Act Up Oral History Project

For World Aids Day on the 1st December, the Act Up Oral History Project 

A collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York.

The purpose of this project is to present comprehensive, complex, human, collective, and individual pictures of the people who have made up ACT UP/New York. These men and women of all races and classes have transformed entrenched cultural ideas about homosexuality, sexuality, illness, health care, civil rights, art, media, and the rights of patients. They have achieved concrete changes in medical and scientific research, insurance, law, health care delivery, graphic design, and introduced new and effective methods for political organizing. These interviews reveal what has motivated them to action and how they have organized complex endeavors. We hope that this information will de-mystify the process of making social change, remind us that change can be made, and help us understand how to do it.

Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia (1995)

Rat Bohemia has a special place in my heart as the first lesbian novel that I read, excepting The Color Purple, which is more of a novel with lesbian themes than a lesbian novel per se.  I have no idea where I laid my hands on my copy because Schulman is not at all well known in the UK.  I think she’s one of our best lesbian writers, but the topics she explores don’t make for popularity.  Rat Bohemia sets out to make connections between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the heterosexual family.

The novel is definitely postmodern, but written in an accessible style. Schulman never overwrites and her deceptively simple, clear prose masks a complex, carefully thought out narrative structure.

Rat Bohemia is divided into four parts, each narrated by a different character. Like most of Schulman’s work, it’s set in a run-down, gothic New York.  And like much traditional Gothic fiction, the text is a patchwork of interlinked voices telling the story from different perspectives.  The first narrator, Rita Mae Weems, is a Jewish lesbian in her early thirties, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she works for Pest Control and is obsessed with New York’s rat problem.  Rita has never got over being thrown out of home at the age of 16 when her father caught her in bed with a girl called Claudia.  The second part is narrated by David, a gay Jewish writer and activist living with AIDS who is desperate for some acknowledgement and love from the family members who he feels are trying to kill him.  The third section is narrated by Rita’s best friend, Killer, a bohemian career plant-waterer who is involved in a passionate affair with the enigmatic Troy Ruby.  Along the way, there are other voices: Rita’s Cuban lover, Lourdes, successful closeted lesbian writer, Muriel Kay Starr, and David’s upper-middle class lawyer father.

Rat Bohemia is an angry novel about devastation, the devastation wrought not only by the AIDS crisis, but by society’s lack of adequate response to that crisis. Schulman locates the source of that deadly neglect in the family, daring to make connections between the Holocaust and American society’s ignoring, even cheering on, of the suffering and death of thousands of gay men in the 1980s.  The novel is a no holds barred critique of the family and its contribution to the suffering of queer people, and  Schulman is totally uncompromising in her representation of the way heterosexual families rationalise their cruelties to their queer members.

I remember when I first read it being struck by her point that heterosexual kids usually get some kind of parental cheerleading when they start to date, something that queer kids have to do without.  She doesn’t let heterosexual siblings off the hook, pointing out the ways they can take advantage of the situation.  This is a problem in the structure of the nuclear family, in which love is treated like booty to be parcelled out to members. She has no gratitude whatsoever for scraps of tolerance and ends the novel with the statement that every child deserves someone to be on their side and defend them.

There isn’t much light in this novel, though Schulman keeps it from being depressing with her warm, blackly humorous tone and her faith in friendship.  The only hope for us, she seems to say, is to be found in love and community between queer people.

This is still a radical book and I think I found it all the more powerful on re-reading.

The Straight Actors Playing LGBT People Film Fad

Recently we’ve seen a spate of straight, white, male actors receiving bravura reviews and lashings of award nominations for their performances as gay men in mainstream movies.   This is a tradition that goes back to Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Jonathan Demme’s reprehensible saintly-dead-queer-person film, Philadelphia (1993).   Since then we have seen Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Sean Penn in Milk (2008), Colin Firth and Matthew Goode in A Single Man (2009), and Jim Carey and Ewan McGregor in I Love you Philip Morris (2009).

Aside from Philadelphia, I’m happy to concede that these films all have merit, but it’s not their quality that concerns me here.   Perhaps I should be more grateful for the exposure they give to gay issues, but as I see these films being released and listen to heterosexual people telling me how moved they were by them (I cried and cried!!!), as a gay person I feel increasingly exploited by a phenomenon that feels like a fad for good-looking, straight, male actors to prove their acting metal (and win lots of awards) by being convincing at playing gay men, while the predominantly middle-class, heterosexual audience assuages its guilt about homophobia without actually doing anything useful at all.   And it seems that only white gay male experience is considered worth representing.

