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ACT UP Storytellings

from ACT UP TEN-YEAR ANNIVERSARY STORYTELLINGS   program #1


Shea Stadium Women's Action
 
as told by Maxine Wolfe

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partial transcription (based upon writings)

Maxine Wolfe   
In the spring of 1988, activist AIDS groups across the country called for the Nine Days of Action. In New York we actually called them the "Nine Days of Rain" because it rained on almost every one of the days. The only two days it did not rain was for the women's action, which was at Shea Stadium, and an action that we did at the Harlem Office building, about prisoners and AIDS. Afterwards we decided that God must be a Black Lesbian.

As a women's committee, we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do because it was supposed to be a day on women and AIDS. We were sitting around one night trying to figure out what to do. We were just drawing out the craziest ideas we could and one of the women asked, "What is the goal of what we want to do?" Part of this was about the difference in status between women and men at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, even though they were both sick. Women were erased totally and also pictured as vectors to men getting infected, and all the advertising on the subways in New York was about women taking condoms with them in their purse. It would say "Don't forget these when you go out," as if women wore condoms. It sort of reminded me of my own growing up, and it was the woman who always had to be the one responsible. We said that we wanted to get the message out that heterosexual men are responsible; that they're the only people being let off the hook in this epidemic by the media. Gay men are being put down; prostitutes and women are being told they have to take condoms along. What is anyone asking from straight men in the world? Nothing. So we decided that we wanted to go to a venue that in people's minds was heterosexual, and male heterosexual, to the core. And the Nine Days of Action were in the spring--May 4th--and we were trying to figure out what venue would fit this, and all of a sudden, one of the women said, "Baseball games! The Mets game!" and everyone in the room just went crazy.

We began to throw around crazy ideas. One woman was absolutely panicked. She had absolutely never had anything to do with sports. But everybody else in the room was taking off on it. Two of the women were baseball nuts, so we finally decided this was the best idea we ever had, and we sat down and really worked out a plan. We were gonna get tickets in blocks. Shea Stadium is U-shaped. We planned to get seating in blocks in the three different areas of the "U" and that we would do "call-and-response" like you do at college football games. We called up Shea Stadium and found out that in fact there was a ball game that night and that we could get blocks of seats and that if you bought sixty seats, you could even get a message on the message board! And we thought, "Wow, this is fucking amazing!"

When we came to the floor of ACT UP and we presented the Shea Stadium Action as our Nine Days of Action thing, the room became dead silent. Panic was in the air, absolute panic. So people started to stand up and speak. First, we got the "class" stuff. "We're gonna get beaten to death there," and we're standing there very calmly saying, "Do you know who goes to Shea Stadium? We go to Shea Stadium? Kids go to Shea Stadium on Friday nights to pick each other up. Queers go to Shea Stadium." And in the room all of a sudden the closed baseball queers started standing up. All these gay men who wouldn't tell anyone they were baseball nuts because it's not the "thing to be," and they started saying, "Yeah! I go to Shea Stadium." So we finally got people to go. _

We had reconnoitered the Stadium beforehand, found the seats we had just bought, measured them all out. We had rulers so that we could make banners that were exactly the right length. We also went to a night game to check out the lighting and to figure out how big the letters would have to be to be seen.

Word of this got out. In the beginning we could hardly get anybody to buy seats. By the last day, I was getting phone calls from people I hadn't heard from in years from the left because the word had gotten out that this was gonna be the most amazing thing that had ever happened, and people were acting like I was their connection for a seat in the orchestra. They'd say, "Do you have seats at Shea Stadium?" and I'd say, "No, I don't." So it actually turned out to be quite amazing because we ended up selling around 400 tickets.

