AIDS Activism and the Politics of Emotion
An Interview with Deborah Gould
Deborah Gould is an activist, researcher and professor in Women’s Studies and Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS, University of Chicago Press, 2009. Her main intellectual interests are political emotion and contentious politics. She was a member of ACT UP/Chicago for many years as well as Queer to the Left, where she primarily worked on issues of low-cost housing and gentrification. She is a founding member of the art/activist/research group Feel Tank Chicago, and is most inspired these days by the alternative globalization movement in all of its local manifestations. Deborah Gould was interviewed by Gary Kinsman in February 2009. Gary Kinsman was involved in the AIDS Activism of AIDS ACTION NOW! in Toronto in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Perhaps we can start with your activism. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement in ACT UP/Chicago and in Queer to the Left?
I got involved in ACT UP/Chicago in 1989 and it quickly became my life. It was utterly compelling to me politically, sexually, intellectually, emotionally, imaginatively. I wasn’t consciously aware of this at the time, but in retrospect I think what kept me there, in addition to fighting AIDS, was that ACT UP felt to me like a place where I could learn and grow, become politicized and radicalized, and try out new ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world with a bunch of really exciting people. I dropped out of graduate school a year after getting involved, in part because I was learning so much more from being in the movement, but also because ACT UP felt so vital in terms of the political work we were doing, the enormous stakes involved, the friendships, the intimacies, the queerness, the collectivity, the sense of possibility. It was a tremendously important time in my life, so much so that I divide my life into before and after ACT UP. When it ended in January 1995 I went into a depression. I think a lot of us did.
In 1996 or so, some of the dykes from ACT UP got together with other queer women and formed a group named something like “Ad Hoc Group of Dykes.” We were trying to figure out what we wanted to be doing politically. One of our projects was a broadside ? “It’s Time To End The Gay Rights Movement As We Know It” (published in Spring 1997; available at www.queertotheleft.org). It was mostly a critique of the growing conservatism in the mainstream lesbian and gay movement as issues like gays in the military and gay marriage took over the agenda. It was also an attempt to put forward a vision of a queer leftist politic. Queer to the Left grew out of that formation, but this time with queers of all genders. Queer to the Left continued the work of challenging the politics of the more establishment-oriented lesbian and gay movement, but what most excited me was the work we did on the death penalty, police brutality, and issues of low-cost housing and gentrification. Gay activism at that time seemed to be absorbed in lobbying, endorsing candidates and electoral politics, and none of us were moved by any of that. Queer to the Left provided a route for other sorts of queer political desires. Our goal was to investigate and illuminate the ways in which homophobia and heterosexism intersect with racial and economic oppression, and to build a politic out of that analysis. People who slam identity politics for not being concerned about class fail to understand the diversity of politics among those who organize along identity lines. In our case, we strongly identified as queers in the LGBT sense of the term and in the anti-normative sense too, but our political desires, while informed by being queer, encompassed sexual liberation and a lot more. That kind of messiness seems to be lost on those who criticize identity politics.
Something really important that I learned from my comrades in Queer to the Left was about the politics of public space and the value of urban street life, where different sorts of people come into relation with one another, thereby opening up different sorts of possibilities, collectivities, solidarities, and practices. That was a big part of our politic and something that energized me a great deal. Queer to the Left was active until 2004 or 2005.
Another group you’ve been involved in is Feel Tank ?Chicago. What is Feel Tank?
Feel Tank Chicago was formed in 2001 or 2002. We are a collaborative group of activists, artists, and academics interested in political emotion, in the ways that feelings are shaped by, play out in and influence “the political.” We’ve been particularly interested in political depression and despair, feelings that we ourselves experience and that we believe circulate widely in the US social landscape. We see these bad feelings not as indications of political apathy or indifference but instead as affective states that indicate desire for a different world, one where our needs and wants would be taken seriously, where people would want to engage with the political because it would be a site for real participatory decision-making about the central issues shaping our lives. Feel Tank’s “Parades of the Politically Depressed” have been attempts to collectivize and politicize our bad feelings and to plumb the political potential of a camaraderie based on political depression.
Can you tell us about your new book, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS?
