Sarah Schulman is a nonfiction writer, American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, gay activist, and AIDS historian. She is known for her books The Sophie Horowitz Story(1984); Girls, Visions and Everything (1986); Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (2016); The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Generation (2012); and for founding MIX NYC in 1987 with filmmaker Jim Hubbard, which produces experimental media and is the longest running lesbian and gay film festival in New York. In May 2021, she is releasing her latest book, LET THE RECORD SHOW, A Political History of ACT UP, NY 1987-1993, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I wanted to speak with Schulman because her critical thinking and scholarship has been paramount in mapping out and navigating a queer existence and understanding the liberties and limitations of political organizing. This interview was conducted in August–September 2020 over email at the pace of a text conversation and via the phone.
What does it mean to you to be committed to action? I’m thinking specifically in terms of J.L Austin’s “felicitous speech act,” which he defines as, “linguistic articulations that do something as well as say something.” I’ve been struggling with my queerness in terms of how I put my body forward—to put it on the line. I feel outside of the queer community because when people, white gay people, are talking about the structural violence in the gay community I don’t think that Black or Brown people are implicated in that claim. I feel like my Blackness and body are ejected from and then made devoid of meaning independent of the whitewashing of Marsha P. Johnson’s participation in Stonewall. Independent of Marsha, it seems like whiteness has coopted queerness so much so that I don’t believe queerness is a useful umbrella term for people of color trying to tether themselves to something generative or substantive.
I’m thinking of action in terms of commitment and not performance or reposting advocacy or awareness on the internet, but more sustaining a practice of radicality. Would you say something of that stature is possible? Or is it something that—because we can conceptualize it and are fed it so much—we don’t have to step outside of it and its political implications to challenge or name it.
What does this mean? “I feel outside of the queer community because when people, white gay people, are talking about the structural violence in the gay community I don’t think that Black or Brown people are implicated in that claim.”
How do you define “queer community”?
What discussions of “structural violence in the gay community” are you referring to?
It seems to me that with queer people at the lead of so many radical movements: BLM, Dreamers, Palestine Solidarity etc., radical movements and queer movements are now organically inter-related. And the rise of the concept of “Black Trans Women” as a vanguard force is widespread. I do think that those words “Black Trans Women” simultaneously means literally Black Trans Women but also is a kind of metaphor for a re-imagining of the old categories.
I’m talking about the instrumentalization of Black people fronting these movements and continually being spun out and murdered at the hands of white people or disenfranchised by the structure of the system, a system of whiteness as ownership.
I define queer community more along my thinking of around Blackness, transness, or queerness writ large which isn’t about the containment of an identity or linear narrative of self or movement of a body of people per se, but more about the expansion and an opening of something, a spreading of oneself and one’s resources. It’s embodying a selflessness. All about selflessness.
The violence I’m referring to is the instrumentalization of the Black body that’s enmeshed in this doomed discourse of exchange value. In the “Racism and Feminism” chapter of Bell Hooks’ Ain’t I A Women: Black Women and Feminism, she highlights some of my concerns regarding the failures and possibilities of language, “Historiographers and especially recent feminist writing have created a version of American history in which white women’s rights advocates are presented as champions of oppressed Black people. This fierce romanticism has informed most studies of the abolitionist movement. In contemporary times there is a general tendency to equate abolitionism with a repudiation of racism. In actuality, most white abolitionists, male and female, though vehement in their anti-slavery protest, were totally opposed to granting social equality to Black people. Joel Kovel, in his study White Racism: A Psychohistory, emphasizes that the ‘actual aim of the reform movement, so nobly and bravely begun, was not the liberation of the Black, but the fortification of the white, conscience, and all.’” She continues, “When white women reformers in the 1830s chose to work to free the slave, they were motivated by the religious sentiment. They attacked slavery, not racism. The basis of their attack was moral reform. That they were not demanding social equality for Black people is an indication that they remained committed to the white racist supremacy despite their anti-slavery work. While they strongly advocated an end to slavery, they never advocated a change in the racial hierarchy that allowed their caste status to be higher than that Black women or men. In fact, they wanted that hierarchy to be maintained. Consequently, the white women’s rights movement which had a lukewarm beginning in the earlier reform activities emerged in full force in the wake of efforts to gain rights for Black people precisely because white women wanted to see no change in the social status of the Blacks until they were assured that their demand for more right were met.”
