‘HAGS In Your Face’ by Michelle Tea

I first discovered Michelle Tea a couple of years ago when And Other Stories published their UK edition of this anthology of “confessions, complaints and criticisms” and I fell in love with her writing immediately. She has such a fresh voice and a clearly brilliant mind, and she’s a great chronicler of queer and outsider lives and subcultures. This essay is a brilliant example. In it, she tells the story of the rise and fall of the HAGS, a small gang of lesbian punks named after an obscure John Waters film who tore up San Francisco’s Mission District in the 90s. They were “a motley crew of surly twentysomethings resembling Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, if the Lost Boys were girls, the sort of girls who might break a beer bottle over your head at a club.” 

She details how the disparate group, who mostly came from broken homes, were drawn together as a form of protection from the homophobic violence of the city at the time and how they revelled in their status as absolute outsiders, taking on anyone who dared to mess with them. Ultimately, beneath the surface story about a righteous sisterhood, it’s a sorry tale of homelessness, drinking, drugs and fights that culminates in utter tragedy when a contaminated batch of black tar heroin causes an outbreak of necrotising fasciitis amongst the drug-using community, affecting many of the gang. In the end, the HAGS dissolves as some of them sober up, some transition to male, and a few don’t make it out of the other side. It’s a blistering portrait of a tiny subculture that would be forgotten by most and would never be known to the wider world had it not been told here by this most sympathetic and empathic of writers. It’s clearly a subject close to Tea’s heart as she so beautifully sums it up at the end: 

When facing down the drooling and ferocious wild beast of homophobia, the HAGS became gorgeous monsters. The strategy was not sustainable. Is it any less valuable for that, any less admirable, beautiful, clever? Even at a distance, the HAGS marked me, had a tattooed and silver-ringed hand in making me who I was and am.

First published in Against Memoir, The Feminist Press at the City University Of New York, 2018

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