One Bright, Shining Moment

At the end of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, in a 1989 essay in October, the avant-garde quarterly he edited, noted gay intellectual and activist Douglas Crimp recalled what a younger gay man in ACT UP had said to him after seeing an early ’70s gay erotic film:

“He was very excited about what seemed to me a pretty ordinary sex scene in the film, but then he said: ‘I’d give anything to know what cum tastes like, somebody else’s that is.’ That broke my heart, for two different reasons: for him because he didn’t know, for me because I do.”

Crimp’s comment encapsulates all the powerful, bittersweet, contradictory emotions that swirled around militant queer activists in the early years of AIDS as they contemplated “a disappearing gay world — people, institutions, practices, ways of being, an entire alternative world,” as Deborah Gould writes in her important new book “Moving Politics: Emotions and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS.”

Deborah Gould does justice to the courageous struggle waged by ACT UP

ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — changed history in the few brief years when its spectacular actions of civil disobedience, confrontation, and emotional manipulation made headlines and forced a nation (and a world) that didn’t want to pay attention to the epidemic to do so. Over the course of its life beginning in 1987, more than 80 ACT UP chapters sprang up across the country almost overnight, creating a radical, national direct action movement that even went global; eventually there were also more than 30 ACT UP chapters internationally.

Gould is perfectly positioned to tell this important story and draw from it lessons that can help us construct new futures. Although she is today an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, she is also herself an activist who spent years deeply involved in ACT UP’s Chicago chapter, and was part of the Windy City’s visible queer left.

Gould’s militant activist background makes “Moving Politics” stand out from your average, dry academic text, for at many points she inserts herself into her narrative and draws from the well of her own profound emotional and political experiences in figuring out what the history of ACT UP has to tell us about the swirl of feelings accompanying the construction of queer identity and about the nature of political organizing in general.

Gould writes, “In addition to the many crucial victories that prolonged and saved lives, ACT UP’s interventions posed a powerful challenge to conventional understandings of homosexuality and of sexuality more broadly. Indeed, ACT UP gave birth to a new queer generation [emphasis in the original] that shook up straight and gay establishments with defiant, sex-radical politics,” in the process “re-eroticizing and revalorizing all kinds of sex” in a strong response to the sex-negative early years of the epidemic.

I’ve frequently found that many young queers today are woefully ignorant of what gays, lesbians, and gender rebels of all stripes went through in those agonizing early AIDS years, which were also the years of Ronald Reagan’s reactionary presidency. Gould does a fine job of invoking that scoundrel time, when six years into the epidemic Reagan had yet to mention the word AIDS, while consistently fighting to slash Congressional appropriations to fight the epidemic.

By the Reagan years, the feisty, raucous, anti-establishment spirit of radical gay liberation which had launched the modern gay movement in the early ’70s in the years after Stonewall was already nearly dead, as organized gay politics adopted “an agenda oriented toward gay inclusion rather than broader social transformation, a concomitant focus on the legislative realm, and an embrace of what some have called ‘a politics of respectability’ that required downplaying gay sexual difference,” as Gould nicely puts it.

But the AIDS epidemic, and the horrific inadequacy of the response to it by government and dominant mainstream institutions mired in vitriolic homophobia, called into question the new gay search for respectability and inclusion in such a way that “sexual and gender minorities had to reconsider who they were and where they fit within society,” and how they should feel about this constellation of challenges.

Gould portrays the heroic struggles of early AIDS activists, and rightly argues that “the movement of thousands of volunteers into ASOs [AIDS service organizations] should be understood as a successful mass political mobilization [which was] political in the sense that to love and care for those whom state and society had betrayed, for those deemed better off dead, was a forceful refusal to accede to existing notions of worthiness” regarding gay men and lesbians.

At the same time, many gays found themselves drowning in a centuries-old legacy of self-hate given new force by the epidemic, as they internalized messages from mainstream media that “gay sexuality was so perverted that gays might actually deserve AIDS” (emphasis in the original).

The earliest voices of resistance to this template in the spring of 1983 were largely ignored or shunned. This was the case with Larry Kramer’s now-famous and widely reprinted article “1,112 and Counting,” an apocalyptic manifesto for direct action in the streets and civil disobedience to fight the growing death toll. Or with the call by Virginia Apuzzo, then executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for a renewal of radical actions. In a rousing speech at a candlelight vigil, she thundered, “If something isn’t done soon, we will not be here at Federal Plaza at night in this quiet, we will be on Wall Street!… No politician will be immune to a community that will not take no for an answer!”

These minoritarian appeals for a return to the kind of militant, attention-grabbing tactics early gay liberationists had deployed were, for the most part, largely denounced or dismissed by the gay press of the time. Gould has done a yeoman job of research, and her documentation of the dismissive and self-hate-tinged calls for decorous behavior in the face of death in the gay community’s own media in response to the jeremiads of the likes of Kramer and Apuzzo is a depressing account indeed.

But the mood changed dramatically following the 1986 US Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick upholding the constitutionality of the so-called “sodomy laws” in the case of a Georgia man arrested for performing oral sex in the privacy of his own home.

