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“When trans people are under attack, what do we do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!”

ACT UP/NY at the Equality March in Washington, DC, June 11, 2017.

ACT UP’s Erotics

Participants consistently remark on ACT UP’s vibrant sexual atmosphere, suggesting that its erotic climate played a powerful role in attracting people and sustaining their participation. Ferd Eggan described ACT UP meetings as filled with “a lot of sexual feeling and validation,” observing that the movement provided “an opening for a lot of people, of possibilities, and a lot of people took advantage of them” (Eggan 1999). Marion Banzhaf recalled, “It was a time that I was exploring non monogamy for myself in a different way than I had ever done…. I had more queer sex in ACT UP than I had had in my whole life” (Banzhaf 2002). Karl Soehnlein of ACT UP/NY recalled having sex “with dozens and dozens of guys in ACT UP.” In a challenge to negative ideas about promiscuity, and reflecting ACT UP’s sex-radical ethos, Soehnlein described himself during this period as “really promiscuous, in a really exciting, great way” (Soehnlein 2003, 28). ACT UP/Chicago member Michael Thompson described Chicago’s meetings as “really sexy,” adding, “there were just a lot of hormones [in the air] at all times.” He was particularly taken with the sexual expressiveness of lesbians in ACT UP: “To be around lesbians who were also being sexy was really cool. Because that [intermixing of men and women] is not something that generally happens in the queer world. It was generally segregated” (Thompson 2000).

Polly Thistlethwaite fondly remembered ACT UP/NY’s meetings at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Greenwich Village: people sat in each other’s laps, brushed up against one another, and cruised each other (Thistlethwaite 1993). In 1988, ACT UP/NY member Maria Maggenti described the sexual feel of the meetings and the effect it was having on her: “I [leave] the meetings feeling incredibly sexy…. [F]eeling sexy, feeling beautiful, makes you feel very much alive…. It’s the most subversive way anyone could respond to this crisis” (France 1988, 36). Jeff Edwards remembered ACT UP/Chicago meetings as occurring in a “very sexually charged environment.” He noted in particular the effect that the positive sexual atmosphere had in countering earlier discourses that had made gay men ashamed of their sexual desires and practices, and afraid to have sex: “That was great, I think especially because … I was listening to people having discussions in the mid-’80s saying, ‘You can’t kiss anybody.’ [In ACT UP] there was an opening up of a greater sexual freedom again” (Edwards 2000a). Edwards credited ACT UP with helping him and other gay men to “push ourselves beyond” a “cloudy period” that had prevailed during the first years of the epidemic. “The whole issue about shame and isolation and the anti-sex stuff. I really think that we brought something back, about being open about being sexual beings and having fun. I think ACT UP made that happen” (Edwards 2000a). Jim Eigo similarly noted that ACT UP/NY “was in some ways almost the first place that you could celebrate sexuality, after AIDS hit” (Eigo 2004, 56). He credits ACT UP/NY’s erotic atmosphere with the meteoric rise of the movement: “One reason ACT UP took off so quickly was be cause its weekly meeting was the sexiest space in the city for a gay guy to be on a Monday night. Urban gay men had seen their community sex spaces erode in the age of AIDS. ACT UP would be a first stand in reclaiming that space, in asserting our right to it” (Eigo 2002, 184). A statement from ACT UP/NY member David Robinson in 1988 supports Eigo’s claim: “On Monday nights, the place to be is at one of our meetings” (France 1988, 36). Noting that an ACT UP activist played a role model for a confused young man in the 1990 porn film More of a Man, political scientist Dennis Altman argued that this indicated that “the gay/AIDS politics of the current period has now been integrated into sexual fantasies in a quite remarkable way: `the activist’ now becomes defined as an object of desire, thus legitimating political activity at the level of the libido” (Altman 1994, 91). ACT UP’s erotic atmosphere made its politics sexy too.

