Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
What Does the Record Show?
Duration
0:00 / 57:28
Published
December 2, 2021

In May, writer and activist Sarah Schulman published Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, to widespread acclaim. In a review for the Fall issue of Jewish Currents, Vicky Osterweil argued that the book, despite offering invaluable insight into the history of AIDS activism, is marred by structural elisions—especially of trans people—and is ultimately hagiographic rather than appropriately critical of the movement it chronicles. While Schulman’s response to the review provoked a controversy, Osterweil’s critique also ignited a discussion about the book itself, sometimes tied to broader disagreements about the theory and practice of both queer history and movement strategy. In a letter to the editor, writer and organizer Kay Gabriel contested Osterweil’s assessment of the book, arguing that it stands as a sober account of what took place. In this episode, Culture Editor Ari M. Brostoff convenes a discussion between Osterweil and Gabriel about Let the Record Show, the dangers of nostalgia, and the challenges of reckoning with our political forebears.

Books, Articles, Talks, and Projects Mentioned:

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman

What the Record Doesn’t Show” by Vicky Osterweil

Letter on “What the Record Doesn’t Show” by Kay Gabriel

ACT UP Oral History Project

Being Street: The Trans Woman of Color as Evidence” by Jules Gill-Peterson

Celebrating the Role of Trans People in the Fight Against HIV” by Michelle Ross

Untitled blog post by Bryn Kelly

Diving into the Wreck” by Bryn Kelly

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Transcript

Ari Brostoff: Hi, everyone, and welcome to On The Nose, the podcast of Jewish Currents. This is Ari Brostoff. I’m the Culture Editor at Jewish Currents, and I’m filling in today for our regular host, Arielle Angel. And I have with me two guests: Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Philadelphia. And Kay Gabriel is a writer, teacher, and organizer who lives in Queens. We’re here today to talk about a book called Let the Record Show, which is a history of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP by the writer Sarah Schulman and some of the historical and theoretical and political questions that the book brings up. Vicky wrote a review of the book that appears in the fall issue of Jewish Currents.

And Kay wrote a letter to the editor that we published in response. So we’re returning to the book today in the wake of a little bit of a controversy that ensued after Vicky’s review came out. The book was widely acclaimed when it came out earlier this year, but Vicky’s review was critical. And Sarah Schulman wound up being quite displeased with it. And her displeasure at some point, became public and was even reported on; and became sort of a flashpoint on the internet for a minute earlier this fall. We’re actually not going to be really talking about that controversy today. What we’re hoping to do instead, and the reason we’re here today, is to redirect the conversation; to highlight the really substantive questions and debates brought up by the book, and about the book that may have gotten a little bit buried...sort of in this other conversation. So I just wanted to thank Vicky and Kay so much for joining us today to try and think through some of those questions out loud.

Kay Gabriel: Thanks so much for having me here. This is wonderful conversation. Vicky, it’s great to talk to you.

Vicky Osterweil: Thanks. It’s really nice to be here and to be talking about these questions, which I think are so important.

AB: So I guess maybe if we can just kind of start by laying out for those who haven’t read Vicky’s review, and maybe aren’t familiar with any of this. Vicky, do you want to say what the book is about, how you understand it; and just kind of lay out for us...like, what was your reaction to it? Like, what was your original response to it that you were then kind of writing through in your review?

VO: So yeah, the book is, it’s called A Political History on the cover. It’s a history of ACT UP New York, which was a direct action, AIDS activism and research group. The book is based mostly on oral histories that Sarah Schulman has done. And it goes sort of, not exactly chronologically, it’s broken up by sort of sections about the research and direct action and the forms of organization and the chapters about, women and ACT UP and all these...but it does sort of move chronologically. And it’s a really big culmination of decades of work of both activism and research that Schulman has been engaged with and has often been a very important and vocal supporter and producer of that work. I think it deserved a lot of attention for what it was, and I think we should be giving as much attention as it got to most works of movement history. I think that the questions asked are really important.

But I also had a lot of problems with the way it framed the movement. As I’m sure most listeners will know, AIDS activism was, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, in the context of basically a genocide. It was horrible. It was in constant death and struggle. And so there’s a lot of tension around how do we depict that history? Because so many of the activists were lost at the time. And it was, it’s so serious and so painful. And also Sarah Schulman was a participant in that movement. And I think these people are her friends, and she’s worked with them for a long time. That’s not a problem. The problem is that means that, I think, there’s a lot of nostalgia, perhaps? But also a desire; a desire to see those comrades be sort of elevated and respected and honored for what they did—which again, I understand—that I think in the book sometimes leaned over into a real over-claim that ACT UP is the best way that change can happen. And I also disagreed with a lot of sentiments in the book about how sort of leadership works and organizing work so we can get into that, into the nitty gritty of that.

The thing that ended up being, I think, both the cause of the controversy and the bigger point, and what made me most sort of emotional in response to it, was the real absence of a discussion of trans women in particular, and trans people in general, in the AIDS crisis. And the first moment where trans women are brought up, it’s brought up to talk about this TV show Pose from 2017, ‘18, where Black trans women are depicted being arrested at an action, where there’s a pretty clear in historical record that they weren’t actually present. And my response to that was like, “Wow, this is the first time trans women are showing up. And it’s a discussion about how they’re like being inserted falsely into this narrative and trying to like sort of capture this narrative in this way.”

AB: Kay, I want to give you sort of also a chance to be a reader here and not just a responder. So do you want to talk about your take on the book, just in general—anything that you would kind of describe differently from Vicky, and also your response to Vicky’s critique of the book?

