At first glance the title of Sarah Schulman’s remarkable history of the Aids pressure group ACT UP in New York has a cool authority at odds with the turbulent energy of the group itself, although justified by the meticulousness of her scholarship. Let the Record Show was also the title of a 1987 agitprop artwork devised by a collective that later called itself Gran Fury, and Schulman’s book is unusual for a self-described political history in treating ACT UP’s cultural production as indivisible from its other activities. Let the Record Show, which was installed in a display window at the New Museum in SoHo, invoked memories of the Nuremberg Trials by envisioning a future in which figures like Cardinal Ratzinger, William F. Buckley Jr and Jesse Helms would be held to account for the hatefulness of their pronouncements about people with Aids.
ACT UP New York was founded in March 1987, but perhaps sparked as much as founded, thanks to the now-or-never rhetoric of the writer Larry Kramer, who asked an audience at the Gay Centre if they wanted a new organisation devoted to direct action. It was only a few years since he had resigned from the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organisation he had co-founded, disillusioned by its timidity and willingness to compromise. Over time Kramer was as much a divisive figure as a catalytic one, but ACT UP retained an in-your-face character, an abrasiveness hardly unfamiliar in its home city.
Groups were founded elsewhere with the ACT UP name, but they took on local issues and characteristics. In Britain the most pressing campaign, predating ACT UP in its origins, was against Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, which prohibited the ‘promoting’ of homosexuality by any organisation receiving public funding. There were sit-down protests and disruptions of television broadcasts. I myself gave money to help buy newspaper space and persuaded Iris Murdoch to add her name to a petition: worthy gestures but hardly the politics of the street. Muffling the extremity of protest about Aids issues in Britain was trust in the NHS, a trust both justified and unjustified – in the early days there was brutally discriminatory care, and a lack of understanding about the reality of patients’ lives.
By the time ACT UP was founded, Sarah Schulman was already a veteran activist and a journalist who had reported on the epidemic. Her book is made up of testimony, exposition and analysis, not blended but artfully layered. Schulman set up an Aids oral history project in 2001 with the filmmaker Jim Hubbard and conducted nearly two hundred interviews with surviving ACT UP members over a period of seventeen years (full transcripts are available online as well as excerpts in video form). They asked questions about their subjects’ lives before the epidemic, in an attempt to find the common factors that predisposed such a wide range of people to make common cause. Schulman’s conclusion has a blandness anything but characteristic of the book: ‘What all these ACT UPers had in common was not experiential … Rather, it was characterological. These were people who were unable to sit out a historic cataclysm … In case of emergency, they were not bystanders.’ It seems fair to suggest that some people fitting this profile didn’t find their way to an ACT UP meeting, just as some did whose original motives were not pure. As Gregg Bordowitz puts it, there was ‘all kinds of sexiness going on … all kinds of cruising going on the sides, and eye catching, and chattiness. There was an energy in the group that was amazing … a kind of erotic energy … It was in some ways like a bazaar of desires.’
In the course of the interviews, Schulman noticed that there were men who discussed their involvement with the group at great length without mentioning women’s contribution, and women who talked about their activities as if they were the only representatives of their sex. Even so, she believes that social change is made by coalitions, and the thesis advanced here is that the skills and resources acquired from the struggle for reproductive rights enabled women to play a transformative role in ACT UP. She proves it in breadth and depth.
The standard line is that the group’s disruptive energy came from the prosperous white men who found that their privilege offered them no protection now that a stigmatising illness had emerged. Certainly that’s the way one ACT UP member, Ann Northrop, saw it: ‘Gay white men thought they had privilege in this country and were shocked to find they didn’t, and that people in power were prepared to let them die. And when they figured that out, they got very angry about it – a lot of them.’ The converse of this was that they had no experience of acting outside the institutions that had until recently treated them as important people. Women who had been involved in organising and providing informal services (such as rape counselling or illegal abortions), on the other hand, had a lot of practice in improvising solutions. The shock for these women was the funding available in this new context. They were used to having to work out how to afford sandwiches for a bus trip to a protest; now they might find that paying for hundreds of plane tickets to get people to a big action was no big deal.
