In Sarah Schulman’s 1986 novel Girls, Visions and Everything she describes Gay Day, the gay pride march in New York City. Lila, the novel’s dyke-about-town protagonist, takes turns marching with each group, joining in with the ‘thousands of sweating faggots and dykes just dancing freely under the buildings of New York City.’ She marches with the Gay Psychologists, moves on to the Gay Catholics, then to Mirth and Girth, briefly joins the sadomasochists leading their lovers on leashes, then on to Gay Youth, Gay Teachers, Gay Grandmas (she skips over the Gay Cops), she wells up at Parents of Gays, ‘with their handpainted signs, “We Love Our Gay Children.”’ As the chapter progresses, the streets and sidewalks overflow ‘with screaming, cheering gay people of every color and degree of faggotry.’
As a novelist, historian, non-fiction writer, journalist, playwright and screenwriter, Schulman has spent the last 40 years documenting gay life in America. Across 20 books, Schulman turns over her central preoccupations: queer community in all its beauty and contradiction; the difficulty and responsibility of conflict and repair; the harm done by familial homophobia; gentrification, particularly in the Lower East Side, Schulman’s long-time neighbourhood; the legacy of AIDS; and the people who changed the course of the AIDS crisis. This is the story Schulman tells in her latest book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 (2021), ‘the story’, she writes, ‘of a despised group of people, with no rights, facing a terminal disease for which there were no treatments. Abandoned by their families, government, and society, they joined together and forced our country to change against its will.’
Every Monday night, ACT UP members would gather at what was then the Gay Center, where they ‘came to save lives with humor, commitment, profound innovation, genius, will, and focus, and sometimes wild acting out, ruthlessness, and chance.’ At its peak, 500–700 people joined the weekly meetings. Let the Record Show has its roots in the hundreds of interviews that make up the AIDS Oral History Project that Schulman ran with the filmmaker Jim Hubbard (together they also made the 2012 film United in Anger: A History of ACT UP). Drawing on these interviews, Schulman acts as a facilitator, letting ACT UP members describe how they forced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to change its definition of AIDS so women could access treatment, and ended insurance exclusions for people with AIDS. ACT UP, in Schulman’s words, was a ‘human, complex, multifaceted society of activists who succeeded in winning significant victories, against great odds, that changed the world and literally saved lives.’
I spoke to Schulman over Zoom. We talked about what younger generations can learn from ACT UP, her conviction that deeply flawed people can change the world and activism as a way of making things possible.