Moving Politics is a history of AIDS activism in the US – with a special focus on ACT UP – and an exploration of the affective stimuli and blockages to political activism. Themes that I take up in the book include ambivalence and activism; events and their emotional effects; the emotion work of social movements; movements as sites of collective world-making; the erotics, humour and intensities of activism; the seduction of moderation; solidarity and its fracturing; and political despair.
My interest in political emotion is tied to the question of political imaginaries and their conditions of possibility: how do people come to their understandings of the world and their sense of what else might be possible? How are attitudes about what is politically possible or desirable generated, reproduced over time and sometimes transformed, and with what sorts of political effects?
Consider the case of AIDS activism. It was never inevitable that lesbians, gay men, and other sexual and gender outlaws would become politically active in the face of AIDS. So, why did they turn toward activism rather than disassociating from the crisis altogether? Why did early AIDS activism take the forms it did, marked by care-taking and service provision, vigils and lobbying? Why in the late 1980s did thousands dramatically shift course and defiantly take to the streets after more than a decade of routine interest-group politics? Given the mainstream gay community’s rejection of militancy in the mid-1970s, how was a direct-action group like ACT UP able to garner widespread community support for so many years? And why did ACT UP decline in the early 1990s even as the AIDS epidemic continued unabated? Those questions pointed me toward shifts in the political horizon within lesbian and gay communities, and it quickly became apparent to me that understanding those shifts required exploring political feelings, their sources, how they take hold and circulate, how they are altered and the role they play in shaping senses of political (im)possibility.
In this case, a structure of ambivalence in lesbian and gay communities strongly shaped collective political responses to the AIDS crisis. This widely circulating, contradictory constellation of positive and negative affective states, simultaneous self-love and self-doubt, gay pride and gay shame, attraction to and repulsion from dominant society, derives from living in a heteronormative society. This structure of ambivalence, and lesbians’ and gay men’s navigations of it, has significant political effects, in any given moment helping to shape attitudes about what is politically possible, desirable and necessary, thus influencing whether and how activism is undertaken.
In the earliest years of the AIDS crisis, which were years of immense fear and grief, lesbians and gay men created organizations to care for the sick and dying, lobbied, and held candlelit vigils to draw attention to the crisis. Gay pride was an important factor motivating these responses. As I sorted through lesbian and gay newspapers from that period, I found that other feeling states were in play as well, especially gay shame and a corollary fear of intensified social rejection, and they too helped to establish, and delimit, the political horizon in those early years. Those more negative affective states pervaded gay public discourse. I argue that they encouraged AIDS advocates and activists to pursue reputable forms of activism (like service provision, lobbying, and vigils) and discouraged anything that might rock the boat too much. So the specific configuration of lesbian and gay ambivalence in that moment opened up some political possibilities and foreclosed others. Obviously, this emotional and imaginative terrain had to shift in order for ACT UP to emerge. My book explores that shift, then turns to the question of the movement’s development and sustainability, and concludes with a discussion of ACT UP’s decline in the early 1990s, foregrounding the role of emotion in these processes throughout.
Your work focuses on AIDS activism but also raises crucial questions about the emotional and affective character of organizing and the limitations of social movement theorizing and left organizing. Can you tell us a bit more about the importance of emotion in movement building and social transformation?
With regard to both social movement theorizing and left organizing, the lure of rationality exerts a lot of force. In terms of theorizing, from the latter half of the 19th century up until the 1970s, social scientists placed emotion at the heart of their accounts of mass movements, but there were a lot of shortcomings with this scholarship. Most problematically, it pitted emotion against reason and depicted protesters as unstable deviants motivated by psychic conflicts and unruly passions.
During the 1970s, scholars who were influenced by the New Left challenged these disparaging pictures of protest and protesters. They created a new field – social movement studies – and developed models of protest as normal political behavior and protesters as rational actors in pursuit of reasonable political goals. These models dominate the field today. Their dispassionate and calculating rational actor has replaced the unthinking and irrational psychological misfit of the earlier literature.
