ACT UP History and Queer Portraits
S1: Hello, cats and kittens, and welcome to the May 20 21 edition of Outward, that’s my new intro. I’m Christina Cutter Ritchie, a senior writer at Slate. And right now I am just reveling in the possibilities of the lesbian power vacuum that’s going to open up when Ellen DeGeneres steps down from her talk show next year. I’m predicting a little instability, obviously, but hoping we can avoid any sectarian violence and have a peaceful transfer of power to the next whatever next rich and cynical jerk wants to rule our land here.
S2: I’m Ramona Lum. I, I don’t have any affiliation at Slate. And so every month when they have to say who I am, I like stumble over how to say this. I’m just myself. I’m a writer.
S1: That’s more than enough.
S2: That’s more than enough, I guess. And Christine, it’s funny that you would bring up Ellen, because when I saw the news, I was like, oh, Christina Kotobuki is going to get that job and it’s going to be The Daily Show. It’s supposed to be called Christina, maybe with an exclamation.
S1: Yeah, I don’t have enough of a filter. I’m not kind enough. You know, she’s got that whole be kind thing. I’m right. I’m even too much of
S3: a way too much way too vicious. I’m Brian Lauter, editor of Outward. And you know, with the assistance of my stylists this month, I have unlocked a new level of gay. I’d like to share it with the group. It involves using something called a den man brush special brush with a name that makes my hair look like the crispy curled ribbons on a Christmas box. And I am so pleased with it. Thank you, Justin, my stylist, for for that leveling up of giving us
S1: a I don’t like your
S2: hair brow rhetoric.
S1: Your hair looks fantastic. Brian, thank you. Does Justin listen to the outward?
S3: I don’t know. I should. I have to. I have to. You know, I don’t like to sort of proselytize while in the chair, but maybe next time
S1: I’ll drop it. Yeah, well, it’s great to see your faces. We have a great show this month. So this May as the cicadas are gnawing their way out of the ground for their sex fest. That’s been seventeen years in the making. We can all identify with that. We’re looking into the past and the future to talk about how queers are seen, how our histories are remembered, and what we can learn from new representations of queer life. First Step will be joined by historian and novelist Sarah Schulman, who’s just published a magisterial new history of Act Up New York called Let the Record Show. Then we’re going to have a little chit chat about queer portraiture as a mirror held up to ourselves as a window into other people’s lives. We’ll be talking about three very different photo books, some from the past, some from today that depict queers both alone and together. And as always, we will give you our recommendations for filling up your gay agenda. But first, it’s time for pride and provocations. The moment in our show where we look at the queer news and share whatever way it is making us feel named, of course, for Bette Porter’s legendary exhibition, Provocations in the L word, yes. Remon, why don’t you go first?
S2: It’s terribly predictable to begin this way, but maybe we’ll just get it out of the way. I’m so provoked by Caitlyn Jenner’s candidacy for governor of California.
S3: I mean, basically,
S2: you know, I don’t really even know what there is to say beyond that. In fact, in some ways, the objective of the candidacy seems, in fact, to elicit this particular provocation. So Caitlyn Jenner, as some of you probably already know, not long ago, said on Fox News this ridiculous claptrap about the person in the private jet hangar across from hers wanting to flee California to get away from all those pesky homeless people. It’s just such a terrible reminder as though we needed another one, that the sort of alliances that the allegiance to class trumps all in contemporary political life. And undoubtedly there is a lot of good in Kaitlyn’s very public story. And I want to hold on to that. But her politics are so distasteful and the scapegoating of poverty in the state of California is so preposterous. It’s hard not to feel my stomach turn. I just yeah, I feel really provoked. Thinking about Caitlyn Jenner. That’s par for the course maybe.
S1: Yeah. I mean, in a way, this segment was sort of made for somebody like Caitlyn Jenner, you know, every now and then. We need to take a look at our own and reckon with the terrible things that our LGBTQ family are doing. So, yeah,
S3: there was a good tweet I saw that I thought sum this all up, which was like Caitlyn Jenner, don’t listen to her, but also don’t vote for her. And like, I think with
S2: all that says it all, it’s just it is especially disappointing in a moment where conversations around trans people and trans young people in this country are so much a part of this nonsensical political chatter that it’s become so weaponized in such bad faith as a political wedge issue. And you know what young trans people in this country could really use is a powerful white political ally and that Caitlyn Jenner is unable and unwilling to rise to that particular challenge is really disappointing to me.
S1: I hadn’t thought of that side of it. Brian, how are you feeling this month?
S3: I’m feeling proud and proud in particular of an article that I read in the US, which, as you probably know, is an LGBT publication under Condé Nast. It was titled How to Be a Queer Person in the World Post Quarantine. And it spoke to some personal trepidation, anxiety I’m having about this sort of coming out of quarantine period. So I just want to read a little passage and then I’ll explain what I mean by that. This is by, I should say, by Naveen Kumar gathering in Mass at dance clubs and Pride celebrations feels achingly close on the horizon. The camaraderie and support of queer social life has been sorely missed, and it will no doubt be thrilling for many of us to get together again. But we may have also enjoyed temporary freedom from some pressures on the outside world. We’ve grown comfortable feeling well, comfortable in isolation. There are fewer people, queer or straight, scrutinizing our bodies, their shapes and colors, what we put in or on them, or how we express gender, sexuality or our particular mood at a given moment. There’s a measure of loneliness to not being seen, but also relief and not concerning ourselves with others expectations. And the piece goes on to sort of dig in to sort of how to deal with sort of body image stuff and gender expression and all of that as as queers are coming out into the world again in a different way. But I myself have been feeling surprised actually by how much anxiety I’ve had about the sudden push to make summer plans and get ready to go to the bar again or to parties. Or are you sort of I mean, this is a gay male thing. I think there’s particularly that is like do you have, like, the body back that you’re supposed to have? Right. I don’t feel that I do. But I also recognize that it’s like body dysmorphic. So there’s all kinds of problems there. Right. So as as we come into this period where everyone’s supposed to feel, I think, sort of excited and hopeful, I actually have very mixed feelings about it. And so it was just very helpful to read this piece by Inkerman. Remember that I and none of us have to rush into anything or be ready in any particular way just because, you know, the world is opening up again. And I think that’s probably particularly true for for queer. So proud, proud of that piece in them.
