Dancing in the Dark

When we think of queer history as a series of tragedies and protests, we miss the fun and joy that fueled the movement.

In a still from BPM (Beats per Minute), a character rejoices with pink pompoms during a parade.
A still from BPM (Beats per Minute). Teodora Film

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In the film BPM (Beats per Minute), Robin Campillo uses the frame of ACT UP Paris to profile an entire generation of queers, teens, twentysomethings, mothers, lovers, and children in their collective fight against AIDS. The genealogy of BPM is partially archival, a history of unprecedented interventions in politics, medicine, and knowledge-gathering—laypeople becoming medical experts and lobbyists in order to save their own lives. But it is also a sensual and emotional genealogy. “The history of ACT UP is, of course, somewhat technical because it is tied to the epidemic, but it is also our feelings, how we were coping with the disease and the continued deaths of our lovers, our friends,” Campillo told me in a phone interview. “We were a group of survivors.”

For many members of ACT UP, Campillo included, survival was not exactly interchangeable with not dying. In fact, many knew and accepted that they were going to die. To be a survivor, then, meant to live jubilantly as oneself and in one’s own body. Very often, as we see in the film’s captivatingly beautiful, almost bewitching clubbing shots, that meant dancing. Campillo could have made a different film. He could have made a film about ACT UP’s pursuit of policy change, about the group’s brazen quest to alter social mores, but instead, he chose to foreground sensuality. And with this choice, he picks up a thread of LGBTQ history that’s often dropped: While we are a people who have been forced by oppression and tragedy to grieve, act up, and fight back, we have also danced, fucked, and had fun. The latter is as important a part of the genealogy as the former.

In BPM, fun and pleasure are as vital as ACT UP’s carefully planned (and often foiled) actions. Dancing, kissing, and touching—all the things Campillo calls “body-talk”—serve as fodder for plot-altering encounters as well as bold expressions of self. During the 140 minutes we’re immersed in the grayscape of 1990s Paris, we encounter many young, dying people, but no single life is explored as closely nor intimately as that of Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Although often radical in his tactics and, in Campillo’s own words, “sometimes a pain in the ass,” Sean is totally full of life and unabashedly queer, even in the face of bigotry. When a high school girl rejects an informational flyer, rolls her eyes, and declares, “I’m no fag!” to ACT UP newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois), Sean smirks, looks her straight in the eye, and pulls Nathan in for a long, passionate kiss.

Campillo’s treatment of sex between his characters is similarly affirming, finding joy in the very human fumbling of real sex. Nearly every move contains hesitation, negotiation, storytelling, and talk of prevention. “Usually in movies, sex or really any overtly sexual scenes are too much like performances,” said Campillo. “People don’t talk at all or they just talk after. I’m sure this was the reality for some people, but for me, we were living our beliefs and our policies even in bed.” As Sean’s health begins to decline rapidly, his vertebrae protruding and the bottoms of his feet dotted with Kaposi’s sarcoma, sex naturally gets put on the back burner. But at one point, Sean, from his hospital bed, tells Nathan, “I miss you.” Nathan then begins to lovingly jerk Sean off in one of the most affecting scenes of the film. After Sean comes, the two find their bearings, clean up the mess, and break into hysterical laughter. There’s an expression of merriment at the fact that such intense sensuality could be felt in a such a lifeless place.

“For Sean,” says Campillo, “it’s about how to live as himself in his struggle with AIDS and with the world around him.” It’s Sean’s ability to live as himself through the struggle, to touch and be touched, to dance in the dark and flit smilingly through the Paris pride parade in full cheerleader garb, chanting, “Molecules for anal sex, fools!” that makes it even more difficult to watch him die.

But not everyone in Campillo’s film tries to live so fully, so joyfully content with themselves and their bodies as Sean. One of the group’s leaders, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), often feuds with Sean over the eccentricity of his proposed tactics. When Sean tells the group his cheerleader idea for gay pride, he prefaces it with “Thibault won’t like it” to which Thibault replies, “The street theater thing gets me down. It’s like we could end up with guys on stilts.” At this point, Sean shoots back, “It’s too queer for you, but it’ll be great.” Thibault’s approach to activism is serious, businesslike, and sometimes grim; he is unemotional, orderly, and chides the group members to keep a notebook on their person at all times when they fail to deliver a suitable poster slogan—he is, in the words of Campillo, “an acceptable gay man.”