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The Assault on LGBT Children

A few weeks ago I read a post over at Rhetorically Speaking about the Daily Mail’s objections to the LGBT History Month currently being introduced in UK schools. The post made me so angry that I couldn’t immediately form a response, although I’ve been mulling my reaction over ever since.

Basically, The Mail implies that LGBT history month is “political correctness gone mad”: totally unnecessary and potentially harmful. The Mail objects to advice given to teachers because the project aims to teach children about sex and gender diversity and about famous gay people from history who’ve made positive contributions to society.

Ok, you might say, but why are you getting so upset about this stupid paper? Well it disturbs me because it taps into my own childhood experiences and I can’t help but see The Daily Mail as a proud representative of the larger assault on LGBTQ children which is still supported by so many people in society. To what assault do you refer? The assault of silence; the assault of denying us our identities and our histories; the assault of refusing to acknowledge everything LGBT history month sets out to acknowledge. The Daily Mail’s bad journalism represents all those “I don’t care if they’re gay as long as they never speak about it” people. It represents everyone who supports the status quo and contributes to the confusion, loneliness, alienation and outright danger still suffered by queer children in our society. It confirms the thinking of all those who think it is better that queer children suffer and perhaps even die than that they should acknowledge the legitimate existence of queer people.

If you’re a straight person reading this, try and imagine what it would have been like to grown up with no positive acknowledgement of your sexuality or sexual identity. LGBT history month certainly won’t solve everything but it’s a start and, for some children, it might provide a lifeline. As queer theorist Michael Warner observes, “Almost all children grow up in families that think of themselves and all their members as heterosexual, and for some children this produces a profound and nameless estrangement a sense of inner secrets and hidden shame” (The Trouble with Normal 8).

There was a lot of good in my childhood, but I well remember the isolation, the nameless estrangement, alienation, depression, confusion and secretiveness which has characterised my own experience. To be sure, some children have nice, liberal parents who sit them down and explain that some people love people of the same-sex and that’s ok. But most of us don’t. Most of us still grow up expected to be straight with our parents afraid of even mentioning other possibilities, in case saying it makes it come true.

The idea that telling children about homosexuality will make them homosexual is one of the most insidious weapons of homophobic discourse. Silence won’t make your gay kids straight, but they probably will be more prone to depression, mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. Something like LGBT History month might have made a big difference to my own life. My upbringing, although non-normative in many respects, was certainly heteronormative. I grew up in a middle-class Roman Catholic family, initially in a rural area, later in a small town. At no point during my childhood was homosexuality mentioned in the home, nor was I made aware that there were any possibilities for desires or identifications outside the framework of heterosexual marriage. I couldn’t put any name to my sense of estrangement until I was about 9 and then it was not a good name. In a moment I still recall vividly, I was watching the film The Color Purple with my mother and at the moment when Shug and Celie kiss, the same moment I was thinking “Ah ha!” my mother exclaimed, “Oh, are they funny ladies?” I don’t know why she was asking me. At that moment I discovered three things: 1) The ladies were not Ha Ha funny 2) There was more going on in the world than they had been letting on 3) I identified with what I was seeing on screen more than with what I had so far understood to be sanctioned by my parents.

If we’d had LGBT history month in school I would have been taught about the existence of lesbians. It took me years to glean more information and often in guilty secret, because queerness is not nurtured or encouraged by even the most liberal of parents. It certainly did not occur to mine to entertain the possibility for one second. ‘Families’ says Gayle Rubin, quite rightly, ‘play a crucial role in enforcing sexual conformity’ (‘Thinking Sex,’ 22). This is not surprising because many families are simply too scared to do anything else. You will often come across arguments in favour of allowing gay people to adopt or have custody of their children on the basis that they won’t bring them up to be gay. Meanwhile, the morality of enforcing heterosexuality and strict gender norms on your children is rarely questioned.

I would ask people considering becoming parents what they would do to nurture an LGBTQ child, by which I also mean to nurture their queerness. Imagine encouraging your 14 year old gay son’s sexuality in the same way you would encourage your 14 your old heterosexual son. Imagine how you would be viewed as a parent! It doesn’t take long to realise in the current social climate it would be difficult and even perilous for parents to positively support their children’s queerness. Some queer theorists have argued that heteronormativity is a field of violence; they are right on many levels. We still have a very long way to go.

Homophobic Bullying

Disturbing article in the Guardian about homophobic bullying.