KG: Yeah, happily. I guess I want to offer what I think is some important context. So one thing that Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show likes to talk about is the intentional process of historical amnesia that surrounds ACT UP. And in fact, the HIV/AIDS movement in general, the intentional and unintentional obliteration of history that continues to shape an epidemic and its force in our lives, right? That’s what the active Oral History Project was started to confront. Because for decades, institutions of cultural memory in the US, cable TV, the New York Times were heavily invested in covering up actual living memory of the crisis, and of the enormous work that people had taken, many of them sick and dying, and many of them already dead...had taken to change the conditions of that crisis. So the Oral History Project is already an attempt to tell history differently, and to enable us to understand how the shape of the epidemic changed.

In 2011, Jim Howard and Sarah Schulman directed a documentary called United in Anger that also tells this story that was around the same time that a much more famous and much more widely distributed documentary called How to Survive a Plague came out. And then Sarah Schulman effectively waged a 10-year long culture war to once again change the narrative around HIV/AIDS and around NAFTA, because the narrative presented in How to Survive a Plague is the story of a handful of heroic men who had access to powerful people, and were able to advocate for treatment. That’s the narrative—that narrative is false. And this is what I think Let the Record Show does, is she wants to illustrate all the dimensions according to which it’s false. And so that’s why the book is 700 pages. And that’s what I got out of it as a reader, right? She needs you to understand everything that’s happening in this space at this time, and the reasons why ACT UP was effective.

So that’s why I disagree with Vicky, that this isn’t nostalgic. Because the point is to understand why it was effective. You also get to see an enormous degree of conflict, including the conflict that eventually split the organization. The other narrative turn that I think is really important is she refuses you the relief of 1996 and the development of antiretroviral therapies, which are now still the standard of care for being HIV positive that can prevent HIV infection from turning into AIDS. Right? You know, often when the story of the epidemic is told, it’s told in terms of like people fought and fought and fought and died and died and died. And then, there’s this kind of epiphany, of antiretrovirals. And there’s a sense of like relief and salvation, and Let the Record Show really refuses that release, because it ends in 1993. So we don’t actually get to that point she wants you to understand, she wants us to understand why this organization was effective and what it was able to do, which was not end the AIDS crisis, but it was to transform the AIDS crisis. That’s her argument. And I think it’s a persuasive argument. So that’s one of the reasons why I responded to Vicky’s review in the way that I did. It’s why I think it’s actually like important to really kind of take this book for what it offers, and then to really kind of take up the charge that it gives us of soberly assessing history.

AB: I’m sure you both have a lot more to say and could actually do this entire thing without me. But I think just to kind of break this down a little bit... I actually wanted to jump off of some language you were just using Kay, about kind of the nostalgic versus the effective. And I think that actually is a kind of good encapsulation of two different, though also related, questions that have come up in and about the book. So I think that Shulman, she is herself responding to what she sees as a nostalgic vision of ACT UP, but...and maybe even the entire moment of the AIDS crisis and its iteration in the ‘80s and ‘90s and how it’s remembered now. And I think what Vicky was arguing in her review was that the book itself, perhaps ironically, winds up being nostalgic, maybe even in some of the same ways that the cultural documents that she critiques like the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” and others. So, Vicky, I would love it, if you could say a little bit more about where you think the book did engage in a kind of politics of nostalgia. So yeah, I just wondered if you could start there.

VO: Absolutely. Yeah. So I think case description of what the book is setting out to do and try to do is very accurate. The book is setting out to critique this liberal whitewashing and forgetting and destruction of the, of the movement, and the lived and the lived experiences. And you know, she talks about “Rent,” and of course, like, all these different sorts of romanticization of the tragedy of the era. And I agree that she is resisting that. And she is coming from a more movement-oriented and a more bottom-up approach than the general history. And that’s valuable. And that’s why I was interested in the book in the first place. And that’s why I read the 700 pages. And you know, that’s why I was excited for it. Because those histories were so complicated, and frustrating in so many different ways. I still, however, think that it falls into some of the same traps. Precisely, like in for me, like in the way in which Schulman wants to really like identify ACT UP as, and I believe this is the direct quote, “like the last successful social movement in America.”

I think we have to do a slightly more complicated and honest way of thinking about movement, which is like, yes, it was incredibly successful. Yes, they made this huge change in the culture. And it’s incredibly important that we remember it. And also there were real problems and limits with ACT UP itself, with its methods that I think she wants to point to, but doesn’t actually really want to incorporate into the story. And I got really frustrated by it, because of what I saw as this desire to mention the problems and limits of the ACT UP method, but still say, and yet it was the best, most successful way of organizing that’s available. And I think that, like that second half, that thing about it being like the way change is made. This is another way that she talks about the book. I think that is a politics of nostalgia, and I think it like, it really like does some damage to movements that have happened... that have occurred in the interim, as well as other HIV and AIDS activist and advocacy movements that ran parallel to ACT UP. And that for me, feels like nostalgia, like a desire to defend ACT UP, perhaps from liberal recuperation, perhaps from bad histories, but still, like a defensive posture around a certain organization and moment, that to me, I found unsatisfying.

KG: I mean, why can’t we as readers simply acknowledge what it was? Like...why is that a problem? What injustice does it do to history to sit here in 2021, and collectively study the best? As far as we have the most thorough presentation of the facts and to assess what was this collective able to do? What power Was it able to build? How did it change language and representation and understanding? Why is that a problem? Right? And Let the Record Show—which I mean, like it’s in the title, right? It really is very much like laying out like, this is what this organization could do. This is what it couldn’t do, sometimes verbatim, right? Because that’s part of the method of The Oral History... is like you’re engaging with people’s representations of their own memory. And so like, there’s a lot of elements of reading this book where you’re like, I don’t know if I believe that person. Right? So I think that this is something that the book like really just like asks you to do. And I think that’s a useful exercise.