In a recent op-ed for Attitude magazine titled “Young Queer People Shouldn’t Be Obliged to Care About LGBT History—and That’s the Biggest Sign of Success There Is,” columnist Dylan B. Jones argues that young queer people have been wrongly condemned by their older, more conservative counterparts for being overly concerned with sex, partying, and flashy parades. Invoking the arguments made by an imaginary gaggle of real-life Thibaults, Jones opposes this sort of good time–shaming, which—by his own construction—sounds something like: “Kids these days don’t appreciate what they’ve got … they prioritize superficiality and fun over activism and action.” And while it’s fair to argue against one generation putting the other down for having fun, he’s mistaken to assume that “having fun” is a new or recent phenomenon for queer people and, more importantly, that it can’t be considered good activism.

But that’s not really his fault. Fun, frivolity, and play have been written out of most mainstream queer history, deemed mere antics or distractions. Over time, the composite mission of queer activism, an ideology that reveals itself in the many differing, often conflicting, approaches of ACT UP, broke off into multiple narratives. One was more clean-cut, conservative, well-groomed; the other was multicolored, loud, and sexy. One got credit for changing the activism game; one did not. This is exactly why Campillo’s approach is so powerful. He doesn’t hide the neon and the glitter but rather gives them new meaning. “We didn’t simply want to survive because of our jobs, our careers, that type of thing. We wanted to survive because we were so young and so very good at having fun and inviting pleasure into our lives,” said Campillo. “This is what you see in the clubs: We were alone and ourselves but also completely together, having fun.”

In the 1980s and early ’90s, clubs and bars were like strobe-lit asylums, temples where young, queer, broke, wealthy, gay, sick, and healthy practiced acceptance with each other and with themselves. “Dance was the message,” described filmmaker and ACT UP New York member Tom Kalin in a 2011 article for the Museum of Modern Art’s Inside/Out blog. “This was an outrageous mirror-world where people transformed themselves like characters out of a novel—names were taken, dropped, changed altogether.”

At places like the Pyramid Club, Boy Bar, and Paradise Garage in New York and Finocchio’s and Twin Peaks Tavern in San Francisco, dance, drag, transgressive art, and avant-garde theater were not merely forms of entertainment but throughways to momentary salvation—not from physical death but from mental and emotional death. Fun, radical, and grassroots actions had become retorts to pervasive homophobia and indifference toward AIDS. But as the LGBTQ community began to gain more visibility, more conservative members of society were forced to reckon with the reality of homosexuality. Things began to change, and little by little, fun and frivolity became incongruous with the sort of LGBTQ activism you’d see on TV.

“What they [corporate media] could do is find representative homosexuals with whom they were comfortable and integrate them into some realm of public conversation,” explained Sarah Schulman in The Gentrification of the Mind, her 2012 memoir of the AIDS years. This is what Schulman called a classic gentrification event, wherein “there was an unconscious but effective search for palatable individuals with no credibility in the community, no accountability to anyone, with no history of bravery or negotiation with other queers.” Schulman’s analysis exposes a history of capping queerness—a tradition of eclipsing of voices, bodies, and ideologies deemed too queer.

The problem with Jones’ argument, then, is that it doesn’t consider the sort of training we’ve all undergone, be it consciously or unknowingly, to think of queer history as a series of dour protests. He conflates activism with pragmatic political action, straight-edge nice-looking gay men, and board meeting-style negotiations, and while these types of remonstrations were to some degree a part of LGBTQ history and even a part of ACT UP, they were not the whole story. Having a good time is, in its own way, a form of activism and a part of the history. It’s arguably the most brazen and abiding action there’s been.

BPM ends inside the club, where the same metronymic beat that once attended the members of ACT UP Paris, many now dead, in their joy, now supports them in their grief. Heads float unaccompanied in a flurry of barroom lights. Everyone is alone, detached, companionless. “It’s like a ghost town,” said Campillo, “but with people dancing.” Through dancing, each of the characters still manages to exude an unperturbed vivacity. Striving for pleasure, for joy, they become resistors and protesters to the absurdity of a disease, which in large part because of their sexuality, was surely going to kill them before it was going to be cured.

For decades, fun has acted as an expression of life as well as a lifeline for LGBTQ people. To erase it from queer history would be an impossible task. People like Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, Sylvia Rivera, and more recently, Tituss Burgess, Alison Bechdel, and the wonder woman of vogue herself, Leiomy Maldonado, have each, in their own right, shaped queer history through dance, humor, fun, and play. They protest with full-throttle unabashed expressions of self. In the words of Sean, they live things more intensely, “with more color, more noise, more life.”