by Felicia Kornbluh

I cried all through the New-York Historical Society’s recent exhibit, AIDS: The First Five Years-but not for the reasons you might think. Walking through the museum gallery lined with photos and documents, and viewing the accompanying exhibit of photographs of infants with HIV/AIDS, I cried because both exhibits omitted the sexually revolutionary feminist and gay politics that preceded the epidemic: it was as though those politics had been exterminated. I cried because it occurred to me that our recent victories-the increased recognition of same-sex marriages, the trouncing of many invidious incursions into women’s reproductive autonomy-are only tinny echoes of the big brassy demands of our predecessors.

Here’s what I concluded: the history of AIDS/ HIV is being mottled and shorn of its political meaning. Politicians who could have done something and didn’t are largely getting a pass, and mainstream memorializers like those at the Historical Society are making heroes of doctors, medical researchers, and elite philanthropists who went to $1000-a-plate dinners-but not of the street activists, feminists, and queers who demanded freedom and pleasure before and after the epidemic started, and not of the people who were sickened but fought back without apologizing for the sex during which the virus entered their systems.

This is something about which feminists and gender scholars really need to care. It is a distortion of the history of LGBT and HIV-positive people, and of the gay and AIDS/HIV movements. It is also an eclipse of the sexual liberationist dimension of feminist politics, including lesbian-feminist politics. It matters today because our current politics of marriage and reproductive choice risk collaborating in the erasure of our pleasure-affirming past, of which we deserve to be proud and on which we can build.

The exhibition might not have gotten under my skin so badly if I hadn’t just been reading No More Nice Girls, the collection of Ellen Willis’s essays from the 1980s. Willis, who died in 2006, was the quintessential radical, sexual liberationist, straight-identified feminist. She was "pro-sex" before there was such a term (because when Willis got going, nobody thought that feminists would be anti-). My politics are generally not hers. Borrowing the categories with which Alice Echols subdivides the women’s liberation movement in her essential history, Daring to be Bad, I’m neither "radical" like Willis, nor "cultural" like the lesbians who bought land, started collectives, and drove thousands of miles to music festivals in the 1970s. I am, roughly, what Echols would term a "politico": I am most likely to be drawn into battle against evil wars abroad and evil capitalism at home. In contrast, Willis’s brand of radicalism gets up earliest to defend people’s bodily autonomy and right to physical pleasure.

            She’s pretty convincing. And her brand of radicalism is even more threatened by historical misremembering in 2013 than mine is. She argues, in "Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution," (included in No More Nice Girls), an essay begun in 1981 and revised three times during the 1980s:

There is, of course, an integral connection between sexism and sexual repression. The suppression of women’s sexual desire and pleasure, the denial of reproductive freedom, and the enforcement of female abstinence outside marriage have been primary underpinnings of male supremacy. Conversely, a restrictive sexual morality inevitably constrains women more than men.


            Which leads me back to the weep-inducing exhibit in New York. The background to both the emergence of AIDS/HIV and the political response to it lay in knife-in-the-teeth battles over sexuality that gay men, feminists, lesbians, and other queers were waging during the years when Willis was drafting and redrafting her essay. In the exhibit, though, this history is reduced to discos and bathhouses, sex as self-indulgent and apolitical. Willis reminds us that pre-AIDS, pleasure-seeking was contested and hard won. And it wasn’t just about gay men: straight men were among the first theorists and practitioners of sexual revolution. This revolution became a project of radical and lesbian feminists, who furthered everyone’s understanding of the oppressiveness of the family, marriage, and normative monogamy. Sexual revolution was more complicated for women than for straight or gay men-but the straight, pleasure-seeking, shame-rejecting feminists and the outlaw lesbians Willis acknowledges were committed sexual revolutionaries just the same.

