United in Anger– ACT UP for all ages

I don’t actually write about it all that much.  Not because it doesn’t matter, it so very much does matter.  But with race and adoption and Jewishness and the general state of things for young people in the mix– I just barely get to it.  But let’s talk.  I am a lesbian mom.  It’s a big deal– even if I wish it weren’t.  In many ways, if I’m honest– life is harder because of this.  I don’t mean at all that it’s worse– it isn’t.  Not in the slightest.  But many things are harder.  And some things are just plain unbelievably amazing.

All of this next paragraph is full of important things about which I could write many words, but for today, these things are just important backdrop.  AIDS 2012, the first international AIDS conference hosted in the US because of our previously terrible immigration restrictions for people with HIV, was here until Friday.  In my town, blocks away.  I did AIDS law work for a very long time and I miss that work and the community of people with whom I did that work a great deal.  At times acutely.  I did not attend the conference at all, but I did get invited to an event honoring many HIV lawyers and HIV legal programs including the program I led for many years.  At that event, I reconnected with two women, from very different parts of my life– neither of whom I had seen in a very long time.  Both of whom are special to me.  And since I am going for candor here– one is an ex-girlfriend and it had been an exceptionally long time since she and I had seen or spoken to one another.  My heart swelled and expanded to see her, talk to her, reconnect.  It did my heart good.  Like me, she has an 11-year-old, two months younger than my daughter– a boy I’ve not met.   She and I had written but until last week had never spoken since we became mothers in our respective cities.  But this too, is another story.  It was she who told me I should come to see the screening of the documentary film, United in Anger.

So last Wednesday after work, I headed to United in Anger, a documentary about New York ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).  Earlier, as my partner and I were making all our week’s childcare plans, I decided that for reasons logistical and for reasons not logistical , I wanted to bring my daughter with me to the film.  I wanted her there for reasons both educational and familial.  Like in any family and not because we are a lesbian family– there are so many things she doesn’t know about me.  My life is full of many experiences, cultural references, things that happened with great emotional resonance, that are not part of her experience or point of reference.  But perhaps because we are a lesbian family some of these things are more hidden and certainly less commonly shared.  My experience is not hers because she is a different generation.  But my experience is also not the experience of most of her friends’ parents.  Because I am lesbian.

To be very clear, I was never an ACT UP member but I was a supporter.  And I was a witness.  I told her only a little bit beforehand– about AIDS and about the fact that people didn’t get what they needed and so people were scared and they were angry and sad; they organized.  That was about it. We were late and there were no seats left when we got there– except for one lone seat in the front row.  I headed down the dark aisle for that seat and pulled her onto my lap– but a guy sitting next to me gave up his seat, over my objection, and she sat next to me.  Scared or thrilled, or air-conditioning cold– I don’t know, but she curled into me and wrapped her arms around me like a very young child and she held onto me and I held onto her throughout.  And we watched.  There were demonstrations, crowds, talking heads, meetings planning demonstrations, discussions of the terror of that time, anger and outrage, humor and silliness and the great, enthusiastic, brilliant, shining, creative, courageous energy of ACT UP.  There was plenty of courage to go around, and that shines through in all that footage.

In the dark with the film rolling, the questions came.  She wanted to know — what is civil disobedience, why were the police carrying people away?  Were they getting hurt?  Why did they have (fake) “blood on their hands”?  What were they doing now?  Why did they “practice” their civil disobedience, were they scared?  What was he saying?  What did that sign mean?  What is that woman talking about?  What is a condom?  Where was that bus taking them?  Why were they protesting in a Catholic church?  Look, that guy is wearing a Jewish star, he’s Jewish, like us!  That was funny, and that seemed scary.  Why are they yelling?  Where did they buy that casket or how did they make that prop? And on and on and on.

I answered dozens of questions– as many as I thought I could, given that people around us were watching the film.  There were many more to which I said– that is such a good and interesting question– but it’s too long, I’ll talk to you about it later.   More than once I said simply– I was there, I was at that demonstration.  She was so alive and lively watching and it carried over into the next day.

Next day, next scene, dinnertime at our lesbian household.  Around the table my daughter and my partner were eating dinner and I urged her to tell my partner– who wasn’t there the night before, about anything she wanted to tell about the film, what she thought about and what was interesting.  And she did.  Her eyes shining and her beautiful smile breaking across her face as she told things funny, poignant.  And then because she has the heart of humanity– because she knows important things without any lecture or being “taught”– she asked the big question.  She was just about ready to end this conversation and get up from the table and she asked– such an important question– of my partner and me.  Did we win?  I loved the question and I loved the clarity of her understanding of who she is in this world.  She didn’t ask, did they win.  She asked did we win.  In that moment, I understood many things I had not understood on many fronts.  Yes, I said, we haven’t yet won everything we need for people, but yes, yes– we did.  We won.

2 responses to “United in Anger– ACT UP for all ages

  1. lucky rabinowitz

    laura, i was surprised that you answered that we had won. in a city with the highest hiv infection rate in america. if the we is the white, educated LGBT class, perhaps you could say we won. but even then with all the deaths we encountered along the way to our victory it does not feel like winning to me. many like myself were at least temporarily emotionally devastated witnessing gruesome tragedy.

    but i am mostly concerned about the we. because here in the u.s. and worldwide the virus is still explosive among particularly the black and the poor, who you know have less than needed access to testing and treatment and for whom shame primarily rules the day. if we include ourselves in that greater we, and i too often blame the white lgbt community for not, then surely we have not won. act-up is a memory, a film. white gay men with skirts are no longer lying down dead at the FDA in rockville. but really it is the virus that continues to win. the poor are still losing.

    lake michigan looked beautiful. i drink to peaceful waters.

    daniel

    • Thank you, and you are absolutely right. I don’t disagree with anything you have said and I am thinking here about why I chose to say what I said. So here is a first pass at it. Agreed absolutely– there is so much lost (past tense) and so much wrong and so much devastating loss ongoing– as a result of HIV and of the racism and sexism and classism and profiteering that dominates and has dominated every aspect of policy making having to do with HIV here in the US and world-wide.

      We live in an era where so much is packaged and literally sold to us. The messages my daughter has access to are always “selling” something through advertising, public relations, spin– and she learns about the world– even more than you and I did when we were very young people– in a manner in which the truth has been terribly manipulated. In that context, one of the things that was important to me in the experience I had with my daughter and with the piece I wrote was simply that I wanted her to see people thinking about something on their own terms and putting their ideas and their bodies on the line for something important; something generally important and something that mattered to them personally– not waiting but acting. I was trying to communicate that direct action mattered and had important effect and that it matters to act and to act with courage. It is clear to me that she knows and understands a great, great deal– first hand, some things that I do not fully understand, about racism and its devastation of people. And perhaps I shouldn’t call any of what has come before “winning”– but I want her to be able to act, to not feel paralyzed and to have a vision and a hope of taking charge of things, of setting things right– which was a key part of what I sought to communicate. I’ll keep thinking though, and I appreciate the challenge.

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