Sarah Schulman: ‘Forget About the Folks Who Don’t Want to Fight’

The author of “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993” has some advice for today's young organizers.

Sarah Schulman’s “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993” has been called “a masterpiece of historical research.” Based on more than 200 interviews with members of ACT UP — an international, grassroots political group founded in 1987 working to end the AIDS pandemic — Schulman offers an expansive and long-overdue exploration of the coalition’s inner workings, achievements and conflicts. Here, Schulman talks with fellow Jewish community organizer Adam Eli about the book and what young activists today can learn from the ACT UP generation.

A fundamental aspect of ACT UP’s media strategy was to talk through the media — the idea that the news media are a vehicle to talk to the general public or people in power who are watching. How does that change when we can completely craft the message ourselves via social media? How can social media effectively be used as an activist tool?

I have no answer to that because every generation has to use their own technology. For the ACT UP generation, the new technology was video. So that’s what they grasped. We all know the danger of social media is that people end up in bubbles, and there’s no common source that everyone is looking at, like the evening news or something like that. We’re very siloed, but I absolutely do not have an answer for that, sorry.

I appreciate that. Is it true that ACT UP members used to bring camcorders to actions and create their own reelswhich they would send home and also to news organizations?

Well, it actually started earlier than that. When AIDS first began, the main way of recording was with film. The earliest AIDS media was shot on 16 millimeter and super eight film, and there was no technology for recording off the television set. People were literally aiming their cameras at the screen and filming what was on TV. Then the camcorder was invented right as ACT UP came into being. So, it was the first time that a movement had control of their media.

ACT UP did shoot their own footage and bring it to television stations and things like that, but there were also a number of video collectives inside ACT UP. They would make their own reels and mail them to people around the country, and around the world, as a way of getting our news out because the mainstream media did not cover AIDS or gay news.

When I hear stories like that, I always think, “Can you imagine if these incredible people had access to Instagram?”

I’m not saying that things would have been any better. I don’t see that organizing is any better now. I mean, certain things are possible, but other things are lost. One of the main organizing structures was that people spent all their time together. They lived together, they worked together, they had affinity groups. ACT UP was a way of life. And by spending so much real time together, people became very educated on the experiences of people with AIDS, and were able to brainstorm all the time, as part of daily life, about how to find solutions and how to have creative responses. Not having that intimacy is a real disadvantage for organizing.

Sarah Schulman

You’ve spoken often about the sense of urgency driving ACT UP. This urgency still exists in parts of the current queer rights movement where people are actively dying, namely in the trans rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the intersex movement. However, in my experience, for many white gay American men, that sense of urgency is not there, yet those with more privilege are needed now especially. Like you talk about in your book, we need their access and resources. How can we activate people who feel like their personal lives are not on the line?

You know, I look at this whole question really differently… so let me rephrase it in my way.

Please!

Right now, the most radical movements in America are the movements against police violence, the movements for Black lives, Palestinian solidarity, and the movement for immigrants’ rights — all of these movements have openly trans people within leadership. So that is where the liberation politics, queer liberation politics, live in those movements. There is a very rarefied gay rights highly funded sector — groups like GLAAD and HRC; I don’t even know who these people are. I couldn’t even tell you their names. I’ve never met them.

It’s true that in the ACT UP era, gay white man was not a privileged category. Gay white men were a profoundly oppressed group. Gay sex was illegal, gay people had no basic rights, you could be kicked out of a restaurant — which was something that happened to me, and to many people. You didn’t have the right to public accommodation. Familial homophobia was the norm. There was a sport called gay bashing, where straight people used to come into gay neighborhoods as entertainment and beat us. Beat up, especially, gay men. It was a state of high and profound alienation.

If you asked me, “What is the most important queer issue today?” I would say poverty.  The fact that there’s an elite who are aligned with the state at this point … one of the lessons of ACT UP is that you don’t need everybody to make change. The changes are made by a small group of people who are committed to being effective. Most people do not participate in change, and never have. Even most oppressed people. Most people with AIDS never did anything to fight AIDS. Most gay people never did anything to fight for gay liberation. And the same thing is true for every other group. I would say: Forget about them, forget about the folks who don’t want to fight.

Sarah Schulman

In your book, you speak about how the gay male image and the gay male hero narrative is used over and over again in the representation of ACT UP. Your book thoroughly and eloquently disproves that idea. Did you receive pushback about this? How has that been received?

This is a very interesting question. ACT UP has been misrepresented. What people are saying is that I have foregrounded women and people of color, but that is not true. I just said what they did, and that apparently is shocking information. Most white men in ACT UP did not have their work historicized. In my book, I go into depths of white male activists and leaders who started movements for homeless people with AIDS, worked on needle exchange, and were involved with the Haitian underground. And they did all kinds of incredible work that they never got credit for, or that people don’t know about.

