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New book sets the record straight on Act Up New York
by Melissa Wasserman
2021-06-10

This article shared 387 times since Thu Jun 10, 2021
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Novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, journalist, screenwriter, LGBTQ+-rights activist and AIDS historian Sarah Schuman preserves the power of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) while laying everything out about the in her new book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act UP New York, 1987-1993.

Schulman, a native New Yorker, started writing at a young age and said it is something that comes naturally.

"I'm really like a natural," said Schulman. "I started when I was 6 years old and maybe because I read the diary of Anne Frank, which was very common in my generation and a lot of girls started writing diaries at that time, like diaries became very common as a result of that book."

Schulman, said it is hard to say when her first taste of activism actually happened.

"I grew up in a Holocaust family and I was raised at a time where children were not protected from information and I was raised with the knowledge that other people had stood by and allowed those events to occur," said Schulman. "I think that had a big impact on me from the beginning."

Schulman was active in the Women's Union when she was a student at University of Chicago from 1976 to 1978. She dropped out and ultimately got a Bachelor of Arts degree from Empire State College.

Her vast activism efforts include being a member of The Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) from 1979 to 1982; participating in an early direct action protest in which she and five others, called The Women's Liberation Zap Action Brigade, disrupted an anti-abortion hearing in Congress; being an active member of ACT UP from 1987 to 1992; attending actions at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Stop the Church; and even being arrested when ACT UP occupied Grand Central Station protesting the First Gulf War. Schulman, along with five other women, co-founded the direct action organization Lesbian Avengers in 1992.

At age 24, she first started observing and writing about AIDS in the early 1980s, working as a city hall reporter for the New York Native, a newspaper whose primary audience was gay men.

Having been writing about AIDS for about four years before joining the newly formed ACT UP in July 1987, Schulman was a rank-and-file member of ACT UP until 1992.

Schulman and filmmaker Jim Hubbard co-founded the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, now called MIX NYC in 1987. Since 2001, the pair have been creating the ACT UP Oral History Project, interviewing 188 surviving members of ACT UP over a span of about 18 years about their experiences and what it meant to be in ACT UP.

In her 20th book Let the Record Show, Schulman wrote, "In recent years the representations of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) and AIDS activism in popular culture have narrowed, almost to the level of caricature."

"We knew from the beginning somebody had to do it, we being Jim Hubbard and I; he's my collaborator, and we tried for years to find someone else to do it," said Schulman of writing Let the Record Show. "As time passed, a lot of misrepresentations are getting encased and it just became a desperate situation like somebody had to do it."

While ultimately there were 148 chapters of ACT UP around the world, each acted autonomously. Let the Record Show is a look at the individuals who created ACT UP New York, which Schulman said in the book was the "mothership." The study, she wrote, focused exclusively on that community, covering the years 1987 to 1993.

ACT UP New York, she explained in the book, is much larger than its Monday night meetings: "It is a political and emotional history of liaisons, associations, relationships, coalitions, and influences that cumulatively create a crucial reality of successfully transformative struggle under the most dire of circumstances."

Let the Record Show is made up of those interviews and gives readers an honest look at that period of time in history through the eyes of people who lived through it. Schulman said she conducted 188 interviews and tried to use as many as she could, emphasizing the history of ACT UP is the history of a group.

"Movements are actually made up of the people that are in them, not of the leaders," Schulman said. "It's a mistake to tell the history of the movement through individuals because that's not how they work. The purpose of this book is not nostalgia. It's to help activists today be effective and it's very important that people understand that despite the way that information has been misconstrued, the truth is the way you make change in America is through coalition. So I really wanted to get away from this false myth of the hero because it's not helpful for people who are actually trying to accomplish something."

While the book does not read in chronological order, Schulman does provide a timeline at the end of the book, so if people are want to find out more about a particular action or a person they read about, they can refer to the timeline and see what else was happening at the time of the thing that they are focusing on and have more surrounding context.

Schuman described the opening of the book as a type of handbook for today's activists, giving them a sense of history and a push to think about some important strategies.

"Every movement has mistakes and errors as well as its victories and it doesn't help to cover them up because making mistakes is human," said Schulman. "It doesn't mean what you did was wrong or bad. So, if we get used to understanding that successful movements, heroic people make mistakes and that doesn't detract from who they are or what they've done. If we can accept the more mature and nuanced view of that, we're more likely to build movements that are successful."

Schulman names direct action as one of these important strategies. ACT UP, she said, was a "radical democracy and the only principle of unity was one sentence, which was 'direct action to end the AIDS crisis.'"

"So if what you were doing was direct action to end the AIDS crisis you could pretty much do anything, but if other people didn't agree with you, they couldn't try to stop you from doing it," Schulman explained. "They just wouldn't do it. That's why there was so much simultaneity of different kinds of approaches going on at the same time. Today we have a tendency toward movements that try to control. They want everyone to have the same strategy or have the same analysis or there's even a culture move for everybody to use the same words. This does not work. Historically these types of movements have never worked, but real leadership allows people to recognize where they're at because people can only be where they're at and try to facilitate them having some kind of authentic and effective response."

Let the Record Show holds many sub-topics within four sections: Political Foundations, Art in the Service of Change, Creating the World You Need to Survive and Desperation. Effective action, members of different races, genders, sexualities, and backgrounds, leadership, battling and beating the Catholic Church and the pharmaceutical industry, art as expression, community, money, poverty, division, mass death among others are covered.

Serving as an example for today's activists and providing an accurate history, Schulman said ACT UP won such fundamental changes, which are covered in the text.

"Most importantly was changing the government's official definition of AIDS to include symptoms that only women had," said Schulman. "This has had incredibly long lasting impacts because at the time women manifested different symptoms than men. The symptoms that women manifested were not listed in the official diagnosis. So, women got AIDS and died and they never got an AIDS diagnosis. So, they couldn't get benefits, they couldn't get health care, they couldn't get anything they needed. They also couldn't get experimental drugs. Keeping women out of experimental drug trials meant that not only did those women die, but drugs were not tested on women, so changing the definition meant that drugs would be tested on women. So today any woman in the world with HIV who takes an HIV medication benefits from that win by ACT UP because they're now taking the medication that was tested on women. So that's really like the farthest reaching victory,."

Schulman also listed needle exchange in New York City as an important win—and it is featured in the book.

"ACT UP changed the focus," said Schulman. "It forced the government and pharmaceutical companies to change the way they research.

"We all have an enduring relationship to AIDS," Schulman said. "AIDS is with us forever and it changed us in so many different ways and the ways that we view death and the ways that we view illness and the ways we view health. All of that was impacted by aids. There's an afterlife."

The audience for this book, Schulman said, is people who are interested in how change is made, people interested in history, people who are looking at the parallels between the current health crisis and the patterns of the past and people who are interested in a deep story about regular people who changed the world.

"I just want them to understand that one of the interesting things about ACT UP— because there were so many different kinds of people— is that different kinds of people had to use different strategies to create change because they had different levels of access," Schulman explained. So, white men who went to Harvard, sit down at a table with white men in a pharmaceutical company and work out something, but women of color who needed to get the definition changes, it took them two years to even get a meeting. Drug users had to get arrested and have a test case to get their issue across…You have to use different social strategies based on who you are and what your access to power is, but anybody can make change. For some people it's harder and it takes longer and it's messier because you're really going against the system, but you can still make change. We had drug addicts and homeless people and prisoners who made a tremendous change working in the AIDS coalition. That's the message."

For more information about Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act UP New York, 1987-1993, visit macmillan.com/books/9780374719951 .


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