This Is about
People Dying: The Tactics of Early ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers
in New York City _
(excerpt) based upon interviews with Maxine Wolfe by Laraine Sommella
From the book: "Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance", edited by Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter, Bay Press, Seattle Washington, 1997
Laraine Sommella: Before we talk about tactics for taking and remaking of public space, I would like to ask you about the activism that lead up to ACT UP New York and what other groups were involved in direct action that perhaps you were involved in or knew about?
Maxine Wolfe: Everyone sort of thinks that ACT UP came out of the blue and in fact, there's a certain mythology that Larry Kramer gave this talk one night at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center and everyone went "Oh my God" and then they formed ACT UP and nothing had been there. As usual, that's not true. That's a discontinuous history.
LS: Yes, people don't necessarily think in terms of development.
MW: In 1986 I was at the first public meeting of what was called the Lesbian and Gay Antidefamation League, which became GLAAD, and which was held in the New York City Community Center. I went with a lesbian friend, and we were in this room with about three hundred gay men and four lesbians, and we were sitting next to these two guys and one turned to the other and said, "Wow, this is the first thing that's happened in fifteen years." And I turned to her and said, "Where have these people been?"
A brief overview--with the last two years leading up to the formation of ACT UP New York being the most important. After the first few years of the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) and especially after the firehouse was arsoned in 1974, most of the gay male community in New York and a few Democratic Party dykes focused on getting the gay rights bill passed in New York City and New York State. Basically they became part of the Democratic Party organization, whether formally or informally, and attempted to orchestrate passage of bills behind the scenes. At the same time, in the gay male mainstream, "the community," certain professional, business, and religious groups formed. While those organizations and networks were totally reformist, if political at all, they enabled the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) to form in the early 1980s. There was a new basis to get money, to know where people were, to create an infrastructure. That was not there before. But for a lot of that period, from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, that is what gay men were doing. Most lesbians were not involved with gay men in activism and were basically either in the antirape or antiviolence movement or lesbian-feminist groups, forming their own organizations and doing political work. But this work was not necessarily focused on lesbians and gay men and rather much more on women, generically defined. But in New York City, in 1982 and 1984, there were demonstrations against the raids on black and latino transvestite bars and against the viciously homophobic film, Cruising.
In terms of a specific AIDS focus early in the 1980s, there were the People With AIDS Coalition (PWA) and the GMHC. Right away, people in GMHC got more and more pissed because the organization was unwilling to take political stands. Part of it was that they were looking for money and government funding, and so, as it happens in those kinds of formalized institutions, GMHC became less and less political. They did not want to alienate the people who are going to give them money. But the PWA Coalition formed in 1982 in Denver with principles that focused on empowerment, which really came out of the feminist health movement.
In New York City, there was a huge uproar over the closing of the bathhouses and many people went to hearings at the City Council. They showed up on the steps of City Council, almost spontaneously I would say, and started chanting when David Summers, who was there to testify and who was a person with AIDS, was arrested when he tried to testify. The police were so crazed. People nearly rioted outside, shouting, "We won't go until you let him go." That is where GLAAD started, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. They called a community meeting and I went to it. It was pretty tame, as far as I was concerned, and very much in the image of earlier kinds of generally progressive organizations. There was already a board. They already had an idea about what they were doing. and basically, they wanted an army of soldiers. It was a very hierarchical organization. The first meeting that I went to was the marshaling committee and basically told all of the men sitting there that they did not have to worry and that they had talked to the cops already, and they were doing an action against the New York Post because of its homophobic coverage of AIDS. It was basically said that the marshals were a kind of barrier between the police and the protesters, which is certainly not my idea of how to marshal; and the idea of wanting to get a permit from the cops to demonstrate... quite amazing.
GLAAD soon formed and immediately became a bone of contention because it started doing these very orchestrated demonstrations. By "orchestrated," I mean they negotiated with the cops, they basically told you when to show up, when to go home, and there was absolutely no input from anybody into what was going to be done. The board of directors made the decisions. Women coming to their meetings eventually just stopped because they were huge meetings and no one would even get a chance to get up and speak.