S1: Thank you for sharing that, Brian. And because I think of the body image stuff often in terms of just women and and sometimes forget that, you know, for gay men, there’s a whole nother similar in some ways, but also very different reaction to or demands for a certain type of look and body.
S2: Kristina, how are you feeling?
S1: I’m feeling proud, too. And I’m going to share a little bit of a different perspective on that same thing, on the prospect of going back into the world after all this quarantine. This is a little bit of a throwback pride, actually. So I’ve been planning a post vaccine vacation with a few friends. One of them happened to be reading Leaves of Grass, as you noted, homosexual Walt Whitman. By way of sharing his excitement for our trip. He shared this passage with me, which made me think of the onset of Pride Month, what I hope will be an unbearably sexy pride month. And I just want to offer this as a gift to you, too, to our listeners, this vision of what could be for the people who want to embrace it, of all of the things we’ve been missing, crowded dance floors, sweaty marches, hugging and kissing our friends and lovers, ex lovers, acquaintances, frenemies like anyone we haven’t seen in a year or more. So here’s what Walt Whitman has to say about that. I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough to stop and company with the rest. That evening is enough to be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough to pass among them or touch anyone or rest my arm ever so slightly round his or her neck for a moment. What is this then? I do not ask any more delight. I swim in it as in a sea. There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them and in the contact an odor of them that pleases the soul. Well, the odor in particular really gets me a.
S3: But I like beautiful, they’re so beautiful.
S1: Yeah, for yeah, for people who are, you know, familiar with the Passover Seder also it has a very dayenu kind of vibe to it. This, you know, that would have been enough. And after all this time in isolation with various anxieties and stress to me, you know, just to be with each other is enough. I almost don’t care what what parties I go to, whether pride in any form will or will not happen, whether it’s in pride month or not. I know D.C. Pride is going to be happening in October, it looks like. But right now, you know, I want to see people again. And I’m proud and also grateful this month for all of the queers and lanyard lesbians who helped us get to this point where we can start being ourselves together again. And I hope that, you know, on a little bit of a different note that the US can start accelerating our aid to other countries so that queers and other places can do the same.
S3: Yes, yes.
S2: Yeah, it has. As Brian noted, it has been a traumatic time and it’s useful to remember that and acknowledge it. But then to hear but Whitman wrote is a reminder that there is something on the horizon. You know, there’s something absolutely horizon and that’s important.
S1: All right. Coming up after the break, we’ll talk to Sarah Schulman about her new book, Let the Record Show.
S3: In most any in montage of queer history made today, there will be a section marking the onset of the HIV AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s that depicts the protests of ACTTAB. It was during that period from 1987 to 1993, specifically that the AIDS coalition to unleash power fought against profound governmental and societal hostility towards queers and others living under the shadow of AIDS through its now iconic actions. Storming the FDA headquarters, unfurling a giant condom over Senator Jesse Helms house, scattering the ashes of deceased loved ones on the White House lawn. But these powerful images were not always part of the popular queer historical narrative and the special mix of individuals values, circumstances and organizing that produced them, thereby actually saving lives and changing the world is only just beginning to be properly understood. For that, we have to think in very large part, our guest today, Sarah Schulman. Sarah’s pathbreaking efforts as a queer writer, journalist, activist, filmmaker and historian spanned genre and medium, including more than 20 published works and several documentaries. She’s a distinguished professor of humanities at the College of Staten Island and co-founder of the New York LGBT Experimental Film Festival, and perhaps most relevant for us today. She is the co-director of the Act of Oral History Project, which, along with her own years of activism in the group, forms the basis for her new truly landmark book, Let the Record Show a Political History of Act Up New York. We had the pleasure of talking with Sarah almost a year ago about the complex legacy of Late Act Upper Larry Kramer, and we were beyond thrilled to have her back this month to discuss this essential new book. Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah.
S4: Thank you. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.
S3: And likewise. So I chose to frame the introduction there, sort of around act up place in this queer historical narrative, because one of the first surprises of the book to someone youngish but sort of very much engaged with queer history like me is the point that you make that act up was by the late 90s, early 2000s, sort of almost forgotten and not and not really a part of that narrative. And so it was that erasure that spurred you, along with Jim Hubbard, to begin the oral history project, which I should note, like ultimately comprised one hundred and eighty eight interviews, I think, over 17 years. I’d love for you just to start by describing what you think precipitated that amnesia around act up and then how you and Jim and others went about correcting it.
S4: So up. Most effective years were nineteen eighty seven to ninety three. It had a split in nineteen ninety two. That was only 12 people. But it really hurt the organization. And although it exists to this day, it became much weaker and much smaller. In 1996, we see the advent of protease inhibitors, which is the beginning of having medications that allow people who are HIV positive to live a normal life span. And so many people who had been in the active movement kind of crawled back into real life and tried to re-enter. A number of people had thought that they would die, but they didn’t die and they had to recreate lives. And the organization kind of scattered by the end of the century. We have the Internet revolution, things that were not digitized, disappeared from public life. So by around 2000, if you Google backed up, you really didn’t find anything. And people were writing books or dissertations and they were using The New York Times as their primary source, which act up called the New York crimes. And it kind of was gone. It was as though it had never existed. So then in 2001, it was the 20th anniversary of AIDS. And I was listening to the radio and the guy said at first America had trouble with people with AIDS, but then they came around.
S3: Mm hmm.
S4: And, you know, I thought, oh, no, this is what’s going to happen. They’re going to create this idea of the benevolence of the dominant culture that came around and realized when actually it was thousands of people who fought until the day they died that forced the country to change against its will. So that’s when Jim Hubbard and I decided that we needed to at least create some kind of raw data that other people could interpret. And through the visionary leadership of Urvashi Vaid, who at that point was that the Ford Foundation, she gave us enough money to buy the equipment and the software and to start these interviews. So because Jim and I both believe in open access, we made the transcripts available for free and we just put everything up on the Web. And our hope was that somebody would interpret it. To date, we’ve had over 14 million hits on this site. So just to let people know, two people could do a lot, you know, but what didn’t happen was that. People did not really analyze the interviews, they would search for the key, the word that they were looking for, but nobody was actually understanding what was in there. And, you know, we kept trying to find someone to write a book, but we couldn’t find anybody. And then this kind of misrepresentation started.
S3: Right? Right.