The victims’ stories are appalling and, apparently, the problem is on the increase. In 1988 more than 80% of schools were aware of such bullying taking place. Now, researchers reckon that 1 in 3 LGB kids experiences bullying, but only 6% of schools have anti-homophobic bullying policies in place. There is a perception that gay people in Britain are now more visible, more socially acceptable and better protected by the law.

But, Rivers says, “None of these messages has got through at a school level […] Homophobic bullying carries a particular menace because rarely does any young person want to admit to the nature of their abuse. Children who are victimized might not even be gay, or know they are, or have come out. They are unlikely to raise such a subject with teachers or parents. So they suffer in silence. And because it is so hidden, this type of bullying can have horrifying consequences. Something To Tell You, a study of lesbian and gay teenagers, showed that one in five had attempted suicide at least once (emphasis mine).

Schools will often claim that they can’t deal with the problem because the parents go berzerk if the school is seen to be soft on homosexuality. But Sue Sanders from the campaign group Schools Out argues “There is a massive myth that parents would be uncomfortable if we did this work to combat homophobic bullying, but it just isn’t the case,” she says. Most parents just want their children to be taught in a safe environment – and heterosexual kids are also prey to homophobic bullying.”

I’m not so convinced that parents in general would be comfortable with giving homosexuality the OK. Moreover, all these little homophobes are picking up a sense of tolerance for homophobia somewhere, and I don’t get the impression that very many families are having sit down talks with their kids about homosexuality and explaining why it’s wrong to attack people perceived to be gay.

Most of the campaigners interviewed recommend more educational programmes in schools. That’s great, but getting into schools to do anti-homophobic work is no easy matter and, furthermore, no one’s sure what can be done about the UK’s 7,000 faith based schools where homophobia is rather likely to be written into the school ethos. While I agree that more education is a good idea, personally, I don’t think we’re going to be able to fully tackle homophobic bullying until we acknowledge and talk about the very real social function which homophobia serves in our culture. Homphobia is not arbitrary, not some bizarre anomaly that comes from nowhere; the kids who bully are symptomatic of a society which has long depended on homophobia. Sanders hits the nail on the head when she notes that heterosexual kids are also subject to such bullying. Yes, of course they are, because for homophobia to work properly, it’s crucial that everyone feel at risk of becoming a victim.

In the words of the queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, homophobia is ‘a mechanism for regulating the behaviour of the many by the specific oppression of the few’ (Between Men, 88). Until we accept that homophobia is a weapon used to keep everyone sexually in line, we will not be able to deal with it adequately, not even with all the educational programmes in the world. It’s going to be incredibly hard to get people to lay down this particular weapon. Since admitting that homosexuality is not wrong means giving up enormous heterosexual privilege, we can’t expect society at large to let it go without a fight.

You Call this Friendship? On relationships between gay men and heterosexual people

This week I glanced over a couple of articles in the Guardian online about relationships between heterosexual people and gay men which have been chaffing me ever since. You know that feeling you get when you read something that’s presented as all sweetness, light, and loveliness but makes you feel really uncomfortable for reasons you can’t quite pin down? I read them again this morning and think I can articulate a few of the problems.

The first, by Joanna Walters, is entitled Why Every Girl needs a Gay Best Friend

Diamonds may be forever, but it turns out that a gay boy is actually a girl’s best friend, according to a new book that is the first definitive guide to the ‘fag hag’.

That many straight women set great store by gay male friends won’t surprise fans who’ve watched Will and Grace sharing the secrets of their souls, or Sex and the City’s Carrie and her screaming-queen buddy Stanford or Madonna and Rupert Everett, on- and off-screen.

Now a new book chronicles the (mostly) ups and (occasional) downs of having a gay man as a girl’s best friend. Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys – true tales of love, lust and friendship between straight women and gay men was launched in New York last week with a rainbow of hysterical real life stories and a few predictably melodramatic tear-jerkers.

It’s not the “fag hag” thing that bothers me, beyond the fact that from a feminist perspective I wish we weren’t still making use of that term because it’s one that women often use against each other with surprising vitriol, and it’s about time we stopped and asked ourselves why we feel impelled to use abusive language towards women who befriend gay men. No, my main issue with the article, aside from the annoying self-congratulatory tone, is the implicit suggestion that gay men exist to make straight women feel better about themselves.

While her female friends are competitive when shopping and ‘secretly want your ass to look fat’, her entourage of gay men makes her feel like ‘Marie Antoinette and her court’ as they encourage her to buy extravagantly, telling her she looks divine, while ‘holding my handbags more gracefully than I do’.

De La Cruz described how, despite unrequited lust for the gay boys at her university, she valued their encouragement. ‘They told me I was attractive and pushed me out there to start dating.

