’s framing of the exhibition. As an organizing principle, she puts forth the idea of “queer communion”—the way Athey’s performances made various types of community intimacy and connection possible. Reading the essays in Queer Communion: Ron Athey, I sometimes got the sense that Jones was defending the value of Athey’s work in spite of his whiteness. She recounts the critique that theorists of color have leveraged at other ideas of queer community, that they largely only apply to white urban cis men, and “veil a liberal universalism that excludes otherwise minoritarian subjects from consideration or inclusion.” She positions Athey’s communities in opposition, arguing that they are diverse, that they are “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens (as well as gay men and trans people of all sorts),” and “white, brown, and black.” She also focuses on Athey’s marginalization in class-based terms, emphasizing that he grew up in a “poor white family in a largely African-American part of Pomona, a working class town east of Los Angeles,” and that his overlooking by major art institutions and collectors leaves him at the margins of capitalist society. Indeed, Jones, a leading art history scholar at USC, proposes this class-based focus to counter “the cultural tendency in the United States to vastly oversimplify identity politics and ignore issues of class …” All of this positions Athey’s practice against white, heteronormative (and homonormative) society, but doesn’t explore the ways whiteness might be operative in his life and work.
In fact, I think Athey’s work is valuable to the current moment because of its engagement with whiteness. And I should say that this consideration of Athey’s project is not intended as a critique so much as a proposal to think more about the messiness, contradictions, and complications within queer communities. Looking closely at Athey’s relationship to whiteness (as dramatically underscored by “Flirting with the Far Right”) paradoxically helped me find my place, as a queer of color, within his legacy.
“I’ve decided to get the swastika tattoo on the back of my neck covered. My swastika is not the standard Nazi hate symbol, but an Indonesian version taken from a textile pattern. They look similar–and make no mistake, both have an impact.”
Athey wrote “Flirting with the Far Right” for the June 1997 issue of Honcho, a gay pornographic magazine, where he wrote a monthly column called “Ron Athey’s Dissections.” Over the course of four years, he covered a variety of topics including sex work, fisting, the Venice Biennale, Vanessa Beecroft, Mexico City, and tattooing. In “Flirting,” Athey positions himself as a critic and a participant in a sexual subculture adjacent to Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and racists. As Athey becomes “intrigued, some might say, obsessed,” by the ways these cultures intersect with homoeroticism and hypermasculinity, he dissects and critiques it from the inside.
Athey wore the swastika tattoo for 15 years, as part of a skinhead look that he explored while dating his then-boyfriend Edward in 1983. He got the tattoo during his time enmeshed in the “tribal tattoo” community of the LA nightclub Club Fuck!, as his close friend Cesar Padilla writes in a catalogue essay. The first thing Athey recounts doing after getting the tattoo is shaving his head and completing the look: “After the shoot I went to the mirror and was completely enamored with myself,” he writes, describing how he then acquired “the proper gear: steel-toe docs, skinny red braces, and tight, bleach-spattered jeans.”
Athey’s tone, as he recounts people’s reaction to his look, is less conflicted than I would have thought. At times he seems to defend his interpretation of the symbol despite alarm from POC and Jewish people around him. He writes that the symbol was not particularly shocking in the punk scene of the time, but he did have numerous acquaintances notice and keep their distance afterward, “repelled by the idea of my potential racism.” He had a brief confrontation with the Jewish Defense League (who “weren’t accepting any ‘Indonesian” explanation”) and also an encounter with a “huge, muscle-bound black man named Cosmo” at a community center in South Central LA. Cosmo had spent time in the penitentiary and assumed that Athey was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Athey writes from a curious remove, as if describing the results of a scientific trial with his own body.
Sarah Ahmed, in her 2007 essay “The Phenomenology of Whiteness,” proposes that whiteness could be understood as an orientation in the world that puts certain things (opportunities, people, places, knowledge) in close reach for some more than others. A swastika tattoo is not necessary to occupy a white orientation in the world, but it would have heightened the perception of the artist as a white supremacist. It definitely gave him access to places that I could never have accessed. For the nonwhite reader, in particular, Athey becomes an envoy into this white “orientation,” narrating the conflict between his politics and the politics of the spaces that his tattoo gives him access to.
