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A Book Looking Backwards and Forwards at Once: Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York

A Book Looking Backwards and Forwards at Once: Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York

Author: Emily Shapiro

July 8, 2021

It’s hard to write about the release of Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 without the obvious comparison to the pandemic we’re currently going through. At first, I tried to avoid it. It felt too neat, too distant from the history Schulman is trying to restore in this monumental book. It felt like referring to Covid would be like changing the subject to myself. But ignoring the fact that this title is being released in the midst of another virus started to feel even more contrived than recognizing it. It’s 2021, and the launch events for this book all have to be virtual; in the back of everyone’s mind, as we talk about the ways people were and still are affected by one virus, we’re thinking of another too. 

Maybe that’s not so wrong though. Because, as Schulman writes, “the primary purpose of…this book is not nostalgia, but rather to help contemporary and future activists learn from the past to assist organizing in the present.” This purpose gives Let the Record Show an undercurrent of urgency. It’s an intimidatingly large book, but the pages turn quickly because it all feels so painfully relevant. Artist and ACT UPer Zoe Leonard says it well: “What AIDS revealed was not the problem of the virus; what AIDS revealed was the problems of our society.” Reading Leonard’s words, I thought about all the ways Covid has made the fissures in our society so clear. The difference though is that Covid is in the public eye, and that was the whole fight of AIDS activists: to get the public’s attention, to have their struggle recognized. 

Novels, documentaries, and plays were preserving the AIDS epidemic in a brine of magical thinking and falsehoods. They centered straight people and reinforced the myth of a single hero.

This is another reason I want people to understand that even though Let the Record Show is somewhere close to 800 pages, you’ll read it urgently. The fight for the public’s attention still feels alive in the way Schulman writes. This is a book that looks backwards and forwards at once. It’s based off of the ACT UP Oral History Project she and Jim Hubbard began in 2001 when they realized that the realities of the movement were nowhere to be found online. In ACT UP’s heyday nothing was digitized, and afterwards so many of the people who had been part of the activism were no longer alive to document it or were too busy dealing with the trauma of what had happened. 

This meant the New York Times—a publication ACT UPers referred to as the New York Crimes because of how negligent and harmful the journalism around HIV/AIDS was there—got cited in AIDS research and books. Novels, documentaries, and plays were preserving the AIDS epidemic in a brine of magical thinking and falsehoods. They centered straight people and reinforced the myth of a single hero. Schulman names many of these stories. They’re the ones we all know of, the ones that have been celebrated with awards and prizes: Philadelphia, Angels In America, How to Survive a Plague. It was frightening but also seductive to learn about the inaccuracies in so many of these narratives. I say seductive because as each of my reference points for this time were slowly erased or at least contested by Schulman, I began to feel hungry for the actual story.

Very early in the book, Schulman lists the progress that was made in the five years between ACT UP New York’s founding and its eventual split. Each bullet point begins like so: “ACT UP designed,” “ACT UP ran,” “ACT UP made,” “ACT UP helped.” ACT UP made an incredible amount of progress. Women were included in the CDC’s definition of AIDS so they could access benefits and drug trials, needle exchanges were made legal in New York City, and the way the media portrayed people with AIDS changed from a sick man in a hospital bed to someone powerful and defiant. The list goes on and on. And yet, none of these things could happen fast enough. Part of why the group was so progressively leaderless had to do with the fact that many involved and influential members died as they organized and fought for these changes. It’s simultaneously something that made ACT UP radical and tragic, and Schulman does her best to highlight this, to pick at the ways we only understand movements through heroes and leading individuals. 

Let the Record Show acquaints the reader with this instinct. Reading through the memories and impacts of the survivors interviewed for the ACT UP Oral History Project and referred to in this book, I found myself clinging to each name, thinking this person, this one was especially memorable. Or, here’s the person who brought women, drug users, people of color, people not yet infected, etc. into the conversation. But that was never true. I was just searching for a singular source, when in reality ACT UP was a convergence. This is a crucial point for Schulman who finds ways throughout the book of demonstrating that “political progress is won by coalitions.”

