When I was as a sophomore at Brown I was just coming out, literally, with my sort-of boyfriend, and intellectually. This was when, for the first time, I saw the “Silence = Death” logo spray painted on the sidewalk—it’s one of those moments I totally remember. Luckily my husband Andrew and I are currently fifty-five years old, so in some ways we just missed the bullet because we were coming of age after AIDS initially erupted. So, we were super, super safe. But then when I came to New York, I would go with my then-boyfriend to ACT UP meetings, and I went to High Holidays actions–I went to the march of the CDC, and so on. To me, it was revelatory because it was about community. With the AIDS crisis, one of the few silver linings of it was that it brought all kinds of people together. Not just gay white men, but women were very much part of it, and a diverse community were very much part of it. It was not just about sex and communing and disco—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but about the political charge of what the AIDS crisis brought about, and being in charge of your own body, of the health system.
I was hoping to capture the anger by depicting this action—this image was from, I believe, the April 6, 1992 ACT UP action zapping candidate Jerry Brown at Brooklyn Borough Hall. I was listening to ACT UP stuff and the music of the era and so on and thinking back at my own time during this era and participating in this movement. But also, all that pain—I did have friends who died. It was interesting being kind of on the coattails of this revolution. Most of the people were a little older than me. But as you say, it was a movement that was so smart—and obviously there are a lot of politics with that, too, because it was a lot of white, male, privileged people who have access to power and ingenuity, but it was also everyone.
But all the people involved did what they did best to move the movement to the masses—the press people did press, the designers designed, people did the research to understand the science to talk to the scientists and so on. And the people who were great political leaders—a lot of them from the feminist movement and the civil rights movement—coming in and helping them organize. And as my friend Celeste Dupuy-Spencer mentions, “the historic most revolutionary group of people that humanity really has is the lesbian movement, and they showed up in fucking droves! And gender got sort of interesting then! The lesbian community shows up—but then their trauma is surviving—they’re taking care of people that are dying, sort of in this rotation.”
It was an eclectic group of people who had this vision that were using emotion, as well as the agitprop and propaganda in a good way. And fusing that all together and having these moments having direct action, like the strategy of marching at the CDC outside. With, back in that time, Dr. Fauci being a bad guy, because he wasn’t allowing for more treatments than AZT, and everything. But they would have people on the inside, working directly with Fauci, that became the Treatment Action Group.
It was a really effective movement. I don’t think we would have—obviously AIDS hasn’t been cured yet, or HIV—but we wouldn’t have the treatments available that we do now if it weren’t for them. And also, just in terms of how it was building on a lot of other civil liberties movements, being able to capitulate something that really changed culture, in terms of talking about ideas of health for everyone, or treatment for everyone.
Reagan never said the word “gay,” or “AIDS.” For me as a young person, I had my own internalized homophobia—but seeing ACT UP in actions and TV and on the streets, in the bars, and with and being my friends, they were a total inspiration, finally a group I could identify with and also fight for what was an emergency.
Silence equals death. For me, too, I was a punk rocker when I was young, and I did not like Judy Garland and all the other stuff that’s supposed to be the gay tropes. But then, to see these cool guys and women in Doc Marten’s and jeans and leather jackets—you know, the whole ACT UP thing, which was way more like punk rock, progressive and queer. Queer! And this also I think is the beginning of the idea of recoding—before Eve Sedgwick—ideas of queerdom. And, too, the women were in with the guys, and the trans people, too. Everybody was together, and they were all supporting one another, even though there was a lot of infighting and politics.
With the ACT UP people, too, there were all different kinds of factions. I lived in a co-op in college, and so, I’m all about collaborative movements and being all together. But what was interesting to me, too… While painting, I listened to the book by Sarah Schulman “Let the Record Show: A political History of ACT UP New York, written by a woman, who is a reporter, and was part of the movement. There are a lot of memorials, memoirs from people—along with her writing/film documentary partner, she interviewed for over two decades many people and you hear everybody’s story. But they had all different view. There were the people of color faction, there was definitely the dyke faction, there were all different facets that would work on their own things with accreditation from the big group. They would read the reports of the at the Monday meetings. But then they would come together on the High Holidays and do their thing. And I do think healthcare is a right for everybody. I don’t know if specifically, exactly, but perhaps was a force that helped grow into Obamacare, and just the idea of owning your own body and not letting anybody tell you what to do with your body. Which, obviously, civil rights, human rights, and feminism was always about too, and Pro-Choice: not letting the government control your body. But also realizing when the government was hapless and not being able to give agency, literally, to the people who most needed it for their medical needs and demanding it. And then winning, in a way as so many people died…
I obviously don’t feel nostalgic for this era. AIDS so decimated the generation before us. But at the same time, the political activism and the togetherness is the thing that I feel like we most need now, especially in the age of Trump.