Six Fragments from “The Thrill is Gone” (Confessions of a former AIDS activist)
[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]
Originally published as a full text in The Passionate Camera, edited by Deborah Bright, Routledge 1998
It is now a truism, cited by men and women alike, that had it been lesbians instead of gay men who were struck down in such numbers by this plague, the same degree of solidarity from “our brothers” would not necessarily have emerged. In act up/Chicago, this was borne out by the responses to a Women’s Caucus questionnaire, circulated at a large membership meeting in 1989, where men inside the group overwhelmingly replied that “gay men are too selfish” to come forward as lesbians had done for them.
Act up did not always acknowledge our social movement predecessors—in fact, some of us needed constant reminders that direct action, street theatre, and media genius were not “invented” by us. Act up inherited much from the women’s liberation movement, the civil rights and Black Power movements, and radical student movements—all of which succeeded, for a brief moment, in subverting business-asusual, deploying the rhetoric of personal transformation as well as social revolution, visualizing a literal “turning inside out” in their demonstrations, media spectacles, and struggles for power. Like the feminist health movement’s grassroots health research and collective do-ityourself gynecological exams (which made the speculum “user-friendly” years before Annie Sprinkle’s performances), South African freedom fighters’ transformations of public funerals into political protests against the apartheid regime; the Black Panther Party’s public demonstrations of armed self-defense, or Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies’ levitation of the Pentagon— act up, too, created a theatre of our bodies in the public sphere. We, too, intended to smear the dichotomies between “private” and “public” life—this time, between sexuality and politics, our “social” demands and our “individual” desires.
The image of the freedom bed alternated with those of act up’s die-ins, where, on cue, anywhere between ten and one hundred activists would drop to the ground together in sprawled silence, our prone bodies then outlined in chalk by others. In these tableaux, the street became a metaphoric death-bed, and the tracings left behind marked the site as a scene of murder, a visual testament to the bodies that were in fact disappearing 1. One also recalls earlier protests marking the 1945 U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where chalk outlines were used to represent ghostly irradiated images, the sole remains of thousands of dead human beings.
In April 1990, act up/Chicago hosted the National Aids Actions for Healthcare, which had been organized by act up chapters nationally under the umbrella of act-now (Aids Coalition to Network, Organize and Win). Our actions included a 24-hour teach-in and vigil at Cook County Hospital, rallies, and a day-long march which threaded through downtown Chicago, targeting the insurance industry, the American Medical Association, and city and county public health offices through civil disobedience and militant protests. The culmination of the daylong protests was the ad-hoc National Women’s Caucus Action, where we used beds as a literal direct action tool. We semi-secretly dragged 15 old mattresses, representing the 15 empty beds of Cook County Hospital’s aids ward (which, until that point, due to cynical bureaucratic mismanagement, was barred to women) through the streets and alleys of downtown Chicago. Chanting “aids is a disaster, women die faster” and “Women are dying to get in,” lovers, friends, comrades and fuck-buddies, butches and femmes, older women and teenagers, sat down on these old mattresses, using them and our bodies to block midday traffic at a major downtown intersection in front of City Hall. In 1990, only a handful of hiv-positive women in the city of Chicago were willing and able to speak publicly as such, and two of them, Betty Jean Pejko and Novella Dudley, had been key speakers at the Teach-in and Vigil we had held just prior to the demonstrations. Although none of the members of the Women’s Caucus who were arrested were known to be hiv-positive at the time, we put on hospital gowns and seized these mattresses in solidarity with women with aids. In assuming these identities and representations, our intention was not to speak for women rendered “invisible and voiceless,” but to create a visual homology of our identification and solidarity with women with aids, not unlike Argentinian protestors who “became” desaparecidos (the disappeared) by wearing white deathmasks at demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s. Two national caucuses—of people of color and people with immune system disorders (pisd)—joined the action, creating crucial diversions which allowed the women to prolong the blockade. This was a pivotal moment of mutual solidarity in the aids movement among women, people of color, and people diagnosed with hiv/aids and chronic fatigue syndrome, at a demonstration which powerfully focused our demands in the context of a national healthcare agenda …
… In a particularly swift demonstration of the effectiveness of civil disobedience and direct action, Cook County’s aids ward was opened to women the very next day.
For many in the aids movement, the battle against the epidemic was identical with the production of lesbian, gay, and queer identities. The shifting of the epidemic to more and more poor people, communities of color, intravenous drug users, and women necessitated that the fight against aids become simultaneously a fight against racism, homelessness, the drug plague, the prison system, and the collapsing social safety net in this country. None of these potential battlegrounds is particularly mediagenic; in fact, all are almost hopelessly, routinely endemic to and deeply entwined with the structures of capitalist society.
… I have in front of me another image: of a police officer with gloved hands smashing my friend Tim’s head down on a barricade, while another grabs his exposed neck. The site was act up’s demonstration against the American Medical Association (ama) in 1991. This was a turning point for act up/Chicago, for it was here, during a marked escalation of police brutality, that demonstrators were beaten, hospitalized, and traumatized. More injuries were sustained here than ever before in our brief experience. Perhaps more significantly, we suffered collective psychic damage; many people were effectively freaked out. This was the point, after all: we were up against the limits of our own power and effectiveness.
The ama demonstration was, like all such experiences, a potentially educational one. There were many in the aids movement who had been buffered all their lives from the overt aggression of the state by protective layers of class, skin color, or maleness, for whom the brutality encountered was new and unprecedented. For some, these primary experiences were links to a new kind of consciousness about the systematic police brutality endured and fought by African Americans, Mexicans, and other people of color, poor people and “street” folk for centuries.
And while some people moved from this experience with greater awareness, seriousness, and sense of solidarity, others were hurt, frightened, and afraid. Despite our press conferences, counter-information, and lawsuits, 2 the calculated brutality by the police—much of it soft-tissue injuries which, though less visible than head-crackings and blood wounds, took longer to heal—the violence we encountered had a chilling effect on our ranks. This was the same time period that saw increased police infiltration, “dirty tricks,” and spying on aids activist groups across the country, in the context of an escalation of anti-gay violence and bigotry nationally.
Less than ten years into the epidemic, the literal disappearance of so many—all those who had joined the horribly-escalating numbers of the dead—began to collapse into the erasure of our images in the media. We dropped out of sight. This produced another hole in our midst, another empty space: we were literally being chalked out…..
1 See Josh Gamson’s “Silence, Death, and the Invisible Enemy: AIDS Activism and Social Movement ‘Newness’” in Social Problems, Vol. 36, No. 4, October 1989.
2 In 1995, injured demonstrators finally reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the Chicago police.