These blurbs are useful as agents, because to me they highlight the complacency of white people in the queer movement, whom I believe are asking the wrong questions by “demanding” and “asking” for the conditions and terms to be better or different for Black people but fail to put their own bodies and lives on the line. What I struggle with in the narrativization of Marsha P. Johnson’s legacy is that white people sensationalize her role yet fail to protect Black Trans Women. I struggle with Black Trans people constantly needing to advocate for what they need yet we as a (queer) community praise the heroism that both Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera exemplified. Activism to me has become more about reacting to either the harassment or murders of Black Trans Women, after these events have occurred and isn’t fully concerned with the question of how we make the everyday lives of trans people better. If we made Black life sustainable and made sure people had enough to live, the hope is that we wouldn’t have to worry about them putting themselves in dangerous situations and endanger their lives.
Lastly, Black trans people and people of color are caught in this web of exchange value, in that the frustration of the commonplace (white) people is dependent upon people of color being and staying disenfranchised and displaced. I’m more interested in working towards a world or reality where protesting isn’t necessary, where everyone has what they need. Otherwise, it’s only ever going to remain an oppression Olympics where people who struggle can’t ever exist outside of that reality because the structural oppression prevents any sort of real reckoning spawning from the discourse.
Let’s try this again: When you were growing up in New York in the late ’70s, what did being a lesbian and an activist mean to you?
So, in the late 1970s I was in college, but my introduction to activism came in childhood. My mother used to take us to Washington for marches against the Vietnam war on the busses organized by her union, The National Association of Social Workers. Her father, a laundryman from Russia, was involved in the organizing of the laundry workers union in Brooklyn, so that was her influence. Aside from opposing the war, my first political involvement that was independent of my family was working for the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) in high school when they were asking people to boycott supermarkets that carried scab lettuce and grapes. I went to organizing meetings held by the UFW, whose president at that time was Cesar Chavez. It was very inspiring and created an image in my mind of what organizing felt like.
Can you describe what marching in Washington felt like? What do you believe is necessary for a movement, march, and protest to be successful and effective?
Well, I was so young, you know, that it seemed perfectly normal. The idea of hundreds of thousands of different kinds of people converging on Washington in hope of ending the war in Vietnam felt appropriate and what people do and should do.
Your second question is enormous and broken down into three large categories. Do you want to be more specific?
How do you apply your activist practice to your daily life?
Again, that is an enormous question worthy of a 400-page answer. One example, a lot of my friends and colleagues have lost their employment and I have continued to be employed and to be paid. I have tried to spread around whatever I could out of each check. I wouldn’t be able to do that forever, but this is an emergency.
Can you give me a paragraph summation of the hypothetical 400-page answer?
These two things are not really separate. I have a basic impulse to action that may be characterological, acquired, brain-wired, learned—its origins are not specific. I have basic instincts that feel mostly aligned with my belief systems. Of course, sometimes there is a struggle, and I don’t always do as I believe I should.
What does that impulse to action lead you?
In my daily life I look for solutions. As a novelist and creative writer, I am constantly solving problems, and with the institutions with which I interact, and the people in my very broad community, I try to be as effective as possible.
What problems are you currently engaging?
My primary organizational commitment right now is that I am on the board of RAIA (Research on the American/Israeli Alliance) and the Advisory Board of Jewish Voice for Peace. The two organizations recently released an important report Deadly Exchange, documenting training of US police by Israeli security forces in new militarization tactics and weapons.
I am a professor in the public university, College of Staten Island, City University of New York. The Covid-19 Crisis has deepened the gulf between private sector education and public education, a gulf that exists to re-enforce race and class differences in the US.
In May, I am publishing a work that was 20 years in the making: LET THE RECORD SHOW, A Political History of ACT UP, NY 1987-1993, a 752-page history of the broad coalition of AIDS activists of which ACT UP was an organizational nexus. The book shares, in depth, the strategies and tactics of this exciting movement, as well as its mistakes and flaws. It is designed to be helpful to contemporary activists.
Can you talk more about the conception of the project?
It is a history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP, NY) based on 188 oral histories that Jim Hubbard and I conducted over 18 years with surviving members of that organization.
Right, and you started Mix NYC, formerly known as the New York Lesbian and Gay experimental film festival, with Jim in 1987. This is the first time you’re working with a major press; an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Did you have to rework the book for press at all?
Actually, I did four books over ten years with Dutton and one book with Avon, so this is really a return to mainstream presses. The book was sold on proposal, so I really developed it with my editor.
How does it feel to return to the mainstream?
