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The AIDS activism of the past still has lessons for us today

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 ancestors – the dead and the survivors – like never before.

The 700-page tome is a strengthening addition to an area of ​​ongoing research and testimony in the history of AIDS, a fix to previous accounts that have elevated some perspectives over others and only clung to to a handful of numbers.

Based on nearly two decades of interviews with nearly 200 members of the AIDS organization ACT UP (the Coalition Against AIDS to Unlock Power), “Let the Record Show” works as a oral history and a brief. Schulman herself was a grassroots member of ACT UP from 1987 to 1992, during which time, as she puts it, “a despised group of people” came together to “force our country to change against their will. “.

The book is also a plan. In fact, its main goal, writes Schulman, “is not to look back with nostalgia, but rather to help contemporary and future activists learn the lessons of the past so that they can organize themselves more effectively in the past. present ”.

ACT UP was successful in part because it used a variety of creative and mind-blowing direct action efforts – like the legendary Stop the Church demonstration – to demand the attention of a society that let down people with AIDS.

To examine ACT UP’s history and enduring legacy, I spoke with Schulman on 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 edited slightly for length and clarity.

One thing that “Let the Record Show” does is combat the fact that people tend to have a distorted version of the ACT UP story. What is this distorted version?

Americans are trained to believe in the structure of John Wayne – the heroic white individual – where one guy comes in and saves everyone. But it’s not even good in the movies.

In real life, change comes from community, from forming coalitions, some kind of collectivity of people who decide they need change.

Thus, the story of ACT UP has been limited to a handful of individuals, some of whom have done incredible work and are heroic. But to tell activists today that you can transform a whole paradigm with four or five people would be misleading them.

In this book, I speak of 140 of the hundreds of people who created this movement and dedicated their lives to it.

Could you talk about the racial and social justice movements that many ACT UP members have come from and how these movements have influenced the group at large?

ACT UP was a predominantly white gay organization, but it was not a exclusively Organization of white gay men. 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 into three parts.

The first is that the women and people of color in ACT UP tended to come from earlier political movements. There were older white gay men who came from the gay liberation movement. But many young white homosexuals had never been politically active before. Thus, people from the feminist movement for women’s health, the women’s peace movement, the reproductive rights movement, the Latin American student movement, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and the Black Panthers have had a huge impact on ACT UP.

The second area of ​​influence was that a lot of ACT UP members were born in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. I was born in the 50’s. So as gay kids we had no idea what to do with it. ‘a homosexual community or movement. But we’ve seen Black Resistance on TV and in Life and Jet magazines. We watched footage of blacks standing up to police, sitting at lunch counters, and using creative, non-violent civil disobedience. It had a huge impact on us. I think there was an internalization and identification that took place, because when I was researching the book I came back and reread Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Prison” Jr., in which he explains what direct action is. And I realized that was exactly what ACT UP was doing, even though we didn’t realize it at the time.

The third area is that the Monday night meetings at the Lesbian and Gay Center, where there are said to be between 300 and 700 people, were predominantly white and male. Yet many of those in attendance, including many white gay men, were also part of other coalitions with more diverse communities. They worked with homeless people, drug addicts, HIV positive women, HIV positive prisoners, HIV positive mothers, 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 have often seen the late writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer as a leader of ACT UP. But part of your book aims to move away from the idea that there was never a single definitive leader of the group.

I interviewed 188 surviving ACT UP members over 18 years, and no one thinks Larry Kramer was the leader of ACT UP. It was a media creation, because he was someone who fit that image of John Wayne, albeit the gay version, and the media at the time was all white and male. The private sector was entirely white and male. The government was all white and male. And the homosexuals who were part of this power apparatus were mostly in the closet.

When these structures watched ACT UP, they tended to see men who looked like them: Ivy League graduates and some type of social background. But there were a lot of other white gay men in ACT UP doing all kinds of work that was never historized. For example, the organization for the housing of the homeless with AIDS, or the people who worked to legalize the exchange of needles in New York.

And then there were a lot of unrecognized women, straight women like Karine Timour, who single-handedly organized this five-year campaign to gain access to insurance for more than 500,000 people living with HIV.

There was an Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, and these members would go to Asian gay bars and do safe sex education using red Chinese New Year lucky paper to wrap condoms for a community that doesn was processed by none of the safes. -sexual programs in the city.

The Latino Caucus was really important. 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 part of everything in the group.

There was Patricia Navarro, who was the only parent of a person with AIDS who joined ACT UP. It was a chicana of the working class of California. Her son was Ray navarro. So there was so much heroism and activity and creativity, and I really wanted people to have access to this information.

What prompted you to structure your book as a plan for activists today?

We are in such a crisis right now in the United States – with the suppression of voters, with the rise of this fanatical right-wing ideological cult in government – and there are many movements of people who are desperate for change. And there are some exciting moves. There is the movement against police violence, the Movement for Black Lives, the very important movement for immigration reform, the movement for solidarity with Palestine, the movement to democratize education.

We are in a time when people really want change, and I think the information that can help you achieve change is crucial. This is why this book is not an act of nostalgia. It’s really about looking to the future, creating a big tent policy for the types of movements that we need right now.

In June 2019, I was in New York for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. I met a gay friend and in my sixties. He spoke of the loss of many friends to AIDS. It made me think about the lingering trauma – how little heed American society about it. How do we start this process?

That’s why I end the book with a conversation with César Carrasco, of the Latino Caucus. He’s a very deep thinker. He’s a social worker in psychiatry. He talks about the myth of resilience. This idea that if you have lived, even if your friends are dead, you are fine, and how false and fragile it is.

Many first generation AIDS survivors had various problems. Many have had lives which, as Caesar says, are meaningless, because they have been abandoned. There is no recognition of what they went through. And I hope trying to tell a bigger story can be part of that recognition.


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.