And that’s why I don’t think it’s nostalgic. The structure of feeling here is not nostalgia. The structure of feeling here is study, it’s critique. It’s like we have to think about like both why it was effective, and why it wasn’t like this organization fell apart. It fell apart in six years. And she wants us to think about that as well. She says that people under situations of escalating crisis, when they were sick with grief, simply stopped being able to listen to each other, attempted to try to take over the organization in certain ways, and to push through certain agendas—as opposed to doing the thing that she thought it was actually really good at, which was just letting everybody do what they already wanted to do. So she gives us the tools to understand how this organization stopped being effective as well. And I think that also like cuts against the nostalgia because those of us who are engaged in similar and different struggles, have to ask how it is possible for the organizations that we are in to remain strong organizations and effective organizations to be both principled, and also to win things in the short term, to build power in the long term, not to lose sight of the things that we actually believe to be true. Like, these are all questions that we could take from these examples and bring to the work that we’re doing.

VO: Thank you for that. Like, I appreciate what you’re saying, like, I read the book and wrote the review and want to engage in this discussion. And I’m on this podcast because I take these things really seriously, because I do want to learn from it, because I think we can learn from it. And I think that my review is very clear that like, there’s a lot to learn here. And there’s a lot of information, there’s a lot to gain from the book, I think it is maybe the most urgent thing we can do is study these movements, right, like as organizers. So I don’t think I am arguing against that practice. And I don’t think that I my review argued against that practice. I think there is another argument here. I think the things you described in the book, Kay, about the ways that it talks about how the organization worked, and the ways that it fell apart. Like I agree that those are valuable. And that was what I wanted, also from the movement history. And that’s often what I want from movement history as well. But there is also an argument about the proper way of organizing in the book. And that’s really what I was looking at. And that’s where I think there is some nostalgia. But I agree with you that like the book is not overwhelmingly nostalgic. I would not describe that as the main effect of the book at all.

KG: Yeah, I mean I think it’s really hard for people to be nostalgic about a period in which hundreds and hundreds of their friends died. The period that the book describes is a period in which 100,000 people died in the US [unintelligible]. Right? So I don’t... I...you know, I think that’s really the reason why there’s no nostalgia here. At the same time, clearly being a part of a movement in which people with relatively few resources, in some cases, very few resources, develop the power to change their conditions is transformational. And being able to access or to touch, that structure of feeling. I think that seems important for us to take into account. We can disagree with Sarah Shulman’s particular assessments of what within this period is, and is not correct for us. Now, she says, don’t try to have a big consensus organization, make it possible to have an organization in which people can disagree. And if they disagree, they can go and do their own thing. That’s a claim. And we can be like, Oh, do I agree with that? Do I disagree with that? She has a big, like direct democracy, mass democracy thing. Maybe we don’t agree with that. That’s not the way that most unions are run. That’s not the way that some political parties are run. So maybe that’s not how we want to organize. Maybe that’s not the kinds of organizations we want to be involved in. We can disagree with those [unintelligible]. And we can still get a lot out of this.

AB: I just want to sort of back up for one second, and just kind of name a little bit more precisely, some of the questions about politics of representation, and inclusion...and who is remembered as being part of what, and what does it mean to make certain kinds of choices about the archive and choices about the questions one might ask about those archival sources. Or about other works of literature, or film even, right? Or even like stupid TV, which is something that came up and became actually kind of like a flashpoint in all of this, right? There’s this controversy that Schulman wade into, about the show Pose. So I wondered if we could kind of bring in to the conversation, what you both see as Schulman’s argument about what I guess she would probably call identity? So like subject positions, of race, of gender, of trans or cis-ness, of class, right? Like, she has like a pretty specific argument about where people subject positions fit or don’t fit into movement work. And I think that where nostalgia and these...really essential, kind of movement-building questions to actually meet—has to do with those questions. So I guess, I wonder if you could just kind of each speak to that? Vicky, do you want to start?

VO: Yeah, sure. There is a big question historically about the presence and absence of trans people, especially trans people of color in the record of queer liberation. Jules Gill-Peterson just gave a very interesting talk. It’s coming out of her new book, about the sort of way in which trans women of color in particular end up being a sort of historical footballer, who like their absence, or their presence, like ends up like acting as a symbol of movements righteousness or goodness. And the way that, you know people talked about Black trans women led Stonewall; they threw the first brick, and like that they were like sort of everywhere in this history. And how complicated that can be in terms of like, both they were there, and often sometimes, they weren’t there, and in ACT UP, they often weren’t there in a real way. My review, I think was perhaps understood as saying like, no, no, no, they were really there and stepping into this really messy argument. Whereas, like, what I think I was feeling was like, no, no, they only appear in this book as not being there.

Like, I think it would have been very easy for Sarah Schulman in the book, at any point to sort of say, the status of trans people was different, we shouldn’t project the politics of the trans present into the past, like, they weren’t present at this event. But also there’s also the question of like, a lot of trans women back then weren’t identified as transsexual. Like the word trans wasn’t even really present at that point, for most of the book’s history, and so like people who hadn’t had gender reassignment surgery often wouldn’t identify as trans. And those people might now today, and they might not—some of them would, some of them wouldn’t. So like, obviously, there’s like a lot of like, messy difficulty with these questions in talking about the past. And it’s been a very loaded subject of debate, for obvious reasons, because, as Kay pointed out, so many people died. And the history of trans people with HIV and the care of trans people living with HIV at the time, even through the ‘90s, and 2000s, was really, really just absent, that history just doesn’t exist. You know, there’s Michelle Ross, who was part of the Terrence Higgins Trust, who was doing a lot of HIV and AIDS activism support through the 1980s. She had an article about it just this year.

