In Fury We Trust (Review of Sarah Shulman)Historians in the News
tags: AIDS, book reviews, oral history, activism, LGBTQ history, ACT-UP
Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 by Sarah Schulman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 736 pages.
THE POPULAR ORIGIN STORY of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power has a mythic quality to it. In March 1987, the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron cancelled her planned talk at the Lesbian and Gay Center in New York. To fill in, organizers tapped Larry Kramer, author of the controversial novel Faggots and embattled cofounder of the AIDS service organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The speech Kramer ended up giving proved a far cry from anything the screenwriter of the forthcoming When Harry Met Sally could possibly have offered. Almost six years into the AIDS crisis—with nearly twenty-five thousand dead in the United States, and more than six thousand of those deaths in New York City alone—Kramer was appalled by what he saw as the lackluster activist response from the gay community. And he made sure the room knew it. As one attendee recalled, “I remember he asked half the audience to stand up and he said, ‘You’re all going to be dead in six months, now what are we going to do about it?’” Within two days, ACT UP was born.
Stories like this populate what AIDS activist and cultural critic Ted Kerr has called the “AIDS Crisis Revisitation,” or the renewed attention, in the last decade, to narratives of the “plague” years—the period between the first reported cases, in 1981, of what would later become AIDS, and the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in 1995. These narratives, which include Ryan Murphy’s rendition of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the Broadway revival of Angels in America, and Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, often elevate the experiences of white gay men to the universal narrative of the AIDS crisis.
David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague and his 2016 book of the same title are the worst offenders, collapsing the complex and diverse histories of AIDS activism, and particularly the work of ACT UP, into the neat story of an elite cadre of white gay men who triumphed against pharmaceutical greed and government inaction to end the AIDS crisis. France has even admitted to the revisionist nature of his work, conceding that he “did not talk about housing issues, I did not talk about IV drug use, I didn’t talk about women’s issues, I did not talk about the complicated and knotty issues around race when that was something that ACT UP was addressing.” In other words, France’s history of AIDS activism failed to address some of the most urgent issues and affected communities of the epidemic, leaving the impression that ACT UP, and AIDS activism more broadly, was the privileged domain of white male heroism. Within this framing, Kramer’s founding of ACT UP serves as a pivotal plot point, as if without his singular vision, collective action against AIDS simply wouldn’t have happened—a notion that belies the historical record.
Writing contemporaneously with France, scholars of AIDS history such as Jennifer Brier, Darius Bost, Dan Royles, Emily Hobson, Alexandra Juhasz, Kevin Mumford, and Jih-Fei Cheng have demonstrated the centrality of women and people of color in histories of AIDS activism, while also underscoring the ongoing nature of the AIDS epidemic, especially for Black gay and bisexual men, Black women, trans people, and people living in the Global South. Adding to this important work is writer, scholar, and former ACT UP member Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show, which documents the group from its formation in March 1987 to its public decline in 1993. Clocking in at over seven hundred pages, Schulman’s sprawling history offers a resounding rebuttal to exclusionary versions of AIDS history by foregrounding the role women, lesbians, people of color, IV drug users, and incarcerated people played in the history of ACT UP.