What if they lived?
There are many striking things about Leo Herrera’s The Fathers Project, a lyrical sci-fi web series that imagines what queer life might look like today had AIDS never happened. But the simplicity and urgency of this, Herrera’s motivating question, may be its most compelling element. In 1987, Fran Lebowitz infamously wrote in an essay’s opening paragraph that “if you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture you would be pretty much left with Let’s Make a Deal.” What is less-remembered is that the quip was made in the context of the death of half a generation of gay men and queers, many of them visionaries. What would have happened if they hadn’t been wiped out? What would they have accomplished, and what would the survivors have done with the energy they instead spent in fear, activism, and grief?
The Fathers Project, the second episode of which was just released for World AIDS Day (Dec. 1), reckons that we’d be living in queer utopia. This vision is enormously appealing. In our daily lives, we face a spate of nasty anti-trans ‘feminism,’ epidemic levels of HIV and AIDS infections in black and working-class gay men and trans women in the U.S., and a rising worldwide tide of fascist politics. It is comforting to imagine utopia in the face of an accelerating disaster. But is it helpful?
The first episode of Fathers, released in June to coincide with San Francisco and New York’s Pride parades and the anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, is called “Raising the Dead.” Herrera plunges us immediately into an arresting collage of queer political witchcraft. We cut back-and-forth between a leatherman in full attire sitting on gnarled tree roots and some Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in black-and-blue iridescent habits and navel-deep strings of pearls, skirts swishing across a memorial to those dead from AIDS. Overlaid voices, voices of survivors of the epidemic of various races and genders and classes, imagine what might have been if AIDS never happened. The Sisters raise candles and sparklers, initiating a ritual. They smile. The man smiles. A quick-cut series of radical AIDS protests appears and vanishes as quickly as it comes. And with an accelerating series of faces one sickeningly realizes are all people who died, we enter into a fantasy world without AIDS and before it, a world where they are all still alive.
With the new timeline established, some static brings in a narrator telling us in a clipped, almost robotic English accent of the American queer “colonies,” a growing social and political force strategically located to influence American elections. This “secret country,” depicted in Technicolor tones, is governed by anarcho-syndicalist communes of activists, has community-organized free health care, and is economically self-sufficient and ecologically sustainable. It is about to nominate Vito Russo, in reality known as a legendary AIDS activist, to be president of the United States. These colonies, built with the energy and creativity not needed to fight AIDS, are illustrated with vivid footage taken in actual queer spaces in the United States: Provincetown, Massachusetts; San Francisco; a Radical Faerie retreat; the Mardi Gras houses in New Orleans.*
The second episode focuses on nightlife in the queer colonies. Opening with interviews with promoters and DJs from the infamous Saint nightclub of New York nightlife legend, Herrera introduces us to a world in which, unfettered by AIDS, gay sexual mores infected heterosexual life. (Watch out! We recruit.) In a ’90s America without AIDS, straight housewives watched ads for Rush poppers, a common gay sex aid, on afternoon television. Through gay ingenuity, these poppers became the conveyance method for revolutionary prophylactic therapy against all bacterial and viral sexually transmitted infections. When a greedy pharmaceutical company attempted to price gouge—mirroring Gilead’s handling of the HIV prevention strategy PrEP/Truvada today—promoters distributed the miracle inhalants through the ventilation systems of a traveling circuit party (just as Steve Rubell once allegedly distributed poppers through the ventilation systems of Studio 54). This is a glorious world, and one that seems totally impossible. But nothing seen in the film was created especially for the shoots, with the exception of the “Vito 2020” posters. While, sadly, no ad has yet requested that I ask my doctor about prophylactic poppers, all the nightlife spaces and queer enclaves depicted actually do exist. The implied challenge is to feed them, to make them more inclusive and capacious, and to grow them.
There are many questions raised by Herrera’s vision, and not all of them are comfortable. The project fits into a strain of queer cultural nationalism that has often had exclusionary and racialized qualities. Herrera opens the first episode with a quote advocating queer self-governance from Carl Wittman, whose 1969 “Gay Manifesto“ was widely circulated in the radical socialist and revolutionary gay liberation circles that followed the Stonewall rebellion. The episode ends with a note that there was once an actual plan to establish a real “Stonewall colony” in Alpine Valley, California. But many gay liberationists opposed this plan, on the grounds that recreating a white, gay, middle-class ghetto in the woods was no way out of the interlocked and economically structured oppressions facing most of the world’s population. The Alpine Valley project’s organizers, echoing a history of haunted and problematic links between queer and indigenous politics, adopted the attitude that the local Native people, the Washoe, were “a primitive tribe” whose friendliness could not be presumed and who needed to be “overcome” in order for the project to succeed. The use of the word colony itself, with its associated images of pioneers and settlers, is troubling. (The historian Emily K. Hobson recently published a book on these and other divisions and alignments in 1970s gay and lesbian politics.) These associations are worth pointing out even as Herrera’s own images are relentlessly inclusive of race, gender, and other forms of difference.
