Queer Identity in the MeToo Movement: A Conversation with Emma Sulkowicz

Emma Sulkowicz stood up against rape culture three years before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, but most articles about “Mattress Performance” erased the artist’s queer identity. Why?

Image of Emma Sulkowicz by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang (image courtesy Emma Sulkowicz)

Back in 2014, Emma Sulkowicz was a senior undergraduate student at Columbia University studying the visual arts. Having long-struggled against the university’s Title IX policies that failed to hold accountable the man Sulkowicz accused of rape, they decide on “Mattress Performance” as a thesis project — an endurance piece of sorts that would involve Sulkowicz carrying a 50-pound mattress across campus for the entire academic year until graduation. (Disclosure: Emma and I were in the same year at Columbia and were acquaintances during our time at school.)

Almost immediately, Sulkowicz became a central figure in a nationwide fight to reform lax university guidelines that often failed to adequately investigate cases of sexual misconduct. Reactions in the media were fierce: journalists on one end of the spectrum referred to the young artist with glowing respect, while the other end vilified Sulkowicz as a dishonest “Mattress Girl.”

But Emma Sulkowicz is not a “Mattress Girl.” They aren’t even a girl.

Despite the many articles and Wikipedia pages that refer to Sulkowicz as a woman, they actually identify as gender non-conforming and use the pronouns they/them. The omission — or dare I say the erasure — of Sulkowicz’s queer identity indicates the public’s continued unwillingness to reckon with the notion that queer people can be victims of sexual violence.

As one possible queer prologue to the #MeToo movement we know today, Sulkowicz’s story is a prime example of how reporting on sexual misconduct can often miss critical angles of the power dynamics at play. In light of the recent Avital Ronell scandal at New York University, in which both the accused assailant and victim identify as queer, it’s important to began having these discussions about the relationship between queer bodies and sexual violence.

Addressing these concerns, I spoke with Sulkowicz on the matter. Below are some edited and condensed excerpts from my conversation with Emma. You can find the full discussion on Hyperallergic’s Art Movements podcast here.

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Hyperallergic: Three years after “Mattress Performance” began, what’s your opinion on the performance piece?

Emma Sulkowicz: At a certain point, I thought that the point of art was to express my emotions. I thought that I was doing art “correctly” by making something that accurately described how other women and gender non-conforming students that my accused rapist had attacked felt. And that’s always important for me to say when I talk about “Mattress Performance,” because it wasn’t just about me. We only reported our assaults after encountering each other.

H: While listeners might remember you for “Mattress Performance,” what they likely don’t know about you is that you identify as a queer person and use the pronouns they/them. For the public, if the concept of a female victim of sexual violence was already controversial, then the notion that the drama surrounding your endurance piece occurred around a queer person of color was simply “too much” to digest. How has the erasure of your queer identity in the media profiles affected you?

ES: Another victim of my attacker identifies as transfeminine. I remember when they were going through their sexual assault hearings that one of my rapist’s defenses was, “I’m not gay, I would never sexually assault this man.” It completely obliterated the victim’s gender identity and denied any queerness on the attacker’s part. But of course, he had assaulted multiple gender non-conforming people. I see this as his way of expressing his own violent queer sexuality.

Being the victim of assault helped me realize that I was gender non-conforming. I think it’s important to talk about the slippage of [identifying as] in-between. On one level, identifying as “they” is gendered, but it is also ontological. For me, I became aware of my gender fluidity through the experience of receiving The New York Times with my photo on the front cover. This was an object dropped on my doorstep every morning of my childhood. I always saw the chracters on its cover as flat or unreal. Seeing myself turned into an object in that way helped recontextualize all the time I had been physically turned into an object through sexual assault, and all the times that men had seen me as nothing more than a fleshlight, a sex doll, or a means-to-an-end. “They” evokes my slippage between man and woman, but it also evokes the way that I see the slippage between human and object. Sometimes that feeling of being objectified happens through acts of violence. “They” is about reclaiming that feeling and turning it into something powerful and politically important.

H: As cliché as it sounds, it’s important to speak your truth and to assert  your own humanity in today’s society. One criticism that I think is valid about the #MeToo movement is that queer people are often forgotten in the fight against rape culture.

ES: Society has a lot of difficult believing that queer people can be victims, but it also cannot believe that queer people can be assailants. This is something so important to me because one of my attacker’s defenses at Columbia was that he could have never attacked a genderqueer person because he wasn’t gay — whatever the fuck that means. There is a societal resistence to believing that two things can happen simultaneously.

H: People have trouble believing that two things can be true at once. Unfortunately, violence is not unique to any one gender. Looking at the case of sexual misconduct with Professor Avital Ronell at New York University, there is a similar disbelief that a woman could ever be an assailant.

ES: Reading through The New York Times article on the Ronell case, there were so many classic defenses that I’m familiar with people using. It said that the Title IX investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to find Professor Ronell responsible for sexual assault, partly because nobody observed the interactions in his apartment or her room in Paris. If we are going to say that sexual assault cannot be true if there isn’t a third person present to take notes, then that means pretty much no sexual assault on Earth has ever happened.

H: And what I don’t think people understand is that Title IX campus investigations usually place the burden of proof on the victim, whereas legal court cases place the burden of proof on the accused. What this means is that the law is already stacked against the victim from the beginning of an investigation. Even though Title IX exists, even though Ronell’s supporters think she is a victim of a witch-hunt, it’s actually stacked in her favor.

ES: And by that logic, we should always have someone watching us to have sex.

When people say that the #MeToo Movement has gone too far, it’s important to remember that social movements are organic, weird things with a bunch of people laying claim to it. Within the #MeToo Movement, there are people doing it the way I would and also some people who are making a huge mess. Similarly, if Professor Ronell is laying claim to this position of feminism, then I don’t think she is performing very well. There are a lot of feminists and there are a lot of people who claim to be feminists. By sexually assaulting a student, you are no longer being a very good feminist.

H: But of course, Ronell wouldn’t call these events as sexual assault or even harassment. I think these debates reveal a generational gap. Our young generation requires an intersectional approach — you cannot have feminism without acknowledging issues of race, economics, class, gender, and sexuality. And as queer people, we understand that our bodies are up for play in this discourse. That there is so much at stake in supporting a feminism for all people. But for these connections to be ignored, and for Ronell to say that there was no issue in her interactions with her graduate student is to ignore the power politics already at play between an advisor and an advisee.

ES: That’s so true. We see feminism as inseparable from any other social movement because we have a more holistic view. One thing that’s changed for our generation is that language has developed to a point where we are able to understand when we’ve experienced violence. After “Mattress Performance,” many women from past generations contacted me and said, “Wow, your work helped me realized that what I experienced twenty years ago was rape.” We live in a time when words have changed. We have a term called ”Harvey Weinstein”; we have terms to describe sexual assault. The dangers and experiences of violence are felt more today because we can articulate them. Being able to make work that is personal has become more urgent and political; more natural, even for our generation in a way that artists in the past may not have really felt.

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You can listen to the interview with Emma Sulkowicz on the August 30, 2018 edition of the Art Movements podcast.

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