“I don’t get it”, I thought. “Why are these people so angry and distrustful? Is that little dog as mean as it looks? What have I done?”
These were some random thoughts going through my head the evening I first attended a meeting of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power; the setting a warm, dusty room in the West Village, harsh lighting, folding chairs, worlds away from the glittering canyons of Midtown or my familiar hipster haunts of Williamsburg. The same room you may know from United In Anger.
I was there as a journalist, rather evidently not a very good one at that; my high-profile piece on ACT UP at 25 clearly in trouble, the vanity project of seeing my byline right next to Noam Chomsky’s circling rapidly down the drain.
Like many gay men, I’ve known of ACT UP for a long time; the occupation of the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, the epic storming of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the blistering art, all were at one time or another subjects of debate, news from Berlin to Bombay. This was in that gauzy, Oz-like past when gay men universally considered AIDS an existential crisis, a subject people actually talked about.
ACT UP was, in my by-proxy experience at least, peerless in the clarity it brought to, the urgency it created in that conversation, in how it forced you to pay attention, if need be by strength of will alone. Men expected to die politely, silently in shame did neither, their rage so incandescent and consuming that the only shame left was for anyone who thought they should do so. Derided since time immemorial as effeminate, weak, in a word, faggots, these men showed how empty those assumptions were in truth, how much raw, naked power they concealed. They were dying, had no time for courtesy, their rage burned so hot a scared kid on a military base in Europe felt it like a furnace. That kid was me, a teenage closeted bookworm who wanted to be those men. Without the death part, preferably, but just knowing men like me could be and were heroes, not the sissies of cliché, in itself was powerfully different from the cramped future I saw lying ahead in the closet. I may have never known a world without AIDS; thanks to the men and women fighting it, I also never knew a world without heroes.
At some point, the news stopped. My guess would be roughly around the time when protease inhibitors and other miracle drugs stopped the drumbeat of daily funerals in our major cities. Young men in the prime of their lives no longer withered into walking corpses seemingly overnight, then died an obscene death in all the lurid, spectacular visibility of media saturation. As change goes, this was deliverance, well within the miracle territory of change.
We might have asked where these drugs came from, but why would we? Wasn’t the miracle enough? The cavalry had come, all was good again, and God alone knows we hated this particular movie. What we didn’t consider was this: when the cavalry rides in, expect the cameras to be turned off rather shortly. The credits would roll soon enough though, wouldn’t they?
The shy closeted teenage bookworm had by then lost the coke bottle glasses, evolved from shy teen into the man who at 19 torched his virginity by getting fucked in a straight bar. Rather the theatrical coming out, I’d imagine, and though entirely unplanned, a sign of things to come: my life was one I would live on my terms.
ACT UP and AIDS itself disappeared from my world, displaced by the jeunesse dorée distractions of Europe – model, club kid, copywriter, bartender, busy with boyfriends and bathhouses – then eclipsed altogether by the real effort it would take to finally graduate, get that Master’s and ultimately go home. Home was America; which America though? For a lifelong expat, home is not a place to go back to, it is a place you’ve never been, one to make yours. Terra nullius, unclaimed land, but I had a dream to fill it. The biggest dream a boy could dream.
America for me meant only, could mean only one place: New York City.
In my New York, the cathedral to storm was Limelight, its priest a DJ, no body of Christ, just bodies dripping with sweat, gleaming flesh ready to greet the sunrise with sacrilege. If we weren’t heroes, no matter, we were New Yorkers, an elite, young, beautiful, and absolutely fearless; many of us, fearless of HIV.
Take a wild guess which side I took, and how little I regret it
New Yorkers are by and large a tolerant lot; this by choice, realistically also by necessity on an island crammed to the rafters with people in their millions. But mainly, we revel in being everything America itself is not. We are in America, are of it, but we most certainly arenot like it, thank you very much. Our heroic myth makes the island metropolis a universe apart, singular and peerless, by right the center of the world – over there on the other side of the river, they stockpile guns, go to a church instead of a therapist, talk funny, dress worse, think whatever slop Olive Garden produces is “Italian”, even debatable as being “food” – one obscenity too far. It is not. Food is what we have 20,000 actual restaurants for, now do waddle along and go find one.
An encounter of this sort is likely to provoke us into fits of apoplectic rage. Times Square was built precisely to avoid these mischances; a neon holding pen where strangers can form slow moving clusters and gawk to their hearts content at all the magnificence. And yes, it is cleverly baited with an actual Olive Garden, rather the obvious hint, one would think. We however stay as far away as humanly possible from the whole garish mess.
Limits to tolerance clearly exist in Gotham, you might reasonably conclude. It was these limits that were tested by the Republican National Convention in 2004.