At Shea Stadium we had people spread in three different actions and there was also a whole big issue about standing outside and handing out these leaflets. Because Shea Stadium is owned by the City of New York, but the Mets rent it, anything that happens in Shea Stadium is in relationship to the Mets. The parking lot is owned by Kenny or was then. That's private property. They can decide what happens in the parking lot. But there's a whole space that is not really either publicly or privately owned or leased--almost like a street or plaza that goes around the entrances to the stadium, that looks like a sidewalk but a big sidewalk and that is not the parking lot and is not the stadium. We could not find out for weeks who it belonged to. We wanted to know, if we were going to get arrested, what it was we would be getting arrested for. Were we on private property or public property? Who knew? And we kept trying to get in touch with Shea Stadium. We also wanted to get in touch with them because we wanted the Mets to declare this National Woman and AIDS Day, and we left them many messages and they never called us back. And by that time, ACT UP had a reputation for doing things. Especially the women, because we had just done another demonstration in January, and the police nearly went crazy because we did not ask the city and the police for permits.

We had coming up on the LED screen a message that said "Welcome the National Women and AIDS Day Committee," and we did not think we'd have any trouble getting in because we had tickets. But giving out these flyers outside, that we thought we would end up getting arrested for. About a week and a half before this whole thing was going to happen, some guy wrote a story in the Village Voice about ACT UP that mentioned we were going to Shea Stadium. A friend of mine who was actually working with Shea Stadium on a totally different thing--she was working with them on a performance art thing that was going to be happening in their parking lot, and they did not know that she had anything to do with ACT UP--was there one day when the guy she was working with was talking to the community/police liaison. The officer was saying, "Did you hear? These crazy people are coming to the ballpark next week--these ACT UP people--and they're going to rip up the turf and they're going to do this and we're going to do that." And we thought, "Holy shit, we're going to show up, and they're going to be in riot gear!" And we weren't even doing anything that provocative, from our point of view. I mean we saw this as an educational action. there was nothing we wanted from Shea Stadium. So we actually thought of this as a lighthearted but hard-hitting educational action because it would be in a place where no one would ever expect us to be.

So we got one of the women to call up the cops--not to ask for a permit. she said, "You know, we've been trying to get in touch with Shea Stadium for three and a half months and nobody has called us back. We just wanted to let you know that we're going to be out there on Wednesday night, and we just did not want you to maybe get freaked that we were coming." And of course, when he started asking questions like "How many?" she just said, "Well, I don't know, but we just wanted you to know." So it wouldn't be this kind of riot gear kind of thing. When we got there, they had spoken to the people at Shea Stadium, and the head of their public relations department came out and put our leaflets in every one of their press packets, and he made sure that we could stand at every single doorway and give out all of our stuff. It was great, but we hadn't negotiated; we just went.

It was the most amazing thing because we had made these banners with a black background and white lettering. We had six long rows in each area and each row had a set of banners, and we only opened them up when the visiting team was up because we did not want to upset the New York Mets fans. At a certain point, I do not remember what inning it was, the first banners opened up. They started at the top of the group and they were always three lines. And the first one opened up and it said "Don't balk at safe sex." And then across the stadium, opposite them, in the seats above the other field, three banners rolled open and they said "AIDS kills women," and then in the center, behind home plate, the next three opened up and they said "Men! Use condoms."

And then, people from ACT UP got so into having these banners that people started swaying back and forth, up and down, and the visual effect was incredible because it was at night, totally dark, and the lighting from the ballpark totally reflected the white letters of the banners. an inning and a half later, we opened the next set of banners. They said "Strike out AIDS," "No glove, no love," and the final one said "SILENCE=DEATH" and it had a huge triangle and ACT UP! This was on C-Span. We not only got to the twenty thousand people who were in the ballpark, but it was televised around the country and we gave out leaflets. We reached an incredible number of people in an audience that we'd otherwise never have been able to get to. Most of the people came from ACT UP, but many people from other groups got wind of it and thought it was the most exciting thing. So there was one whole section of non-ACT UP people.

excerpted from "This Is about People Dying: The Tactics of Early ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers in New York City" interview with Maxine Wolfe by Laraine Sommella from the book, "Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance" edited by Gordon Brent ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter, Bay Press, Seattle Washington, 1997

 



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