The myth of the white male hero, expounded supremely by Hollywood but permeating the media, can only misrepresent a coalition with an aversion to hierarchy. No one ever doubted that Kramer gave the organisation a push, and as Schulman puts it, there were others with the same level of privilege who did nothing to put it at the service of their community, but this was someone who was able to compel others to face facts while wearing his own set of blinkers. It’s no accident of construction (this is a beautifully managed book) that on his first appearance in Let the Record Show he makes the case against himself so efficiently. Schulman recounts a public conversation with Kramer at OutWrite in Boston in the early 1990s, when she suggested ‘that the next time Larry was called by the media, he could refer them to a person of colour or woman in ACT UP. And Larry responded, “But Sarah, shouldn’t we use our best people?”’ This would be revealing enough in a private conversation, much more so in front of an audience.
There was no steering committee for ACT UP New York, since these were people with a strong aversion to being steered. There were other committees though. It’s clearly significant that the one made up of people of colour was called the majority action committee – the moment you refer to yourself as a minority you’ve booked yourself a back seat. The first lengthy testimony in the book comes from two men on that committee, Robert Vázquez-Pacheco and Moisés Agosto-Rosario, and shows how much autonomy could exist within the organisation. Vázquez-Pacheco, a Black Puerto Rican born in New York City, made the transition from audience member at meetings to visibility in the simplest way, by noticing that the person writing information on a whiteboard had an illegible hand, and taking over with his own neat architectural script. As a Puerto Rican born on the island, Agosto-Rosario had a different perspective, but the two of them exemplify Schulman’s point that once issues relevant to women and/or people of colour with Aids were articulated, the relevant ACT UP members ‘did not waste their time trying to teach their white male comrades to be less sexist and racist … Women and/or POC members did not stop the drive towards action to correct or control language or to call out bias.’ Rather than engaging in a campaign of consciousness-raising, ACT UP’s Latino caucus proposed a visit to Puerto Rico to help start a chapter there challenging government inaction. The proposal was endorsed at a Monday night meeting, and off they went.
By definition, historians attend to the past, but as Schulman sees it the Aids epidemic is not over – of the hundred thousand New Yorkers who have died of Aids, 1779 died in 2017. In her study of the goals and techniques of ACT UP she is also trying to offer guidance for future activists. Meeting-places should be culturally warmed up, already part of the daily lives of potential members, so as to make the step towards attending a first gathering easier. (In this respect the Gay Centre in New York, where early meetings were held, played a crucial role.) Some administrative perks have hidden disadvantages: if you apply for tax-exempt status, for instance, as ACT UP did not, you have to be careful about civil disobedience that might break its conditions. It isn’t clear whether the failure to apply was tactical or was never considered, but it meant the group had a latitude that other non-governmental agencies (including Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a group working through more conventional channels) had signed away. In the book’s early sections Schulman stresses the importance of effectiveness in direct action, which seems merely a rhetorical statement (what group doesn’t want its actions to be effective?), but later pages suggest what she means. If participants in one action are immediately given notice of the next they are more likely to maintain momentum. Counting down the days before an important intervention can help people stay focused.
Schulman is quietly partisan, often using the first-person plural (the book is dedicated to ‘us’), though with such a broad range of internal perspectives on record there’s no shortage of in-house analysis and criticism. She mentions that no one in all those years of interviews refused to answer a question, adding almost in passing that she herself once cut an interview short. Its subject had shown no respect for those whose involvement in the group predated his own, and there is a difference between ‘principled disagreement and character assassination’. She has an explanation, charming in its wryness, for her subjects’ willingness to share their experiences so openly: ‘Since so many New Yorkers have been in therapy, they were used to telling their thoughts and feelings to a middle-aged Jewish woman.’
The interviews are mostly paraphrased rather than quoted in extenso, and the tone is generally neutral. When there’s more pointed phrasing – one subject’s mother taking in ‘laundry and foster children’ to make ends meet – the reader is free to decide whether it’s the interviewer or the subject who is responsible for the dry irony of the formulation. Occasionally inarticulate speech demands to be cited exactly rather than tidied up. On one occasion this is to honour incoherence, when Dr Joseph Sonnabend struggles to express his feelings:
I’m very sad, for example, sad – I don’t know, I can’t find the right word – but if I think of the people in the earliest years, the patients who, or people with Aids, who died horribly, and who did, I think, rather wonderful things on this earth, who completely just don’t exist any longer. They’ve been – the things, some of the things they have done, the credit’s been taken by others. They’re just forgotten. Not that one needs to memorialise individuals, but – at the end of the day, maybe it’s just sort of that the sadness of ineffable suffering is for nothing, in a way.
Sonnabend ran the Community Research Initiative, testing drugs independently of government and industry, and spotted procedural errors in the double-blind studies whose misleading endorsement of AZT (then the most expensive drug ever marketed) worked wonders, if not for patients then for the stock price of Burroughs Wellcome.