The erasure that caused me to weep is there from the very beginning of the New-York Historical Society exhibit. It opens with a huge black-and-white photograph of a large group of men, most of them bare-assed and smiling, on Pier 48 on the far West Side of Manhattan in 1980. However, the narrative that accompanies this photograph is not one of joy snatched by virus and indifference, but rather of a bad "before" that made what came "after" well-nigh inevitable. The second block of text in the show offers a brief overview of sexual culture in the seventies, omitting its political dimension and its context of sexual revolution, feminism, lesbianism, and gay rights. The wall text concludes, "Freedom, it turned out, had a price." Another block of text, offered as background to a section of the exhibit titled "Infighting and Anger," seems to have been informed by the narrowest of today’s same-sex marriage politics. "Many gay men," it reads, "led relatively conservative, often monogamous lives, but others defined having anonymous sex with multiple partners as essential to their identity. For some it was an addiction."

Lots of LGBT people indeed saw their freedom to have sex, even anonymous sex, as a victory that their their movement had won against long odds. Wasn’t Stonewall, the fight-back by gay bar patrons against police harassment that is generally considered the starting point for the modern LGBT movement, about the right to be in public space with your people, to cruise, to go home with someone if you want? Many doubted the necessity of closing the bathhouses in the early years of the virus. And many complained when the writer and activist Larry Kramer suggested in the early 1980s that the best way to manage the epidemic was for gay men to limit their sexual activity. But "addiction?" Were those who were not "conservative, often monogamous" responsible for their own deaths? Was promiscuity the problem? Was pleasure the problem? Don’t bare your ass, the exhibit suggests. Don’t smile, and don’t appear in a large heterogeneous community commanding public space that has been denied you for millennia. Focus instead on your "conservative, monogamous" life. Be dyadic and marriage-like, private. Shut up about the hypocrisy and oppression that straight and gay critics found in what Adrienne Rich called "compulsory heterosexuality." Make your bed-just one!-and lie in it.

The exhibit continues, in text that was also called out for criticism by Hugh Ryan in the New York Times, "Conflicts over political strategy, behavioral changes, and appropriate treatment along with generalized anxiety [whose?] over the rapid spread of AIDS slowed down the growth of any unified, coherent response to the challenges posed by the epidemic." There are two major problems with this rendering: First, the idea that the LGBT community did not offer "coherent response[s]" to the emergence of AIDS; and second, the suggestion that, insofar as the virus continued to spread and people got sick, the LGBT community was to blame. In fact, LGBT people and straight allies formed service organizations for their sick friends and community members immediately after the epidemic was identified. In addition to the person-to-person caretaking they did (to which the New-York Historical Society does, in fact, provide moving testimony), volunteers devoted zillions of hours to building new organizations and trying to meet the urgent needs of those who were sick. Why didn’t the government meet those urgent needs? In part because of politically motivated, deliberate foot-dragging, the calculation by mainstream politicians that they could let people with AIDS suffer and die because they were not a major voting bloc. Whatever "conflicts over . . . strategy" or treatment existed within the LGBT community, the effects of these on the spread of the virus were tiny in comparison with the effects of inadequate public attention, sympathy, and funding.

Not only does the New-York Historical Society exhibit blame gay sex addicts and squabblers for the spread of the virus, but it also lets everybody else off easy. The closest the exhibit comes to naming a culprit is in a section that includes a 1983 letter by Larry Kramer, on behalf of the AIDS Network, to New York Mayor Ed Koch. In the letter, Kramer, with uncharacteristic politeness, urges several points on the mayor "for his consideration and action." This document barely hints at the deep animus so many in the movement felt toward the mayor who let AIDS ravage the gay, black, and Latino/a communities for years before responding (and who was widely believed to be a closeted gay man himself-unmentioned in the exhibit). Photo after admiring photo depicts the doctors and researchers who tried to figure out the etiology of the so-called gay cancer. A particularly sycophantic bit of supersized wall text invites visitors to sympathize with a frustrated doctor who asks, "If I cannot cure, what am I?"  

