Solidarity and Its Fracturing in ACT-Up

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

Lately Ive been thinking about the internal conflicts that exploded in the street aids activist movement, act up, and trying to make sense of the role they played in the demise of the movement in the early 1990s. The story is comple explore this topic in great detail in a book Im writing about aids activism but here I want to focus on a specific conflict that happened in act up/Chicago (the chapter I participated in) as a way to think about the fracturing of solidarity within a movement. My contention is that an understanding of this and other conflicts within act up, as well as in other movements, requires an analysis of their affective dimensions. Scholars and activists alike tend to focus on the substance of a movements conflicts, neglecting the emotional undercurrents that play a part in structuring the content, character, and effects of such conflicts. With the phrase emotional undercurrent I mean to point to the way the feelings operating in a movements internal conflicts are often unarticulated, unacknowledged, and submerged, but nevertheless have a force and direction to them, an insistence, affecting participants themselves as well as things like the content, shape, tone, texture, velocity and intensity of the conflicts. In this case, often unstated and unrecognized feelings of betrayal, non-recognition, resentment, mistrust, and anger were at the heart of act ups internal conflicts.

assuming solidarity (and feeling it too)

Before discussing this specific clash in act up/Chicago, let me rewind to the early years of the street aids activist movement. Interviews that I conducted with act up participants indicate that initially there were strong feelings of solidarity, based in part on a sense that we together, as lesbians and gay men, as queer folk, as a community, were under attack, evident in the failures of state and society to respond to the aids crisis but also in the right wings use of aids to wage war against all things queer. While it was clear that some act up members were struggling immediately and directly with aids, the movements rhetoric asserted that we were all living with aids: we were collectively experiencing the ravages of the epidemic, confronting a world that plainly was accepting of the deaths of gay people, living through and battling the attacks on our community. This sense of shared experiences seemed to unite participants across health status, and across racial and gender lines as well, at least to a good extent. Being in act up might require struggling with others in the movement over issues of racism and sexism, but it seemed like a hospitable place for that to happen, and you could fight aids. Something that was initially vitally important in creating feelings of solidarity was the assumption that everyone in ACT UP, as evidenced by their very presence in the room, shared similar principles and was there for the same reasons: to fight the aids crisis, to fight for all people with aids, to preserve and enrich queer culture. Moreover, everyone was committed to a range of tactics, including confrontational direct action. Although even early in act ups life different participants likely had very different understandings of the aids crisis, those differences were not yet salient. Solidarity was assumed, or better, simply was not in question, at least not on a conscious level. That we were all in this together, that we had one anothers backs, was the a priori, a given, it was felt.

the unraveling of solidarity

The conflict that I want to explore occurred in act up/Chicago in September 1989 earlier than it happened elsewhere in the movement but foreshadowing conflicts that soon would explode in other act up chapters and at the national level as well. The key players were the Womens Caucus (of which I was a member) and a number of men in the organization, some of whom were hiv-positive. Most, perhaps all, of the women in the Caucus were hiv-negative lesbians, and our activism, done in league with a number of hiv-positive women who affiliated with act up/Chicago, often focused on issues of concern to women with hiv/aids. The flashpoint in this specific conflict was a planned discussion on the role of sexism in the aids epidemic and in act up/Chicago itself, and a boycott of this event by many of the men in the group. The original intent for the sexism discussion was three-fold: 1. to increase knowledge within act up/Chicago about the specific concerns of women with aids and illustrate how the epidemic looked from an angle other than a gay male angle; 2. to explain why lesbians had gotten involved in aids activism; and 3. to discuss how sexism within the group was making it difficult for women to participate (act up/Chicago Womens Caucus 1989). During the discussion, the Womens Caucus gave the men a questionnaire, in part an actual test of their knowledge about women and aids but also a bit of a set-up, a way to catch them in their sexism and thereby shame them, a point I return to below. The questionnaire included some relatively straightforward questions what is the percentage of new cases of aids in Chicago that are among women; what groups are systematically excluded from clinical drug trials? It also included the following inflammatory and rhetorical questions:  If the aids crisis had hit primarily women, do you think that gay men would be responding to us in the numbers that we are responding now?  and  what adjectives are you familiar with that describe the smell of female genitals?  1

