Monday, June 22, 2015

ACT UP 25 memories

SF Pride 1990; photo: L.A.
While I am a great one for marking anniversaries, I almost let slip a very big one: the 25th anniversary of ACT UP protests at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS. Not that I forgot about the actions. They were my coming of age as an activist. I only joined ACT UP in the weeks leading up to the protests and was a very nervous legal observer at some of the demos during that week in June. But, I decided to put my body on the line, as it were, and join in the Women's Day Action, which was June 22, 1990, 25 years ago today.

I wrote a bit about this time in my recently completed MRes dissertation, which I quote below.

Coming out in 1989 was not about exercising personal freedom, and it certainly was not about donning the cloak of respectability to be like everyone else, join the military or get married. It meant joining a community under siege. Once I came out, I knew I had a responsibility to this community, and I was quick to join direct action groups ACT UP and then Queer Nation, seeking to do my bit. I do not think this Generation Y (or whatever they are called) necessarily has this raison d’être. As Jose Muñoz writes in Disidentifications, “The social is both a stage and a battlefield” (Muñoz 1999, p. 199). Every day we need to pick our battles carefully. And ACT UP exemplified this in its tactics. Many members of ACT UP made it their business to get arrested. One of my comrades, Peggy Sue (she described the moniker as her nom de guerre), was quite keen on it, turning her arrests into a kind of performance art. She had mastered the art of yelling as she was dragged away and was known to enjoy the process, ticking off her arrests with pride.
I was not so keen. As my particular battlefield, I chose a big one, getting arrested at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in June, 1990. It was the women-only day, and I sat down with several hundred others at the intersection of Sixth and Market streets, thereby “blocking a public thoroughfare”, as the charge sheet described it. My friend L. was meant to stay on the side-lines and hold my glasses, but when I arrived at the jail with scores of other detainees, a police officer drew my attention to someone waving to me from an adjoining paddock, my spectacles in her hand. L. told me later she could not refrain from joining in when she saw us being arrested. My glasses were unharmed, and I was grateful to see clearly once more. During our stay in jail, we held an activist fashion show, women parading down an imaginary catwalk, hands still cuffed behind their backs. Availablism in action.
True to form, San Francisco has been marking the anniversary in fine style, with events at old haunts such as The Women's Building and Cafe Flore. I wish I'd known well in advance. But, I like to think I have joined in the reunion in spirit, if not in person.

Two days after that demo was my first Pride march, which I attended in my Women ACT UP t-shirt, protest turning to celebration, as various marches flowed into one another and we experienced the mix of emotions that comes with the cycle of life and death.