This white “orientation” also intersects with Athey’s interest in extreme versions of gendered performance. “On stage I became a nun, St. Sebastian, Christ, a kinky Nazi, a house painter…,” he said in a 1998 interview in Honcho. His decision to wear the swastika tattoo might also be understood as research, into a fetish for right ideology as pure masculinity. Indeed, Athey recounts visiting a European gay skinhead internet forum, and reading one anonymous post: “No one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravaged by someone dressed as a liberal.”
Athey raises questions that have only become more relevant over the years, about the conflict between sexual liberation and political responsibility (Nazism is my kink, don’t kink shame me!). Athey is genuinely turned on by this stuff. His adventures are fueled by the homoerotic fantasies of Stuart Home and Ingo Hassalbach’s Fuhrer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi, both of which sexualize the violence of skinhead culture. As he spends time with these gangs, however, they prove to be less accepting of his homosexuality than the fiction suggests, and he comes to condemn them as places that make “an informed decision to place sexual image and fantasy before popular notions of political responsibility.” Athey’s account speaks to the way we might all have desires that don’t align with our politics, and we should talk more about these “bad desires.”
Ironically, much of this frightening white macho culture is drawn from racial subcultures and stereotypes. The tattoos on Athey’s face are inspired by “cholo custom,” and the swastika on his neck from Indonesian culture. The skinhead’s brusque, hard-edged masculinity is a mimicry of stereotypes of Black male masculinity, as Athey cites from sociologist Murray Healey’s 1997 book Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity, and Queer Appropriations. “Nothing is pure,” Athey has said in interviews, and whiteness certainly isn’t either. The essay ends as he decides to cover the swastika, and the fifteen-year stint with the tattoo is framed as a juvenile phase.
How should we reconcile Athey’s far-right flirtations with the project of queer communion? I thought of a text that I was reading a lot while I was going to all of those POC-centered queer parties pre-pandemic: Joshua Chambers-Letson’s 2018 book, After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life. Chambers-Letson proposes a way of thinking about queer performance through “the communism of incommensurability,” a form of being with each other in difference and discord, where racial and sexual difference are not extinguished but shared. His project is clearly in dialogue with Jones’s description of “queer communion,” but it places minoritarian subjects explicitly at its center. (Chambers-Letson uses the term minoritarian to describe subjects marked by racial, sexual, gender, class, and national minority. He uses majoritarian to describe subjects that privileges whiteness, the masculine, the “native born,” and the heterosexual.) Acknowledging that all subjects under capitalism are interpolated in intersecting constellations of oppressions and dominations, perhaps we can consider the minoritarian and the majoritarian forces that ripple under any project more generally.
If Athey’s identities as poor or working class, queer, and anticapitalist sometimes put him in the space of the minoritarian, his identities as white, male, and passable for a Neo-Nazi might put him in the space of the majoritarian. Was his engagement with self-harm and bleeding, in iconic performances like Four Scenes from A Harsh Life (1994), drawn from a type of violence that as a white person he has the luxury to perform? How does that violence read for a minoritarian subject who is faced with racial violence daily? But that’s ungenerous; of course, Athey is subjected to other sorts of involuntary violences, including societal violence, as a person who is HIV positive. All this complicates the question: did wearing a swastika tattoo on the back of his neck for fifteen years repel people from participating in Athey’s “queer communion”? My friends and I would not have felt welcome. But was it also not part of a particular subculture and scene at Club Fuck! in LA, home to plenty of other iconoclasts and weirdos?
As I wrote this essay, the concept of whiteness continued to be slippery and difficult, and I worried it would produce an unwarranted inquiry. Yet I continued to feel that something was there. Looking for my place within Athey’s legacy and communities, I found myself repulsed by the access he had to white supremacist spaces. But whiteness is a factor that has to be contended with even in POC-centered queer spaces. As Lorraine O’Grady said, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018, “In the future, white supremacy will no longer need white people.” And reading through a “communism of incommensurability,” I began to better understand Athey’s work as a model for engaging the types of conflicts that queer communions can engender. Communions can be uncomfortable and difficult – but they can also constitute the work of building a coalition across race and class.