On another page the direct quotation of Dan Keith Williams, a group member who embezzled thousands of dollars, serves to shine a light on his equivocation:
This is something that Dan Williams did, and if you want to hate me, if you want to think I’m a crook, if you want to think I’m the worst person in the world, that’s your prerogative. I put it in perspective. I did something wrong. I made a big mistake. I own up to it. I own up to it because I did it, but I understand why I did it myself.
The book describes two protest actions in detail, Seize Control of the FDA in October 1988 and the Stop the Church incursion at St Patrick’s Cathedral in December 1989, which can be seen respectively as a breakthrough and a damaging scandal. The novelty of the first protest was partly the choice of target: the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration, a humble enough structure in suburban Maryland rather than a symbolically richer building or institution in Washington DC. The degree of organisation involved was exceptional for a group perceived as made up of crazy radicals. It took work to tamp down that volatility and make it productive.
Ann Northrop, who co-ordinated the media committee, had a touching lack of faith in the fourth estate, seeing journalists as ignorant and lazy. You had to phone up and talk to people, she said, or your wonderful press release would end up in the trash. You should ask them what they knew about the relevant issues, try not to be shocked by their cluelessness and make sure they came away thinking the ideas you gave them were their own. This was essential, because the great majority of any news item is the reporter talking. As the group’s sophistication grew, representatives of local news stations and newspapers would be led to meet protesters from their own states. It made the difference between coverage of an action being tucked away inside a Texas or Arizona newspaper and being on the front page.
National publicity could be achieved thanks to the contacts of people like Chip Duckett. His experience was in publicising cookbooks, but the recipe was the same. For the FDA action the media committee sent out hundreds of press kits, followed up by phone calls. Mike Signorile kept telling people that this was going to be ‘the largest thing since the storming of the Pentagon’, although he had no idea how big that 1967 protest was (more than a hundred thousand people attended). The formula was repeated on the local news in Washington to accompany footage of the FDA headquarters being taped off, meaning that the action had achieved most of its goals before it even took place. From then on, the FDA returned phone calls promptly, and the attitude shifted from ‘You’re wasting my time’ to ‘We need to work with you people.’
With the Stop the Church action, a year later, ACT UP’s target had a worldwide constituency and no accountability to American voters. There’s no disputing that the Catholic Church was exacerbating the Aids crisis in New York. Institutionalised homophobia was shown by the diocese’s refusal to let the gay Catholic group Dignity meet on church premises, at a time when members of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue were welcome to sleep in the church, refreshing themselves between days spent harassing women on their way to clinics. The church also set itself against needle exchange, turning addiction into a potential death sentence.
Even if there was no steering committee for ACT UP New York, it didn’t follow that there was no steering going on. Stop the Church was ACT UP’s biggest action, with seven thousand protesters. When it was first proposed that there should be disruption inside the cathedral as well as outside, on the grounds that the church and its cardinal had forfeited immunity when they intervened so destructively in worldly affairs, the steering energy was devoted to softening the confrontation. It was agreed that the disruption should take place during the homily, a quasi-secular point in the mass. But it didn’t work out that way. A protester called Michael Petrelis stood up on a pew and started shouting. Another activist, Tom Keane, received the host, then impulsively crushed it and dropped it on the floor.
Schulman was in the cathedral that day, although she doesn’t use her experience as a lens through which to view the whole event. She barely describes her reaction and gives it no special status. Nor does she attempt to squash the Stop the Church action into the binary of success or failure. Yes, the disruption of the mass was unpopular with the public – Gerri Wells, giving sensitivity training at a police station, used to come up against the flat comment, ‘You guys went into our church,’ though at least she could answer: ‘Well, it’s my church too.’ But one contributor to the oral history project, Victor Mendolia, sees it as significant that two weeks later, when the church was opening a hospice for people with Aids, a news reporter on NBC asked Cardinal O’Connor, ‘Don’t you think it odd that you continue to open up hospices for people to die in, yet you oppose condoms and safe-sex education?’ He had never been asked to justify himself before. ‘And then I knew that we won.’
There were any number of professional specialities represented in the ranks of ACT UP, but graphic designers were the most obvious. The group’s printed material had a consistent look, its logo the Nazi-imposed pink triangle motif rotated through 180 degrees. This was print activism in the pre-digital era, a time when posters, leaflets and community newspapers provided essential services. Merchandise, largely branded clothing, was an important source of revenue. There’s a droll account of Larry Kramer performing a U-turn from savage denunciation of triviality to wild enthusiasm when he saw how well sales were going. At one Gay Pride rally, Keith Haring T-shirts brought in some $30,000 in cash.