“To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to set aside millennia of moral teaching,” proclaimed Republican Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Nixon appointee, in his Hardwick concurring opinion dripping with sarcastic homophobia.

The Bowers decision was a wake-up call, and gays immediately took to the streets. At a July 4 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty with Reagan and his wife in attendance, some 10,000 gay men and lesbians chanting “Civil rights or civil war” broke through police lines to bring their angry protest to the attention of the national media. And a few weeks after the Hardwick decision, 4,000 queers in San Francisco disrupted a visit by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with a simultaneously angry and playful chant of “What Do We Want? Sodomy! When Do We Want It? Now!”

These were the largest gay demonstrations since the ’70s, and they were followed by more street demos in cities all over the country. Increasingly, speakers at these protests began to link the Hardwick decision to the lack of government response to the AIDS epidemic. And ACT UP’s predecessor, the Lavender Hill Mob, a lesbian and gay direct action group formed soon after the Hardwick decision, after organizing disruption of a New York speech by Chief Justice Burger, began turning its attention to the AIDS crisis. In February 1987, the Lavender Hill Mob disrupted a conference of the Centers for Disease Control demanding safe-sex education and care for the victims of the epidemic.

The next month, Kramer gave a speech at New York’s LGBT Community Center that repeated his call for a militant activist response to the AIDS epidemic, a meeting heavily attended by members of the Lavender Hill Mob. Two nights later, 300 gays, lesbians, and sexual radicals attended the founding meeting of ACT UP.

If the Supreme Court’s Hardwick decision was a catalytic moment, so too was the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which was led by people with AIDS, many of them in wheelchairs. The March’s organizers called for direct action, arguing, “Traditional civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance have been used as a last resort when all other remedies have failed. The feeling is that the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, coupled with continued inadequate and inappropriate government response to the AIDS crisis, indicates that all our previous efforts to secure our civil rights have failed.”

In the largest act of civil disobedience since the Vietnam War protests, 800 March participants were arrested at the Supreme Court, and on returning home many more started direct action AIDS groups. And 200 March participants met that weekend to plan a coordinated series of AIDS demonstrations for the spring of 1988, adopting the name ACT NOW (the AIDS Coalition to Network, Organize, and Win). The ACT UP movement was now a national one.

Gould’s history of ACT UP from coast to coast is illustrated with some three-dozen photographs of its creative and militant actions and posters. She chronicles the sit-ins, the disruptions of government meetings, political speeches, and pharmaceutical company headquarters, the candlelight marches featuring the ashes of those dead from the disease, which in one instance were scattered on the White House lawn, and the march through the streets of New York bearing the body of ACT UP member Mark Fisher in response to his call to “Bury Me Furiously.”

And, of course, Gould devotes considerable space to analyzing the emotions surrounding participation in ACT UP — the loving camaraderie in fighting death, the soldering of strong links between lesbians and gay men when the two groups had so long been separate, the eroticism and cruisiness of ACT UP meetings that reinforced solidarity and political bonding. Gould has interviewed dozens of veterans of ACT UP and scoured their personal archives for insights, and the voices of those who made up this vibrant movement and won its considerable victories shine through.

One does not have to agree with all of her theses about emotion and political work in order to appreciate the effort she has put into creating this valuable historical record. I cannot restrain myself from noting in passing that she often unnecessarily deploys academic jargon that disrupts her narrative; why do our universities teach our scholars to write this way? The introduction is particularly heavy slogging in this regard.

Despite this caveat, Gould has done a remarkable job in portraying the times that gave rise to ACT UP, its significant impact on the nation’s consciousness and policies despite dismissive denunciations by The New York Times and other major media, its impact on queer consciousness, and its sad decline.

“Despair destroyed ACT UP,” Gould writes, adding that “the despair generated by accumulating deaths in the early 1990s was immense, and its effects on the national direct-action AIDS movement cannot be overstated.” ACT UP collapsed into sectarian faction-fighting when so many of its best and brightest activists, many who had been at the forefront of the ’70s gay liberation struggles, were swept away by that grimmest of reapers, the AIDS epidemic, in the days before the discovery of life-prolonging protease inhibitors. No other important social movement has ever suffered such a vitiating loss in so short a time span.

“Their hopes and expectations crumbling, people increasingly felt powerless in the face of the virus,” Gould writes. “From their perspective, the virus was simply outwitting science, and there was nothing ACT UP could do about that.”

From New York to Paris, there are still shards of this once-vibrant movement that attempt to carry on its work. But even if you’re not a part of this tradition, “Moving Politics” belongs on the bookshelves of every sentient gay person as written witness to a brief time in our history when thousands of queers came together to fight for life and each other. Too many people around the globe continue to die of AIDS, and HIV-infection rates, especially among the young, are once again soaring. In today’s gay world, where AIDS has been effectively shunted aside as an issue by the institutions that claim to speak for us, we urgently need to remember what ACT UP at its best was all about.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at

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By Deborah B. Gould

University of Chicago Press

536 pages; $23 paperback