At that point, I just decided there wasn't anything I was going to be able to do about this shit because coming from the lesbian community, I wasn't a gay man. Most of the gay men with whom I had worked in the left were not around, and nobody was doing anything very much. Who was I to tell gay men how to do stuff about AIDS? So I just sort of kept looking for stuff to do. I helped form a group of faculty and students ant City University of New York (CUNY) just to keep my hand in. I worked at the Lesbian Herstory Archives and then one day a friend of mine said, "There's this new group that's meeting. Do you want to go to their meeting the Monday after Gay Pride Day?" and I said "Yes" and we went to ACT UP.
ACT UP started in March of 1987, and I started going in June of 1987. The people who came to the first meeting of ACT UP included individuals from GMHC who had become totally disaffected by its unwillingness to do any political stuff. There were people from the PWA Coalition who wanted to get out on the streets, and they already had this image of a feminist take on the health establishment because of Michael Callen who was very much influenced by the feminist health movement. There was also the SILENCE=DEATH Project, which was a group of men who had started meeting a year and half before, Avram Finklestein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccaras. They were a whole group of men who needed to talk to each other and others about what the fuck were they going to do, being gay men in the age of AIDS?! Several of them were designers of various sorts--graphic designers--and they ended up deciding that they had to start doing wheat-pasting on the streets, to get the message out to people: "Why aren't you doing something?" So they created the SILENCE=DEATH logo well before ACT UP ever existed, and they made posters before ACT UP ever existed, and the posters at the bottom said something like, "What's really happening in Washington? What's happening with Reagan and Bush and the Food and Drug Administration? It ended with this statement: "Turn anger, fear, grief into action." Several of these graphic designers were at that first evening that Larry spoke.
The other group that was represented at the first meeting of ACT UP in March 1987 was the Lavender Hill Mob. The Lavender Hill Mob included Marty Robinson, who had left GLAAD because the organization had become much more focused on not holding public meetings and not wanting to do big actions. Marty had run their "Swift and Terrible Retribution Committee" and was one of the founders of GAA. He felt totally strangulated by GLAAD's agenda. Marty got together a few friends including Bill Balhman, who was also from GAA, Henry Yaeger, and a young dyke who was seventeen at the time, Jean Elizabeth Glass, along with a couple of other people. They formed this thing called the Lavender Hill Mob. Not only did they start doing zaps but they also started meeting with government officials around AIDS policy issues. They had been going to government conferences, had started leafletting, their message being: "What the fuck are you doing in Washington?" and "Why aren't you finding treatments?" etcetera. The first article that was in the New York Native about ACT UP, that everyone thinks was the first public presence of ACT UP, the Wall Street Action in March 1987, had the headline "Kramer, Mob, and others call for traffic blockade."
So the night when Larry came to speak, in March of 1987, there was a very particular audience in that room. The person who was originally supposed to read was Nora Ephron. Now, I would never go to hear Nora Ephron read. It's definitely more a gay male focus. But she couldn't come and Larry Kramer spoke instead. When I came into ACT UP, I did not even know who the fuck Larry Kramer was. He was irrelevant in my life. I had vaguely heard people say that he had written a book called Faggots, but why would I ever read that? For me, he was not an icon at all. But for the people in that room, he spoke to them. He had been screaming for years and nobody had done anything. From my point of view, there was a whole group of people there ready to do something. They were looking for a kick in the ass and needed an event to be at together, that would lead to that, and that was it. At some point he yelled, "What are you gonna do?" and somebody in the audience said, "Why don't we revive the AIDS Action Network? Then people said, "Let's have a meeting and let's do something." They called a meeting and about seventy people showed up. Soon after, they did their first Wall Street Action. They did not have a lot of people coming to their meetings until after Gay Pride that June and the March on Washington in the fall of 1987. If you did not read the New York Native, you wouldn't know that they existed._ [see: New York Times Photograph 3-25-87]
When someone said to me, "We should go meet this group," I had no idea who they were except that I marched behind them at the Gay Pride March and saw this incredible "thing," which was a concentration camp with wire all around and people inside. There were people outside the wire dressed in masks and military gear and handing out flyers and people were selling ACT UP T-shirts with the SILENCE=DEATH logo, which the SILENCE=DEATH project had given them permission to use. I went up to this guy and I said, "Are there any lesbians in your group?" and he said, "Yeah," and the next day I showed up and there were four visible women and two of them were straight. It had that kind of impact. If you can imagine, there is always this tension in the Gay Pride March in New York because the majority come to it for a celebration and they do not want it to be anything political at all. And this was 1987: We're already five years into the crisis, loads of people had died, the community was in a state of shock, and Gay Pride was supposed to be a way to get away from all of this. And ACT UP had the chutzpah to build a concentration camp float. When I came to the meeting the next night, there were three hundred people in that room.
