continued (part 2):
This Is about People Dying: The Tactics of Early ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers in New York City _
(excerpt) based upon interviews 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
AIDS IS NOT
A BALL GAME.
MEN! _DON'T ENDANGER THE WOMEN YOU LOVE.*
AIDS is the leading cause of death among women
between the ages of 25 to 34 in NYC.
HERE'S THE SCORE:
SINGLE Only one woman has been included in government sponsored tests for new drugs
DOUBLE Women diagnosed with AIDS die twice as fast as men. TRIPLE The number of women with AIDS has tripled as a result of sexual contact with men in NYC since the 1984 World Series. THE
MOST MEN STILL DON'T USE CONDOMS. USE CONDOMS. NO GLOVE, NO LOVE! *And if you can't be with the one you love,
protect the one you're with.
SPRING AIDS ACTION '88 -- Nine Days of National AIDS Related Actions and Protests.
ACT UP ACT NOW
_____________Leaflet by ACT UP/New York, Shea Stadium Action, 1988
Maxine Wolfe: 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. _[see DIVA TV Storytelling Netcast]
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.
Laraine Sommella: In early ACT UP New York, what was the attitude toward conventional rather than alternative science or AIDS treatment? What role did the women play in moving ACT UP beyond framings of treatment solutions in terms of conventional medicine? Was there a switch in emphasis at some point from conventional to alternative treatments?
Maxine Wolfe: The switch to the more alternative treatment wasn't just a women-versus-men thing. I think that's the one thing that people shared initially or that the men got that the women already had was that the health care system was political and the research system was political and it wasn't just a matter of good and bad science. It was a matter of who did they care about and what were they going to do and that you couldn't separate politics and science.
LS: So this was a feminist perspective that had already been developed by the women's movement?
MW: Yes, it was from the women's health movement. And many gay men in ACT UP knew firsthand already because the initial ravages of the epidemic were happening to them. But gradually a particular set or subset of people in ACT UP starting thinking that the problem was not the structure of science. Rather, it was a problem of who was doing it. A major issue was that the people doing the research were kind of divorced from the people who were being affected by the research.
LS: Which is a political issue and not a science issue?
MW: Right. But they did not have any critique of the way that science gets done in any other sense. In effect, they moved to a point where they did not have an analysis of the fact that the government only tests drugs that drug companies can make money from, and those decisions in science are being determined by profit and advancement through the university system and not by what will save people's lives. At that point there was a very decided split, with people leaving ACT UP to form the Treatment Advocacy Group (TAG). They told everyone that they represented the people who had AIDS and that everybody else in ACT UP was seronegative, which was a total lie. If you were talking about women, it was a social thing, while if you were talking about treatment, it was a male issue. You could not talk about women's stuff with that group of people without them believing that it was a social issue associated with AIDS instead of a treatment issue. In that way they were no different from the government people that we were confronting. If science does not include everyone, it's not really science; it's white male science, and that's a very specific kind of science. A lot of the people who left to form TAG were more allopathically oriented, like traditional U.S. medicine, and they had far more faith in the capitalist system of profit. They even thought it was going to work for them. Eventually.
LS: It sounds like most of the people who eventually became involved with ACT UP were not politicized in terms of their gay identity.
MW: Not originally; no, not at all.
LS: That was something that developed over time, then?
MW: Right. They were...some of the people were very strong from the beginning. But the majority of gay men coming to ACT UP, really I would describe it as "hiding their gayness behind AIDS." In other words, they were coming out only to fight the AIDS crisis. And then they discovered the kind of experience of working with the gay community when you're gay and being able to be out in that place and the electricity of it and of people feeling good about themselves--really experiencing it firsthand--and became totally out. People changed their career paths; people dropped corporate jobs.
LS: Their consciousness got raised.
MW: Yes. And there's no way to go back.
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
EDITOR'S NOTE: For articles in the mainstream media that often contradict Wolfe's first-hand experiences at the actual events and that convey the bureaucratic view of ACT UP activism, see: Cynthia Crossen, Shock troops: AIDS activist group harasses and provides to make its point, Wall Street Journal, A1 (Dec 7, 1989); Jason DeParle, Rash, rude, and effective. ACT UP helps change AIDS policy, New York Times 139, A12, B1 (Jan 3, 1990); Editorial, AIDS and misdirected rage (ACT UP disrupts sixth annual International AIDS Conference), New York Times 139, A18, A22 (June 26,1990); James Barron, Prosecutor's appeal dropped on police beating of protester, New York Times 141,B4, (Oct 17,1991); Bebbi Wilgoren, 74 AIDS activists arrested in Capitol protests, Washington Post 114, A24 (Oct 2,1991); David W. Dunlap, FBI kept file on ACT UP in protest years; dossier appears to be mainly news clippings, New York Times 144 A15 B3 (May 16,1995).
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