S4: And, you know, the emergence of the five heroic individuals and the elimination of any of the activity of low income people or women or people of color, and it became a state of emergency. And finally, Jim and I realized that I was going to have to write this book.
S3: The book very clearly, explicitly is is sort of writing not just a history, but writing against a sort of a vision of HIV AIDS activism and act specifically that that you feel is a sort of wrong and sort of misrepresenting. So, yeah, I just wanted to hear you talk more about what that sort of wrong vision is and what you’re trying to correct.
S4: The number one point here is not nostalgia. The point is, is that you have an activist movement of profoundly oppressed people from a variety of margins who were able, in a sense, to to create a paradigm shift in the culture. And how they did that is very important information, because people today really want change that it’s clear and it’s very hard to access activist history to actually find out what movements did, what worked and what didn’t work is almost impossible. So the idea was to cohere this. And one of the most important pieces of information is that contrary to John Wayne movies, individuals do not create paradigm shifts, its coalitions and communities in America that create change. So that was the starting point. And because I had conducted all but two of the interviews, I really knew what was in them. And it wasn’t that hard for me to go back and start to cohere some tropes. It took about three years to write the book.
S2: Do you then conceive of this as simultaneously a history and a blueprint like is the aim to teach something to future generations of activists?
S4: It is a political history because there are going to be many other histories written of this movement. And there already have been there have been two books about affect in Act Up. There’s books about the history of graphics and act up. There’s memoirs coming out from Peter Staley and Ron Goldberg and some other people. So, you know, I’m not making any claim to a definitive history. No political movement is discrete. Like no political movement just comes out of the air. They’re all influenced by previous movements. And one of the things about act up is many people came from previous movements where they had to be in the closet, but they were there. And also there was the foundational influence of the black civil rights movement and the black power movement of the 1960s. And I think for queer kids growing up in that period who had no kind of gay movement to identify with, there was a real identification with black resistance. And we ended up using a lot of those strategies, although not consciously. You know, it was only when I looked at the specifics of what, for example, Martin Luther King said in a letter from Birmingham jail about what direct action is that it was exactly what act up did, although we never studied that text and we certainly didn’t discuss it.
S1: The fact that there are conflicting viewpoints in your book and and even in some cases, it seems like conflicting memories of how things went down. To me, it reflects the fact that act up had this very dispersed decision making structure. You know, there was no need and maybe no time to really come to consensus as a group before taking an action. Different affinity groups were doing different things. And I wonder if you see a room for that in current activist movements where it seems to me like there’s a lot more emphasis on, you know, keeping everyone on message, keeping everyone in line with a particular strategy and a little bit less emphasis on let’s take this. I think you call it a civil tenacity of of approach or simultaneity of action.
S4: Well, it’s one of the most important lessons to learn from act up as act up did not use consensus at all. We had one sentence principle of unity, direct action to end the AIDS crisis and direct action as opposed to social service provision. So if you were doing direct action to end the AIDS crisis, you could do it. And if you wanted to get arrested on the Lower East Side doing illegal needle exchange and do a test case and I thought that was terrible. I wouldn’t try to stop you from doing it. I just wouldn’t do it. I might then create another action like disrupting mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, because that’s what I wanted to do. So this idea of trying to stop people was not operative and act up at all, and that’s radical democracy. And I think historically movements that try to force homogeneity of analysis or strategy or even language have all failed. I don’t think there’s any example in the past or that has succeeded.
S2: There’s a lot of humor and style in what up was doing. And I wonder if you can talk about whether you feel that was sort of key to the organization’s efficacy.
S4: Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that. One is that we were old gay rights, the free rainbow flag, homosexuals, you know, who were some of the sources of some of the most creative, political and artistic ideas of the world at the time? You know, gay people have become much more boring now. And I don’t think that we produce that stuff that’s really cutting edge. But at the time we were and so we had that spirit and that underground culture. And then because it was New York, we had a lot of people who were in graphic design, who were in media, who were in advertising, who were artists, who were filmmakers, who had very sophisticated visual ideas. And so bringing together that kind of camp humor, you know, that’s a survival strategy for oppressed queer people. And the sophistic with this visual sophistication was sort of the magic combination.
S2: I mean, one of the things that the book to such a startling job of sort of contextualizing for the contemporary reader is that however different these individuals were, that some were poor, some were rich, some, you know, had like polished Ivy League education, others were people experiencing homelessness. They were all facing a death threat. And from that came the liberty to sort of say, we’ll do whatever it takes. It doesn’t matter. You know, there’s no like being arrested is not scary because we’re going to die anyway. And it’s almost impossible, I think, for a contemporary person to comprehend that it really felt incomprehensible to me.
S4: It’s amazing how much the oppression of white gay men has disappeared from people’s consciousness. I mean, when I talk to younger people, they’re like, well, white gay men. I’m like, do you know what white gay men went through? I mean, there were familial homophobia, was a major social force at the time. And it’s a force of history. It made people have to leave their countries and leave their towns and it separated them from any kind of family safety net. The laws against gay sex were not overturned federally until 2003 with the Supreme Court ruling. And even in New York City, we didn’t have a basic gay rights built in nineteen eighty six. So the first five years of the AIDS crisis, gay people could be denied housing public accommodation, which means restaurants and hotels. You could be thrown out of restaurant in New York City and you could be denied a job. Plus, there was enormous amount of street violence against gay people. You know, it used to be a sport for people to come into the West Village and try to beat up gay people. So all of that somehow it has faded in people’s memories. But we’re talking about a profoundly oppressed group of people. So even though on the spectrum of people with AIDS, gay white men, some of them had more access and more privilege, actually, they were in comparison to white straight men, profoundly oppressed at the time. Then, you know, every person who died of AIDS died horribly. And I don’t think people realize what a terrible disease AIDS is, that it means you don’t have an immune system. So everything breaks down. There’s dementia and blindness and you can’t walk and you can’t retain nutrition. I mean, it’s a horrible, horrible suffering death, no matter how wealthy you were when there were no treatments.
S1: Yeah, I actually think that’s an incredible history for people to learn, because when, you know, folks of my generation are trying to understand why, for instance, a lot of older white gay men feel put upon when they’re accused of having privilege, I think a lot for a lot of people, this history is still feels very recent and very relevant in their minds.
