Despair and Teaching About Act UP

What was lost.

Many of the readings for my course, Pride in the Time of HIV/AIDS map this out in some way. A whole, very recent history has been forgotten and misrepresented.

What was lost. Eleven students and I find–in Andrew Holleran’s essays in The Christopher Street Reader and Deborah Gould’s Moving Politics and Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind

What it meant to be queer. What disco was. That there was a successful direct action movement that changed the world. Safe sex, camp, rage. They were not all white, nor were they all male, nor elite. They said, Bury Me Furiously. They threw their lovers’ ashes on the White House lawn. They stopped traffic with funerals, real bodies in boxes. They held a Die-In, laid down in the central aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Cardinal’s decree against wearing condoms, while a man shouted repeatedly:

“Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us.”

They awoke one day in the late 80s (after Bowers V. Hardwick declared sodomy to be a worse crime than rape?) to the realization that there was no love for them, no matter how good a boy and girl you were: no appeals to hearts, no display of heroic virtue, no public grief, no candlelight vigil would make the government recognize their humanity.

They had nothing to lose. And in that despair, like the night of Stonewall, rage rose and righteousness.

Fury. Fury. Fury. And Despair Changed the World.

They had nothing to lose. And so they went forth with brave skin and brilliance, everyday people who deserved to live. As I read these books by the Plague’s witnesses and watch documentaries, I feel the historical continuities, evolution: my queer bones, gay as fuck heart, vagus nerve, mirror neurons play and wince, this instrument I am, made of the same stuff. This is why I teach: to show my students who their people really were. They do not know what “queer” means. Isn’t that sad? And I had forgotten that queer never hopes for the government to save them. It does not ask for approval.

My students seem stunned as I perform this derisive, arrogant, beauty, the pathos of my fury.

They had never heard of Act UP!

As for me, I am Googling the old disco that Holleran remembers dancing to, long after the hip crowd went home. The endless slow beats not made for roller skates–and I am brought on his words into the late night, into the realness, sweating (I shake the sweat from my short hair), in a trance, the magic of my body, my aspirations, my handsome, heroic despair.

I Google a Super 8 clip of two queens moaning out the lines like Bronx cats, lounging in lipstick, muscled and lithe and dark in tough wigs (in Mark Morrisroe’s “Hello From Bertha” by Tennessee Williams, once a long lost yearned for gem, then found. Lost and found).

I Google a short film by Jim Hubbard, “Elegy in the Streets” silent. These young mourners release white balloons. A queen on roller skates lifts her skirts to show hairy legs. A vine grows up the tenement building, black balloons and red, and despair building, an angel in negative print, on her knees and the film stays and stays staring.

Lost and found. It’s a mess. It’s hopeless. My perfectionism wakes me anxious…something is wrong. There is no one here. I read this with a spiritual book that tells me to awaken! Remember separation is a lie. We are all electromagnetic energy my friend tells me and, there in his office, my mind’s eye clicks into this fantasy, to holographic memory, the whole on the shattered fragment, how a room lights up when a certain person enters. What does it all mean?

I do not know. I stare. Nothing.

What does despair give you? If it gives you nothing to lose, no sanction, no friendship, no love to lose, it is just your life left and then hardly even that, not for long. I know it is nothing I have ever felt, not on the scale of my Act UP elders.

I know the cowardice of having too much to lose. But less and less.

I have worn brave skin. I was madly in love when I felt it. It was the first morning.

After the first night.