LS: And you directly connect that parade presence with that turnout?
MW: Absolutely. AIDS really knocked people for a loop. It's hard for people to understand if they aren't part of it. Larry Kramer and I disagree on almost everything, especially on his use of holocaust imagery, but he lost an entire life network. He would say that he had five hundred friends and acquaintances who had died. If you think about it, that's the size of a small town in Germany. For gay people who did not have close relationships with their families, and especially if they were Larry's age, in their late fifties, they had to go through finding themselves and new friends. There was no one around to form this new group of people, your village, and so many were dead--suddenly, in a very short time. At the beginning of the epidemic, you would go into the hospital on Monday and be dead on Tuesday. People were dying left and right, horrible deaths, and nobody knew why. The shock was incredible. People were trying to figure out so hard how to take care of the people they cared about, how to take care of themselves, how not to get sick, how to prevent people from dying, how to get services to people in every way, shape, and form. The idea of doing anything else was overwhelming. ACT UP took that leadership role in that Gay Pride march and marched in the middle of a "space" that is apolitical and often commercial. The political groups are usually in the back, and nobody pays any attention to them. Instead, ACT UP marched up there, basically in your face, saying people want to quarantine us and tattoo us and saying, "Get with it folks, we have to do something." The imagery was so stark that people said, "Got It." The same thing happened in the fall of 1987 at the March on Washington.
ACT UP got there late. The SILENCE=DEATH Project (may have been renamed Gran Fury by then) had made incredible posters. One was a Ronald Reagan poster in dayglo green that said "AIDSGATE." We had another poster that said "SILENCE=DEATH." ACT UP member Michael Miles was a stage designer, and he designed an incredible contraption with these posters--a snake formation. Each poster was held by an individual person but was connected and we used those in Washington and they went way up above your head and we all wore SILENCE=DEATH T-shirts. We also had these huge banners that were of the late eighties order of things--black with huge white letters--very stark, very black. ACT UP had become very well known for these banners. Everyone else had purple banners with flourishing letters but our posters were very striking, very stark, with very clean lines. This was very graphic-design-oriented kind of stuff and had a tremendous impact. Many ACT UP groups started after that march.
The New York ACT UP style was wonderful--writing leaflets that you could read and I think, more importantly, not relying only on the written word but also visual media. Although the ages of people in ACT UP have always been quite diverse, there were alot of young people. ACT UP people were always "classified" as young sexy people. The friends I had in ACT UP tended to be older and more literate. But they were visual: people in theater and art. Other younger men and women, who were not part of that scene, were totally willing to go with it. They were media generation people who had grown up with television and multimedia. They were well aware, any time we did a demo, that there would be TV cameras present and what these cameras would be looking at.
