tripping down memory lane…

on friday night, i went to zeitgeist to see the documentary united in anger: a history of act up by jim hubbard.

the film is largely an archival repository of video of various meetings, actions and demonstrations from the original new york chapter, as well as scores of interviews with many former members – a large portion of which are now dead. it is an end result of a larger project started in 2001 by the filmmaker and sarah schulman, the film’s producer, called the act up oral history project. the film does a great job of offering a timeline of events from the beginning of the aids crisis through now, and points out the various successes and achievements of act-up’s direct action methods, which are numerous and have not gotten the historical props they deserve.

director jim hubbard was in attendance, and afterwards a question and answer and panel discussion occurred moderated by journalist/activist extraordinaire jordan flaherty and featuring members of breakOUT!, a local organization fighting the criminalization of lgbtq youth who are directly impacted by the criminal/juvenile justice systems of new orleans. sadly, i had to leave right after the film to go work, so i missed out on what i’m sure was some lively and interesting discourse. (the dog walker/pet sitter’s schedule is sometimes very inconvenient.) if someone reading this witnessed this discussion and wants to write a recap – or can link to one elsewhere online – please do so in the comments.

i have many thoughts about the experience of seeing this film.

first, my personal history with act up is actually minimal, in that i did attend several marches/demonstrations that took place in nashville, tn in the time i was in college (1985-1989) hosted by the nashville chapter of act up (which i will note was not listed in the credits as one of the cities with an active act up chapter, and i can personally vouch for the fact that there was one, at least in the late 80s). but i was never an organizer and i never even attended a meeting there. when i moved to new orleans in 1990, i also participated in a few actions that the local act up chapter here initiated, and while i did go to a few meetings and many of my friends were involved, i was not a core organizer and really was on the periphery of what that group did in new orleans. (i do remember acting as diva – those who signed up to video/photograph a demonstration for the safety and legal aid of those participating – for an action where act up new orleans shut down traffic during rush hour in the cbd in front of city hall and many members were arrested… though i can’t remember what that action was about specifically. it was the biggest and most successful demo i think act up new orleans executed and i remember being so excited to be there witnessing and documenting it.)

the greater role act up had in my life was as inspiration and education. i say with all honesty that the activists and journalists who were involved with and writing about aids and queer activism in new york city in the late 1980s when i was in college  were largely responsible for forming my political identity and who i would become as an activist and a journalist for the next two decades. though i wasn’t living in new york at the time, i visited there often on my breaks from school (one of my best friends was living on the lower east side), hoping to one day move there, and i read the village voice and outweek voraciously. (as a side note, i am only now discovering that the entire 105 issues of outweek are archived online at the link above – i donated my copies of the magazine to the lgbt community center of new orleans years and years ago. this makes me really happy!) writers like michelangelo signorile, sarah pettit (rip), donna minkowitz, larry kramer, sarah schulman, and jim fouratt, to name just a few, were my inspirations, role models and (s)heroes.

so it was with great interest and a lot of nostalgia that i watched united in anger on friday night. though i was not physically present for any of the actions or meetings depicted in the film, i vividly remember reading about many of them and following the trials and tribulations of act up new york, eventually using all this education as a blueprint for co-founding a queer nation chapter in new orleans (spurred by daring misfit robert brunet, who i’d met at a gulf war demonstration on decatur street in late 1990 or early 1991 and who would eventually become a good friend and co-conspirator) and later a lesbian avengers chapter, with my then-partner charlotte bahm and many of our friends.

maybe it’s part of my midlife crisis, but my former activist life seems to be cropping up quite a bit lately in my head and life. in september, i, along with many of my friends, were asked to march as guests of honor in the dykeadence contingent of the southern decadence parade, as an “honoring our foremothers” kind of tribute to our work with the dyke march here in new orleans and other lgbt activism. that sparked a bit of dyke march nostalgia for me, which got me realizing that so many different queer/lesbian activist/cultural things have happened in this town and haven’t really been properly documented or archived. (though i acknowledge there’s a trove of information available about the queer history of new orleans via the amistad research center housed in tulane’s howard tilton library, as well as in the newcomb institute’s archives, to which i have also donated over the years.)

but no extensive queer history of new orleans book or film or other project has happened, as far as i know. and the few books, articles, etc. i have come across never mention any of the activist things i have been involved with over the years, and are almost exclusively about gay male life in new orleans and not about lesbian life/herstory.

speaking of which, i am currently reading a book about the gay history of new orleans focused on the bar cafe lafitte’s in exile, which i’m finding fascinating and is giving me all kinds of ideas. but i will save my review on that book for another blog post after i have finished reading it. and you will be hearing more about the ideas in my head about documenting queer/lesbian life in new orleans, as i am still formulating them.

all this is to say… the movie i saw on friday night got the wheels in my brain turning even more than they already were. it was a very well done film and i highly recommend it to anyone with interest in that time period or aids activism in general. it was hard to watch, frankly, being reminded about just how many lives we have lost since hiv/aids first reared its ugly head… but it is a very important documentation of our queer history. i’m so glad i got to see it. kudos as always to zeitgeist for bringing it and the filmmaker here.

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