The assumption of rationality certainly was an important corrective, but by assuming rationality and ignoring the emotional dimensions of activism these accounts miss the ways that feelings influence our reasoning selves, contribute to our understandings and thereby shape our sense of what might be politically possible, desirable, and necessary. Rational-actor models miss human motivation that is inchoate, ambiguous, ambivalent, non-coherent and the ways in which human desires, fantasies, attachments, resentments, and anxieties shape political action and inaction. They ignore important phenomena like the euphoria of being in the streets, the intensity of being part of a collectivity, the affective complexities of working with others, and the emotional pedagogies that movements offer their participants. Like others who are trying to bring emotion back into the study of contentious politics, I argue that researchers really cannot understand political action and inaction if they fail to attend to feelings.
With regard to organizing, those of us on the left tend to have enormous faith in rationality. Here’s a good example from the US context: when the Downing Street memo was uncovered in 2005, many of us who were against the US war in Iraq thought that this document would turn the public against the war. The memo revealed that George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein as early as July 2002 and that although any justification for military action was weak, his administration was fixing intelligence information in order to make the case. We leftists tend to believe that if given the facts, people will agree with our analysis and possibly even join us. The Downing Street memo did not have that effect, and the reasons why are complex, but one lesson is that “truth” is not the only factor that motivates people’s support for leaders, institutions or ideologies. It’s not that people are irrational, as those earlier theorists argued, but rather that our political attachments and detachments derive from complex affective states rather than from reason alone. We leftists need to think more about how people’s fears, resentments, anxieties, fantasies, desires and aspirations influence our political behavior. The important work that queer theorists have done on the pull of normativity is really useful for thinking about affect and politics.
From my own experience in activist groups, it seems that in addition to this faith in reason, a number of emotional prescriptions and proscriptions operate in many leftist formations. You have to be angry, for example, and there isn’t a lot of space for despair. In the case of ACT UP, our work required a hopeful faith in our ability to save lives. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but with despair largely verboten, we were simply unable to deal with the sense of despair that eventually did take hold. As a result, many participants’ experiences remained unacknowledged and unaddressed in the collective space of the movement, and that contributed to the movement’s decline.
What were the social and historical circumstances in which the ACT UP groups emerged?
I date the movement’s emergence to late 1986. The devastation in lesbian and gay communities was immense by that point, with almost 20,000 dead. Gay men in particular were suffering extreme losses; some had lost their entire social circles to AIDS. The ways in which homophobia was driving the crisis were by then obvious. President Reagan, intent on preserving close relations with leaders of the religious right, had yet to make even one policy speech on AIDS. Funding for research and treatment was utterly inadequate and there were not yet any drugs to treat AIDS. All levels of government were either aggressively ignoring the epidemic or using it as an opportunity to attack those suffering most. Government bodies were increasingly considering punitive laws that called for mandatory HIV-testing and even quarantine. Right-wing pundits like William F. Buckley, Jr. were calling for extreme measures, including tattooing HIV-positive people.
What’s a bit puzzling is that these horrors had been present for a while. Queers had been mobilizing in numerous ways but they hadn’t yet taken to the streets. A decisive and dramatic shift occurred when the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state of Georgia’s statute prohibiting homosexual sodomy. Queers were furious. I argue that 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 in June 1986 transformed lesbian and gay sentiments about themselves, about dominant society, and about what needed to be done to fight the AIDS crisis. And those emotional shifts were crucial in sparking confrontational and defiant direct action AIDS activism.
An important side note is that ACT UP/NY was not the first activist organization to turn to the streets in the fight against AIDS. A group named Citizens for Medical Justice in San Francisco started doing sit-ins and getting arrested in September 1986, six months before ACT UP/NY formed. Two groups in New York, the Lavender Hill Mob and the Silence=Death Project, began acting up in the summer and fall of 1986 respectively, and members from both attended the founding meeting of ACT UP/NY. ACT UP/NY was without a doubt a crucial player in this history, but the movement as a whole did not start with it, as commentators often presume. Neither should the movement be reduced to ACT UP/NY. At the movement’s height, there were more than 80 direct-action AIDS activist groups across the US and a few dozen more around the world, including, of course, AIDS ACTION NOW! in Toronto.
How was ACT UP able to link grief, despair, rage, and anger together to develop an empowering direct-action-oriented politics that was sustained until the early 1990s?
