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Recently, I posted a story on Instagram about Sarah Schulman’s superlative new book, “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993,” about AIDS activism during a time when the disease was blotting out queer communities in the US.
As a gay man who grew up after the worst of the AIDS crisis, I was moved by the volume. It allowed me to connect with my queer forebears – the dead and the survivors – like never before.
The 700-some-page tome is a bracing addition to an ongoing field of research and testimony on AIDS history, a corrective to previous accounts that have elevated some perspectives over others and latched onto only a handful of figures.
Based on nearly two decades of interviews with almost 200 members of the AIDS-fighting organization ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), “Let the Record Show” functions as an oral history and a memoir. Schulman herself was a rank-and-file ACT UP member from 1987 until 1992, a period during which, as she puts it, “a despised group of people” came together to “force our country to change against its will.”
The book is also a blueprint. In fact, its primary purpose, Schulman writes, “is not to look back with nostalgia, but rather to help contemporary and future activists learn from the past so that they can do more effective organizing in the present.”
ACT UP was successful in part because it used a variety of creative, eye-popping direct-action efforts – like the legendary Stop the Church demonstration – to demand the attention of a society that was failing people with AIDS.
To examine the history and enduring legacy of ACT UP, I spoke with Schulman about the racial and social justice movements that shaped ACT UP, the misrepresentations of the group and the lingering trauma of the AIDS crisis.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
One thing “Let the Record Show” does is grapple with the fact that people tend to get a distorted version of ACT UP history. What is this distorted version?
Americans are trained to believe in the John Wayne – the heroic White individual – structure, where a guy comes riding in and saves everybody. But that is not even good in the movies.
In real life, change comes from community, from coalition-building, from a kind of collectivity of people deciding that they need change.
So, the history of ACT UP has been narrowed down to a handful of individuals, some of whom did amazing work and are heroic. But to tell activists today that you can transform an entire paradigm with four or five people would be to mislead them.
In this book, I talk about 140 people out of the hundreds of people who created this movement and committed their lives to it.
Could you talk about the racial and social justice movements that many ACT UP members came from and how these movements influenced the wider group?
ACT UP was a predominantly White gay male organization, but it was not an exclusively White gay male organization. And that’s a really significant difference. There were so many kinds of influences from so many different communities and individuals. I can break it down to three elements.
The first is that the women and people of color in ACT UP tended to come from previous political movements. There were older White gay men who came from the gay liberation movement. But many of the younger White gay men had never been politically active before. So, people who came from the feminist women’s health movement, the women’s peace movement, the reproductive rights movement, the Latin American student movement, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and the Black Panthers had a huge impact on ACT UP.
The second realm of influence was that many of the people in ACT UP were born in the 1940s, ’50s and ‘60s. I was born in the ‘50s. So, as gay kids, we had no concept of a gay community or a gay movement. But we did see Black resistance on television and in Life and Jet magazines. We watched images of Black people standing up to the police, sitting in at lunch counters and using creative, nonviolent civil disobedience. That had a huge impact on us. I think that there was an internalization and an identification that took place, because when I was researching the book, I went back and reread Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he lays out what direct action is. And I realized that it was exactly what ACT UP did, even though we didn’t realize it at the time.
The third realm is that the Monday night meetings at the Lesbian and Gay Center, where there would be between 300 and 700 people, were overwhelmingly White and male. Yet many of the people at the meetings, including many White gay men, were also part of other coalitions with communities that were more diverse. They were working with homeless people, with drug users, with women with HIV, with incarcerated people with HIV, with mothers with HIV, with the Haitian community.
And so, by extension, ACT UP was really part of a huge coalition and served a very wide range of people.
People often viewed the late writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer as the leader of ACT UP. But your book is partly about getting away from the idea that there was ever a single, definitive leader of the group.
I interviewed 188 surviving members of ACT UP over 18 years, and not one person thinks that Larry Kramer was the leader of ACT UP. That was a media creation, because he was somebody who fit that John Wayne image, though the gay version, and the media at the time was entirely White and male. The private sector was entirely White and male. The government was entirely White and male. And gay men who were in that apparatus of power were mostly in the closet.
When those structures looked at ACT UP, they tended to see the men who looked like them: Ivy League-educated and a certain kind of class background. But there were plenty of other White gay men in ACT UP who were doing all kinds of work that has never been historicized. For example, the organization for housing for homeless people with AIDS, or the people who worked to make needle exchange legal in New York.
And then there were many unsung women, straight women like Karin Timour, who single-handedly masterminded this five-year campaign to win access to insurance for more than 500,000 people with HIV.
There was an Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, and those members were going to Asian gay bars and doing safe-sex education using the lucky red money packet paper from Chinese New Year to wrap condoms for a community that was not being addressed by any of the safe-sex programs in the city.
The Latino Caucus was really significant. There were four Latino-related committees in ACT UP, and I give the names of about 35 Latino activists in the organization. They went to Puerto Rico and started ACT UP Puerto Rico and were in all elements of the group.
There was Patricia Navarro, who was the only parent of a person with AIDS who joined ACT UP. She was a working-class Chicana from California. Her son was Ray Navarro. So, there was just so much heroism and activity and creativity, and I really wanted people to have access to this information.
What made you structure your book as part blueprint for present-day activists?
We’re in such a crisis in the US right now – with voter suppression, with the rise of this fanatical right-wing ideological cult in the government – and there are many movements of people who desperately want change. And there are exciting movements. There’s the movement against police violence, the Movement for Black Lives, the very important movement for immigration reform, the movement for Palestine solidarity, the movement to democratize education.
We’re at a time when people really want change, and I think that information that can help you get change is crucial. That’s why this book is not an act of nostalgia. It’s really about looking forward, about creating a big-tent politics for the kinds of movements we need right now.
In June 2019, I was in New York City for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I met up with a friend who’s gay and in his 60s. He talked about losing many friends to AIDS. It made me think about the enduring trauma – how little US society has reckoned with it. How do we start that process?
That’s why I end the book with a conversation with César Carrasco, from the Latino Caucus. He’s a very deep thinker. He’s a psychiatric social worker. He talks about the myth of resilience. This idea that if you lived, even if your friends died, you’re fine, and how false and fragile that is.
Many survivors of the first generation of AIDS have had various problems. Many have had lives that, as César puts it, don’t make sense, because they’ve been abandoned. There’s no recognition of what they’ve been through. And I’m hoping that trying to tell the broader story can be part of that recognition.