We focused on what would stand out, what would show up. This was in a way that no one I ever knew had done before. It was easy to learn stuff. What color do you make banners when you use them at night as opposed to day? And what size does something have to be to show up? How will this move through space? And I think that was very important because in fact that's exactly what caught the media's attention. Not just that we did things that other people did not do, but that the was that we did them, we were very present. We did not just picket around the front of a building, which is totally boring; we broke into the building [laughter]. We dressed up in costume. Half the time we would go to dinners that were held by Republicans, we'd go in [Republican] drag to get in. And we would pretend to be most anything if we could to get in somewhere. There was this whole idea that you would do what you had to do to get in somewhere, and that you would get into it; you wouldn't be on the outside looking in, asking people to take your leaflet but you would be demanding that people pay attention to what you had to say and taking over spaces where people would not expect that you could get in.
First, ACT UP was about organizing the unorganized. It wasn't a lefty coalition where there's one person from this group and one person from that group and one person from the other group and you claim you have a coalition but you really have three people. It was about mobilizing a community that had not been organized to do this kind of direct action in at least twelve or fourteen years. Secondly, ACT UP was about people doing stuff for themselves. We weren't being philanthropists. We weren't a vanguard. We were trying to save our own lives and the lives of people we knew. We were very materially affected.
ACT UP has always been called a gay white male group. But the group of people who started ACT UP initially included women and people of color. There have always been lesbians and gay men of color and straight women. About the only group not really represented in ACT UP were straight men, and there have been a couple of those too. Even though the Lesbians were a small group, we were the people who had done politics. We were the people who did the civil disobedience training. We have always been the marshals. We have always been the logistics people because we came out of that kind of background. The men have always been the graphic artists and we do the xeroxing and typesetting. There are things that everyone has access to. Gay men have access to graphics; we have access to reproduction. The women became a very strong force because we were also very gutsy about the kinds of things we did. The first huge action was at Shea Stadium. [For a background overview on the work of ACT NY, leading up to the 1988 Shea Stadium action, see David France, ACT UP fires up, Village Voice (May 3, 1988): 36. See also DIVA TV Netcast Storytelling Shea Stadium.]
In the spring of 1988, activist AIDS groups across the country called for the Nine Days of Action. In New York we actually called them the "Nine Days of Rain" because it rained on almost every one of the days. The only two days it did not rain was for the women's action, which was at Shea Stadium, and an action that we did at the Harlem Office building, about prisoners and AIDS. Afterwards we decided that God must be a Black Lesbian.
As a women's committee, we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do because it was supposed to be a day on women and AIDS. We were sitting around one night trying to figure out what to do. We were just drawing out the craziest ideas we could and one of the women asked, "What is the goal of what we want to do?" Part of this was about the difference in status between women and men at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, even though they were both sick. Women were erased totally and also pictured as vectors to men getting infected, and all the advertising on the subways in New York was about women taking condoms with them in their purse. It would say "Don't forget these when you go out," as if women wore condoms. It sort of reminded me of my own growing up, and it was the woman who always had to be the one responsible. We said that we wanted to get the message out that heterosexual men are responsible; that they're the only people being let off the hook in this epidemic by the media. Gay men are being put down; prostitutes and women are being told they have to take condoms along. What is anyone asking from straight men in the world? Nothing. So we decided that we wanted to go to a venue that in people's minds was heterosexual, and male heterosexual, to the core. And the Nine Days of Action were in the spring--May 4th--and we were trying to figure out what venue would fit this, and all of a sudden, one of the women said, "Baseball games! The Mets game!" and everyone in the room just went crazy.
We began to throw around crazy ideas. One woman was absolutely panicked. She had absolutely never had anything to do with sports. But everybody else in the room was taking off on it. Two of the women were baseball nuts, so we finally decided this was the best idea we ever had, and we sat down and really worked out a plan. We were gonna get tickets in blocks. Shea Stadium is U-shaped. We planned to get seating in blocks in the three different areas of the "U" and that we would do "call-and-response" like you do at college football games. We called up Shea Stadium and found out that in fact there was a ball game that night and that we could get blocks of seats and that if you bought sixty seats, you could even get a message on the message board! And we thought, "Wow, this is fucking amazing!"
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