Social movements engage in a great deal of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls emotion work, which she defines as an attempt to alter one’s emotions, to evoke or heighten or suppress a feeling. I use the term to refer to efforts to elicit and alter others’ emotions and feelings as well.
ACT UP faced a complex emotional landscape in lesbian and gay communities that included fear of AIDS, immense grief about the accumulating losses, a sense of despair about the relentlessness of the crisis, along with all of the contradictory feelings associated with lesbian and gay ambivalence. After Bowers v. Hardwick the landscape shifted and gay fury toward the state dramatically intensified. Many queer folks were ready to be done with grief or were at least ripe for channelling their grief into angry activism. ACT UP marshalled this grief and tethered it to anger, and both sentiments to confrontational AIDS activism. It relocated the feeling of pride from its lodging within a politics of respectability to a celebration of sexual difference and confrontational activism. It took on gay shame and suggested that the government should be ashamed of its negligent and murderous response to the AIDS crisis. ACT UP, in other words, offered an emotional pedagogy, ways to feel and to emote. That pedagogy emphasized self-love and self-respect over shame and self-doubt, eased fear of social rejection, challenged the desire for acceptance on straight society’s terms and authorized antagonism toward society.
That new matrix of feelings blossomed within ACT UP and provided a “resolution” of sorts to lesbian and gay ambivalence. Although I do not believe that a change in someone’s feelings results from simple exhortation – “feel angry!” – I do believe that ACT UP’s rhetorical and ritual practices, which expressed, enacted and repeated over and over again this new constellation of feelings, actually affected how people felt. Emotional expression, in other words, has a performative quality. In this case, it not only legitimized those feelings, it also generated them, bringing them into being by naming and enacting them and thereby elevating those emotions while suppressing the negative feeling states that had prevailed earlier.
ACT UP also gave birth to a newly politicized queer sensibility that crystallized this new set of feelings. Foregrounding angry, confrontational activism as well as sex-radicalism and pride in gay difference, queer offered a compelling vision of “how to be gay” in this moment of crisis. All of this emotion work altered what many queer folks were feeling and thereby helped the direct-action AIDS movement to flourish into the 1990s.
How were queers in ACT UP able to hold onto a vibrant sex radicalism in the face of AIDS and pressures within lesbian and gay communities towards sexual respectability?
AIDS intensified the stigma of homosexuality, and many within lesbian and gay communities were understandably anxious about the widespread perception that gay male sexuality itself caused AIDS. Gay newspapers from the 1980s record lesbian and gay politicos issuing multiple challenges to the gay male sexual culture that flowered during the 1970s. The trend was toward sexual respectability, as you say, so ACT UP’s sex radicalism was indeed remarkable.
ACT UP wasn’t alone, of course. We benefited from the work done by activists who fought against the closure of the bathhouses in 1984 to 1985, from those who invented safer sex (such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence), and from the earlier work of gay liberationists who foregrounded the fight for sexual liberation within a larger social-justice politic.
ACT UP’s sex radicalism was a necessary, life-affirming challenge to the equation of queer sex with death. Being in-your-face queer leveled a retort to those who tried to shame and blame gays for AIDS. In a climate where the right was waging war against all things queer, the strategy of denying gay difference not only seemed unviable, it would also simply accede to the right’s homophobic logic. Sex-radicalism, then, seemed a vital means to both preserve queer culture and take on the right. Also, the erotic nature of ACT UP is what drew many of us to the group and kept us coming back! It was the place to go to find sexy dykes and fags.
What was the relation of the emergence of ACT UP out of queer communities and notions of camp, humour, and performance in ACT UP activism?
There was a lot of campy humour in ACT UP, and that was surely due to the fact that the movement emerged out of queer communities. How else could we have gone on, given all of the illness and death around us? When I interviewed Marion Banzhaf from ACT UP/NY, she recalled an affinity group satirizing the ACT UP chant “How Many More Must Die?!” when it made a T-shirt that read “Harmony Moore Must Die.” The initial chant pointed toward genocide and loss; the satire was silly, an inside joke that helped alleviate the pain of all of that loss. We were living in a climate of bigotry, anti-gay violence, illness, death and unending grief. Campy humour offered all of us much-needed psychic relief and release.
