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‘Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS’ by Deborah B. Gould

‘Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS’ by Deborah B. Gould

Author: Eric Colleary

September 22, 2010

Lambda Award Finalist

I must begin this review with something of a confession: I was terribly reluctant to read Deborah Gould’s history of ACT UP. I had no reservations with Gould, and a part of me was thrilled to see the spotlight focus on this important AIDS organization.

I was reluctant because I was afraid of what a history of ACT UP would mean. To write such a history would require both emotional and physical distance from the group that fought a bloody battle for public recognition of the enormous AIDS crisis that continues to linger today. I was saddened to think of ACT UP as history – as something behind us that we look back on with nostalgia. I shuddered to think of how such a history might sound the death knell for radical, direct, anti-assimilationist LGBTQ politics.

Yet we do already live in a world that will allow us to look on the AIDS movements of the 1980s and early 1990s with nostalgia. Despite the dramatic increase in HIV/AIDS infections within the gay community in recent years, we have somehow “moved past” an AIDS crisis. While Jesse Helms’ legislation continues to prevent federal funds to be used for AIDS education programs targeting the gay community, we’ve dangerously lost sight of the life and death issues that continue to plague the LGBT community.

Hoping we can all learn from the past, I picked up Gould’s Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS. As the title suggests, Gould explores the history of ACT UP through the lens of emotion. What emotional responses make people act? Why does despair sometimes incite us to fight when other times it spells defeat? How do organizations like ACT UP productively channel anger and rage into powerful and politically effective protests? Gould tackles these questions by separating the book into three parts: the years leading up to an emergence of direct-action AIDS activism, the peak years of ACT-UP, and the numerous circumstances leading to its decline.

In the early years of the AIDS crisis – years plagued by active government silence and hatred in the face of thousands of AIDS-related deaths – many lesbians and gay men attempted to work within the system of the law to humbly ask for attention and funding for the service-related programs that had cropped up in cities across the country. The 1986 Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld the criminalization of sodomy ,was the slap in the face that Gould credits as the breaking point that led many to seek more transgressive ways of getting the government’s attention. No longer content with begging the government for permission to live, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was founded, formally, in 1987.

Early demonstrations included zaps on the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and on Wall Street. In New York, where the first ACT UP chapter was formed, protesters once chained themselves to the VIP balcony of the Stock Exchange, unfurling a large banner that read “SELL WELLCOME” in protest of the high prices of Burroughs Wellcome’s expensive AZT drug – at the time the only federally approved AIDS drug. In Chicago, activists put bed mattresses in the streets to create a makeshift women’s health clinic to protest the city’s refusal to allow women to be admitted to the local hospitals’ AIDS wards. Demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin smeared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the walls of the state building as a response to the governor’s assertion that the sandwiches were a sufficient nutritional supplement for prisoners with AIDS.

The national and international ACT UP chapters staged dramatic, powerful demonstrations too numerous to be included in a single volume. Gould selects a small handful of events from across the country to examine the emotional affective responses of activists. The role of dark humor, for example, on posters of Ronald Reagan with the caption “He Kills Me.” Or when police would arrive at demonstrations with yellow rubber gloves, under the apparent belief that they would “catch” AIDS in the process of arresting protestors, they would be met with chants of “Your gloves don’t match your shoes! You’ll see it on the news!”

Gould also takes time to explore the erotics of activism. Through interviews with former members and her own experiences as a member of ACT UP Chicago, Gould describes the intense sexual energies during meetings where “people sat in each other’s laps, brushed up against one another and cruised each other.” ACT UP New York member Maria Maggenti recalled “I [left] the meetings feeling incredibly sexy … [F]eeling sexy, feeling beautiful, makes you feel very much alive…. It’s the most subversive way anyone could respond to this crisis.”

In this case, Gould argues, feelings such as erotic energy and dark humor were necessary to attract and sustain its membership. ACT UP was a place where, when one felt alone and without hope, one could be surrounded by a palpable, energizing feeling of possibility. There, grief and rage would be redirected into actions like one of Gould’s saddest and most inspiring – the 1992 political funeral on the White House lawn. Held in conjunction with a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Washington Mall, ACT UP activists marched to the George H. Bush White House carrying the ashes of loved ones who had died from AIDS-related illness. Arguing that it wasn’t enough to simply make quilt panels, protestors chanted “Bring the dead to your door, we won’t take it anymore.” ACT UP New York member Avram Finkelstein recalled the march:

One by one, we called out the names of the dead: without a podium, a loud-speaker or celebrity spokespeople. The procession was the Quilt come to life – walking, shouting and storming the White House…. The ash bearers charged the gate, surrounded by crews [of activists] with linked arms. A gust of ashes blew through the fence and the urns were hurled…. We chanted and cheered and our dead floated over the immaculate green sod…. [After the action] I walked back to the Quilt hoping to see [his deceased lover] Don’s panel before the rains came…. I wanted to snatch it up and heave it over the fence, where it really belonged.

Reading this over, it should be clear Gould’s history is not just exploring emotions – it is emotional itself. One cannot help getting emotionally caught up in reading this book. While its peak lasted less than a decade, the venerable organization successfully negotiated for greater accessibility to treatment for people infected with HIV/AIDS, educated physicians, politicians and the public on the crisis, and were one of the most visible advocates for AIDS legislation at its time.

And yet, for a variety of reasons explored by Gould in the final part of her book, and despite a few chapters that continue to remain, ACT UP largely dissolved around 1993. Blame it on activist fatigue. Blame it on the AIDS-related campaign promises of Bill Clinton that he dropped to pass other legislation. Blame it on the discovery that AZT turned out not to be as effective as originally promised and, at the time, the country lacked an effective treatment plan. Blame it on a larger shift in political discourse in the LGBT community that reprioritized its issues that didn’t include HIV/AIDS. Gould suggests at the beginning of Moving Politics that examining the rise and fall of ACT UP could offer hope for a new generation of direct-action. Yet, as she approaches the end of her study, she resists putting a hopeful spin on this history for fear it would mask the reality of the group’s demise. Ultimately, Gould returns to despair with the hope that something positive may once again come from it.

Deborah Gould’s Moving Politics is not for everyone. It is a dense work of scholarship drawing heavily on social movement theory and the slowly emerging field advocating for the study of emotion in the academy. Those looking for a more straightforward history of ACT UP should visit Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard’s ACT UP Oral History Project, or read the writings of Douglas Crimp. Still, Gould offers one of the most comprehensive, decentralized studies of ACT UP to date, and its contributions to social movement theory and LGBT studies are invaluable.
Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS
by Deborah B. Gould
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 9780226305295
Cloth $65.00, Paperback $23.00, 536 p

Eric Colleary photo

About: Eric Colleary

Eric Colleary is a PhD candidate and Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Study, specializing in theatre historiography and LGBT studies. He is currently writing his dissertation "Beyond the Closet: Histories and Identities in LGBT Archives," which he hopes to defend in the Spring.

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