Throughout the article there is a suggestion that friendships between gay men and straight women are valuable because they make straight women feel good. Now this isn’t actually representative of all such real life friendships, but the article bothers me because it takes part in a developing discourse which justifies the existence of gay people in terms of their services to straight people. The article also implies, more than once, that gay men are serviceable to straight women as partner-substitutes because straight men are useless or obnoxious. This is basically the plot of Will and Grace.

One of the book’s editors, Melissa De La Cruz, said she sought to puncture the high-camp stereotype by telling how her gay male co-editor Tom Dolby was the rock-solid shoulder who was most there for her out of all her friends when she suffered a miscarriage and she and her husband were heartbroken. ‘He was a real man,’ she said.

A “real man”, huh? As opposed to a pretend one? All men are real Melissa.

Doonan claims fag hags became obsolete because straight men are now less ‘obnoxious’ to be around.

Well that’s nice. You can throw out your gay male friends because straight men have become more bearable. Is this whole narrative really about making gya people serve heterosexuality, insofar as it’s really about how gay people help solve problems in relationships between heterosexual men and women?

Then I read another article which took the discourse to more disturbing levels, Nirpal Dhaliwal’s A Fine Bromance

My heart sank at the opening “Gays are a guy’s best friend.” But then it improved, citing good examples of equal friendships between gay and straight men and I felt more hopeful. Perhaps this one is actually going to say something useful I thought. However, when he describes his experiences of “bromance” we came back to same problem:

One was an American film director, who invited me to a festival in Turin where I hooked up with a fabulous, cabaret-singing New York drag queen. They were fun, warm and intimate experiences that thrilled my ego and made me feel gorgeous.

Because it’s very important that straight men get their egos stroked! Couldn’t straight people do more stroking of gay egos? That would be nice.

Having tested my sexuality and been sure of what it is, I have no issues with homosexuality and can throw myself into a bromance with no misplaced hopes or fears.

Ah, nice, because gay people love it when straight people test their sexuality out on us. Personally I’ve found such experiences painful and humiliating, but no matter!

What’s even more striking here is that Dhaliwal’s relationships with gay men have served to bolster up his heterosexuality, to make him more heterosexual because he is surer of his sexuality than other men who don’t have relationships with gay men. Then the misogyny makes its appearance:

My friendships with straight men have often deteriorated because of rivalry, and from talking to my gay pals I know that gay men are just are competitive. Bromances offer men an opportunity to discuss sex without worrying about one-upmanship.

I talk about women much more with gay men than I ever have with straight ones. And given that women speak far more openly with gay men – and that gay men actually listen to them – my gay pals provide many useful insights into the female mind.(emphasis mine)


And finally,

Bromances are the future for men in this country. We have a shared biology and a basic outlook, compared to which our choice of sexual partner is merely a detail.

What Dhaliwal actually seems to propose here is a fantasy future of relationships between men in which women become “merely a detail.” Heterosexual men will bond emotionally and intellectually with gay men who will stroke their egos and give them tips on how to seduce women. Welcome to the new patriarchy. Just at a time when a lot of gay men do seem to be working on misogyny in their subcultures, it’s rather alarming to see a straight man writing it into his future male utopia. But with gay men again positioned as substitutes for women (perhaps gay men could service straight men even better than women do!), this narrative also seems to be more about problems with heterosexual relationships rather than with gay people. I suspect Dhaliwal is writing polemically with the genuine intention to subvert homophobia but there seems to be a lack of self-awareness in the piece with regards to his attitude to women and also the question of what the gay men are really getting out of these friendships.

Moreover, the problem here is not the more complex realities of such friendships, the problem is the defensive discourse being created in these articles– the necessity for justification itself drawing attention to homophobia – which says “this is ok because straight people are getting something out of it.”

Any real future for constructive mutually enriching friendships between gay people and straight people must be devoid of the implication that gay people exist to please, pander to and stroke the egos of straight people, or as substitutes for unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

I don’t think gay men need any more incitement from heterosexual culture to find their sense of self worth in being presented as clowns, comedy side-kicks, counsellors, shoulders to cry on etc.  This kind of discourses infantalises gay men and masks the realities of their sexuality from delicate heterosexual eyes .   I’ve noticed how often gay men are referred to as “boys,” for example, because, (I guess), “boys” don’t have big scary cocks, “boys” don’t fuck.

Ignoring the role that homophobic violence plays in encouraging gay male children to grow up to be everybody’s “best friend” just in order to survive is not actually being any kind of friend to gay men.