The slogan ‘Silence = Death’ fits neatly on a T-shirt, though it’s a rallying cry without much content – not all ways of breaking silence are productive. Much more striking, since it has as much meaning as impact, is the bitterly witty slogan ‘Women don’t get Aids, they just die from it.’ The campaign to get the CDC definition of Aids expanded to include specifically female conditions such as cervical cancer was a long one. The issue seems clear cut, since disability payments were dependent on diagnosis, and the resistance to it is hard to explain, unless there was an assumption that women’s bodies were somehow vague in themselves, mysterious organisms resisting the clarity of science.
The style of the group’s spectacular actions seems to indicate the influence of theatre directors, performance artists or students of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, if not all three, but the book makes clear that theory was a late arriver at the party, if it turned up at all. At the Stock Exchange zap in September 1989, for instance, activists infiltrated the floor dressed as traders, relying more on business drag than on their ID badges, got up with a rubber stamp which gave them all the same name. At a signal, a group let off foghorns, chained themselves to banisters and unrolled a banner reading ‘Sell Wellcome’ from a disused VIP balcony (preparation had been thorough). The two designated photographers took pictures and left, handing their cameras to runners who were waiting outside to take them to the Associated Press. The action created in one continuous gesture protest, its documentation, a coup de théâtre and a clean getaway, at least for the photographers, though they actually went back in to help their comrades and were arrested. Three days later the price of AZT was lowered by 20 per cent.
To make sure that the desecration of the host didn’t set a pattern of provocation much coaching and preparation was required, but it was important not to give instructions, just to pass on the hard-won wisdom of street protest. Don’t be panicked into running away, even if the police bring horses. Sitting down is safe, if everyone does it. Horses will not trample you. If you run, your weak and your slow will be left behind – and on a march of Aids activists the weak and the slow are a crucial contingent. On the day the group’s energy should simmer and even seethe but never boil over. Marshals (ideally 75 of them for a demonstration of four hundred people) learned how to break the deadlock of confrontation, the futile stasis of one face shouting into another. If there were hecklers, marshals would engage them in dialogue; if an activist overstepped the limits of peaceful protest a marshal would explain to the police that this was not what was intended.
Smooth teamwork was more likely if there was an element of play involved. For an action at the Statue of Liberty, for instance, undertaken with Women’s Health Action and Mobilisation (WHAM!), activists dressed as tourists. If a cause is worth risking jail for it must be worth taking your nose ring out for. It might even be worth donning, just for one day, the invisibility cloak of a pastel pant suit. The crucial piece of preparation was the unobtrusive cast, made on an earlier visit, of the nuts used to secure the bronze windows in the crown of the statue: a wrench of the right size made the difference between a flamboyant statement and a charge of criminal damage. The enormous banner hung from the crown read ‘No Choice, No Liberty’. It was so heavy that breezeblocks were needed to anchor it. The ‘tourists’ brought them along in their handbags. At the base of the statue another large banner read ‘Abortion is healthcare. Healthcare is a right.’ The willingness of men in ACT UP to take on women’s issues was real: Maxine Wolfe’s group, which spent four years campaigning to change the CDC definition of Aids, had only seven female members out of 24.
A major concern for ACT UP was the way women of childbearing age were automatically excluded from drug trials, not an Aids-specific piece of discrimination but a consequence of the thalidomide scandal. Compensation payouts, based on a newborn’s projected lifetime earnings, had been very large, and drug testing protocols were altered to avoid any repetition. It wouldn’t seem difficult to resolve this question, with a waiver mechanism for those women who wanted to be included. Yet the problem has been remarkably intractable, and the consequences long-lasting, with women responding significantly less well than men to the combination therapies that for the last quarter-century, for those with access to them, have held the progression of Aids in check.
Dr Anthony Fauci’s stock rises and falls over the course of the book; he is seen by at least one contributor as preoccupied with his own glory. As director of the National Institutes of Health he was willing to respond to phone calls and to have meetings with activists, even if it was only to explain, as in the case of the exclusion of women from drug trials, the reason the situation wasn’t going to change. He met only once, after much pressure and many requests, with female activists who wanted to discuss women’s issues, and gave them an hour of his time. There is some cautious endorsement of him here: ‘At some point he learned to use us, as well – not just work with us, but to use us for his goals, which were not necessarily in conflict with our goals.’ It’s in keeping with the principles of the book that there is no attempt to treat him even potentially as a hero. He was doing his job more or less well, and was more or less responsive to pressure exerted on him from above and from below.