And like, I just...can I read from this kind of quote from this, I think it’s really helpful. This is like talking about the ‘90s: “there was no information whatsoever for trans people. A lot of trans people were anxious about how hormones and HIV medication might interact with one another. But it was impossible to find any information about this. There was no research, no funding to support trans people, or include us in any kind of awareness. Nothing. That was the reality of it.” And so none of those things I just said, were really present in the book. And the book instead, there is sort of a moment when she says, Pose was lying, they were making up this history, which again, like may well be true. And that was the one section in the book where trans women came up at all. And I don’t think it would have been hard to have said the things I just said in 30 seconds at some point in the book.

KG: I think that is the critique from a liberal politics of representation. It is faulting the book, not on the basis of the work that it does to make us understand like what is present in history, but going like, you didn’t tick this box. That is what that reads like to me. And so I think this is one of the reasons why like, as someone you know, who is like very interested in the history and relationship of trans people to movement work, I don’t think this is like a helpful analysis for understanding this book, or this organization. This representation of history that Sarah Schulman has... undertaken, or ACT UP itself.

To me, it is relevant that Sarah Schulman, outside of this book, has, for what it’s worth, being like a really enormous advocate for trans culture, kind of like in general. Like she encouraged the people who founded Topside Press, which was the first buy in for trans people, like publisher of trans writing. She encouraged them to start the press. She taught on a trans women’s writing workshop that like I participated in [unintelligible]. She’s intentionally fostered that kind of like educational space. So I think that this reflex that’s like, “Oh, she doesn’t care,” I don’t think that is a fair way to understand, like her contribution—which in many ways, like actually, like, makes a lot of like trans writing and culture possible. And it’s actually a project she’s undertaken. She’s just not undertaking it here. And it’s because this is not the place to undertake it. Because what she is attempting to critique is this desire to curate history into an image of what we believe it must have been, and to aestheticize and romanticize it on those terms, rather than judge it for what it was. That, I think, is the project. And that’s the critique. And once again, it’s a critique not that she poses not of trans people. It’s a project that she poses of Ryan Murphy, and the culture industry that Ryan Murphy works for, and that is so served by him. That is what we have to understand in this desire to again, like aestheticize history.

VO: I agree that she would say that was what she was doing. And I like hear that you’re saying that the point you’re making about what she’s trying to do make sense to me. I didn’t experience it that way. I didn’t encounter it that way. You know, it wasn’t about checking off a box. It was about like, oh, like, here’s a section on transmit, oh, here’s this thing about how they weren’t really there. And then they never like recur in any way. That to me strikes me as a way of historicizing the movement that doesn’t talk about all the complicated things that I’ve just mentioned, which I don’t think are very like would have been very hard to talk about.

KG: I mean, but it’s a history of... it’s not a history of the AIDS movement. It’s a history of ACT UP New York. Therefore, in...to a certain extent, like the content of this book has to be determined in a positive sense by what people did, right? Because it’s... you can’t write a history about what they didn’t do. Right? So if you’re going to write a history of where you talk about the stock, the church action, and you talk about changing the death, the CDC definition of AIDS, and you talk about getting 300 Haitian people out of immigration detention at Guantanamo, and finding them housing in New York City—it all has to be determined by what people actually did. That’s the mandate. So I don’t think it’s a problem to not talk about what people didn’t do.

VO: But she does talk about something. I’m responding to a paragraph in the book. I’m not like saying like, where were they? Like that trans women are there. Once...

KG: Yes, to talk about a misrepresentation of it. Okay, I’m gonna read the paragraph: “Interestingly, in an episode that aired in 2019. That television series, Pose, produced by Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock, depicted ACT UP action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but added Black trans characters from the series, going to the demonstration performing some civil disobedience and being taken away by the police. In reality, one trans woman was arrested at St. Patrick’s but they were white. As a facilitator, Kathy [unintelligible] Ottersen, writing on the ACT UP alumni Facebook page, Robert Vasquez Pacheco and Moises Gusta Rosario both expressed anger that corporate representations of ACT UP, and sort of nonexistent people of color, while ignoring the people of color who actually were there and did the work. Once again, ACT UP still had no control over its own representation. But this was 2019, 32 years after its founding.” This is a paragraph not about how trans people weren’t in ACT UP. It is a paragraph about the misrepresentations of history, including misrepresentations that ignore who actually was present.

VO: But this is what I’m saying, there was like... That’s not...that’s there in the text, but there is all... it is also the first time that trans people are appearing and [unintelligible]. And that matters structurally.

KG: For a liberal politics of representation? Yes. But if we are people who do not subscribe to that liberal politics of representation, it should not matter.

