'Oral History is Its Own Source': An Interview with Sarah Schulman

The author of Let the Record Show on AIDS activism, gossip, and collective memory. 

Kelly Roberts is a writer and PhD student. She lives in Brooklyn. 

Drew Stevens

Here’s what I would have done in pre-COVID times: I’d have left my apartment in Brooklyn and biked over the Manhattan Bridge, down Allen Street, past the Bluestockings book store, until I reached Sarah Schulman’s East Village apartment. The building is an old six-floor walkup, and it’s made up of a mix of old-timers who have been there for decades and inexplicably well-to-do twenty-somethings. Sarah would leave the door slightly ajar for me to enter and, after a warm hiiiiii come in, she’d remind me to take off my shoes. But today we talk on the phone.

We’re talking about her new book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Let the Record Show is the culmination of nearly forty years of activism, journalism, nonfiction writing, fiction writing, filmmaking, and oral history work. The book synthesizes 188 interviews that Schulman has collected along with Jim Hubbard and James Wentzy over the past twenty years in the ACT UP Oral History Project. In contrast to historical accounts that privilege a unified, authoritative narrative, Schulman approaches her political history with a novelist’s understanding of the complexities of character, action, and consequence. As much as possible, she sets the scene for ACT UP members to describe their participation in their own words. But neither is she a distanced, objective observer: she was a participant-witness, and her own experiences—particularly as a reproductive rights activist and a girl reporter—shape her analysis of ACT UP’s political history and significance.

At its height, ACT UP NY drew in 500-700 people to the Monday night meetings, and there were dozens of affinity groups working simultaneously on a wide range of projects, campaigns, and actions: making needle exchange legal in New York City, establishing housing for people with AIDS, ending insurance exclusion for people with AIDS, and changing the CDC’s definition so that women could get access to benefits and drug trials, to name just a few. Let the Record Show preserves the spirit of ACT UP’s single statement of unity and purpose: “The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” By and large, her work shows, this description was true. 

Sarah Schulman has been described as one of the most “underrated” writers in the US and (ironically) as “the lesbian Susan Sontag.” She’s always been out in her work and has always featured queer—especially lesbian—protagonists. Forty years into her career, though, we may be having a long overdue “Schulmanaissance,” as Emily Gould puts it. Having published twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, she is one of our most formidable contemporary intellectuals and an essential recorder of queer and activist histories.

I first met Sarah in a discussion about her book Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. The conversation challenged me intellectually and politically. As our conversations continued, I came to recognize this feeling of gratifying challenge as part of the Schulman-effect. Sarah is a talking encyclopedia of queer and New York history. Our conversation spins through many of the people and events that propel the book. Because I am always running to catch up to ideas she has been formulating for decades, I never leave our conversations in the same place I started. To talk with her from across a queer generational divide is to receive something simple but transformative: information and responsibility.

Kelly Roberts: You aim to record ACT UP members in their own words. The book is organized around people and experiences, not strict chronology. How did you arrive at this structure?

Sarah Schulman: The way that I write is that the discovery is in the writing, so I don’t usually know things before. And I’ve written a lot of formally inventive novels, and I’ve been looking at experimental film for thirty-something years. The first realization came when Jim [Hubbard] did the film [United in Anger], and we went to funders. They said, to do a documentary film, you need to take five or six individuals and take them on a journey. And Jim said, “no, we can’t do that, because that’s not what happened.” So I already knew from the beginning that it was going to be the history of the group. Then I realized I couldn’t tell it chronologically because it wouldn’t be accurate. So much happened simultaneously and overlapped, and that is what made it work.

Many ACT UP members had died before you started the interview project. How did this absence influence your approach to the book?

Not only had many people died, but every woman with HIV had died, except for one. So what I did was, I recreated what I call “a landscape of disappearance and apparition,” which are these remembrances of people who died. But they’re not uniform. I wanted the form of the book to reveal and express some of the emotional experience of being in ACT UP. That to me is the point of formal invention. It expresses experience instead of describing it. Some of the remembrances are quite long and detailed and some are very brief. And that’s how it was in ACT UP—somebody might die who you knew well, and somebody might die who you talked to once.