S4: Yeah, well, that’s something that I address in the end. And my discussion with Cesar Carrasco about the myth of resilience, because, you know, you have this generation of men who were treated horribly as children. I mean, high school was straight people’s party. It’s a nightmare. They have to be in the closet. They lose their families, they’re humiliated, and then all their friends die. They think they’re going to die. They survive now. They’re in their 60s or 70s with all kinds of psychological and physical problems. As a consequence, lots of drug addiction. In that generation and all of this, and then someone comes along and says, well, it wasn’t just you who did this movement, there were women and people of color there, too. And there’s this fear like that. Their sense of exclusivity is being taken away. I mean, I’ve had a few interviews where people have said, well, you’re foregrounding women and people of color. And I’m like, no, I’m not. I’m just saying what they did. I am not foregrounding it. And I’m saying what what these incredible white men did. I’m saying what everyone did. But there’s something about that that is very, very threatening and makes people very angry because their trauma has not been recognized.
S3: You sort of describe how act was in some ways a lesbian feminist like Teach-In on the whole for for gay men. I wonder if you could explain to our listeners what you what you mean by that.
S4: Well, so the main movements that people came from when they came in to act up, people with political experience were the Latin American student movements against fascism, the black civil rights movement, Congress on racial equality, black liberation movement, and the lesbian feminist movement, particularly involvement in reproductive rights and against sterilization abuse. Most of the younger white gay men did not have any political experience at all. There were older people who came from gay liberation, but there were few of them. Mm hmm. So when it came time to things like how do you organize a meeting, what is civil disobedience, all of that kind of stuff, you had these people who knew and would hold these teachings that were very important parts of act up because, in fact, of any person could be a spokesperson and every person wanted to be fully informed. It was an amazingly informed group of people. So, for example, I name individuals like Marian Banzhaf, who came from the feminist women’s health clinic movement and from reproductive rights, and came in and was part of a teach in on the concept of patient centered politics, or Jamie Bauer, who is now non binary, but at the time identified as a lesbian who came from the women’s peace movement and came in with all this knowledge about civil disobedience training. You know, people like Maxine Wolfe, who had had years of hardcore political experience and knew how to think politically and knew how to organize campaigns. And these people were profoundly, profoundly influential. When you interview people from act up their experience of doing nonviolent civil disobedience, of being trained for it, of going that’s their one of their foundational experiences in the organization. The idea that people with AIDS are the experts, the idea that that think that issues should be looked at from the patient’s perspective, that is central to act of politics. Women really were theoreticians in act up.
S2: Yeah, one of one of the things that I loved and I’m going to forget now who it was who said this, but there’s a woman in the book who, when she’s questioned about the motive for a woman’s organization to be involved in HIV AIDS work, her responses like, well, do you know any Nicaraguans like pointed pointing out that like that the same group had been involved in work in Nicaragua. And it’s like the like the impulse is not necessarily about the self. There’s an impulse about community or there’s an impulse about what’s just that seems to be guiding a lot of this work. There’s this idea of conscience. And it’s really interesting. And I think what the book articulates is that that comes from an experience in feminist organizing. And I think that’s really interesting.
S4: Well, it’s also that, you know, AIDS was misperceived as a gay man’s disease. Right? Right. But I mean, I started covering AIDS as a journalist around 81, 82. And my earliest stories were on like the use of placebo and pediatric drug trials, women being excluded from experimental drug trials, AIDS and homelessness. You know, so from the beginning, there was a lens on social justice and how it intersected with the AIDS crisis. The reason for the misrepresentation is because and this is another thing that’s hard for people to remember, but in that in the 80s, the media was entirely white and male. There was no joy read. There was that ritual on had how, you know, there was everyone in the media was white and male. The government was white and male. There were very few women even in the government. There were in private sector was white and male. Right. The whole power structure. So when the media would come to an act up event, they would see other white males. That’s who they would photograph. That’s who they would interview. Getting even coverage for the for women with HIV was incredibly difficult, you know. So, I mean, one of the things that I do in the book is that I really try to show that your strategy mirrors your social position. So I juxtapose three different campaigns. Larry Kramer went to Yale with the head of Bristol-Myers and he was able to get meetings with pharma where he would bring, you know, J.P. Morgan, ex stockbroker Peter Staley and Harvard graduate Mark Harrington. And they and and Pharma would give them a catered lunch. But when the women with HIV, it took them two years to even get a meeting. You know, by the time they won, which took four years, most of the leaders were dead and they had to do very messy strategies. They handcuffed themselves to leaders. They scream at people in airports. They break into offices and then contrast that with the IV drug users. I mean, that was messy as can be. People OD’d and died and act up. One guy stole ten thousand dollars from the organization, but they also won, you know, so the more where you are positioned, it may take longer and you have to be messier to win, but you can win no matter where you are. And that’s a real lesson about respectability politics, that respectability, respectability politics are not relevant for large numbers of people.
S1: The story of HIV and AIDS is obviously not over. The sense that I got from your book is that there’s also a lot of in addition to lessons that haven’t been learned, there’s a lot of trauma that hasn’t been addressed and an enormous loss of life that hasn’t been appropriately reckoned with. You know, what do you think we need in order to do those things?
S4: There’s so much you know, there’s so many communities. There’s a community of people whose parents died of AIDS. I was involved in the first gathering of people whose parents died of AIDS. It was held at the New York Public Library. It was a Kialla. Batia was there. Matthew Rodriguez, Elissa Abbot and Theodore Curre was the co convener and the audience. It was the first public event. The audience was like every kind of person you could possibly imagine. I mean, every social class, I mean, and people were just like, I’ve never been allowed to discuss my father’s death. I’ve never met anybody else whose parents died of AIDS. You know, it’s a huge number of people. So there’s just so much legacy here. And, of course, as we just talked about at the beginning, the the first generation of people who had to be on the front lines of the AIDS crisis and who are still alive today and have not gotten recognition of what they have gone through, have not gotten cultural recognition. So I would like that human recognition. And I’d also I think AIDS history should be an essential part of all 20th century U.S. history courses at every level of education. You know, I. I can’t believe that it’s not there and it’s not. You know, and we need accurate media, we need accurate, accurate, dramatic and documentary work that shows the broad, broad coalition that created this change.
S3: Sarah Schulman is the author most recently of Let the Record Show a Political History of Act up in New York, which is out now. Everyone, please get this book and read it. It is fantastic. Sarah, thank you so, so much for your work and also just for being with us here today.