The lawyer Lori Cohen was in a different category, giving up time and revenue to handle ten thousand cases for ACT UP, as was Iris Long, a self-described ‘Queens housewife’, but also a chemist with advanced degrees who used her skills to inform the group. Long was in her fifties and had no history of political involvement. She had never met someone with Aids and had no gay friends, yet she took the microphone at an ACT UP meeting. Public speaking was not her strong suit, and what she had to offer might have been ignored if one ACT UP member, the film historian Vito Russo, hadn’t recognised the importance of what she was saying – for instance, that 80 per cent of the trials then in progress were of a single drug, AZT. Russo was able to convince most of the audience that the best use of the group’s energies was to push for wider testing of promising drugs. Long made an enormous contribution, writing weekly briefings that those who attended meetings could pick up from a long table at the back of the room. It helped that she was at no particular risk of sickening and dying. A life expectancy beyond weeks and months shouldn’t be a qualification for making a contribution to an organisation, but it was an asset at a time when ACT UP funerals were weekly events. Russo himself died in 1990.
Karin Timour, who worked as an HIV co-ordinator for a drug rehabilitation programme, had even less of a welcome: hardly anyone spoke to her for the first three or four months she attended meetings, and her specialist knowledge might well have remained untapped. After her brother developed a rare illness she had done her best to educate herself in the insurance business, that wilderness of loopholes. When there was a call for people to join a health insurance committee she volunteered. Shortly afterwards, she and five other activists were marching in a little circle outside the Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield building on the corner of Third Avenue and 40th Street, protesting against an exclusion that was plausibly an oversight. Nothing could be further from the carnivalesque, from spectacles like the two dozen Father Christmases chained together in a circle inside Macy’s to highlight its discrimination against potential Santas who were on medication for HIV. Six people marching with placards. But it was enough pressure, right lever, right fulcrum, to get the exclusion reversed.
Timour also organised a campaign in all fifty states – this is before the internet existed – to win insurance rights for people with Aids. Schulman sees the history of ACT UP as offering lessons for future grassroots campaigns, though she doesn’t specifically consider the role of the internet. Spectacular events are much easier to arrange with the help of social media, and less powerful for that same reason. There was a whiff of cultural terror about ACT UP’s explosions of targeted anger at a time before the vacuous pranking of the flashmob. The advantages in terms of co-ordination offered by electronic media are more than offset by the surveillance opportunities they make possible. At least in the 1980s, as detailed in an appendix here, the FBI had to make a bit of an effort if it wanted to monitor the activities of ACT UP, sending (very conspicuous) agents to meetings or putting pressure on participants.
Jim Eigo, an ACT UP member who worked closely with Long, proposed that the federal authorities should allow sick people to receive experimental drugs even if they didn’t meet the standard criteria. The data yielded would be fuzzier than that obtained from more orthodox trials, but that didn’t mean it had no value. He co-wrote a letter to Fauci making the case for the idea, which Fauci ignored, though he later accepted its viability and called it ‘parallel track’ testing. Eigo sees this as being at least in part a piece of inter-agency jockeying (‘I don’t for a minute think it was only out of the goodness of his heart that he was doing it’), with Fauci at the NIH quite happy to put the FDA under pressure. Perhaps, but the bottom-up dynamic of ACT UP certainly had an effect on institutions with a very different tradition of working.
The way ACT UP engaged with state organisations is described by Schulman as the Inside-Outside Strategy (it could also be described as Good Activist, Bad Activist). Once an issue was identified, a small group would set out to master it in detail, and would present their recommendation on solving it to the relevant institutions. If no progress was made a protest action would be planned, in which the full membership could participate. The second phase was confrontational, the first was not. It made sense for the authorities to negotiate with people not jarringly different from themselves, and the authorities of the 1980s were almost invariably white and male. More than once in the book Schulman wonders whether this was a missed opportunity to educate those echelons in the knowledge, welcome or not, that white men do not constitute the world. But ACT UP was an organisation focused on results, not on utopian projects, and saving lives was its supreme objective, which other causes were not entitled to override.