I have a wonderful memory of Ortez Alderson, a member of ACT UP/Chicago, camping it up in a Chicago jail during an action for national health care held in April 1990. Close to 150 AIDS activists from across the country were arrested, effectively overwhelming the city’s jail system. Because there were not enough cells for all of us, the police put us into a large room all together. We were euphoric from the protest, happy to be together and there was a lot of animated discussion along with hugging and kissing. Our jubilant conversations quickly reached a high pitch and the officer in charge tried to gain control over the room by demanding that we cease kissing and sit “girl-boy-girl-boy.” We giggled at his request and rearranged ourselves like obedient children. Every so often, Ortez would stand up and remind us all, “There is to be noooooo same-sex kissing in the jail,” and on cue, we all resumed kissing, boys with boys, girls with girls, girls with boys, gender queers with all. In addition to helping us deal with the deaths occurring all around us, the queer tradition of campy humour bolstered us as we traversed through hostile, anti-gay, anti-radical territory.
How were ACT UP groups able to address questions of gender, race, and class?
People often assume that ACT UP was a white, middle-class, gay male movement, but that ignores that many women, people of colour, working-class people and intersections therein who participated in the movement, and who were in positions of leadership. ACT UP was more diverse than many think.
There were conflicts in the group that revolved around issues of race and racism, and there definitely was racism in the organization, as in any white-dominated group. ACT UP also had its struggles with sexism. Caucuses of women and people of colour formed early on, and sometimes in response to experiences with racism and sexism within ACT UP, but I think there was a sense among many of the women and people of colour, at least during the early years, that ACT UP was a welcoming and receptive environment. Not in the sense that ACT UP was a place free of racism and sexism, but in the sense that it was a place where confronting such issues was seriously engaged. There were many white, anti-racist participants who determinedly and patiently drew attention to the ways that racism was affecting the AIDS epidemic and struggled to get the movement to deal with its own racism. Their perspective had a good deal of legitimacy within ACT UP and succeeded in creating a context in which many white members educated themselves about racism and looked critically at their own racial privilege. The anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics of my closest friends and comrades made ACT UP a crucial site for my own political awakening.
That being said, some of ACT UP’s most intense internal conflicts definitely were in part due to racism and sexism. For example, in the early 1990s, an often-repeated claim by some in the movement was that we had gotten “off track,” that we were no longer fighting AIDS but instead were fighting racism, sexism, and multiple other social ills, and in doing so were neglecting white gay men with AIDS. Now, it’s true that some of us in the movement focused much of our activism on women and people of colour with AIDS. But of course that work was all about AIDS. As a movement committed to fighting AIDS in all of its dimensions, those efforts were not taking the movement off track. But some participants understood those efforts to be “not about AIDS” because such efforts weren’t about them. They, understandably, had come to their knowledge of what AIDS was from their particular interests and worries. I don’t blame them. In fact, I think complicated feelings of betrayal undergirded their accusations, but their accusations that ACT UP had gotten off track did indicate the presence of a sort of blind racism and sexism within the movement.
Even so, the movement did address many specific concerns of women, people of colour, and poor people with AIDS. That’s clear in a years-long campaign that forced the Center for Disease Control to alter the definition of AIDS to include the illnesses that were killing women and poor people with HIV, in the efforts to force the National Institutes of Health to admit women and people of color into experimental drug trials, in the fights to reduce the price of drugs and in all the work around AIDS in prisons. As a movement, we could have done more, but ACT UP did a fairly good job in this realm, largely at the initiative of many women and people of colour in the movement.
What led to the weakening and decline of direct-action AIDS activism and what were its emotional dimensions?
Movements are inseparable from the contexts in which they operate, so in a general sense, changes in a movement’s context, and the emotional states generated as a result, can challenge the practices, feelings, imaginaries that organize and constitute that movement, making it difficult for the movement to continue. The emotional states I’m talking about are often fairly amorphous, largely operate beneath conscious awareness, and thus may be difficult to address even as they exert pressure on the movement’s existing procedures and rituals that hitherto have worked.