The sexism from some of the men that had prompted us to call for the sexism discussion in the first place, followed by the unreceptive and antagonistic behavior of some men during the sexism discussion and the boycott by many others, felt like a betrayal to many of us in the Womens Caucus. We had felt unified with them in this battle but now it seemed like many men in the group did not care about us at all. Feeling betrayed and outraged, we responded by reading a statement at the next meeting that took the men to task for their sexism. Much of the statement is a candid narrative of why the women had wanted to hold the sexism discus- sion. Acknowledging how much we had learned from the men in act up about fighting the epidemic and its accompanying anti-gay horrors, our statement revealed our sense that, in contrast to our respect for and commitment to them, many act up men showed no respect or commitment toward us. Indeed, many seemed  clueless  about why lesbians, ostensibly at low risk for hiv, were  involved in the aids fight.  Not only did the men we were fighting side by side with us seemingly not know us, they seemed uninterested in knowing us or in understanding why we were there, why we were there in solidarity with gay men with aids and people with aids in general but also why we felt an urgency, as queers, to fight the aids crisis. Like straight men, they seemed to take for granted that women would support them, which made us feel resentful and angry, but they also seemed to be suspicious about why we were there, and that impugning of our motives made us feel misunderstood 2.

A question that we raised during the sexism discussion and again in our statement  what have the men in act up learned from the women?  revealed our feelings of non-recognition:  Need we remind you that women, and particularly many lesbians, have been there with you from the beginning, sharing skills, political experience and expertise, as well as compassion?  In asking those questions, we were suggesting that the men in act up were not acknowledging our contributions to the movement or their importance. More than that, we also were saying that solidarity was a two-way street. We wanted to feel  mutual solidarity and respect,  a reciprocal appreciation, but the mens failure to recognize us instead threatened to exacerbate our feelings of unbelonging and insignificance. We indicated that, as lesbians, we were all too familiar with such disregard and disrespect and were not about to accept that from within what we considered to be our own shared organization:  Lesbians are made invisible in society at large; we are not willing to be made invisible in act up as well.  We also indicated our anger toward them and our sense that they had betrayed us and that we could no longer count on them:  The Womens Caucus considers act ups response to the sexism discussion an injustice and a violation of trust  (act up/Chicago Womens Caucus 1989, 2). The constellation of feelings that we were experiencing feelings of being betrayed, unrecognized, and disrespected by men in the movement and our consequent anger, resentment, and mistrust toward them helps to explain the Womens Caucus decision to pull back our energy from  gay white mens problems,  as we put it in our statement, and focus our efforts more on women and aids. I think the entire constellation of feelings also helps to explain the parts of our statement that read to me now as a form of moralizing. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the statement, especially the last three sentences:
The Womens Caucus has been right up in the front lines with you guys from the beginning of this admittedly gay-male-centered fight. But, when we requested that you sit still and talk about sexism and hear about the FEMALE SIDE OF AIDS, you rudely refused, or, if you did show up, you attacked us for daring to suggest that our problems and experiences are as important as yours. Gee, guys, you sure are good at spitting out rhetoric on the changing face of aids, but god forbid that the new face open its mouth! 3  Or is it truly asking too much of you that you take an interest in problems that do not directly affect you? Again we ask, if aids affected primarily women or ethnic minorities, just how many of yall would be here?   Would YOU give money or time to combat it?  act up/Chicago Womens Caucus 1989, 2, capitalizations in original).

This part of the Caucus statement not only called the men on their sexism and disregard for women and people of color with aids, and not only indicated our own strong identification with those populations (particularly women with aids); it also again revealed that we felt betrayed by the men and disrespected as women and that our contributions to the movement were unappreciated by the men. Our implicit answer to the question about whether the men would have gotten involved if aids was primarily affecting women was  no,  of course, and in posing the question, the Womens Caucus suggested that we considered the men to be selfish while we, in contrast, had selflessly taken a position on the front-lines, in solidarity with gay men. Deploying a gendered notion of selflessness to our advantage, we were suggesting that the men should take note of and think about and in truth, feel bad about the difference between their selfishness and our selflessness 4.