Schulman argues that the misrepresentation of AIDS activists has resulted in a kind of whitewashing of the movement. People forget that ACT UP was successful because it drew from multiple influences. There were members who had been or were also active in reproductive rights movements, civil rights organizations, radical student movements, labour movements, and Black liberation movements. The national media, which was made up of mostly white men at the time, rarely chose to interview or share the stories of ACT UPers who didn’t look like them. But people from various other movements with various other identities brought their experience with them to the weekly Monday night meetings, and ACT UP was forever shaped by their influences. 

Marion Banzhaf worked to fight for abortion rights and access, and she was part of the development of the feminist concept of “patient-centered politics.” She brought this ethos with her when she joined ACT UP in 1987 and describes how “the women’s health movement sort of pav[ed] the way for AIDS activism, in terms of challenging the control of doctors in the first place, and starting to democratize health care.” Robert Vázquez-Pacheco was a Puerto Rican-American gay man who joined ACT UP because he was painfully angry and wanted to do something after losing his boyfriend to the virus. Eventually, he joined the AIDS activist artist collective, Gran Fury, and was featured in their “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” campaign. He saw “the opportunity in ACT UP for social change…using AIDS as a nexus of all the problems in society.” 

It feels important to point out that even though ACT UP benefitted from the influence of people of color and women, these people often faced racism and/or sexism as they struggled to get their voices into the larger discourse of the predominantly white male group. As Schulman puts it, “as soon as one tiny step of progress was made the relative equality of being doomed together subsided and was replaced by the great American arbiter of supremacy and subordination: access.” 

Today people like adrienne maree brown and Prentis Hemphill highlight the importance of pleasure in activist groups or the ways joy and healing are integral to the fight. An aspect of ACT UP that felt importantly restored in this book was its sexiness. In the cacophony of voices Schulman highlights in Let the Record Show, something that gets repeated over and over again is how ACT UP was a place where people could cruise, a place where people fell in love. Gregg Bordowitz describes ACT UP in its heyday: “There is all kinds of sexiness going on…There is all kinds of cruising going on the sides, and eye catching, and chattiness. There was an energy in the group that was amazing, because it was filled with people who had ideas, filled with people who had energies, filled with a kind of erotic energy. And all that came together. It was in some ways like a bazaar of desires. So it was amazing that anything got done. An enormous amount got done.” Alexandra Juhasz, who started attending meetings in the summer of ‘87, also describes this. From her perspective there was “a mix of sexiness, fashion, style and intelligence and a goal and community,” but she also says “I don’t want to romanticize it, because it was born from grief, and it inspired grief…Even when everyone was flirting, and even when everybody looked so beautiful. It was clear, always in that room–what was at stake for people.” 

What ACT UPers had in common was their refusal to be bystanders.

Another really beautiful thing about the flirtatiousness of ACT UP that gets described in this book was the fluidity of sexuality within the group. Karen Moulding, who organized legal observers and defended various ACT UPers in court, remembered “this thing from ACT UP– ‘A lesbian and a gay man sleeping together is still queer sex.’ That was the thing about ACT UP, it was a little bit different. It was ahead of its time…there was a lot of shifting around and a lot of romance.”  I love knowing this, that in the midst of all the loss and illness, attraction and pleasure and relationships were also integral, were also deeply explored and expanded. 

Those relationships live on today. Even the short-lived hookups are enduring because what the young men, the women, the mom, the college student, the insurance broker, the chemist, so many of them, what so many of the people who were involved in ACT UP seem to say is that those years when their arms were linked, when they were coming up with solutions, were the best years of their lives. There’s a bond that remains between them. Even if they didn’t agree about everything and still don’t, they share something in common. This was the inciting question Schulman set out to answer when beginning the interviews that would become the basis for this book: What did the members of ACT UP share? Finding the link between such a diverse group was maze-like and riddled with deadends. The answer Schulman comes to is motivating though; it makes me ask what we’re all doing now. What ACT UPers had in common was their refusal to be bystanders. “These were people who were unable to sit out a historic cataclysm.”

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993
by Sarah Schulman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374185138, 736 pp.
May 2021

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