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’80s Hades: Panelists talk of “surviving Reagan” [13 May, 2009]

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The Reagan years defined a new era in LGBTQ organizing.  The community struggled against governmental apathy towards AIDS while forging activist communities that demanded resources and health care for those affected by the disease.

For the most part, historians have paid attention to LGBTQ activism in this decade by focusing on the two coasts.  However, Chicago witnessed its own efflorescence of intense activism in this decade, and a May 7 Out at CHM (Chicago History Museum, 1601 N.  Clark) panel entitled “surviving Reagan” provided a glimpse at the work of some of the city’s queer activists.  The event was moderated by Jennifer Brier, assistant professor of history and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of a forthcoming book on the politics of AIDS from 1980 to 2000.

The three panelists were Jackie Anderson, Debbie Gould and Gabriel Gomez.  Anderson is a longtime activist who came of political age in the 1960s and has worked to bridge the gap between the Black and white lesbian communities on the South and North sides.  She was part of the Lesbian Community Care Project and among those responsible for its annual Ball moving to the South Side.  (This year, the “Garden of Eve” gala, as it is now called, will take place on the West Side at the Garfield Park Conservatory.) Gould, soon to join the University of Santa Cruz as a faculty member, was a member of Chicago’s ACT UP and Queer to the Left (both defunct) , and is currently a member of Feel Tank Chicago.  Gomez is currently an associate professor of library science/communications media program at Chicago State University.  He was a member of ACT UP and then Queer Nation (also now defunct).

Brier began with a brief introduction to the Reagan years and pointed out that, in the telling of the history of the decade as a triumphant march of conservatism, there tends to be “a deep sense of loss and disempowerment” among queer activists.  In an effort to complicate how that came about, she asked the panel members to address their triumphs as well as their failures in the context of their groups.  Brier also asked about the impact of race and racism within queer activist groups like ACT UP, emphasizing that “knowing racial difference [is very different from] acknowledging racism,”  and about the relationship between left politics and queer politics.

The ensuing conversations revealed the complexity of experiences that made up community organizing, both from a generational and a racial and cultural perspective.  Anderson, who grew up in segregated Chicago and came of age in the 1960s, was forthright about cultural and racial segregation between the city’s north and south side lesbian activist communities.  She pointed to that as a marker of strength: “Chicago is such a difficult city for people in vulnerable communities, and therefore we have sophisticated activists.”  She said that her work was about “struggling to define issues important for lesbians, to improve lesbian visibility and to build collaborative relationships across lines of color and culture.”

Gould said she was a politically unaware 16-year-old in California in 1980, when Reagan was first elected.  After going to the University of Chicago in the late ’80s, she went to her first ACT UP meeting “and found my political home.”  She said, “It’s where my political development happened.  AIDS was a lens through which to understand how power constructs meaning, hierarchies of race, gender, and class.  “ Noting that her entry into political activism was significantly motivated by a desire to meet girls, she said “activism works when it achieves a level of desire.”

Gould also said that the popular narrative about ACT UP as a racist organization was “bullshit.”  According to her, the fact that the AIDS crisis eventually became a contest over resources and a lack of access meant that different groups at different times (people of color, women, white gay men) felt betrayed, causing tensions.

Gomez described himself as a “scared kid” in 1980, when he went to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate.  While his family was thrilled to see him enter the bastion of higher learning, Gomez soon came face to face with racism when he was told that “my roommate was excited to show his friends the Mexican.”  Soon after, Gomez left for Berlin, where even coffeehouses distributed government-supported fliers on how to survive the AIDS crisis.  He credited that kind of sexual and political culture, so different from the stigmatization in the United States, with saving his life.  Coming back to the United States, Gomez joined ACT UP and then Queer Nation where, he said, the point was that knowing that “being joyous was how we were going to survive.”

Speaking about contemporary organizing, Anderson said, “the model of bridging the gap is over in the country and the community.  The community doesn’t give a shit.”  She added that “white gay people get universalized as the gay identity but that has nothing to do with Latino or African-American communities.”  Gomez addressed the preponderance of marriage organizing in today’s movement and said that marriage did matter to him, in terms of the benefits it offered but not “in the lockstep way determined by some D.C group.”  Gould said that she felt “disconnected from … the gay movement in its mainstream manifestations” but stressed the importance of “activism as world-making.”

Originally published in Windy City Times, 13 May, 2009.

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