It’s not just that white men’s stories were told, and now I’m foregrounding women and people of color. White men’s stories were not told. What happened was that five or so individuals were singled out and decontextualized to fit into the heroic white male narrative that America always uses, which obstructs the fact that it’s not individuals that lead enormous paradigm shifts, it’s community. And in America, it’s coalitions of communities.

You talk about how Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Enemies, A Love Story” (1989), which you adapted into a play, really influenced the way that you structured this book. Could you talk to me a little bit about that?

Singer wrote about the Jews of Europe before the cataclysm and then when he saw them again in America after. Of course, he missed the Holocaust, as he was in the United States. What was revealed by this juxtaposition of before and after is that these were not pure, clean, primitive beings who were decimated by this evil force. These were complex human beings who had their own flaws and contradictions, who then had a cruel cataclysm imposed on them, and then emerged with many of their human contradictions still intact. And that is the most sophisticated depiction of victims I have ever seen, because when you stigmatize a group — whether it’s Jews or people with AIDS — you dehumanize them, and the only way that their destruction can be seen as wrong is if they’re clean. But if you actually see human beings for who they are, they’re never clean. And so, cruelty is never justified.

When I did the stage adaptation of “Enemies, A Love Story,” I got so deeply into how [Singer] depicted this. It’s very different to the way the Jews of Europe are normally depicted. For example, he has a womanizing man who abandons his family before the Holocaust. Then, his children are murdered. He suffers profoundly. He ends up as a refugee in New York, but he’s still a womanizer, because he’s still a person! And this burden of perfection was put on people with AIDS. The press, when they finally did start to cover AIDS, divided people into innocent victims and guilty victims. Those were actually two literal categories. A guilty victim was a person who had sex or used needles. An innocent victim was like a hemophiliac.

This concept of having to deserve compassion pervades all of our histories of cataclysm. So that’s why Singer was so influential on the way that Jim and I theorized this. That’s why I show all the flaws, because if you want to learn from ACT UP, you have to see people as human beings, and human beings act out, especially when under that much pressure of constant dying and suffering in their 20s. They have contradictions and do things like steal money and shoot drugs and pretend they’re HIV positive when they’re not. It’s not respectability politics, it’s human. It’s human beings. This is also imposed on Palestinians. Palestinians are supposed to be clean and perfect, or else they don’t deserve rights.

Sarah Schulman

Another thing that you say in the book, and I’m not sure if it was a joke or not, is, “I always felt that one of the reasons people spoke so openly to me was because they wanted to make record of their achievements and were truly interested in discussing their ACT UP experiences, and since so many New Yorkers have been in therapy, they were used to telling their thoughts and feelings to a middle-aged Jewish woman.”

It’s a joke, but it’s also true. I was just amazed! If I was a man, people might’ve been more defensive, I don’t know. But no, in 17 years, nobody ever refused to answer a question. People were really happy to be able to tell what they did, a lot of people had never been interviewed before. It was a very New York kind of relationship.

Avram Finklestein’s iconic “silence = death” poster has a clear reference to the Holocaust — the pink triangle turned upside down. However, the creation of this poster originally had a different concept that also pertained to the Holocaust — the tattooing of the number — can you talk a little about that?

That’s because of William Buckley. He was a very powerful conservative who had a prime-time television show, and his brother was a New York senator. He was in the mainstream of politics and he called for people with AIDS to be tattooed. That was a literal demand. In response, ACT UP, in their first pride parade in 1987, had a float showing people with AIDS in a concentration camp as a response to this demand to be tattooed.

Right before ACT UP was founded in 1987, there was a zap organization called The Lavender Hill Mob. Zap is a tactic that came from the gay liberation movement; it is something that only people who are excluded from power can do, because it’s about bursting into the room and fucking up everything. Michael Petrelis and Marty Robinson dressed up in concentration camp uniforms and disrupted a meeting of the CDC to demand why they weren’t doing anything about AIDS.

These images had been in place from the beginning and it’s because of our generation — Jews who were born right post-Holocaust. A lot of people in ACT UP were born in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. I was born 13 years after the end of the Holocaust. We experienced the Holocaust as the central metaphor. I also think that Jews were very overrepresented in leadership in gay liberation and in feminism, because we had been trained in that post-Holocaust generation with some kind of social justice orientation, and sense of responsibility, but our own community didn’t want us. Our families were so homophobic, and the Jewish community had no place for us. That [Jewish] leadership got transferred to the gay movement. That’s why you have [leaders] like Marty Duberman, Adrienne Rich, Lillian Faderman and Larry Kramer. And on and on and on. The Holocaust was a central metaphor in the lives of that generation, and in the early AIDS days, it was very present. As younger people got involved, that changed.

Act Up Sarah Schulman
Members of ACT UP = Aids Coalition to Unleash Power hold up signs and placards during the Gay and Lesbian Pride march, New York, New York, June 26, 1988. (Photo by Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

Is there anything else that you want to talk about? Specifically to a younger Jewish audience?

If only lesbian novels could get the support and attention as books about men, my life would be complete.

All photos by Ryan McGinley

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