But what about all the doctors who wouldn’t touch AIDS patients with a ten-foot pole? Who didn’t care and wouldn’t act? What about all the dentists who had to be sued before they would treat their patients with AIDS? The employers who fired their ill workers and the landlords who threw sick tenants out of their apartments? The EMTs who would care for AIDS patients in crisis only after they put on yellow rubber gloves? The families and friends who ostracized their "loved ones"? (Dr. Joyce Wallace, the mother of one of my oldest friends, was the first doctor in the country to focus her practice and research on prostitutes who were HIV-positive. She received federal research money, but to the medical profession she was an outsider-and by the way, her photo does not appear in this exhibit.) The strange foreshortening of the history of the virus-why "the first five years"?-lops off the ACT-UP era of street protest against medical, political, religious, and economic institutions, and the grassroots distribution of medical remedies, and therefore the most transformative political response to the epidemic.

            As if all this were not saddening and infuriating enough, the First Five Years exhibit is accompanied by a display of photographs of African American HIV-positive infants. It’s simply awful. The exhibit’s opening image is an arty black-and-white photograph of a white swaddled bundle, a little black hand reaching out toward the camera/viewer in an implicit plea for help. The child’s face does not appear and we learn only that he or she is "Tracy." Like the other children displayed here, Tracy was a patient and resident, a "boarder baby" with no parental guardians and no foster family, at the Incarnation Children’s Center in New York. What happened to these children’s parents? Why didn’t the city government do more or pay more to find placements for these kids? The exhibit provides no specific biographical information, nor much historical context. The meaning of this story-unlike that of the First Five Years-is treated as fairly self-evident. One is left to conclude that-like the "conservative" gay men infected through the carelessness of their sex-addict brothers and those who suffered because the queer community resisted self-blame-these children were "innocent victims" of AIDS. The true culprits, this show suggests, were their parents, who caused the children to be "abandoned, orphaned or removed . . . because of drug abuse, neglect, or abuse."

This is risky discursive business, this business of innocent victims. It simply does not work to separate the good gays from the bad gays, the responsible conservatives from the sexual radicals, the culprit parents from the victim children. Either we all deserve liberty, recognition, and respect-or none of us does. Either we understand the ways that structural forms of injustice have shaped all of our lives, and we work to make sure that everybody has freedom and opportunities for pleasure and food and health care and basic income, or we lose the battle for whichever subgroup we try to drag solo from the rubble.

            So, dear spirit of Ellen Willis and my friend Florian and all the other people lost to AIDS, I conclude with the extremely radical and desperately important politics of pleasure. Bodily pleasure. Sexual pleasure. Dissident and outlaw pleasure. Pleasure outside law and marriage and much of today’s feminist and LGBT agenda. As I learned in thinking through the weaknesses of the New-York Historical Society show, a history of AIDS/HIV that treats the virus as the product of hedonism erases a political saga that started long before the "gay cancer" was identified. This saga, of the human search for freedom and enjoyment of our lives, for community and against invidious exercises of power, is still being written. Let us not read the story of AIDS/HIV through the funnel of phony contemporary claims that LGBT people just want settled monogamy "like everybody else" or that try to unlink women’s reproductive choices from their legitimate pursuit of pleasure.

Standing up for pleasure makes me uncomfortable. It’s like coming out all over again, taking a risk. Even a fight for universal social welfare, the fight I’m usually in as a scholar and advocate/activist, seems safer. At least people have the things I usually admit to wanting somewhere-you know, like Sweden. Where on earth do people have the kind of freedom Ellen Willis wanted? As my friend the anthropologist and chef Amy Trubek suggested at a workshop on gender and food, why not pleasure? When did something else replace human enjoyment-joy, pleasure-as the point?


clip image001Felicia Kornbluh is associate professor of History and director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program at the University of Vermont. She is a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC-Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law in fall 2013 and at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at McGill University in spring, 2014. Her book, The Battle for Welfare Rights (2007), is a study of the social movement for welfare rights. She is currently writing a monograph on the New York City World’s Fair of 1964-1965, and on the political movements that made that fair a failure. She is also in the middle of a long-term project on disability, gender and social welfare, which focuses on the activist and constitutional law scholar Jacobus tenBroek. She has had a long career as an advocate and activist, especially on issues of women’s and children’s wellbeing, and has written for numerous academic and nonacademic journals.

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