In the early 1990s, ACT UP faced a significantly changed context. First, there was a widespread sense in LGBT communities that greater acceptance from society was forthcoming. That sense produced what I would call an anxious calculus of moderation among gay leaders and other establishment-oriented individuals. ACT UP was never universally loved in LGBT communities, but this sense of political, cultural, and social openings toward gay folks gave discourses against confrontational activism a renewed emotional and psychic force. ACT UP’s angry queerness and political and sexual radicalism interfered with the politics of respectability that were being adopted. The community support that ACT UP had enjoyed dissipated as the notion that ACT UP threatened social acceptance gained traction.
A second, probably more important change was ACT UP participants’ increasing knowledge of the growing enormity of the AIDS crisis. Douglas Crimp talks about this in terms of our growing knowledge of the many different affected populations and what it was going to take to save all of these people’s lives. One consequence of this knowledge was a growing desperation and despair, even as we experienced numerous important victories that were indisputably prolonging people’s lives. A scarcity mentality arose within the movement and any focus on one issue or on one population began to be seen as coming at the expense of other people with AIDS. Earlier, ACT UP members had believed that as a movement we could and should take on any and all targets and issues related to the AIDS crisis. But in the changed landscape, others’ actions, even when victorious, prompted anxious questions: what about me and the people I care about? This scarcity mentality introduced complex emotional undercurrents into political disagreements about ACT UP’s focus that had existed since the start of the movement but that now became personalized and acrimonious. The emotional undercurrents of these conflicts had a tremendous negative impact.
So these two important changes in ACT UP’s context created an affective landscape that was hard to navigate. The movement’s emotional practices had been oriented primarily toward creating and heightening anger, but different emotion work was called for in this changed context.
Can you say more about those emotional undercurrents? How did moralism and shaming become a destructive force in AIDS activism? Could these tensions have been navigated in a better fashion that we can learn from for our organizing today?
Moralism well-describes the dominant emotional register in which ACT UP’s later internal conflicts played out. It unquestionably intensified those conflicts, further unravelled feelings of solidarity and contributed to the demise of the movement. There were shaming accusations that privileged white gay men were only concerned about saving their own lives and those of their friends and thus were liable to sell out other people with AIDS. There were accusations that women and people of colour were in the fight for politics alone and were willing to build a mass movement on the backs, indeed the graves, of gay white men with AIDS. People started invoking identity categories in a way that hadn’t happened earlier in the movement’s life, essentializing and tethering them to expected identifications and politics. All of that created immense distrust across lines of race, gender, and HIV status.
There has been a lot of critical discussion about political moralism on the left and I find it quite useful. I’m thinking mostly of work by Wendy Brown and Douglas Crimp, but critics frequently fail to illuminate some of the emotional states that prompt a turn toward moralism. To understand the emergence of moralism within ACT UP requires understanding the emotional undercurrents of the movement’s internal conflicts. With the term emotional undercurrent I mean to emphasize how the feeling states operating in ACT UP’s conflicts were largely unarticulated and submerged, but nevertheless had a force and direction to them that affected the texture, tone, intensity, and velocity of the conflicts. Largely unstated and unacknowledged feelings of betrayal and nonrecognition, and consequent resentment, mistrust and anger were at the heart of the movement’s internal conflicts. The presence of those feelings, and the difficulty of dealing with them in part because they were largely unacknowledged, created fertile terrain for shaming and guilt-tripping.
That’s not to say that the political conflicts had no substance to them. Members of the different sides had divergent analyses of the AIDS crisis and how best to fight it. But political conflicts in movements are seldom only about divergent political analyses. More than tactical or strategic disagreements, conflicts often revolve around the complex feelings evoked by participants’ different statuses within the movement and within society. Whether real or perceived, such differences can generate resentment, anger, guilt, a sense of being unrecognized and fear of betrayal. Left unaddressed, those feelings can prompt a turn to moralizing, which shuts down political debate and principled engagement with one another. In the case of ACT UP, the shaming from both sides displaced conversations about how best to fight AIDS and about what people in the movement were feeling about each other and the crisis. The affects that had sparked the moralizing in the first place, and that were at the core of ACT UP’s political conflicts, remained unacknowledged and unaddressed. The moralizing made us unable to approach one another and thus unable to address the conflicts. Both sides demonized the other, personalizing and polarizing what otherwise might have been difficult, but navigable, political conflicts.
