Books In Conversation
Sarah Schulman with Pac Pobric
Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)
Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 is a book like few others. Based on interviews with more than 180 of the activist AIDS organization’s members, conducted over the course of nearly 20 years by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, it presents a tapestry-like tale of the hundreds of campaigners who forced the world (and especially neglectful politicians) to take the AIDS pandemic seriously. It also serves as a corrective: instead of treating the AIDS movement as a vanguard of gay white men, the book reveals the broad racial, class, and gender coalitions that made AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) a success.
Yet the book, which Schulman (an ACT UP member in the period covered by the book) has organized into riveting thematic sections, never shies away from the internal contradictions and stark divides that splintered beneath the group’s unified surface. While some of its most prominent members, including Mark Harrington and Peter Staley, believed its main goal was to broaden drug access for People With AIDS (PWA), others, such as Maxine Wolfe, believed that only more radical changes that specifically took into account the needs of women, the poor, and minorities would suffice to halt the pandemic. That question—of whether medicine could be divorced from politics—eventually led to the group’s dramatic split in January 1992, after which a separatist group founded the Treatment Action Group, led in part by Harrington and Staley, to focus solely on speeding up treatment research.
Pac Pobric spoke with Schulman about what the book can teach latter-day activists, what AIDS and COVID-19 share, and why ACT UP needed a comprehensive history.
Pac Pobric (Rail): The title of the book suggests that the history of AIDS activism has been badly, even wrongly, told. The problem, you write, is not only that straight people have been made into heroes of the crisis through films like Philadelphia; it’s also that gay-centric stories about AIDS, like the one David France tells in his documentary film, How to Survive a Plague, privilege white male saviors as key drivers and ignore the contributions of women, minorities, drug users, and the poor. What’s been the lasting damage that these histories have done to our understanding of the AIDS movement?
Sarah Schulman: The whole point of Let the Record Show is not nostalgia. It's to try to cohere some of the things that made ACT UP as effective as it was for people today who desperately want change. People are constantly bombarded with the idea that there's a white individual, or a handful of them, who make the difference. That is not how things work. In America, things change by coalition and by cohering community.
Rail: Speaking of the book as a kind of historical field guide for contemporary activists, I was struck by one particular line: “women and/or POC ACT UP members did not waste their time trying to teach their white male comrades to be less sexist and racist.” Why was that important?
Schulman: I think you can spend your whole life trying to change one person and fail. That's the central thing about ACT UP: it had to be effective because people were dying. It was a race against the clock. And because people had to be effective, they functioned in a different way. So theoretical debates, or trying to micromanage other people—that’s not effective. It’s about keeping your eye on the prize of what you're trying to achieve for your constituency.
Rail: Do you see micromanaging within activist circles as a particular danger? It seemed like a particularly stark warning.
Schulman: There’s a long history of people trying to create movements that have homogeneity of thought, where everyone is supposed to be corralled into one analysis and one strategy. That’s famously how the Communist Party USA worked. I think there are no examples in history of this ever being successful. There’s a reason for that: it’s that people can only be where they're at. You have to have a bottom line. That’s very important. ACT UP had a one-line statement of unity: direct action to end the AIDS crisis.
Rail: Yet, your book illustrates that there were problems with racism and sexism within ACT UP. Why didn’t that become a bigger issue at the time?
Schulman: The category of the white gay man is understood very differently today than it was at that time. This was a profoundly oppressed group of people. Gay sex was illegal [in the 1980s]. Sodomy laws were not overturned until 2003. There were no gay rights. In New York City, you could be fired from a job, or kicked out of an apartment, or be denied service at a restaurant for being gay. Familial homophobia was the cultural norm. Street violence against gay people—“gay bashing”—was prevalent. So you're talking about an oppressed group of people who are now facing a terminal illness. [White gay men] were understood differently then.
Rail: At a few points in the book, Andrew Sullivan’s 1996 New York Times essay, “When Plagues End,” comes up as a signal moment when the AIDS movement splintered between those who, like Sullivan, now had access to life-saving drugs and therefore felt the struggle was over, and a larger group of people who were still unable to obtain effective treatment. What happened at that moment?
Schulman: That was in 1996, when [antiviral] protease inhibitors were introduced broadly [as HIV and AIDS drugs]. He could get access to those medications, and so could his friends. But that was not true for everybody. And it's still not true. Linda Villarosa’s 2017 New York Times Magazine story showed that Black gay men in the US South have a higher rate of infection than any country in the world. The problem is that we don't have an equitable or coherent health care system. Every time there's a cataclysm in America, it reveals racism and economic inequality. In that way, [AIDS and COVID-19] are very similar. What's different is that COVID is a collective public experience that's discussed on television and at the dinner table; AIDS was our private nightmare. Our fight was to get it into the public. That’s very different.
Rail: One of the interviewees in your book, the artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz, says he had hoped ACT UP would eventually transform into a universal healthcare movement. Obviously, that didn’t happen before the split in 1992. But was it ever on the horizon?
Schulman: It was an active possibility. But the problem is that ACT UP had a terrible, rancorous split. Only 12 people left the organization, but it had a big impact. It was very demoralizing and upsetting at a time when there were no new treatments and a lot of people were dying. It's hard to really convey this, and I tried really hard in the book, but it was overwhelming how much suffering there was. An AIDS death is a terrible death. You're watching very young people go blind or get dementia, and you can't do anything about it. The fact that the organization collapsed sort of makes sense from that point of view.
Rail: But ACT UP had lots of successes: forcing the federal government to update its list of AIDS symptoms to include opportunistic infections that specifically affected women; getting officials to fast-track the development of experimental drugs; developing citizen-scientists who learned to scour and make sense of medical literature so to teach fellow activists about drug treatment options. In retrospect, it’s almost easy to list the achievements.
Schulman: And we made needle exchange legal in New York City, which was very significant. But it wasn't easy to list the achievements. I had to do 18 years of interviews. You have to understand, this is pre-Internet. The documentation was very loose. People in the movement didn't really know what other people were doing. When Jim Hubbard and I started interviewing people, we realized immediately that we were just like everyone else: we thought that what we and our friends were doing was ACT UP. But nobody had an institutional overview. That’s part of why the interviews had to be so extensive.
I think there are 140 people cited in the book. Having been a novelist all these years really helped with this. I’ve published a lot of novels, and they're all different kinds—mid-list literary, historical fiction, genre fiction, experimental fiction—so I have a lot of experience with form. When I started working on this, I saw immediately that it could not be told chronologically, because that wouldn't be accurate. So much was happening simultaneously, and that was part of why it was effective. So I had to find a form that came organically from the content that could convey that simultaneity.
Rail: That structure is embedded in the book. As you say, the story isn’t told chronologically, and the book does not end with the split of the organization. In fact, the very last section is an impassioned personal essay about your recent personal health issues. It begins with a quote by Jack Waters: “AIDS prepared us for everything.” Can you elaborate on that?
Schulman: I've really benefited from my years in the AIDS movement because I'm very competent at reading medical articles and understanding drug trials. And mortality is not a mystery. A hospital room is not a strange environment. We experienced the deaths of our parents very differently than people who did not have their friends die in their twenties. Talking to people about the fact that they're going to die is something we're all used to.
The book, I think, is sober. I tried to honestly show the contradictions. I promised myself that I would be fair, so people are given a lot of space to say things that perhaps I don’t agree with, and they disagree with each other constantly. It’s not a polemic. It’s really a gathering of a very special group of people who changed the world. They made the world better for everyone who came after them. I wanted people to understand who they were and how they did it. It's encouraging to know that it's possible.