AB: I guess I’m not necessarily sure that a liberal politics representation is in fact, the only rubric by which these questions could matter. It seems to me that just like in the situation that we’re talking about here with this paragraph, it seems to me that there’s actually a couple of things being conflated in that paragraph. Pose is a trashy television show, right? I’ve seen one episode of it and like, the main thing I remember was that you know, like the...they’re like filming on the Chelsea Piers. But it’s like the Chelsea Piers have now that house, like expensive mini golf or whatever. But like the new gentrified Chelsea Piers is kind of playing the old Chelsea Piers of the ‘80s, that were like best known as a place where people had sex. So this is not to defend Pose. But it did seem to me in that paragraph, that critique of a work of fiction of television was kind of being asked to do a lot to kind of uphold a larger critique of movement history that would even ask questions about historical absences. And I guess I would say, I’m not necessarily sure that a work of movement history can’t be a history of what people didn’t do, as well as what they did do. It seems to me that, in fact, it’s always both.

KG: Yeah, I mean, like, I think that my main, like response to this is... I just don’t think that this is like the most interesting question to ask about this enormously interesting book. To me, as someone who is very interested in the relationship of trans people to social movement, I just don’t think that like that, asking, like, where were the trans people in ACT UP, and where the trans people in Let the Record Show is the most interesting way to engage with this particular history. To me, it’s always a gotcha, right? It’s always looking for the person who doesn’t actually have your back, the person who is not meaningfully engaged with your struggle. I think the other thing that I want to bring out here is that I think if we look, not synchronically, but diachronically, outside of the framework of the history that this book represents, like on the timeline moving forward, then I think we can say the relationship of trans people to ACT UP is phenomenal, and it is remarkable and it goes very deep.

This is something that Bryn Kelly, the late writer Bryn Kelly, talked about a lot while she was alive, not necessarily ACT UP, but to the AIDS movement in general. One of the last things that she wrote publicly, it was a blog post in which someone was like, “I’m having a hard time taking my HIV medication.” And...she talks about like, she has this phrase where she’s like, you have tiger blood? If you are at the, I think what did she say specifically... bastard stepchild of Global Capitalism and homegrown social democracy , or something like that—you basically like you have like access to this thing. And therefore you have tiger blood. So take them pills. Which was just like, quite beautiful, right? But one of the things that she’s like attempting to imply there is the relationship between HIV positive trans people in the present. And this particular history in the past, and a relationship in which like, oh, this kind of prior moment of political activity is helping me stay alive right now, that’s, that seems to be important ...and the other thing is like, I’ve been talking to my students about this for a couple of weeks now, I don’t just don’t think you can understand, like trans culture in the present without like thinking about in terms of...in terms of the HIV AIDS epidemic, in terms of how that was, like, fought and politicized in certain ways. So if we broaden this out, diachronically, then these questions do become interesting. But synchronically, I don’t think they’re, they’re terribly interesting.

AB: I also just wonder if you can kind of connect this back to the questions of larger movements strategy that we were talking about earlier?

KG: You know, like, one of the claims thought Sarah Schulman makes in this book, and again, this is a place where we can like, agree or disagree with her, right? Is, she says that locked up, even though it was a majority, white male organization was capable of significant feminist and anti-racist wins, because of the particular kinds of coalition’s that were built within this organization, and the ways that it was directed towards keeping people alive in certain ways. And that seems, I think that’s important for us to pay attention to, because one of the things that she, I believe, is talking about is the fact that political identity and political consciousness are not the same thing, that neither is necessary nor sufficient for the other. Right? And that, I think, is actually a very important insight, in so far as it helps us get out of a trap that people can fall into of assuming that because someone has a particular social position, they have the right understanding of political events. And that I think that is a trap. It is, it is a really bad trap, and we need it. So it’s good to reject that. And I think that’s one thing that is booked as well.

VO: Yeah. And I was also actually going to turn to the question of the racial makeup of ACT UP. So I really appreciate that we’re on the same wavelength here. Okay. So I think like, what’s interesting about... what’s going on for me is that like, I don’t think that you are misdescribing what Schulman was trying to do with the book. I just found it unsatisfactory, because I think she’s, she’s trying to have it both ways—is how I experienced this, again, reading just the book itself, just the text, like not, like outside of broader questions of her activism, or what she’s done in her life. Which all the stuff with Topside is great. And obviously, like Topside produce a lot of great books, like, it’s all very important and worth supporting. And, I mean, I was certainly not trying to call her transphobic in her thinking in life, the way that the book talks about that, I think you’re right, it does, it wants to, but it wants to say superlatively, and in a really dramatic way, this is the best way for things to work. And she, she says over and over again the presence, the over representation of cis white men, in Act Up, allowed them to get into boardrooms and like had all these tactical advantages.

So the way that you’re talking about, about like identity, not being necessarily definitional of your politics, like I completely agree with that. I think that it’s important that we be able to imagine both that people are totally products, their own personal experience, the moments that come from the identity just sort of produces a sort of like statistical likelihood that certain kinds of attitudes will be present because of experiences. And you know, but it’s not, it’s not destiny, it’s not fate. And there are reactionaries and revolutionaries, among all classes, races and genders. Right? Absolutely the case. The question that I think happens is that when she talks about the problem of over representation of white men and ACT UP, as only a problem of a bad reputation is politics, which is to say, yeah, it was bad. There were too many white men, but she doesn’t actually, to my taste—and like, to me to, like how I experienced the book, analyze the way for example, the overwhelming makeup of cis white men may have interacted with the political like direct action choices that were made about the levels of action that they’re willing to take, about the ways that things were organized. And I think that matters.