S4: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
S3: All right. And after the break, we will be back to talk about queer portraiture and what it means.
S2: It’s been a year social media, which was already a significant factor in contemporary life, has been all the more meaningful as we’ve tried to maintain social distance. The percentage of the population that’s now vaccinated keeps growing, but we’re not quite back to business as usual. It’s still true for me and it’s probably true for a lot of you listening that most people I see these days are on Instagram. Instagram is fun for showing up your kids or your cat or your cappuccino, but it’s also something else, something powerful. You only have to wander through any encyclopedic Museum of Western Art to understand why so many have so eagerly taken up the technology that allows them to widely disseminate pictures, especially pictures of themselves not always seen throughout history. The fact that we’re surrounded with them on the many screens that define contemporary life doesn’t undermine the power of images themselves. A few months ago, the three of us chatted about the Instagram account gaze over covid, which took various queries to task for social media posts that showed them flouting the guidelines meant to keep covid-19 in check. But Instagram can also be used to educate or to celebrate. As with one of my favorite accounts, which is run by the AIDS Memorial and documents real lives lost to that disease, it’s really very highly recommended reading for anyone listening who doesn’t follow that account. And Instagram is really just the new iteration of a centuries old form. My co-host Cristina recently recommended our colleague June Thomas’s interview for Slate’s working podcast with Jeb, who’s also known as Joan E. Byron, about her seminal work of photography, eye to eye portraits of lesbians. Jamal Jordan, who was until recently an editor at The New York Times, is the latest obvious descendant of Byron, as we see in his brand new book, Queer Love in Color, which uses portraiture and tucks to tell the stories of real queer people of color. As Jordan writes in his introduction, quote, When the world values being white and straight above all else, how do you learn to love yourself when you are? Neither Christine O’Brien and I are going to talk about Jamal Jordan’s book plus iota it Wright’s recent book, Self-evident Truths Ten Thousand Portraits of Queer America, which happens to feature a photograph of our own Christina Ruchi and the power of photography to change our perceptions of how the world looks. So I feel like it’s really easy to kind of dismiss Instagram, to dismiss the selfie. But I also think that the more I think about this question, I think there is some power in taking a picture of yourself, especially you don’t look like the kind of person we have usually valorized. Do you think I’m overstating the case?
S1: I think you’re right in that there there is power in seeing those kinds of images. But I don’t necessarily think Instagram is the place where those images exist, in part because there’s a lot of photo editing software out there. You don’t see the 30 selfie attempts that came before. Everyone knows their angles. The Instagram that I see, even aside from celebrities and influencers and and all of the ads I get still seems to be a little bit of an idealized version of the self in a way that doesn’t always make me feel good about myself.
S3: That’s such a hard question for me, because I don’t know that I have ever this I’m sure people could fact check me on this, but I have I don’t take selfies. I’ve never really done that or felt comfortable doing it. And I feel like it’s a question for my therapist as to why I don’t feel comfortable doing that. But I don’t know. I don’t I don’t I do love like like the account the AIDS memorial account that you mentioned, Ramon, like that use of Instagram makes total sense to me. And I adore, adore that kind of thing, seeing other people’s faces and then sort of connecting to people who have been lost that way. But putting myself out there, it feels a little grand to me personally to say that, like, because I am queer, I should post more selfies. Maybe that’s not exactly what you were saying, but that that doesn’t motivate me. But as I say, that there may be personal reasons as to why. Maybe I mean,
S2: when you do, you do have this new hair brushing techniques that you should feel a little more confidence. I think it’s more the case that I am overstating it sort of deliberately, because I think it’s more the case that you can argue that there is something radical about these sort of means of production of belonging to anybody. No, right. Like as Christine is saying, yes. Maybe it’s detrimental if you are choosing a really flattering self presentation or you’re tinkering with it, using technology to sort of conform to some consensus. This ideal of what looks good, but there is something really remarkable about people just insisting on saying this is who I am and you have to look at it, you know, that feels very new to me and it feels very contemporary. I mean, I’m so much older than you guys. And when I was thinking about this, I was like, oh, God, I’m like, really so old. Like, I wonder what it would be like to be growing up queer right now with Instagram. You know, I feel like that would be a very specific and, you know, and not uncomplicated tension. Like as Christine is saying, sometimes you can see images of queerness on your phone that maybe make you fearful that if you don’t conform to those, you are somehow incorrectly queer.
S1: Yeah, I am so glad I didn’t grow up with Instagram for a lot of reasons. But now that you mention it, I remember a piece that I wrote, Brian, I think you edited it actually about how one of my favorite Internet rabbit holes is discovering a new person, you know, a writer, an actor who played a bit part in something or even just like someone in the background of my friend’s Instagram photos and looking to see if they’re queer, like going to their Instagram account, going away far back to see, like, OK, who’s who are you posing in that photo with? Why did you wear pants in a suit to that wedding? Like, just really going deep in my research. The thing about the three books that we’re talking about today is you don’t need that research because, you know, the people in those photos are going to need these books are a little bit like a yearbook or even to some extent like a family photo album, like extended family photo album, where you already have this sort of base of connection. So you feel like, you know, these people, we share something in common, we share some sort of history, our community. And what do these pictures then tell me about this community that I belong to? I think all three of them approach that question in very different ways. As you said, Jamal Jordan’s book, Queer Love in Color is very much you know, it’s focused on not the self, but on love and relationships, specifically between people of color, which is very different from even, you know, a book that included white people who were in relationships with people of color. Like I think it’s especially important that he focuses on people of color in relationships with each other. It’s sort of like if you can’t be, you can’t see it. I think that’s a simplification in a lot of ways, especially now that you can see all manner of things so much more easily with things like Instagram, imagining myself, for instance, as a kid, having more access to images of like young hot queers instead of like just the lesbian jokes. And my really wonderful but not really someone who I identified with, like student council advisor who was a lesbian, you know, that might have made me embrace my gay a lot earlier. And I think especially for people like me, whose sexuality is more on the spectrum, like if I enjoy dating men and, like, find men attractive, then I’m going to identify much more with, like, the dominant street culture than I am with someone who I don’t identify with, but is really the only lesbian in my life.
S2: Christina, as I mentioned in our introduction, you appear in Tillet Wright’s book. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how that came to be and like what you think of the finished product of that particular book.