Does a return say anything about the market? Do you think people are ready for this kind of book project?
Well, I have always had a better response from corporate publishing for work about AIDS than work about lesbians. Of course, this book is both and much more. Yes, I think the book will be very helpful to people who want change and are hungry for precise information about how an earlier generation of people without rights achieved it. Remember, that when AIDS was first noticed by medicine in 1981, homosexuality was illegal, and even here in New York City, gay people could be denied housing, employment, and public accommodation (restaurants and hotels). So, information about how a despised group of people forced the society to change will be very inspiring to people on the front lines today.
What do you think corporate publishing has against lesbians? What do you think about the legibility and presence of homosexual culture now, presently in New York?
Authentic lesbian content and POV always illicit a high “ick” factor from gatekeepers regardless of the market. It is one of those times where personal distaste and lack of identification overwhelm economics.
What does lesbian representation look like now?
Well, those are two different things. Lesbian rights, if you mean legal rights, are completely dependent on gay men. All of the victories in the courts—though often argued by women geniuses—are often financed by men’s money. But representation is a different matter because many gatekeepers are too prejudiced to universalize to a lesbian protagonist.
What’s the risk of universalizing a lesbian protagonist?
No, they can’t universalize TO a lesbian protagonist.
Because it is a degraded experience—economically, representationally, and in terms of real power. You know that one third of incarcerated women identify as “queer”—gay women are overrepresented in the military, in homeless shelters, everywhere that you find poor people out of power.
I didn’t know those statistics; that queer women are on the front lines of the gay movement but are also hiding in plain sight.
Interestingly, historically, queer women have been on the front lines of every progressive movement, but not always openly.
When you’re writing are you writing towards a subject or to a specific audience through your own subjectivity or are you working through your queer sensibility or framework, or both?
I don’t really know. As someone who writes a lot, in many different forms, it really all comes out organically and I make very few decisions at the beginning. After 21 books (I have two that are not yet published), numerous plays and movies, writing a way of life and I don’t really analyze it in that way.
I’m really interested in debunking the narrative absence of the lesbian women. We see and hear from a lot of gay men and trans women but don’t really engage the lesbian presence.
This is how we started the conversation; I believe. The phrase “LGBT” is no longer functional for many reasons—including in part that well-to-do white gay men have experienced a kind of “white reconciliation” with the government, industry, and power structure that separates them from queer people who are still disenfranchised. In this way there is what TL Cowen calls the “abject object” the new queer, who is poor, of color, female, incarcerated, trans, undocumented etc—some intersection of some kind of homosexuality with other marginalized realities. In the past few months the phrase “Black Trans Women” has come to have two meanings: literally Black Trans Women, a demographic of people who face enormous violence from both civilians and police, incarceration and poverty and also “Black Trans Woman” or “All Black Lives Matter” as a metaphor for those excluded from power. The reality of gender-based economic inequality (whether trans or female) and the fact that many queer women are financially responsible for children (queer women of color in the US south are the sector of LGBT people most likely to have children) makes the reality of queer female life unpalatable for entertainment.
I want you to speak more on the risk and harm of failing to get to a place of universalizing to a lesbian protagonist? Is it urgent?
Your questions are bringing out the old Leftie in me—Gramsci gave us the word “praxis” the application of theory to practice, and the Marxists taught us to look at the material quality of people’s lives when assessing a society. Of course, these are just elements of my larger thought process, but they are showing themselves strongly in this conversation.
What was the process like for making such a huge book?
That is a very long answer.
When you started the project what were you hoping to accomplish?
I kind of don’t want to go through all of that now. I wrote a prologue to the book that is many pages that lays this all out, and I don’t want to be repetitive or reductive. Why not focus on a book of mine that you have read and try to get into it in some kind of depth?
This passage from Conflict Is Not Abuse has always stuck with me:
“Refusing to communicate has always been one of the main causes of false accusation as it guarantees negative fantasy about the other, especially in arenas that are particularly loaded like sexuality, love, community, family, materiality, group identification, gender, power, access, and violence. Email and texts don’t allow us to go through the human phases of feeling that occur when we actually communicate face to face. Refusing to speak to someone without terms for repair is a strange, childish act of destruction in which nothing can be won. Like all withholding, it comes from a state of rage, and states of rage are products of the past. As some say, ‘If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.’ By refusing to talk without terms, a person is refusing to have a better life. It hurts everyone around them by dividing communities and inhibiting learning…withholding this possibility makes normative conflict or resistance the primary source of injustice between us. It is designed to hurt, and it does hurt, with nothing gained but pain.”
