A passionate history of AIDS activism offers lessons for today

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“Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993,” by Sarah Schulman. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)

The history of AIDS in the U.S. is a largely untold story. Sarah Schulman’s extraordinary new book, “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993,” deconstructs what a community of people desperate to save their community coalesced to do. As ACT UP member Jim Eigo says in the book, “It was the most splendid idea of community I’ve ever been a part of.”

“Let the Record Show” is a work of scholarship, of meticulous detail, of palpable energy, of breathtaking passion. It is a story we have been waiting for and it is a door opening — one hopes — on subsequent histories. It is an indictment of mainstream whitewashing and straightwashing of our community and its diversity. And it is a reminder that respectability politics are a form of silencing and that, as ACT UP’s famous dictate asserts: silence equals death.

While writing the book, Schulman re-read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pivotal essay, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The impact of the Black, feminist and anti-war movements that preceded the AIDS activist movement is a big part of the reclaimed history Schulman tells. Where previous AIDS stories have been framed predominantly as white gay male stories, Schulman brings back the women and people of color who have been diminished and erased from previous retelling of those days of activism, and she delineates their impact.

AIDS hit the U.S. 40 years ago — quietly. On July 3, 1981, an article in The New York Times read: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” and described cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma found in 41 gay men in New York City and San Francisco. The CDC first named the disease GRID, for gay-related immunodeficiency disease.

I began writing about AIDS at PGN. It was a small story for the first few years — in May 1982 the New York Times was still only reporting a few hundred cases. Like the current pandemic, the overwhelming majority of cases were in New York City (158), elsewhere in New York State (10), New Jersey (14) and California (71).

But within two more years I was a national AIDS reporter, writing stories about AIDS every week in the mainstream press as well as the gay and feminist press. I was an AIDS columnist for SPIN magazine and writing features for New York Newsday, the Village Voice and the Advocate about the disease. I was a reporter for OutWeek and POZ.

And like so many of my queer friends and colleagues, I was also an activist. Lying down in streets in D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia in die-ins. Arrested in front of the White House. Blurring the lines between journalism and activism because it was a war. And in a war, the rules are different.

Sarah Schulman was writing novels and essays about AIDS and telling people’s stories. AIDS was in the zeitgeist of her personal cohort and she never stopped incorporating it into her work. She was an activist and a member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).

When ACT UP was formed in New York in 1987, those CDC numbers reported earlier by the NYT were exponentially higher, in the thousands. And as with the coronavirus epidemic in the U.S., the numbers of cases — and deaths from the disease — were vastly underreported.

Like the characters in Schulman’s novels, most gay and lesbian people in big cities knew someone who was sick, dying or already dead. It was a plague and it was our people and no one was doing anything about it. ACT UP did.

Schulman focuses on ACT UP’s organizational tactics as well as the group’s diversity and lack of hierarchy. She explores the critical impact on public policy and consciousness at a time when Ronald Reagan and then George H. W. Bush were ignoring the AIDS crisis and Dr. Anthony Fauci — now an heroic figure of COVID — had to be dragged to ACT UP meetings to address the dying and hear what was needed from him. (Fauci said at the death of Larry Kramer last May that ACT UP changed his perspective as a clinician.)

The book builds on 188 oral histories Schulman and filmmaker Jim Hubbard conducted with ACT UP members. (Parts of these interviews, as well as archival meeting and protest footage, are included in Hubbard’s 2012 documentary, “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP,” which is available on Youtube and at Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.)

There is no other book like “Let the Record Show.” Although constructed as a history of an activist group, it is the story of the epidemic itself and what it did to real people — so many people. This is a history of how people came together in their grief and rage and literally changed everything because there was no one to help us but us. As activist Michael Petrelis yells from atop a pew during a huge protest of 7,000 people at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1989, “You’re killing us!”

Without ACT UP, who knows how many other people would have died. ACT UP forced the hands of doctors, scientists, politicians, clergy, families.

ACT UP challenged everyone and everything we knew to date about drug trials and needle exchanges and getting people with no insurance treated. ACT UP forced the CDC and FDA to include women so that they could get AIDS drugs, medical care and services routinely denied them because of their gender. And those emergency use authorizations for the current COVID-19 vaccines? You can thank ACT UP for that process.

Schulman delves deep into the complexities of the movement and the way in which it was portrayed in the mainstream. She notes how in “Philadelphia,” Tom Hanks’ character — a largely solitary figure — engages homophobic lawyer Denzel Washington. But in real life, Schulman explains, he’d have gone to a gay lawyer and have had a whole community behind him.

The same is true in “Angels in America” in which the protagonist with AIDS is abandoned by his lover — something that almost never happened. As Schulman reminds us, people with AIDS were abandoned by their families, not their queer community.

In an essay Schulman wrote in 2019 on the 30th anniversary of her novel “People in Trouble,” she writes about how straight people in the arts in New York “seemed to be only peripherally implicated by the raging AIDS crisis, while I was drowning in death.”

Schulman writes, “In 1987, I was surrounded by my queer world dying of AIDS, and me and my friends were obsessed with keeping these men and boys alive.”

This is what makes Schulman’s ACT UP history so compelling and necessary and true: she was there, she lived it, and yet the minutiae of the telling is that of a clear-eyed historian standing outside the action, taking notes. “I was drowning in death,” she wrote just two months before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and while finishing this book.

“Let the Record Show” is, at its core, about the dichotomy between the world that recognized AIDS and the world that didn’t. Those of us who saw it, who were desperate to save lives, who knew the dying — people we loved and who loved us back — we were living as if in bloodied foxholes with incendiary devices exploding all around us.

But Schulman makes clear it’s not over and that access to care is still elusive for many. As of 2019, about 800,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, and nearly 13,000 people with AIDS die in the U.S. each year. There are more than 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S. and there are more than 35,000 new infections each year. Globally, some 40 million people have died from AIDS since the start of the epidemic, and it is still the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa.

Schulman explains that Black gay men in the South have the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the world — a daunting statistic that should shame us all.

Schulman captures the urgency of that time that those of us who lived through it, who survived it, will never forget. It’s emblazoned on our psyches, and Schulman brings that searing story vividly to life. Readers not yet born in the era she covers or allies largely ignorant of the fight will feel as if they too were there at those Monday night meetings that at their peak were 800 people planning a revolution.

“Let the Record Show” is not just a history, it is a template that reaffirms the need for LGBTQ people to act now as we did then — as if our very lives, and those of the people we love, are at stake. Because, of course, they are.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.