S1: Yeah, so it was in 2014 that I got it right, I guess stopped by DC to take some pictures. And I think I found out about it through a friend who had found out about it through Facebook. You know, he writes in the book in the intro that he sort of made a habit of going to different cities pride celebrations. I think that was really useful for some of these smaller towns or smaller cities to get like a large quantity of queers together. That’s not what happened in DC. He just kind of set up in an alley in the gayborhood or whatever. And my friends and I showed up. I was a little disappointed in the finished product, in part because, you know, it sort of presupposes that there is something you can learn about queerness by just putting thousands of portraits together that are very sort of self selected. And and and it seems almost a little bit like a vanity project, like both for him and for us. Those of us who are, you know, like it’s cool that my pictures in a book and I did enjoy looking at it, it was actually really fun to look at different cities and find people that I know. I mean, there’s 10000 people in there. If you know a queer person in the US, you might be able to find them in that book. But the way that he positions the project is as a fight for equality in the sense of he writes, We hate what we fear and we fear what we don’t know. So to dismantle hate, we have to create familiarity. It seems like this book is actually for not queer people to look at and to see, oh, queerness is is so commonplace, it’s, you know, it’s so bizarre
S1: and like, it’s just unremarkable. Don’t all these people look normal? And yet the book fetishizes difference in a way that I find kind of weird. Like the cover of it is like, you know, someone in a cowboy hat, someone in a cop uniform, someone in a military uniform, someone in what looks like indigenous garments. It’s like the village people on the cover of this book. And then you go inside and it’s just like, you know, we’re clearly diverse, but not always so like on the nose about it, you know what I mean? I’m not really sure what it’s trying to do, whether it’s supposed to show how diverse we are or how the same we are and the fact that he included people. He uses what he calls the one drop rule to determine whether you’re queer or not, which is not really a concept that I think the queer community uses very often. But to say, you know, a lot
S2: of a lot of my old friends from college would be in that book then.
S1: Yeah, like Lena Dunham is in it, someone who has publicly said like, oh, I, I, I just love gay people. Like, I kind of wish I was gay, like doesn’t really identify as part of the community as far as I know, which makes it just feel like it says a lot less because of its broad and wide net than the other two books. What did you guys think?
S2: I mean it’s so funny thinking about Let the record show Sarah Shulman’s book and the conversation that we had with her about that project, one of the interviews that she talks about in that book after an action, I think it was the action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the interview subjects, reports like having heard that their own family, that it had changed their perceptions because they thought gay people were weak. And it was funny to see people, gay people doing this sort of disobedience, taking a sort of strong action to demand that they be allowed to live. That’s sort of what you’re talking about, Christina. Like, is this just a show straightness that like, oh, look, these people look just like everyone, like you should like them? Or is something more radical and funnier warranted? If you really want to insist on that message of shared humanity, do you do it in a way that’s not just like here are some pictures of people, but do you do something funnier or more outlandish? And that’s sort of what I liked about Jamal’s book, is that you see people like being lovey dovey and it’s like a little silly. It’s a little maybe silly is not the right word, but it’s a little cutesy, a little cloying. But like that feels appropriate. It feels like that’s kind of the right gambit. You know, if you’re the kind of person whose stomach is going to be turned by seeing two men holding hands, then you’re not going to read this book anyway. You know, but the opportunity to see two men of color holding hands, like maybe that’s effective. Maybe it’s like saying like, oh, these people are queer. They are like in love and they are holding hands. And that is this is what it looks like. And that feels kind of important to me.
S1: All three of these books are focused on sort of different aspects of being queer. Io’s book is very much about the self. You know, he didn’t really when I when I posed for the photo, at least like there was no talking. It wasn’t in my natural habitat. It was just stand in front of this black backdrop, smile or don’t smile. Jeb’s book is very much about lesbians in community. So, you know, some of them are with lovers. Some have read themselves. Some of them are doing their job. Some are, you know, with acquaintances, siblings, their kids. And then Jamal’s book is very much about the the relationship aspect of being queer, which I think some people would say, you know, obviously you’re queer whether or not you’re in a relationship. But the seeing the the depiction of people in relationships, especially people of color, who, you know, he feels like he didn’t actually get to see when he was a kid, that part of it is is saying something new. I was reminded actually looking through Io’s book of the time that firstly I looked through the entire of this compendium that Playboy published of all of its centerfolds over the course of its fifty years. We’re like they all just start to blur together after a while. But you kind of start to see some patterns in a way. Queer portraiture can show you yourself. You know, you can you can see people who look like you. You can see people who you want to look like or you can see people that you want to have sex with. Another another purpose that this kind of thing can serve is to show you people who don’t look like you to help you grasp the fact that, you know, you can’t always tell on the street of someone’s queer or not, for instance, or, you know, your small bubble does not represent the entirety of the queer community. A book like Jeb’s, you know, that served a purpose, a very different purpose in its time than it does now. I think we’re at the time, you know, even just reading the quotes of these women, like they were survivors, a woman shown lifting weights was like, well, when you have muscles. Can intimidate you, you know, another woman says, like, learning about cars is my way to feel like I have autonomy and control, you know, so like that kind of historical documentation I think is important for us to look at. Now, I’m not sure somebody 20 years from now is going to need to look at Ayatullah rights book and see like, oh, wow, look at all these. We’re standing in front of a black backdrop.
S3: Yeah. I mean, I definitely had no models of what queerness looked like, romantic or just people or otherwise in my in my hometown. So running into one of these and any of these books in the library would have been fantastic in that regard, even if sort of unlikely in South Carolina. I bet. But now I don’t know. When I look at them, I feel kind of cold somehow, not cold toward the people, but just just like the project doesn’t resonate with me as much as other portraiture projects. One that is not the same as these, but one I’m thinking of is how Fischer’s book called Gay Semiotics, which some of you may have seen. It’s it’s sort of a study of like male homosexual clothing and sort of signaling in the 70s. But but it’s a way of like taxonomies saying gay culture in a way that I find interesting and sort of relevant to like how do I style myself? Because some of that stuff hasn’t changed. But but the sort of just pure representation here are, you know, here are just 10000 queer people or here’s a certain subset of queer people existing. I don’t know. I don’t I don’t really it doesn’t it doesn’t thrill me, but that maybe maybe I’m not the right audience for it, you know?