But as the gay novelist Garth Greenwell recently said in an interview, “problematic” is supposed to be “a verdict, even a condemnation; to me, it’s almost a criterion of interest.” When I ponder Herrera’s work, I find myself torn: On the one hand, these images are undeniably powerful and gorgeous and desire-inducing; on the other, I worry about the idea that free love alone, or queerness alone, is sufficient to create radical politics. Surely it would take more than just the removal of anti-queer oppression alone for our lives to flourish. Would the wealthy gays who slipped from semicloseted lives into discos and nightclubs like The Saint have made common cause with poor and working-class people for the brief time they did without the threat of impending death? Indeed, some have argued that it was the AIDS crisis that forced a coherent, politically powerful gay rights movement out of ’70s fractiousness. Do we really think, in the absence of plague, queers would have automatically been this effective, this noble?
One wonders: New York A-gays Bill White and Bryan Eure, who, according to their recent infamous New York Times profile, hired Aretha Franklin to sing at their wedding, have turned to full-throated Trump support; Eure told a critic of his on Instagram he would “gas you and turn you straight.” On the other hand, it is also often argued that AIDS, by killing off a higher percentage of the sexually radical, working-class, and socially marginalized, enabled A-gays like White and Eure to take over the movement and turn it to their own ends, marshaling their economic power to win fights for relationship recognition, tax-free inheritance, and integration into existing social forms.
While these questions are raised by Herrera’s work, he has concerned himself less with the twists of historiographic debate and more with images and gestures that inspire deep feeling in queer people. Every gay I know who’s seen The Fathers Project has been profoundly affected by it. It’s an expanded idea of what a queer archive is: a display of gestures, of feelings, of resistance, embedded in cultural practices with long histories. “I didn’t research in the archives,” Herrera said in an interview, “I just went to New Orleans and walked around and looked at stuff.” He’s being modest—he has integrated a good deal of archival footage into the project and works regularly with the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco—but the point remains. Herrera told me a story about filming with a friend from a tiny Louisiana town called Lutcher on the Mississippi River, about bonfires and gumbo and huts that get built on Christmas Eve to light the way for Papa Noël. The huts are in various shapes, but one queer hut was built in a “specific aesthetic,” he explained.
You’re in the middle of rural Louisiana, so there’s guys in camo and Trump stickers everywhere, but everyone’s really happy. It’s chaos … somehow, the queens always find this one hut. He builds this beautiful structure that’s a perfect triangle. This beautiful precise triangle. And we just watched all these different kinds of queens stop. These older queens came by it and said, “We knew you were family because we saw how perfect that triangle was.” And there’s Black queens with us from New Orleans and old queens from other places and a jukebox playing the SZA album. And all these queens just found it aesthetically. It was fascinating.
“Queer gesture is ancestral,” a friend texted me recently. There is a queer desire for history, an attraction to certain cultural forms, to past utopias, to promise. The British writer James Butler, at the opening of his country’s pride month earlier this year, argued that visions of queer pasts, and the alternate possibilities for the future that they suggest, could point a way out of the divide between straight-imitating marriage and the “prim moralising and competitive fragility” of some contemporary would-be radical queer thought. Ultimately, imagining a utopian future, or even present, can incubate thoughts that point their way past the imagined utopia’s inevitable shortcomings. The point is not to luxuriate in what might have been, but to, in Butler’s words, “turn to our second-rate compromises, our untransformed society, our still too timid demands for real equality and say—into the woodchipper with it all!”
Of course, there are still immediate emergencies in queer politics as in all politics, emergencies that require a response broader than any simple identity politics can provide. But we also need something to be for. May Herrera tempt more of us to imagine change with queer ancestral qualities, change that learns from our past, and ultimately, change on the scale that we need it.
Learn more about the The Fathers Project at Iftheylived.org.
*Correction, Dec. 4, 2018: This post originally misstated the filming location of a segment featuring Radical Faeries.