The 2004 RNC didn’t content itself with testing these limits; it launched a missile strike against them and carpet-bombed the ruins. All told, in an excess of charity an active nuisance at best, at its malignant worst Hell the Musical, starring George Bush. Cretins in his mold swamping our sidewalks, God help us, everything we disliked about America come to visit without even the good manners to fake being local. Nope, what we got instead were cheap suits, clip-on ties and Bush Cheney 2004 signs, all in volumes of an industrial scale. Even the typography was tacky. Just aesthetically a provocation; what made it truly offensive was the purpose of it.
They had come solely to turn what to us was a physical, real experience – the horror of 9/11, the agony of its aftermath, the consuming grief of it – into television; The City Resilient merely an object of stagecraft. To whore out our dead so the cretin who failed that day might get another four years to fail even more.
Unsurprising really that the City was convulsed by protests, long in the planning, ferocious in execution. Ground Zero was Union Square. This was the place and state of mind in which I first encountered ACT UP New York. It was August, 2004, the very height of summer; leaden, oppressive heat, but as nothing compared to the pure white-hot fury of The City Enraged.
I wasn’t looking for them, didn’t know they still existed, there they were nonetheless: two or three women, none of them in quite the flush of youth, behind a small table hawking t-shirts, vaguely out of place, not a part of the paroxysms of rage convulsing the City. On the periphery of Union Square and of the moment itself. Bystanders talking about AIDS while everyone else was consumed with OHIO, whatever the hell that is.
Still, there was that iconic logotype, so of course I bought one of their t-shirts, much to their delight; they would have been less delighted, presumably, to learn that my co-workers, political animals all, had no idea what it stood for.
Or to know the extent of my own disappointment; against the backdrop of the day, in the City that gave it birth, all I saw was a faded shadow of the once-powerful legend. Too sad for a writer to ponder or a blogger to throw into that caustic mill many of us adopt as second nature.
And how ironic that I tested positive almost to the day five years later.
That was August 2009. I started writing about HIV/AIDS just in time to drop a bombshell on World AIDS Day, December 2010. Fuck nuanced disclosure; I made mine the most spectacular HIV coming out left blogdom had ever seen, without equal to this day. And a lesson: if you’re unhappy with the experience of HIV as something passive, of being an object of therapy and social work, not a subject with agency and power, it is in your hands to change the equation. I wasn’t just unhappy, I was – am – sick and fucking tired it. The miserable cautions of status disclosure in an institutionalized epidemic stop making sense when yours turns into a media event about love and hope with an audience in the hundreds of thousands. That’s what power is: telling your own story on your own terms, Honi soit Qui mal y pense. Go ahead, try and stigmatize me; good luck with that, champ
I still wasn’t looking for ACT UP, nor they for me. We finally met, hooked up so to speak, in the course of research for a background piece on the group’s 25th anniversary I pitched to my friend Sarah Jaffe, then at Alternet, as context for Occupy Wall Street. Write what you know as the maxim goes, a bit awkward since the chance encounter in 2004 and one years earlier in Paris represented the sum total of my actual experience of the group. The history I knew in broad strokes, what was the present?
This is what I found.
The web sites, here and here and here, bluntly put in sum are crap. The kind of amateur shambles barely acceptable a decade ago and today, a complete disqualifier; cuneiform HTML. As a new media consultant, I’d be hesitant to take on a client with a web portfolio as degraded as this, unless it came with a big can of gasoline, some matches and a really fat checkbook.
Definitely too depressing for the piece I had in mind. Some people get a kick out of torching legends; I don’t. So off to the weekly meeting I went, spring in step, to meet my legend.
And oh boy, what an experience that was. From the votes – nope, the plural is not a typo – on having outsiders present to my earnest speech about being positive myself, even wearing the t-shirt I’d bought that scorching summer afternoon years before on Union Square, activist background, blah blah blabbity blah, long story short, not exactly an inviting environment. Especially when you’re there to give free and friendly press.
Not singular, either. Or would anyone describe the catastrophic marketing fuck-up it objectively is to be the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, then doing sweet fuck-all with that publicity, in phrasing that doesn’t somehow contain or imply the words ‘catastrophic’ and ‘fuck-up’? Go ahead, you try, I’ll wait.
A few days later, a friend who’d been a member when it was de rigeur (French for a very long time ago, see, here are the cave paintings), followed up a near-perfect eyeroll with something typically cutting: “Why don’t they just declare victory and go home?”
Why indeed, because I went back.
As the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving, and there is such a thing as gratitude. ACT UP made me who I am and saved my life. Yours too, probably, or that of someone you love. Nor have I mentioned the raw anger running through that room or the blazing intelligence it contained. ACT UP is still the elite corps of AIDS activists, it never made polite requests, it makes demands, add some fresh blood and the fury could shake this island at the center of the world to its foundations.
That was a bit over a year ago, lo and behold, fresh blood is coursing through those veins. Maybe just in time to prevent another saying coming true, a dictum attributed to Karl Marx: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”.
The details, in part two. . . .