S1: And I also wonder if the people who actually would benefit from these will be able to find them. Yeah. Books you have to buy them and or go to a bookstore to find them. You know, who knows if they’ll be in libraries and or if if you you know, we’ll feel comfortable checking them out of the library.
S2: I guess that’s sort of why I think Instagram kind of carries a lot of that particular weight, right? Yeah, yeah. The book does possess a kind of like volition like on the part of its audience. And so it’s going to find its audience, you know, like people are going to give people are going to see a book like Jamal’s book and be like, oh, I’ll give this to my queer color. Yes. You know, for Christmas or whatever. And that’s sweet and lovely. But, you know, queer people of color are kind of already know they exist. And so they may not require being ratified in the pages of a book. But I do think that, like, that’s where the social media actually ends up being weirdly important. And again and, you know, on Instagram, there’s also an act of volition and you have to sort of choose what you’re following and you create what your own bubble looks like there. But here in Brian’s kind of skepticism or, you know, a sense that, like, he isn’t connecting with these books sort of makes me think of this thing that we hear a lot in the culture, which is representation matters. Right. Does it really matter like and what do we mean when we say that sort of take it on faith? A lot of times, you know, I think people see that. And I nod my head and then I ask, like, what they mean and what does that mean? And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a really good working answer of why representation matters and for whom it matters. Does it matter for like as Christina said, like is Io’s book for street people to remind them that queer people exist? And does that matter? Does that have a value? I mean, I suppose it does have value, but it’s sort of like the same way that Will and Grace functions like who was place for?
S3: You know, I think it does matter in certain places and contexts. It may not matter. Representation may not matter as much to me now. But when you really think about it, I and we are kind of outliers, right? Like we are we are queer adults working in general and queer media like and cities. And that’s that’s not the majority of queer people, actually. And I think it’s useful to keep that in mind because, yeah, this is serving a different audience, I think. And a lot of cases, much like much like these books. Right. Like I don’t want to be down on the books. I think it’s down on me. Right. For, for, for like having a sort of for my specific context. It’s not their fault.
S1: In addition to seeing something reflected, I think they can serve a purpose for the people actually represented in there and and anyone who identifies with them to say, like I’m, you know, worthy of being represented in a book, I think especially of the people who Jamal photographed in townships in South Africa, where things like corrective rape have been really common. Right. Or, you know, where one guy didn’t even feel comfortable showing his face but still wanted to be represented in the book or, you know, a lot of the women in Jeb’s book at a time when their children could legally be taken away from them, saying, you know, it’s important to me to be in this book. I think that is very different from, for instance. The page in Ayatullah Wright’s book of like the Google Affinity group for gay people. You know, I don’t know that those people really need that kind of representation of, like, just they’re their big, beautiful, smiling face.
S2: Well, it’s useful for me because I’m looking for a second husband who works at Google. So that’s helpful information.
S3: That’s fair. Yeah.
S1: They should have included, like, a way to get in contact with these people. Yeah.
S2: Yeah. And they’re like annual income, as Christina you said, like there is some like if there weren’t power in the simple representation, it wouldn’t scare people so much. You know, it just it wouldn’t. And it’s something as preposterous as Will and Grace scare people in it’s time. Probably still does. They’re probably still people writing letters to the church from their church about Will and Grace. So, you know, anything that frightens people is going to sort of indicate that it’s powerful. To me, it’s generational. And it’s like impossible to imagine myself into the psyche of a 16 year old today and figuring out, like, you know, for me, defiance at 16 was like finding a picture of a shirtless model in, like Marie Claire magazine. Right. Like that’s like that was like the search for something. And it looks very different, I think, for young people today. And some of that has to do with technology. Some of us do with cultural attitude. But that search, that search goes on. It’s like an evergreen thing. It’s like just because kids today might have seen an episode of Poes or might know about. But I’ve seen Ryan Murphy’s cinematic universe doesn’t mean that they are like know who they are or were comfortable talking about it or like understand what it means. And that’s where I think the image actually carries a lot of weight in the current moment, you know, and it always has. And I can’t really imagine what that’s like. I mean, just imagine being 16, I’m looking at Instagram and being like, oh, God, you can see the whole world here.
S1: Yeah. And yet there is still a homogenizing influence there, too. Like, absolutely. I actually, you know, I guess I just thought of one really positive thing about a book of 10000 images of queers. Like you’re going to find someone in there who looks like you. You’re literally like, oh, well, I don’t understand what all these people on Tick are doing or like, what’s that about? Or I’m old and just realizing I’m gay, like going through a book and being like, oh, OK. You know, that person is is queer or is trans and like they seem like, you know, we’d be friends or we wear the same things, you know. Yeah. It could be a little bit like, all right, am I going to fit into this culture? Well, yes, because it’s not a homogenous culture. Even when we ask for questions, when we’ve done advice segments on this show, people will write in saying, you know, they don’t feel like they really fit into the queer culture where they live or am I gay enough or, you know, so something like this can I guess hopefully, you know, in best case scenario, tell people like, well, yeah, there’s no real right or wrong way to do it. You just have to show up.
S3: Yeah, that’s a great point because. Yeah, I mean, back to my my pride earlier. Instagram knows that you’re gay. It will a gay man. It will start serving you like only like it does models and porn stars. Yeah. Right. And you know, part of the you know, the my struggle with body image stuff is absolutely coming from that from from what Instagram has sort of created for me. And I can I have actually unfollowed a few things and tried to sort of shape the algorithm. But but even so, you know, if you stumbled into that as a young gay guy and that is what was presented to you as like normal, that’s going to really that is that is problematic to say. It can. Yeah. And so so I agree with you, Christine. I think actually I’m coming around to seeing the value and and, you know, that that sort of however random, like more diverse representation because. Yeah, it’s not it’s not a healthy place to be stuck in sometimes.
S2: I mean, I’m looking at my Instagram like my Instagram like suggested page right now. And it’s like it’s all shirtless white guys lifting weights. And I’ve got Mary, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen like those Instagram things that those are the two things. Are they wrong, young white guys? Well, maybe they’re not. Maybe the algorithm knows. Like, I don’t know.
S3: I don’t know. It’s the same except in drag drag queens for.