Have your feelings changed on communication since you wrote CINA? Are there better ways to communicate and hold each other accountable?
Great question–Thank you. No, my thoughts about this precise point have not changed at all—and seeing the substantial response to the book reenforces it for me.
Obviously if people don’t want to speak to each other, they don’t need to. And people may need some time apart to reassess and reproach. But shunning is a form of punishment, in fact it is a form of harassment if it is elongated.
Of course people certainly may need terms for re-approach, like: “I would be happy to get together when you have gone to six Al-Anon meetings” or “If you can show me some level of support in X situation, I would be happy to sit down and talk.” But have no terms for ending shunning is poisonous, because the shunning can go on for literally decades for either petty or human conflicts.
Right, and to some extent shunning could be categorized as a form of self-care for some, when it only lengthens the psychological fear.
In the conclusion of the book you end with the following:
“When we don’t refuse cruelty, ultimately, we stand for nothing; we are hypocrites, and our public selves are phony. Progressive people do not shun, and in fact they intervene when group shunning is being organized. Finally, ultimately, when groups bond over shunning or hurting or blaming another person, it is the state’s power that is enhanced. Because the state doesn’t want to understand causes, because the state doesn’t want things to get better, it doesn’t want people to understand each other. State apparatuses are there to maintain the power of those in control and punish those who contest that power; that is what bad families do, and that is what bad friends do. And nothing disrupts dehumanization more quickly than inviting someone over, l looking into their eyes, hearing their voice, and listening.”
This summation exposes the structural and architectural questions around power. I’m curious what you would have to say of those who protest and donate to causes but don’t actually want things to change?
I would need a specific example, but I think people do want change, but sometimes not to the extent necessary to be achieved, because of dual loyalties and fear of loss.
How can those who don’t know or have those kinds of loyalties know peace? Can you define dual loyalties and fear of loss?
Well, people may–for example–truly believe that homelessness is unethical, but when the city locates homeless people in new neighborhoods, some residents resent or fear the changes. Of course, relocation in hotels without social services and drug treatment and job training and mental health facilities is better than nothing but does not adequately address the causes, so it does produce alternative problems instead of solving the larger issue.
Why should we only settle for better? Why is better the standard when it incites more problems than it solves?
Because crisis need to be considered from the point of view of the people who are in trouble. And moving off the street or out of overcrowded shelters into hotel units with more safety, privacy, and bathrooms is not full-service housing but it improves people’s lives.
But again, improvement doesn’t completely subvert crisis. So, we’re then left where we started?
It is not an either/or. The more approaches the better. Never sacrifice better conditions to an ideal that is not immediately achievable. Both and more simultaneously bring the paradigm shifts that we need in the long run. Each person’s life is important.
Do you believe structural change should be the standard, or, can we only ever exist within a framework where we’re being reactive? In Gentrification of The Mind you write:
“Many described themselves to me as ‘activists,’ but actually they were working for social service agencies, or as part of AIDS bureaucracies. The distinction between service provision and activism has become elusive. Poor people are very interwoven into state agencies: there’s a lot of surveillance and intersection. My life has shown me that activists win policy changes, and bureaucracies implement them. In a period like the present where there is no real activism, there are only bureaucracies. So, when there are severe budget cuts, lack of jobs, lack of educational opportunities, foreclosures, et cetera, there are no structures in place radical enough to be able to mobilize people to respond effectively. These women were under siege by U.S. government policies, but had no political movement, only a social service sector to occupy.”
Sure, it’s important to welcome resources in any shape or form when it comes to providing those in need with aid, but isn’t it important that we focus on forming a more sustainable practice of prioritizing specificity in legislation?
Neither—I think we need multiple approaches to problem solving at all times.
How do you think queer people are oppressed now?
Well, as we said earlier, these categories are outmoded in a way. The primary oppression for queer people is familial homophobia, which of course can be deadly or have lifelong consequences: material and emotional. Women earn less than men and so households and communities of women are poorer—poverty, stigma and sexism are why we see queer women so overrepresented in prisons, the military, and homelessness. Intersections of queerness, gender, poverty, undocumented status, race and trans status enhance marginalization, financial deprivation, lack of recognition and lack of accurate representation which has widespread consequences.
The word utopia has been floating around and being misused recently. What do you think it means to work towards a queer utopia?