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Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS
BOOK REVIEW
by Tracy Baim
2010-02-03

This article shared 9922 times since Wed Feb 3, 2010
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Written by Deborah B. Gould University of Chicago Press; 524 pages

Deborah Gould was among the most visible members of ACT UP/Chicago in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and she used that first-hand knowledge and access to other activists to create a detailed account of the rise and fall of one of the most important activists movements of the last century.

While AIDS and HIV continue to kill people every day, the peak years of street activism have passed, much to the dismay of people like Gould and many of the activists she quotes. Moving Politics is an important look at the convoluted paths that lead to the formation of ACT UP, but also the many possible reasons it eventually imploded.

As someone who started reporting about AIDS in 1984, it was fascinating to see a historical look back at groups, events and people I was covering weekly for GayLife, then Windy City Times and Outlines/Nightlines. Gould interviewed me for her book, and she also quotes from editorials and articles written by myself, Outlines/Windy City Times reporter Rex Wockner and other Chicago and national lesbian and gay media.

Because of Gould's connection to Chicago, it is refreshing to have so much of this town's work recognized on a national scale. She focuses especially on New York, Chicago and San Francisco, through research of gay and lesbian media, books, the ACT UP Oral History Project ( coordinated by Sarah Schulman and James Hubbard ) , and first-person interviews. Many Chicagoans are quoted in her book.

This is an academic book so at times I felt too immersed in terms and definitions, but those are a necessarily part of this approach to history. I was relieved when the book turned to the stories and the lessons learned. Gould clearly knows this subject well, but she also is able to take an outsider's perspective, so that we have the benefit of both views. Some activists may disagree with Gould's history and conclusions ( Larry Kramer may disagree with her theory on the founding of ACT UP ) , but she does provide solid arguments and evidence. Many of the movement's leaders died during the ACT UP years, while some like Ferd Eggan died more recently, but Gould does a good job of allowing their voices to be heard through original source material, media interviews, newsletters, and her own interviews.

The early part of the book Moving Politics focuses on emotions and how they were eventually channeled into the formation of ACT UP, something that was not an inevitable result of AIDS. In fact, Gould points out that early responses were about service provision and not street activism, and even during the height of ACT UP many gays and lesbians did not like the approach of in-your-face activists.

Gould says that the 1986 U.S Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, affirming anti-gay state sodomy laws, was among the most critical sparks to activism that lead to ACT UP. Gould writes: "In the context of ever-increasing AIDS-related deaths, continuing government failure to address the crisis, and increasingly repressive legislation, the Bowers v. Hardwick decision was a turning point, an event that profoundly affected the emotional habitus in lesbian and gay communities and the prevailing political horizon. … [ The ] Hardwick ruling contributed to the emergence of the confrontational and defiant direct-action AIDS movement."

In Part II of her book, Gould looks at the passions behind the ACT UP movement, with activists fully engaged at an incredible level, from meetings and actions, to love and caring. Funerals became activist moments, and rage fueled the organization. "A sense of urgency about the AIDS epidemic and about the need to save lives motivated this insistent pace, but other forces help to explain why we all put in so many hours and kept coming back week after week, for years," Gould writes. "From its start and throughout its life, ACT UP was a place to fight the AIDS crisis, and it was always more than that as well. It was a place to elaborate critiques of the status quo, to imagine alternative worlds, to express anger, to defy authority, to form sexual and other intimacies, to practice non-hierarchical governance and self-determination, to argue with one another, to refashion identities, to experience new feelings, to be changed."

Gould is nostalgic for those days, but she also illuminates the problems inherent in a group based on idealism and passion. Sometimes, people's motivations differed, and there were frequent divisions based on race, class, gender, and HIV-positive status. Gould does not shy away from these; indeed, the latter part of the book is about how the differences eventually became too great, and shattered the perceived utopia of the movement. The added element of despair, as the fight dragged on and people kept dying, further depressed many of the activists.

But Moving Politics is not only about the difficulties of maintaining the movement, it also shows just how important ACT UP was. Whether that was in fighting drug companies about slow research and high prices, pushing the federal government's drug trials process, or targeting the complacent gay community, ACT UP was an extremely successful movement. What is interesting in retrospect, just focusing on Chicago's ACT UP, is that it was usually a few dozen main people doing the work, which sometimes attracted a few hundred to demonstrations. Their impact was huge, partly because of brilliant media and graphics strategies. A few people really did change the world.

That is not to say there was universal support for their approach. In Chicago and elsewhere, ACT UP was at odds with traditional "suit-and-tie" activists, some who angrily opposed their confrontational approach. Once a few gay folks got their seat at the political table, they were worried ACT UP would ruin it for them. So when ACT UP's Danny Sotomayor and others confronted Mayor Richard M. Daley, early in his reign, on his lack of response to AIDS, some gay leaders denounced the efforts.

The attacks on ACT UP from mainstream media were difficult, but often the attacks from other gays were more disheartening. Gould writes: "Disparaging criticisms of ACT UP contributed to the decline of the movement indirectly as well by producing feelings of isolation and betrayal among many AIDS activists who dealt with those feelings in part by becoming contemptuous of other lesbians, gay men and AIDS advocates."

But as a whole, most in the gay community realized that all approaches were needed during the peak of the AIDS years. Even the most conservative gays woke up as the epidemic reached into all parts of the gay community—AIDS did not discriminate based on political views.

The last part of Moving Politics was probably the most difficult for Gould to write. She was there for the last breaths of ACT UP/Chicago, and witnessed the difficult divisions within the organization. But these are necessary roads to travel to more fully understand how movements flare up, and fizzle out. She does an excellent job of capturing the despair of the early 1990s, prior to new drug regimes that would better fight off the disease. People were dying, and ACT UP simply could not overcome its internal fracturing and the emotional despair of so much death.

"Exhausted, frustrated, desperate, overwhelmed—of course we were unable to address the emotional undercurrents that were shaping the substance, velocity, and intensity of ACT UP's conflicts," Gould writes. "The historian in me, however, wants to emphasize that the fracturing of solidarity in ACT UP was never inevitable. It may be that assuming solidarity in the early years -- an assumption that derived in part from our shared anger -- prevented us from doing more trust-building work in those years."

The multiple parallel potential reasons for the decline of ACT UP are well documented here, including the fact that Bill Clinton had in some ways co-opted the issues as part of his 1992 presidential campaign, and some activists trusted his paternalism and used it as a chance to walk away from street activism.

That trust was betrayed, but it was too late to reignite the movement.

"The story of the AIDS movement is a story of political possibilities," Gould writes, "of what can happen when people collectivize their efforts to address their grievances and enact their desires." The hope for Gould, who is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is that by studying this very recent past, we can "pry open alternative, more expansive political imaginings for the contemporary movement."

For those working on same-sex marriage, military access, hate crimes, trans rights or the myriad other issues facing the LGBT movement of this century, learning more about the ACT UP years would be an excellent research tool, and I highly recommend Gould's Moving Politics for your bookshelf.


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