Why did you approach this political history at the level of character?

To just say that the group did something doesn’t explain what happened—you have to say what the people did and how they understand it. So there’s two parts: what they say they did and how they understand what they say they did. Oral history is its own source. It’s not a proof of anything except what people said. But there’s a collective energy to that.

Previous histories have focused on like five people; I mention 140. I tried to say even just a few words about who they were before their experiences in ACT UP, because then you find out quite a bit. People come from some very interesting, different places, and that, I felt, was significant.

If history takes place in personal experience and interpersonal relationships, how did you navigate the line between gossip and history?

Well, what’s the difference?

Good question.

I think we’re used to histories that don’t take relationships into account, and those histories are incomplete. This is not the first popular history. But because of the gay aspect, there’s a dishiness to everything, there’s a camp quality or aesthetic. And relationships are verrrrry important. There’s a book, Personal Politics by Sara Evans, about how the feminist movement came out of the civil rights movement. I read it when it first came out, and it put relationships in the forefront as motive for political insight. But most histories don’t do that.

What did you think were some of the difficult histories here? The theft of ACT UP money, dishonesty about status, and the working relationship between Gay Youth and NAMBLA [North American Man Boy Love Association]—those come to mind.

I’ve already done like fifteen interviews. No one has mentioned [those things]. Well, maybe once. But it shows overall that this was not respectability politics at all. It was extremely messy. It was very human. I mean it’s about people dying. It was a very vulnerable, bodily event occurring within a highly sexualized and abandoned community. There’s a lot of humanity, and I’m just showing it. There’s a desire to punish and repress contradiction and pain and all of that. I guess that’s part of what’s called respectability politics, and I think it’s destructive.

Did coming back to this book after writing Conflict Is Not Abuse help to clarify the shape the book needed to take?

I think it’s the other way around. People in ACT UP were doing the right thing; the government was doing the wrong thing. When ACT UP tried to make the government do the right thing, we would get arrested. So that’s the structure of Conflict is Not Abuse: that when you resist something that is unjust, then you become stigmatized and punished. So that was a lived experience.

At one point in the book, Garance Franke-Ruta says that conflicts turned inward. You have this section of archived notes from the “Tell It To ACT UP” newsletter—a place where people shared opinions and criticism outside of the regular meeting space. You called it Twitter before Twitter. Did these alternative lines of communication and inward reflections lead to productive conversations?

Well, I think what Garance says is that she thinks we all went crazy. And I would agree with that. It depends. I mean some of them are anonymous. But I think the people who really could express themselves clearly on the floor did not use TITA. It was the place for people to speak who didn’t speak on the floor.

“Tell It To ACT UP,” you know, what I think is the most interesting thing about that section is that the things are all written by people who are not in the book. It’s a whole new group of people. Who are these people? Many of these people I don’t even know who they are. So it’s like it was a way for people who were not leaders to express themselves.

There’s always a movement between the daily grind of organizing and a historical spark that allows a movement to take off. What allowed ACT UP to gain momentum in these years?

The zeitgeist is a big factor. AIDS is identified in 1981. In the first five years, 40,000 people die. The government does nothing. The gay community is abandoned by familial homophobia. People are totally in chaos. Then there’s the Bowers v. Hardwick decision where the Supreme Court upholds the sodomy law. So you have this community that needs help from the government, and they’re being told that anal sex is still illegal. There are demonstrations, and you have a political airing of a certain anger in the midst of all of this death and state oppression. There’s the action by the Lavender Hill Mob, where Eric Perez and Michael Petrelis dress up in concentration camp uniforms and scream at the CDC. Then Larry Kramer gives a very good speech. The SILENCE=DEATH poster had gone up a few weeks before. Then people are like, OK, let’s do it.

The longer history is that some people who came to ACT UP had been in previous political movements. Movements are not discrete. Gay movements are usually understood as coming from nowhere, because gay people in previous movements were usually in the closet. But nevertheless, gay people come from these previous movements. People came from student movements in Latin America, from Black movements, from sectarian Leftist movements, the reproductive rights movement, the women’s peace movement. Those people came in with very specific skills that really influenced and informed the structure of the organization.