Why did we turn to moralism? Well, in part because it was a readily available rhetorical register; Brown calls it the “dominant political sensibility” in this historical period. More specific to ACT UP was the growing despair in the movement. Many of us thought that we were going to be able to save the lives of people with AIDS, but the ever-increasing number of deaths, especially within the movement, pointed to our inability to stop the dying. Moralizing finds fertile ground in a moment of impasse, when activists are politically depressed and grasping for explanations about why their efforts seem futile. Blaming easily morphs into shaming.
Many progressive movements have heated internal conflicts, but conflicts don’t inevitably fracture a movement. ACT UP’s conflicts became acrimonious in large part because we were unable to address the underlying feelings of betrayal that shaped their substance, velocity, and intensity. On the one hand I would say of course we were unable to address those emotional undercurrents: we all were exhausted, frustrated, desperate, and overwhelmed. But the historian in me knows that the fracturing of solidarity in ACT UP was never inevitable. It may be that assuming solidarity in the early years prevented us from doing more trust-building work in those years. So that’s one thing for activist groups to think about. Also, ACT UP’s emotional habitus provided us with a pedagogy for some feelings, especially for transforming anger into action, but it did not provide much instruction for dealing with feelings of betrayal by one’s comrades, or for dealing with fear of death or an overwhelming sense of despair. Anger was one of our primary idioms, and we turned it against ourselves in a manner that made it difficult to work with one another. This is not about blaming the movement culture, we built but to remind us that the unfolding of the conflicts was contingent. That is true of conflicts in all movements. Studying the dynamics of ACT UP’s internal conflicts might allow current activists to address bad feelings that sometimes arise amid the action.
What is the continuing relevance of AIDS activism today?
I haven’t been involved in AIDS activism since 1995, but what has really impressed me about groups that have continued the fight is their political savvy in tying local battles to global processes, to global flows of capital. There is really important activism being done that challenges the astronomical pricing of AIDS drugs by transnational pharmaceutical companies and targets trade agreements that put patents and intellectual property rights above the health and well-being of people around the world. These activists are effectively pointing to the link between the worldwide AIDS pandemic and a globalizing capitalist logic that puts profit-seeking above human well-being. They’re doing great work.
How do you see the legacy of ACT UP in the context where the mainstream gay and lesbian movements tend to have defined same-sex marriage as the end-point of our struggles?
Oh, gay marriage. One of the most liberating things for me when I started identifying as a lesbian was the realization that now I wouldn’t have to get married! ACT UP gave me a similar feeling of freedom and sense of possibility; I think that was true for many who participated in the movement. The politics of anti-normativity that developed within the movement and crystallized in the notion of queer allowed for ways of being in the world that I fear now are disappearing as gay marriage takes over the LGBT movement’s agenda. To me, queer, in its most radical sense, was about changing ourselves and the world. It was exhilarating to be involved in that sort of transformative self- and world-making project. That was what ACT UP provided for many of us, and that’s an important part of its legacy: we all take those practices and our memories of them out into the world with us, into other activist formations, into our workplaces, into our intimate relations and our everyday interactions. Unfortunately, that queer potential which, in addition to our individualities, is precisely what LGBT folks have to offer to this world, no longer takes pride of place in the gay movement. Queerness has become the bad cousin who has to be renounced and disowned. It’s definitely important for us to extend the queer legacy of ACT UP by injecting a queer politic into all of our endeavours.
For those of us who sometimes feel despair regarding the prospects of social change, we should keep in mind that the activism of the direct-action AIDS movement forced enormous changes that have saved people’s lives. Saving lives and providing an example of activist victories are tremendous legacies, and recollecting that important history of direct-action AIDS activism can help activists today extend our political horizons.
Wendy Brown. 2001. Politics Out of History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Douglas Crimp. 1992. “Right On, Girlfriend!” Social Text 33:2–18.
Douglas Crimp. 2002. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Arlie Russell Hochschild. 1979. “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology 85, no. 3:551–75.