KG: I do think that’s a misrepresentation, because when she talks about, for instance, she talks about storm, the NIH, which was an action that ACT UP undertook in 1990, I believe. And she talks about how this was an option that was directed by the treatment activists, and she said that when she... that they had a particular goal, which was to set up a consulting organ within the NIH that would include people who are HIV positive, but they didn’t actually represent this adequately to the rank and file membership. And so people in the rank and file had a really poor understanding of why this action happened in the way that it did. And there was a lot of dissatisfaction around it. Right? And so she does actually talk about, like, without reducing like the inside activists to the white men versus the outside activist. She’s, she’s more nuanced than that. But she does talk about how the problems with people who assumed that they could walk into a boardroom and get a meeting changed, and in some cases negatively affected what this organization was capable of, right? The thing that I think she does do, and she’s like, Okay, some of these people had more power, right, like Larry Kramer went to one of these places with like, one of the people who like founded Burroughs Wellcome, right? And so like, that changes things for access. So she’s, I think, approaching that empirically, like, what could they do. And there are these moments where you can see this organization getting into real problems based on some people believing that this access is good. Some people believing that it’s not good, some people not wanting to be strategic about how they use it, some people being like, overly strategic and guarding how they access it. I think that’s there.

VO: Oh, yeah, I mean, that’s what I mean by saying she has it both ways, because I think like, some of it is there. And then there is simultaneously an argument being made about the mode of organization that ignores the consequences of that. So even though I like, I agree, I remember that chapter in the book, I think she does do a good job of like describing internal conflict within the organization around these problems. But there is an overarching theory and argument that’s being made that I disagree with. That I think is overshadowing the way these effects matter. And that’s just that may just be a difference in our reading. I’m not disputing your claim about like that presents. But I don’t think that the way that gets incorporated into an argument overwhelmingly, takes into account like the questions that we’re talking about here, which are incredibly generative and important.

AB: I have a question, can both of you say how you would actually describe the organization of ACT UP that Schulman is talking about in the book? Because I think that this is something that’s been kind of coming up throughout this conversation, but I’m not sure if we’ve actually quite said yet. Like, how was ACT UP organized, and how does Schulman see it as having been organized? I think that one thing that particularly jumped out at me, and the debate that I’ve seen you having in print, is... Vicky, you sort of portray a kind of continuity between ACT UP and a lot of nonprofit type activism that followed. And Kay, you seeing kind of a break there. I just wonder if we could just kind of like, get down to brass tacks a little bit on this?

KG: Yeah, for sure. So I think that what Sarah is representing is what she believes to be a Vanguard organization. And she does use that word, which is interesting. Is she using that word in [unintelligible] sense, I don’t know. But she means basically, a self-selecting group of people who study the problem they are attempting to address, make themselves the expert on it, and develop the power to address it without being the sole beneficiaries of that social process that they’re undertaking, right? So she highlighted the, the sheer number. She’s like, at its biggest ACT UP was like 7000 people at an action. So that’s not, that’s not very large. But these are people who have like design solutions to problems, will make themselves the experts on problems, and who attempt to organize other people into this program. So that’s the Vanguard side of it. The democracy side of it is that it was guided by the Monday night meetings in which proposals were brought to the floor, they were debated, they were voted on. There were committee structures that were I think, basically entirely self-selecting. And then the informal structures of the affinity groups, which people used when they were going to do direct action and get arrested or do higher risk stuff.

So this is how Sarah Schulman describes the organizational structure of ACT UP. The reasons why this is a far removed from NGO, nonprofit-ism, right, is that it actually had a large organized base of people who are able to like independently develop strategy and bring stuff to the floor for debate. That’s not the way that nonprofits work. It’s in most nonprofits it is impossible to be a member and to have an idea about what that thing should do. And it’s also, there’s also a question of funding structure ACT UP was like, they fundraise a lot, through things like you know, auctioning off like posters and shit like that, but it didn’t receive grants—and it wasn’t subjected to the kinds of conservatism that nonprofits of, say the mid ‘90s up to today are subject to because all of these bodies are, are chasing the tail of funding and therefore are hugely limited in what they can do, because they are reliant on this kind of funding. It was a member funded organization. And so that puts it more on a continuity with things like a dues structure, even though it didn’t collect dues. And not, I think also concretely changes the power that is present in this organization.

VO: Yeah, I mean, I agree with that assessment of how Schulman describes it. And I actually think that there is a spectrum of political organizations that this has become the model for, for a reason. Because, precisely because the small amount of people like managed to make a lot of change. I think a lot of nonprofits think of themselves as having this internal democracy, pretend that they have it, pretend they have a membership bases, they can activate. And sometimes some of them get closer to it. Something that we might think of as a close model now would be something like extinction rebellion, which I see is like somewhere in between a nonprofit model, because the people at the top are sort of operating like a nonprofit. But there’s also a lot of bottom-up energy and ideas and process happening and extinction rebellion.

I don’t know a ton about Extinction Rebellion, I’m not a member. So I don’t want to like over-make claims, but that’s my impression from reading critiques and talking to people who are members. I think that the argument that Schulman is making in the book is that this particular model of change is because of the Vanguard theory of power and of change. That like small groups of people who become experts, are the ones capable of organizing others and creating change, because of that theory of change. This imagination of this kind of group, like ACT UP is seen as the best possible mode of organization. And I think like, that is consistent. That is a consistent argument that Schulman makes, I’m not trying to pick out a hypocrisy in her work. You know, I think she really is committed to that. And I think it’s wrong. And like that’s... like, that’s where the question comes up.

And so it’s not about being like continuous with like, the biggest nonprofits, many of which have literally nothing to do with any kind of street action and are just a way of laundering, capitalist tax breaks. But there are also a lot of nonprofits that I’ve interacted with in movement spaces that are in fact, pretty small, very poorly funded, they have one or two grants, and they are working, they’re activating people like me, trying to get people like me to organize and act with them in a way that I think is very similar to how ACT UP function. So there is like the nonprofit, the nonprofit world is huge. A lot of the big ones have nothing, look nothing like ACT UP. I think some of the smaller ones do look like it. But that’s, I think you’d probably agree with that. I imagine.