I’m not sure that I was tuned into what I was feeling when I helped draft and read that statement with other women in the Caucus, but I suspect that I viewed the conflict as mainly a power struggle prompted by a number of men who were upset that some members of the Womens Caucus were exercising leadership in the organization. On some level I probably felt disrespected by what I perceived to be their sexism  they were taking neither us nor our concerns seriously. I recall feeling frustrated by their seeming unwillingness to consider how racism and sexism were affecting the aids crisis. Instead of engaging in political discussion on the issue, they furiously accused us of “getting off the track of aids,” an accusation that seemed disingenuous to many of us insofar as we never advocated that act up engage in some general fight against racism and sexism but rather that we attend to the ways in which racism and sexism were exacerbating the aids epidemic. So I imagine that their accusation also made me angry. The moralizing tone in parts of our statements makes me think that I also felt a sort of leftish smugness in what I, and others in the Caucus, as well as our allies, perceived to be our political superiority. After all, we were selfless, they were selfish. We had an expansive understanding of the aids crisis, theirs was narrow and limited.

In light of Douglas Crimp’s observation about moralizing and the impasse it created in the movement (1992), I want to think more about that aspect of the Womens Caucus statement, especially because all of the different sides in act ups conflicts sometimes spoke in that same register. The Womens Caucus statement, of course, had many facets. It indicated our keen awareness of our position as lesbians in a homophobic, heteronormative, sexist society and our desire that the structural position we occupied in society not be reproduced in act up. Part of it was a sincere attempt to engage in principled political debate with the men; to that end, we felt the need to air our feelings of being betrayed and unrecognized, and our consequent anger, resentment, and growing mistrust. Moralizing entered in when we interpreted the mens behavior in moral terms and found them wanting, while setting ourselves up, in contrast, as morally righteous. We suggested that their behavior revealed them to be selfish in their aids activism; our politics, in contrast, revealed us to be selfless and truly committed to fighting for all people with aids, in line with act ups rhetoric. We were politically advanced, they were politically flawed. Drawing from an essentialist understanding of gender that codes women as caring and selfless and men as individualistic and selfish, we suggested that we were morally superior, they were morally deficient. Our statement indicates that we already were feeling little solidarity from the men and little solidarity toward them by that point; I think that many of the men were similarly feeling little solidarity toward us, and I wonder if the moralizing portions of our statement might have intensified those non-solidaristic sentiments across gender. Although we may not have intended to shame and guilt-trip the men, our tone in places was castigatory, and may have had shaming effects. After all, as members of a movement that considered itself and was seen by most observers as progressive and even left, accusations of being selfishly concerned only about their gay male selves may have challenged their perceptions of themselves as progressive, compassionate individuals.

While I agree with Crimp’s observation that moralizing created an impasse in the movement, I think it is important to understand the context in which moralizing emerged. From our perspective, the men in act up, our ostensible comrades, were abandoning us by not caring about our concerns, by not listening to us, by seeming to view our involvement in the movement as inconsequential. Our strong identification with women with hiv/aids indicated in multiple places but especially when we actually assumed their position when we referred to act up mens inability to listen when  the new face of aids  opened its mouth seems very important insofar as we probably experienced some of the mens evident lack of concern about women with hiv/aids as a form of betrayal not only of those women but of us. My sense is that our feelings of being betrayed, unrecognized, disrespected, and misunderstood by others in act up feelings with which many of us were already familiar due to our experiences as women and lesbians in mainstream society – might have led us, consciously or not, to a similar disregard, and even a contempt, for those who we felt were disregarding us.

One understandably might interpret the boycott of the sexism discussion as itself evidence of sexism within the group. And I think that that was indeed the case. There were, however, other forces in play as well. A number of act up members whom I interviewed remember that act up meetings were driven by the need to take action; people with aids, including members of act up, were dying all around us. Everybody felt a sense of urgency that was often translated into the view that we only had time to  act up . In that context, when the Womens Caucus on a couple of occasions suggested holding a workshop on racism or sexism in the group, very few people were interested in attending. The resistance certainly was due in part to some people in the group not wanting to confront those issues, but the reluctance was also driven by fear that anything other than action might slow down our efforts. What we in the Womens Caucus experienced as a power struggle and as evidence of sexism, what we felt as disrespect and betrayal by the men, were all in play, but so was fear among a number of men in the group that they or their loved ones might soon become sick and die and that act up thus needed to focus all of its time and efforts on actions that might prolong their lives. Fears that the movement was wasting time and getting diverted, at the expense of people with hiv/aids, especially those in the room, played a continuing role in act up/Chicagos conflicts.