Given the prevailing climate of sexual fear in the late 1980s — in both gay and straight worlds — ACT UP’s celebration of queer sexuality was a political act. Indeed, many ACT UP members experienced their bodies as the battleground on which the AIDS war was being fought, both in terms of HIV and its related illnesses, and in terms of sexual freedom. Jeanne Kracher saw ACT UP’s sexual culture as a form of resistance to dominant society’s efforts to “shut us down sexually” (Kracher 2000). Maria Maggenti viewed ACT UP’s sexual politics similarly:

Here are all these people who are coping with an illness that is transmitted sexually. So, to be sexual in defiance of that, happily sexual, using condoms or other forms of safe sex, was extremely bold. And, it was especially bold to say that you were still going to have sex and fuck and be a cocksucker and all these things, when there was so much shame attached to the fact that this disease was sexually transmitted. (Maggenti 2003, 52)

ACT UP recuperated queer sexuality in part by creating a new venue where sex and activism were thoroughly joined. B. C. Craig, a lesbian who was a member of both ACT UP/NY and ACT UP/Boston, pointed to this connection: “Especially in a time when gay bars and baths had such a bad reputation because of the scare of AIDS, ACT UP was a place that you could go and be sexy and sociable and still feel like you were dealing with the crisis instead of denying it. And so, ACT UP has always had a real history of a lot of sexual dynamics going on” (Quoted in Cohen 1998, 138). Karl Soehnlein noted that his erotic desires helped to animate and sustain his involvement in ACT UP/NY. At the very first meeting he attended, in June 1987, a man stood up and asked for volunteers for a task related to the upcoming Gay Pride Parade. Soehnlein recalled:

And he’s blonde and hunky and muscle-y, and I was like, “I’ll sign up! You’re sexy.” And that was part of [the excitement], too. It was sexy. I was 21 and surrounded by all these men who were so attractive to me, and that was part of it, absolutely, that was part of it … for many of us who were involved in ACT UP, who were in our early 20s. It was this sexy place to go. You didn’t have to always go to clubs and bars. We would go to an ACT UP meeting, do something important, be part of that, but also get this kind of jones off the whole thing. (Soehnlein 2003, 7)

Sex and politics went hand in hand in ACT UP, and this characteristic of the movement challenges standard dualisms that suggest that the presence of supposedly private phenomena like intimacies threatens the ostensible rationality of the political public sphere. Rather than impeding ACT UP’s political activities, the sexual and social climate in many ways was, in Cvetkovich’s words, a “foundation of the group’s power” (2003a, 185), a force that invigorated many activists. Rather than posing a threat to group solidarity — here I recall Freud’s arguments about group cohesion being threatened by non–aim-inhibited libidinal ties among some members (1959, esp. 92–97) — even dyadic sexual relations among ACT UP members seem to have bolstered participation in the movement, in part because ACT UP’s self-identity entailed a celebration of queer sexual expression of all sorts. In line with the movement’s ethos, having queer sex enacted, simultaneously, sexual desire for another individual as well as love for the group and its sex radicalism. When asked if the socializing within ACT UP ever distracted from the activism, ACT UP/ NY member Trina Johnson replied,

I would say that actually the passion fuels us, that passion and desire keep us going. We want to keep having sex, we want to keep being queer…. And seeing people we can fuck right in front of us almost makes you want to say, “This is really important, I want to live this way, I’ve got to be able to continue living, and so I’ve got to work on these issues.” (Quoted in Cohen 1998, 143–44)

Having sex surely satisfied individuals’ libidinal desires, but it also contributed to group cohesiveness. Jean Carlomusto noted the following about ACT UP/NY’s sexiness: “It was a great part about being involved with ACT UP. The men were having sex with men, the women were having sex with women, men and women were having sex with each other.’ It boiled down to the Emma Goldman saying, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution.’ If we can’t fuck, what are we doing here?” (Carlomusto 2002, 23). For many of us, there was no distance between sex and politics: meetings were filled with flirtation, cruising, touching, and kissing, along with heady discussions with life-and-death stakes, discussions that themselves were sexy in their intensity. ACT UP’s ethos made having queer sex, and lots of it, feel like a political act, and the close physical contact of our civil disobedience actions, along with our chants and propaganda and the ACT UP uniform itself — T-shirt, jeans, leather jacket, combat boots — sexualized ACT UP protests. There was an erotic charge to everything we did. Probably as a result, even meetings that went on for hours often felt electrifying rather than tedious. Participants recall how exciting it felt simply walking into the room just prior to the start of the meeting — people kissed and hugged hello — and that energy often continued after the meetings, as people hung around socializing and then went out for a late-night dinner. That continuous sexual energy drew people to the movement and helped to sustain our participation.

— Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS (2009), Ch. 3. Bold mine.