KG: Yeah I do. I think that the assessment, diet extinction rebellion is attempting to do this kind of again, like sort of, like post-Civil Rights thing is probably correct. They clearly been less effective so far. There’s lots of reasons why I do want to...because Vicky, you keep saying best, I want to just like read a sentence, where Sarah does talk about, like, she’s talking about the racial and gender make of the organization. And she says, “assessing this history is not a game of call out, instead ...it is an effort to really understand make clear how the AIDS rebellion succeeded, and to face where it failed in order to become more conscious and deliberate and therefore effector state.” So that, I think is actually very important, because she is giving us once again, she’s giving us the resources to assess failure. So if she ever says best, right, she is also following it up with and was so deeply imperfect, as to have failed, and to eventually become ineffective. And that prompts the question of what can we do better, which is the question of what is to be done? So I am not saying that this book is perfect. I’m saying this book is useful, right? It is useful, because it is giving us tools to think about this history in a really concrete way, then to think about questions of organizational form.

VO: Yeah, and I agree with that. That’s why I read the history. And like I’ve read, I read lots of history of movements that I would critique very, very intensely, and pay a lot of attention to things that I think are less helpful than the ACT UP model in some ways. But I do think that there’s a difference here, which is like that, I think some of these claims about superlativeness, and about the importance of the model matter to the history into the book. And what I’m hearing from you, Kay—which like is also like just a different opinion—is like you think that’s not that relevant. And then what’s important is the details of the internal struggle. That’s certainly why I read the book. I certainly read the book, not for the argument, but for the details, and for the way that it narrativizes the way that it works. And I think that it can be valuable for that. I also think, though, that often the way that these arguments get framed and talked about in terms of... especially superlatives, or like what it is useful for, what the author is claiming the thing is useful for, even if we as individuals can obviously be trusted to not just like believe everything, and like to not, like, obviously like to come with a critical mind. I think it matters in the same way that like right now we have seen a lot of nostalgia for the Soviet Union and for the Leninist party formation and for Bolshevism. Right? And like, I think it matters if you say, the Bolsheviks was like the most successful revolution of the 20th century or not. I think that matters, even though I think it’s really valuable to study people who say it was and people who say it wasn’t.

KG: Is communism a nostalgia?

VO: Communism, as practiced in the 20th century by National Liberation Movement, and understanding them in terms of sort of like armed struggle, I think there is a nostalgic attachment to certain forms of movement and struggle. There’s also a communist horizon, which is obviously not nostalgic, but is in fact, what we’re all fighting for.

KG: I mean, I just disagree that a kind of contemporary interest in communism is actually a form of nostalgia. I mean, certainly, there are some intelligent people out there, but I don’t think that’s necessarily like determining a kind of super interest in like history, including the history revolutionary struggle. One could also kind of push back at that, and say, like, why is it bad to be palpably transformed by an example of a situation in which people with relatively or very few resources, collectively develop the power to change their conditions? I find that like, deeply moving all the fucking time. Hopefully not in such a way that it distracts from a sober analysis of what our conditions are. But like, I don’t think that it’s bad to go like, I’m looking at this thing and feel chills down my spine because like, look how people were capable of transforming their lives and lives and millions of other people. I think that’s good.

VO: But I... so I clearly, like agree. I like, I think that the act of the study is the act of honor and respect, I think it is... it’s not about the moment of sort of spine tingling, like, wow, this is incredible. It’s about what you do with that. It’s not about like, the fact of studying history and being moved by it, which I think is an incredibly valuable and important experience that I have constantly.

AB: I think this is really, really getting at the heart of a lot of these questions. There’s so much historical trauma at the center of this book. And you know, I think in different ways, sort of overt or repressed, let’s say, and responses to it. And in, just in any of these kinds of conversations, the way that you were both just talking at the end there about the kind of effect of responses that we have reading history, the kind of moments of like, almost like breaking through and like seeing something, or like history becoming real, right? I think that those moments are so easy to either like, lose sight of, or to kind of like, manipulate into something that like, does political work that like one doesn’t necessarily support... like just to in the doing of it. And I think that is the thing that’s really interesting and sad.

Also about the ways that these conversations play out sometimes. There’s like, there’s a generational aspect here, the fact that Schulman lived through all of this and very evidently has like, such a sense of a kind of mission of like, needing to, as the title of the book tells us—Let The Record Show, right? What she sees as having really happened, whether that mission is ultimately a righteous crusade, or one that kind of like, uses her own historical presence that... to kind of sideline critiques of the way that she saw things, right? I think is, is maybe one way of framing the question that we’re talking about this stuff that is incredibly important, gets buried sometimes in the way that stuff plays out online or in communal discourses, or in the weird kind of intersection between the two. And I wanted to take one more step back and ask a sort of meta question before we wrap up. What are the conditions in which like, these conversations can happen in like, a generative way? And what are the conditions of which they got shut down or become more poisonous?