How did cultural and social scenes around ACT UP play a role in your work?

In the 1980s, every part of the apparatus of power is white and male: the art world, the media, the government, the private sector. If you look back at the art element of ACT UP, if you look only at galleries, you only get white males. But if you look at things like nightlife or performance art in Asian gay clubs, then you get people of color and women. Those milieus were stratified. The Clit Club and Meat, which was the men’s night of Clit Club that was held in the same space, were both run by people of color who were in ACT UP, and they became extensions of ACT UP in a sense.

In many ways this is a how-to book: how to do recon at the stock exchange, how to xerox fake IDs, how get the right screws to unhinge the Statue of Liberty for a banner drop. What are some of the most important practical organizing lessons here?

The most important lessons are: don’t use consensus—have radical democracy, big-tent politics, and simultaneity of response; direct action, not social services; theory emerges from the action, not before; and you have to create your own solutions to problems instead of being in an infantilized relationship to power. Women and people of color: do not waste your time trying to have consciousness raising for white people and men—just marshal their resources to get your projects accomplished.

What have you seen that’s been effective recently and why?

I don’t want to answer it that way. Let me say what resonates now, what’s interesting. In ACT UP, there were 148 chapters, but they were not coordinated. You could be in ACT UP, and you could really do what you needed to do. You didn’t need permission. It wasn’t like a political party. That’s sort of what’s going on now with the anti-police violence movement. Each city, each community, is having very a localized response to police violence, is producing its own local leaders. The media is not covering those local leaders, and they’re not covering the local strategies and demands. But they’re different from place to place and milieu to milieu. And that’s the right way to do it.

In Gentrification of the Mind, you said that you predicted the big era of gentrification would come to an end, that we’d be able to historicize it.

Right, because of the crash, 2008, yeah. I was completely wrong.

Right. Where do you see the era of gentrification now? Do you think that with a growing emphasis on local actions and multi-issue politics, more people are beginning to imagine a political future on different terms?

Well, gentrification is very complicated right now, because, in New York City, for example, there’s a lot of empty real estate. But because the prices won’t come down, it can’t be accessed. So, we have empty storefronts, empty offices, empty apartments all over the city that nobody can afford. So that’s where government needs to step in. It’s not like there’s no housing stock.

I don’t know. I don’t know what the post-COVID thing is. But looking at the New York mayoral election I think is a very good barometer. The outcome will tell you where we’re going.

You follow the contradictions of an Insider/Outsider strategy, where some people get inside and have conversations with people with power while other people exert pressure from outside.

Well, sometimes people who are inside are also outside in the streets screaming and getting arrested too. But because of the demographic of power at the time, the only people that people in power could identify with were people from their own class, race, and gender. So those are the people who were able to communicate with each other, but the thing that gave them legitimacy was the power of the outside. Jim Eigo describes this very well.

I juxtapose three campaigns. I show T&D [the Treatment and Data Committee] going into meetings with pharma, sitting at the table. Then I show the women’s campaign that couldn’t get a meeting for two years. Then I show the drug campaign, which was total chaos—people stealing, people OD-ing, everything. I raise the question, if the rest of us were the ones who went inside, would we have gotten anywhere? I think that’s a totally legitimate question.

Tell me more about experimental trial 076 for pregnant women with HIV, to track mother to infant transmission. There are a lot of moving parts here about race, gender, and consent, and it sparked debate about strategy and values.

There’s a lot of things going on there. One is that the population involved was mostly poor women of color who were HIV positive and who were pregnant. Some didn’t find out they were HIV positive until they were pregnant, and many felt guilty. That is a force that makes people agree to be in a trial that could save their child from AIDS, but it could make it impossible for the woman to take a new class of drugs. To be a good mother, you sacrificed your life for your child, right? But is that consent?

This goes back to the early reporting I did on pediatric AIDS, where infants born HIV positive, who were mostly people of color and poor, were put in placebo trials. I thought that both of these things were wrong, because I had been in the reproductive rights movement. I had been in the anti-sterilization movement, where women—this same group of women—in previous generations were sterilized against their will. The issue of poor women of color having real consent was something that everyone who had been in the reproductive rights movement was very sensitive to.