S1: Yeah, mine is all just like mine, really. I mean, my interests are probably inextricable from a straight woman like makeup, bras and then furniture I can’t afford. But it’s like, well actually that’s what you get out.
S2: You can’t have designer furniture. Yeah.
S1: I wonder if there are any. Images that stuck with you guys from any of these books, mine was from Queer Love and Color showing a couple that wore matching shirts for their photo session, which made me feel good, because as somebody who is the same height and has the same hair color as her partner, I’m always so intense about us not wearing matching things that it’s just great to see people embracing that.
S2: Yeah, there’s a photo of to a black couple with a son that I thought was really just like such a sweet like it looks like a Christmas card photo. And I mean, I am a part of an interracial gay couple. Like raising children like that is actually what my life sort of looks and feels like. And it’s still kind of surprising to see it. And like they’re like a beautiful family, but they’re not like, you know, fitness model influencers, you know, like and there’s something very there is something very powerful about seeing real people in people who think like, oh, yeah, I could be friends with them. Like, it’s reassuring even to me now at forty three. But as we say, like it’s sort of scary to think what the algorithm is going to do with that information to younger people. There was one
S3: of a couple who were hungover when they took their photo and it was mentioned that they were and they were there. They sort of looked looked at a little bit, but still showed up for the shoot. And I just I thought that that was yeah, I thought that that was lovely. And I think I mentioned that they were like a mile from the the club where they expected it was New Year’s, actually. They had been partying for New Year’s and then showed up the next day. And I thought that that the intimacy of the hangover was somehow very touching
S1: and very sweet. That’s its own kind of representation. That true.
S2: True. Yeah, exactly. So the books we’ve been talking about today are Joan Byron’s eye to eye portraits of lesbians, erotic rights, self-evident truths, Ten Thousand Portraits of Queer America and Jamal Jordan’s Queer Love in Color. Definitely worth thinking about and negotiating with and thinking about the value of images of people like us.
S1: OK, that’s about it for me. But before we go, we have a few recommendations for you and for your gay agenda. Brian, what did you bring this month?
S3: Walkerston, I was inspired by your Whittman reading to mention another Whittman related thing that I think our listeners should check out. So the artist Taylor AMOC, sort of famous person now, I guess at least among queers, MacArthur genius when our theater theater actor, drag queen, I should say, I don’t know if I was that way, just released a project called Whittman in the Woods. And it is a series of short films. I think they add up to only like twenty minutes total, but a series of short films where Mark and his typical drag want just this insane, beautiful drag. If you haven’t seen it, that’s enough to see. Interprets a number of Whittman selections while just wandering around in the woods of the lower Hudson Valley. And this is presented by All Arts, which is an affiliate of PB’s and somewhere that I can’t quite decipher. But anyway, we’ll link to it on the we’ll link to it on the show page, but it’s available for free. You can watch it. And it’s good because a lot of telematics work can be, I think, kind of difficult to access unless you live in the city where it happens to be put on one of these 12 hour shows or whatever. And so this is a great little dose of what that that work is like that that everybody can access. And you’ll and you’ll get a sense of why. Whitetail, that really is a genius. And here’s some wonderful women in the process.
S1: I’m going to recommend a show that is not new, but that I just started watching. This is very typical for me. It’s called Call My Agent. It’s a French series. I think there’s Four Seasons streaming on Netflix. It’s about a talent agency. And, you know, the sort of charming neuroses of the agents who work there, one of whom is a big old lesbian and is so much fun to watch the characters. Andrea, she is based on a Real-Life agent named Elizabeth Tanner, played by the fabulous actress Camille Kottoor. I really enjoy this lesbian character because she is, you know, driven by sex, which is always fun to watch. But she will, like, absolutely abandon a woman in bed if one of her clients calls, you know, she has a life outside of her seduction. It’s a show where her sexuality is not like the main topic. That’s not like the whole of her character, but it’s also not ignored or made to be like, you know, oh, she’s just like everyone else. Like they actually talk about the fact, oh, she slept with men, but she finds them really boring. You know, people ask her, like, curious unoffensive, offensive questions all the time. And she is just, you know, very witty about it. And it’s just a real joy to watch and super funny and, you know, just I love watching people speak French. So it’s called Call My Agent. I highly recommend.
S2: My Gayus dreams are sort of coming true because I am a sucker for 1970s and 1980s fashion and socialites and gossip, the holes of trashy Kokanee thing, like, I just love that stuff. I have like an especially soft spot for like post Oscar Liza Minnelli, just like really that is like catnip to me. And Netflix has a new five part mini series on the life of Halston. Yes. Fashion designer who requires no first name, although it was really for the record, the one caveat is that it’s a Ryan Murphy production and those kind of feel a little theatrical, a little lifeless, a little, you know, surface level. But I’m absolutely going to watch any mini series with a cast of characters includes Martha Graham, Elsa Peretti, Calvin Klein, Betty Ford, and the legendary fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, who in this show is being played by the actress Kelly Bishop, who was the grandmother on the Gilmore Girls and is like one of my feet. She was in a chorus line. She’s like an amazing performer. The whole cast is like that. It’s like all these sort of like incredible. Ewan McGregor is playing Halston. Anyway, I’m sure it’s going to drive me crazy, but I’m just as sure that I’m gonna watch the whole of the surfaces.
S3: The surface ness of Ryan Murphy may be a match for this particular.
S2: Yes, it might be apt in this one.
S3: I have high hopes for this, too, so I’ll watch it with you. Absolutely. Yeah. All right. That is all the time we have for the May episode of Outward. Please send us feedback and topic ideas to our podcast at Slate Dotcom or hit us up on Facebook or Twitter. Rosabeth at Slate Outward. Our producer is Margaret Kelly. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and the very portrait of excellence that we all aspire to attain. If you like outward, please subscribe in your podcast app, tell your friends about it and review so others can join you in enjoying us. You can also support our and the journalism we do here at Slate by signing up for Slate. Plus, it’s just a dollar for the first month and fifty nine dollars a year after that. In addition to supporting Slate’s journalism, you will get unlimited reading on the Slate website and you’ll get exclusive bonus segments or episodes of shows like Working the Way of Sloper and Amicus and Big Mood, Little Mood with Daniel and LaVere. As for us outward, we’ll be back in your feeds for Pride on June 16th. Until then, everybody stay gay by Christine, not by Fairman.
S2: Bye, guys. It’s great to see you.