KG: It’s a great question. Even stuff that like trans people wrote about ourselves like 10 years ago, everyone sounds crazy. Never mind like 20 or 30. And you read like, Marissa Ross, just calling herself “gender described” in 1983. And it’s like, what? So there’s kind of like this intergenerational question, even with among trans people, I think is like really, really, really important. Also, temperatures rise very quickly because of the trauma Ari that you’re pointing to, you know...I’m reminded here of a different essay by Bryn Kelly, one that I like a lot. It’s an essay that Bryn wrote, unlike most of her writing, she actually wrote in her name and not under a pseudonym, and which I think testifies to the degree to which she really cared about it. And it’s about the death of Adrienne Rich. And she talks about, like how a lot of young people are dismissive of specifically older lesbians. And she’s talking about, like people who are publicly mourning a transfer. And so she’s talking about, like, how hard this is. And at the same time, she’s saying, we have an enormous amount to learn here. So I think that I just one thing that seems important is a kind of patience in the face, even sometimes of other people’s irrationality.

One thing that was true about the ACT UP Facebook page, the ACT UP alumni Facebook page—I’m not on Facebook, but I heard about this—is that they love people to judge, right? And that’s like a little cringe, it’s a little stupid. At the same time, it’s mostly harmless. If it was not harmless, we would have to find ways to address it. And so like this moment will be like trying to have respect, real respect for people who’ve, like, gone through the shit, and who act out in certain ways, right, and who are wrong in certain ways. So like this respect doesn’t take the form of thinking that they’re right. It just means that we need to develop some of the patients, including the patients for times when other people are going to be like weird, or where our communication styles are simply going to pass by each other and understanding our own fallibility here. I think that’s one thing. And I think just like creating situations, accurately creating situations in which there was real interface—and interface doesn’t mean agreement, right? But real interface, where we can listen, which is like our number one skill as organizers, right, is simply to listen, and thereby to develop the skills to hear what people are saying, and to know how we have to respond. I think that those are the tasks for us. And I think they’re really important because we have so much to learn.

VO: Yeah, and I remember that piece very well from, from the compilation. It’s an important essay, I recommend it to everyone as well. But I think like, because of the way that these conflicts go, and I think this one around this book is like a pretty good example, around this review is that like, we have a very strong tendency to associate both ourselves and the person pushing the idea with the ideas themselves, right? And that there’s like this way in which we’re like, okay, like, what matters is the ideas. But of course, like feelings get involved no matter what, like as Kay was pointing to, especially when there’s a really traumatic... but any, anyone who’s been through really intense social movement will know that, like, when you talk about if someone disagrees, like it feels a lot heavier than just a disagreement, like, it feels really, really intense. Precisely because in those moments of movement and struggle, we like saw the whole world open up before us. And we felt so much like, positive possibility, that like the idea that someone would sort of critique that feels really scary. How can you critique this moment, and I think, along with what Kay said, which I think was all, like spot on, I think we could also develop a way of accepting and listening to critique and disagreement and working on because we won’t be able to do it immediately. And I’m certainly no expert on it, but we’re working on being able to dissociate ourselves and our feelings and experiences, from the ideas that are being argued to the extent that it’s possible. Which again, is not like an idea, like we can’t be perfect rational subjects, we’d come from where we are, but being able to really take people who are in acting in good faith, and sometimes they aren’t people who are acting in good faith as having a similar project to us. And being able through the feelings that we have, which are legitimate, we should process the feelings separately with our friends, maybe with those people, like not in public or something.

We should process those feelings, we should talk, we should have solidarity and friends, we should like do this work. And then when it comes to these ideas, we should be able to critique without throwing away the person who makes the mistake. And like, I think like that, one of the things that like I was hoping my review would do, but I think it wasn’t understood, as such was to like critique the book without being like this project sucks, Schulman sucks—which is, which are not things I felt when I was writing the review. I thought it was an important book. And that’s why I wanted to write about it. And I think like maybe learning to move away from a way of thinking about critique and production of thought and political argument as connected to the production of an individual who was like speaking those thoughts. And obviously, we only speak with the knowledge of everyone who’s come before us, especially with, with, as Kay was saying, with trans politics and the rupture that was produced by the AIDS crisis. Like, it’s so hard, it is so easy to feel like orphans, in you know, in this moment, and that like every five years, everything changes and then everyone’s wrong. And like, it’s really hard to like hold that as a historical knowledge based in trauma, while still fighting for what we believe is right in the moment, but also not treating people who disagree as disposable.

And I hope conversations like this one, where I don’t think we came to a substantive agreement are really valuable in that anyway, because I think like we sort of both together held these different, different opinions of different positions, express them in a, I think, largely respectful and caring and careful way. Because what matters, I think, to both of us is that we overthrow this world as it exists now, and that we completely destroy cis hetero patriarchy, white supremacy, the conditions that produce pandemics, and then make the people dying from pandemic disposable, we have to create a totally new world, we’re going to disagree on how we get there very often, and we need to learn to do have that disagreement be generative, and respectful. And also to know where the lines are in terms of like, okay, actually, that’s a line for me that I can’t cross, being able to manage those things is difficult and complicated, and is what we’re all going to have to do as organizers and revolutionaries.

AB: I’m so happy, again, to have gotten to have this conversation. I think this is actually one of the few debates I feel like I’ve ever seen, let alone gotten to kind of moderate where both people both have substantive disagreement and truly want to overthrow the world and make a new one. And it’s so exciting to get to actually do this. And I hope that we get to have many more of these. I wish that we were all in the same place and could go get a drink now. But I am going to say goodnight. And that this has been an episode of On The Nose which is the Jewish Currents podcast. And that you should subscribe and review us and tell your friends to listen. And you should subscribe to the magazine, you should go to our website, which is www.JewishCurrents.org, and all that stuff to get more conversations like this one. Thank you for joining us. And thank you so much to Kay and Vicky for joining us tonight.

KG: Thank you so much.

VO: Thank you both. It was great. Thank you

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