And then there’s this other issue of women as “vectors of infection,” which we had already seen with sex workers. Women were seen as “vectors of infection” to men or children, not as people with AIDS deserving of treatment.

There’s also the fact that those women were not getting any healthcare except by being in a trial. So there’s that, which is completely real. There’s no such thing as good medicine in the United States, so you’re in situations that are absurd.

Sharon Tramutola says that for some people in ACT UP, government neglect was new, while other people always “knew the system stunk.” Ray Navarro was also critical of the “drugs into bodies” slogan because it didn’t take into account historical oppression. How did the debates about treatment and access anticipate the way the HIV/AIDS crisis looks in the present?

Early people, like Vito Russo—who didn’t have health insurance—they were more radical. They came from gay liberation, and they had a vision of healthcare for all. “Drugs into bodies” came with the second iteration. They had access, they had insurance, they had good doctors. Moisés Agosto-Rosario discusses this, Sharon Tramutola discusses this, Rick Loftus discusses this. But it’s hard to say. ACT UP did the best they could, and they accomplished an amazing amount of things. But they couldn’t overcome capitalism, that’s really the punchline.

In your conclusion, you share your own difficulties with gender biases in healthcare and consider the legacy of the campaign to change the CDC’s definition of AIDS to include women. What is the significance of that campaign?

That in a way is ACT UP’s most far-reaching success, because today any woman in the world with HIV who takes a drug, is taking something that was tested on women. After the Thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, pharmaceutical companies were sued, and women were banned from experimental trials.

It may not be to the extent that we wish, and there are still different problems of viral suppression in woman and men, but that change now affects every HIV-positive woman in the world. But as Terry McGovern points out, in timelines of AIDS history, they show Rock Hudson, but they don’t show the CDC definition change.

You conclude with “the enduring relationship of AIDS,” keeping the physical, emotional, and political aftermaths of this moment tied together. What narratives were you working against?

I was following César Carrasco. He’s talking about the myth of resilience: just because people are alive doesn’t mean they survived. There’s the loneliness of that generation, and many people of that generation have had drug problems, and many are depressed. He also talks about the Latino Caucus, he names like twenty-five people. And he’s like, why couldn’t you ever see us? We were there!

And I end up in this phlebotomy lab with this nurse who’s my age, and she’s also a veteran of AIDS, and there we are. Or my acupuncturist. You know, we’re these old people, and we’re these veterans of AIDS, and we have private conversations about what we experienced. And that’s where it ended, because that’s where it is.

This is a 700-page book with no unnecessary page. There’s much more to discuss. What was an under-represented or under-theorized ACT UP action or campaign that excited you when you were writing the book?

The solidarity with Haitians is so important, and that overlaps with housing. That’s incredible. The fact that gentrifiers became housing activists because they were personally affected by AIDS—that’s amazing. I love Santa has HIV, the action at Macy’s by Action Tours. I mean who has heard of Action Tours? But they did all these crazy actions, with Jamie Leo dressing up as a priest, and the police thinking he actually is a priest, and he’s screaming. All of that, I love all of that stuff, and I’m so happy to be able to show it. And Karin Timour and her amazing insurance campaign—hundreds of thousands of people have gotten insurance because of this woman that no one’s ever heard of!

What was important for you in writing this work, and what has surprised you in its reception?

I don’t know. I’ve been writing about this, doing this, my whole life. I started writing about AIDS in 1982, when I was 24. Now I’m 62. This is an ongoing part of it all.

The most annoying thing that people have said is “you foreground women and people of color.” That is completely false. I simply say what they did and what white men did. That’s it. I would say that’s the predominant misreading.

The thing with me is, I’m a novelist, so my nonfiction books work cumulatively. There are tropes and arguments that build as you read. I actually work with the form of nonfiction. There was a book called Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, and it was an analysis of the strategies of the civil rights movement. I read it when it came out, and it really influenced me a lot. There are certain books like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Parting the Waters, there are these histories that can only be written by people who have some kind of proximity to the events, and otherwise it gets lost. And I hope that this is a book like that.

Kelly Roberts is a writer and PhD student. She lives in Brooklyn.