On those occasions ACT UP delegations would mirror the structures of power, but there was no desire to emulate them. The role of power-broker is traditionally a tempting one for individuals and organisations alike, but ACT UP broke with the pattern whereby a candidate or official who accepts a pressure group’s agenda gets their support in return. The response from ACT UP was to move on from that functionary to another, and extract matching concessions.
On occasion members of ACT UP took up government positions: Eigo was appointed to a commission by the FDA after the adoption of parallel track testing, and Vázquez-Pacheco and Agosto-Rosario worked for the Community Constituency Group, which was part of the government. But in general there was a great fear of being co-opted, of losing the disruptive power of their maverick status. There is an almost puritan element to the feeling that ACT UP should not be a professional springboard. This is most obvious in the way those involved in art projects, like Tom Kalin of Gran Fury, later a film director (Swoon, Savage Grace), saw the art world as placating its own guilty conscience by giving space to the group, putting committed artists in a precarious ideological position. Gran Fury eventually disbanded rather than face exhaustion or compromise, and Kalin makes the point that other professionals, like lawyers, worked for ACT UP for free and did not further their careers. Perfectly true, but careers in law are more resilient than those in the arts. It can seem as if the individualised trauma of survivor guilt was being elevated into a cultural requirement, almost a party line.
Schulman scrutinises the conscience of ACT UP, returning more than once to the Inside strategy of negotiating white man to white man. ‘If the Latino caucus, or a group of out lesbians, had been the first hand that reached out to the government, would it have been grasped? I would guess that the answer would be no … This is one of the legacies and mysteries that we all have to grapple with.’ But if it’s judged to be a waste of time to raise consciousness within your own ranks (as it was by the members of the Latino caucus), why try to model a more diverse future in a negotiation with government when your friends’ lives are at stake?
It feels strange to lecture Schulman on the class and privilege politics that she makes so inclusive and humane. But it’s not just that in its negotiations with authority ACT UP backed away from challenging assumptions about who is accorded full membership of the body politic. The Inside-Outside Strategy depended on exploiting these assumptions. The message being sent at those meetings, white man to white man, was: You know me. I’m like you, I’m rational. You can deal with me, and you’d better do it … because I don’t know how long I can hold them back, those others … Women and people of colour. Who knows what they’ll take it into their heads to do?
In one passage Schulman admits as much: ‘In these negotiations T & D [the representatives of the treatment and data committee] used the executives’ fear of the Outside, the ACT UP of women, radicals and people of colour, the street activists who could turn out in large numbers and to whom the corporate men could not relate.’ The argument about expediency still holds, the need to focus on saving lives, but it’s less innocent than the book makes out. The balance within ACT UP was lost when the Inside-Outside Strategy (‘the one/two whammy’) created two tribes, Insiders willing to be co-opted and Outsiders excluded from the information flow.
In considering the longer-term reverberations of ACT UP, Schulman sees a different configuration in the dance between radicalism and accommodation:
Ironically, Stop the Church made possible the future assimilationist agenda of the gay rights movement, which uplifts pro-natalism, nuclear family, monogamy and marriage. Because when the world saw women wanting abortion rights and homosexuals and people with Aids refusing to adhere to the boundaries of Catholic Church property, the prospect of the much more controllable, integrationist concept of gay marriage suddenly seemed reasonable and, in fact, desirable.
This seems a rather flattened version of dialectic, with a hinge moment, a single demonstration in 1989, given almost unlimited power. Assimilationism, too, seems the wrong term, emphasising the loss of radical power entailed by entering the mainstream. But isn’t marriage (in particular) a gatekeeper institution, entirely defined by whom it lets in and whom it keeps out? Marriage that includes gays is a different institution from marriage that excludes them, just as votes for women made suffrage a different thing. The polemic ‘I Hate Straights,’ for instance, written by Anonymous Queers (though their names appear in Let the Record Show), copies of which were distributed at Gay Pride in 1990, is the most intransigent statement of social rage associated with members of ACT UP. Yet it includes this passage:
The next time some straight person comes down on you for being angry, tell them that until things change, you don’t need any more evidence that the world turns at your expense. You don’t need to see only hetero couples grocery shopping on your TV … You don’t want any more baby pictures shoved in your face until you can have or keep your own. No more weddings, showers, anniversaries, please, unless they are our own brothers and sisters celebrating.
Schulman may characterise the membership of ACT UP as suffragettes rather than suffragists, but this seems a lot like an assimilationist agenda. Still, if anyone is entitled to a little questionable speculation, after amassing so much compelling factual and human testimony, it’s the author of this rich and amazing book.