LET THE RECORD SHOW
A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993
By Sarah Schulman
Nearly every Monday night from 1987 to 1992, hundreds of people met on West 13th Street in New York City to plan and execute the fight of their lives. Among them was the author Sarah Schulman, whose new history of ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — is based not only on her own involvement in the movement but on 17 years of interviews she and her collaborator, the filmmaker Jim Hubbard, conducted with 188 members of the group. The resulting book, “Let the Record Show,” is a masterpiece tome: part sociology, part oral history, part memoir, part call to arms.
At its height, the still-extant group’s meetings drew 800, and its largest direct action, “Stop the Church” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989, drew 7,000. ACT UP’s effects were seismic: on the pharmaceutical industry and medical research, on insurance policy, needle exchange laws; they even persuaded the C.D.C. to redefine AIDS so women could get better access to treatment. Similar chapters, not officially affiliated but sharing a name, cropped up in cities across the world.
“AIDS activist history has been mistakenly placed in the trajectory of gay male history,” Schulman writes, when in fact many of ACT UP’s founders and stalwarts, as well as many of its tactics, sprang from other movements of the ’60s and ’70s: Black liberation and civil rights, communism, Quakerism, the Jewish left, the Weathermen, women’s reproductive rights, radical student associations. By nature, Schulman writes, “these were people who were unable to sit out a historic cataclysm.”
In March of 1987, after a lecture by the playwright and activist Larry Kramer at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, these many tributaries gave birth to an organization, leaderless by design, that was bound to grapple with what we now call intersectionality. The public face of ACT UP was often white and male, and that’s the predominant image in the popular memory, in part because a group of white men with financial resources crying for health care was novel, and drew news cameras in a way other groups could not. But the organization itself was (if unevenly) devoted to medical access for all demographics. “It is very unusual,” Schulman writes, “for movements or groups that are dominated by men and white people to achieve transformational victories that improve the lives of women, people of color and poor people” — and this focus owed much to the work of activists from those demographics whose stories Schulman excels in highlighting.
That the group contained multitudes, and also faced the constant problem of organizers dying off, led to what Schulman calls “a kind of radical democracy.” Affinity groups, committees and caucuses planned their own actions, using ACT UP’s legal protections but not requiring organizational consensus. This not only protected activists from F.B.I. and police infiltration within, but accelerated and multiplied the demonstrations. Time, after all, was in short supply.
Schulman has critical words for narratives (like David France’s “How to Survive a Plague,” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” the Oscar-winning “Philadelphia”) that center on a straight savior narrative, that tell only the story of white gay men, or that imply activism was the work of a few rather than of the collective. A stickler could argue that to zero in on ACT UP New York is to reinforce another kind of generalization: that New York, along with maybe San Francisco, was where AIDS happened, and where the response happened — to the exclusion of activism in other cities, on college campuses and abroad. To be clear, this is not a flaw in Schulman’s book itself, which could only achieve such depth by narrowing its focus to one specific organization. She also makes known the impact of those who brought ACT UP outside the city, highlighting early in the book the stories of New York Latino activists who helped start an ACT UP chapter in Puerto Rico. Rather, if a reader comes away with a reinforced sense of AIDS as a fundamentally urban, coastal issue, the fault is in the deficit of diverse stories elsewhere in media. On the more academic side, Deborah B. Gould’s “Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS” discusses ACT UP nationally. Benita Roth’s “The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA” chronicles another city’s activism. But there are very few other written histories of the movement.
I’ve recently heard confounding mention of “this huge wave” of AIDS literature — a reference, presumably, to the handful of books and films in the past few years, often brilliant, often important, but more a splash on the sand than a tsunami. To date, over 32 million globally have died of AIDS, around 690,000 in 2018 alone. We have 1.2 million Americans living with H.I.V., many without access to lifesaving drugs. Compare the number of AIDS books you’ve heard about with the number of Holocaust novels published last year. Compare it with the number of Civil War histories on your one weird uncle’s shelf. All those books are vital, but so are the histories of AIDS that have not yet been published or, for various reasons, never will be.
We find ourselves now in a pandemic both wildly dissimilar and eerily similar to the one the world has been living with for decades — since well before The New York Times’s first notice, 40 years ago, of a “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.” With devastating predictability, those who already lack resources are at greatest risk. A virus once more serves as a contrast dye for what Schulman calls “the great American arbiter of supremacy and subordination: access.” Medical inequity continues not only with Covid but also with H.I.V./AIDS still, and it will repeat until we manage to learn from the past — about survival, and about the fight. Here is a primer, a compendium of what one group learned and struggled with and accomplished. Here is a book to start a mighty shelf.