Both factions within act up, in other words, were experiencing fears of betrayal. And although I dont have space to address this here, both sides turned to moralizing: a viable, if estranging, rhetorical register in this moment. In the end, the feelings on both sides that sparked the moralizing and that were at the core of act ups political conflicts feelings of betrayal and fear of betrayal, non-recognition, disrespect, mistrust, and anger remained largely unacknowledged and unaddressed while nevertheless operating as a force in the conflicts. act up/Chicago, like other act up chapters, became factionalized, with each side demonizing the other, personalizing and polarizing what otherwise might have been difficult, but navigable, political conflicts. My sense is that disputes skirted political disagreements and became personalized because of the force of the emotional undercurrents of the conflicts. Unacknowledged, unaddressed, and largely submerged feelings between the different sides took an enormous toll on people, making it extremely difficult to empathize with or feel solidarity toward one another.

the affective dimensions of political conflicts

As this example indicates, the political conflicts in act up were not solely about divergent political analyses. I think that is true of most conflicts within movements. More than tactical or strategic disagreements, such conflicts often revolve around the complex feelings evoked by different members occupying different social positions within society and within the movement itself. Real or perceived differences in social location and power can generate fears of betrayal and loss of power, as well as feelings of non-recognition, resentment, anger, guilt, and hatred all of which can define and amplify existing fractures in solidarity. My point, then, is that political conflicts derive not only from divergent interests, identities, and identifications, but also from the affective dimensions of those interests, identities, and identifications. I hope that turning our lenses to the emotional undercurrents that structure political conflicts can help us to attend to the sometimes bad feelings that can arise in the midst of political activism.

For their many insights and provocations, I want to thank Laurie Palmer, my fellow feelies in Feel Tank Chicago, and of course everyone who participated in act up.

1 This last question stemmed from knowledge among some members of the Caucus that women were referred to as  fish  in some gay male circles, apparently a reference to the supposed smell of female genitalia; and indeed, many of the men wrote  fish  as their answer. Although feeling unknown and misunderstood can make one feel particularly humorless a point suggested by Eve Sedgwick in a discussion of shame (2003, 64) the ACT UP/Chicago Womens Caucus at times clearly had a more playful relation to the fish stereotype, evident for example in a banner made for the first Dyke March, held the night before the April 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights that declared  Chicago Dykes Rule: Pussy by the Lake,  and pictured a few catfish smiling and sunning themselves by Lake Michigan.
2 Our feelings of non-recognition from men in ACT UP may have been particularly distressing in a context where other lesbians, arguing that gay men were not concerned about lesbians, were questioning why lesbians were doing activism on AIDS, that is, on ostensibly  gay male issues,  when lesbians were reportedly suffering a breast cancer epidemic around which a movement needed to form.
3 This is an interesting construction in that none of the women making the statement, as far as I know, were living with HIV/AIDS. I think it indicates our strong identification with women with HIV/AIDS, a point I will return to in a moment. Our assumption of the position of women with HIV/AIDS also makes some sense if you consider the following: first, few in the scientific-medical establishment were addressing the epidemic among women, and that neglect was having deadly consequences, so we were acutely aware of the need to make womens needs visible; and second, women with HIV/AIDS were rarely able to attend ACT UP meetings, and certainly not on a regular basis, in large part because they had children to care for; they thus wanted us to represent their concerns and we thought it important to do so in ACT UP meetings.
4 Interestingly, many of the men answered  no  to the question. That, of course, is not proof that we were  right  in our construction of gay men as selfish. What their answers indicate, I think, is that highly gendered constructions of gay men as selfish and lesbians as selfless were widely circulating in this moment and easily latched onto, by lesbians as well as gay men.


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