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Madonna, ACT UP, Coalition Politics: Activist Sarah Schulman talks to Jeremy Goldstein

[Picture credit: Sarah Schulman (left) at a pro-choice protest in the 1980s. Photo: Joan E. Biren.]

Sarah Schulman is a writer, activist, and AIDS historian from the Lower East Side in New York. A prize winning author of over twenty books and plays and a co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers, her work draws on her own lived experience and engagement with global politics and social change movements like Jewish Voice for Peace, where she is active in Palestinian Solidarity, and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), founding The ACT UP Oral History Project

In a rare visit to London, Sarah helms ‘Four Days of Coalition Politics and Queer Liberty’ 1-4th May at Rich Mix, SOAS, and ICA.  The project has been devised by Dan Glass, Activist of the Year (Sexual Freedom Awards), Erkan Affan, a queer writer and independent activist based in Berlin, and myself for London Artists Projects.  Dan is at the heart of queer resistance movements internationally.  He set up Queer Tours of London, and is credited with reviving the London chapter of ACT UP in 2012.  He says, “In this global cataclysm of white supremacy, patriarchy and occupation, our event is conceived as a durational cultural and political happening.  It’s a moment to draw breath from all that’s wrong in the world, and consider an alternative plan with roots in the power of coalition politics and queer liberty. Over four days we’ll be asking:  what can be learned from our (queer) history to propel change, and what can we do as individuals to make a difference?”

 

[Picture cedit: Dan Glass and Jeremy Goldstein from A Queen’s Christmas Message 2018.]

Sarah’s many books include ‘The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination’ and ‘Israel/Palestine and the Queer International’.  Both offer a ‘profound sense of historical geography’ through the politics of place and sexuality, and their importance in understanding oppressive socio-political systems. ‘The Gentrification of the Mind’ is a meditation on AIDS and the gentrification of New York. This year it’s 20 years since I was told ‘you are (HIV) positive’, and even though I didn’t read the book until 2014, it captured deeply held emotive thoughts and beliefs, that only someone like me who witnessed the AIDS epidemic and is HIV+ could know. Similarly, ‘Israel/Palestine…’ enabled me to reconcile my love for Israel with a Government supporting apartheid. I finally came to the conclusion that Israel and I are not compatible in its present state. I believe in Israel’s right to exist, but I also support BDS.  

(Dear Madonna, I am of the same generation that made you a star. I love that you spoke at the Stonewall Inn on New Year’s Eve, so why betray us, with your decision to appear at Eurovision? Love x)

Recently, I spoke to Sarah in New York.

Jeremy Goldstein: Who or what moment, is leading the social revolution in the US right now?

Sarah Schulman: Interestingly, young Congresswomen of colour are among the most inspiring voices in the US right now: Illhan Omar, Rashida Talib, Ayanna Pressley and the remarkable “AOC” Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Watching them taking down the fooli sh idiots from the Trump administration is inspiring and encouraging.

Jeremy: Where does your drive, fire and passion come from, and what are your favourite actions and projects you’ve been involved in?

Sarah: I am a very interested person.  I love finding out and making the connections, unearthing the structures and understanding.  That is really my drive. My favourite projects are writing plays and having them produced, also novels and films; campaigning for abortion rights, AIDS activism, and Palestine Solidarity.

Jeremy: How can we use coalition politics to challenge authoritarianism?

Sarah: By not identifying with the state, but instead standing with people who are the new abject objects: queers and their communities among refugees, Muslims, homeless people, anyone who is being scapegoated and blamed for the consequences of the greed of the 1%, anyone who is being lied about.  That is where we should be investing, loving and listening.


[Picture credit: United in Anger - a film by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard]

Jeremy:United in Anger: A History of ACT UP’ is a film you made with Jim Hubbard in 2012. It opens our programme at Rich Mix on 1st May with an audience Q&A between you, Dan Glass and panellists including Amelia Abraham, Jonathan Blake, LeaSuwanna, Miqx, and Andria.  Is there a particular story or action from the film, which means a lot to you? What  can we learn from ACT UP?

Sarah: Well, of course I knew most of the people in the film. Those are our dead friends after all. Probably my favourite screenings were in Palestine, when audiences reacted to ACT UP’s Day of Desperation opposing the first Gulf War.  Looking back, Jim Hubbard did a great job of showing how coalitions function, resisting the false “heroic individual” myth.

ACT UP was successful to the degree that it was, because it did not work on consensus, and instead produced a simultaneity of actions where people could respond at the same time, in different realms, based on what made sense to them.

Jeremy: On 2nd May you’re speaking at SOAS about your new book ‘Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York’.  What can we expect from this book to be published in 2020?

Sarah: A lot. This is a history of ACT UP New York, based on 188 interviews I conducted with Jim Hubbard over 18 years.  The book is the product of some heavy lifting and it is filled with connections, clarity, revelations, and information that will help us be more effective in the future.  I am very excited about it.  But I haven’t finished it yet – so far have written about 450 pages and still have a long way to go.

Jeremy: Our third event, ‘Which Way Forward?’, is curated by Erkan Affan and will be at the ICA on 3rd May with pannellists Travis Alabanza, Lewis G. Burton, Aviah Sarah Day, and the co-founders of the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration (CTDC), Dr Nour Abu-Assab and Dr Nof Nasser Eddin.  CTDC do a lot of work in Palestine improving women’s access to justice.  What’s going on in Palestine?

Sarah: Palestinians are asking the rest of us to support the Economic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and that includes Eurovision.  The Israeli state is moving towards a full seizure of the West Bank with funds from the United States and other governments and it is the responsibility of all of us who live in those countries to build Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions solidarity through campuses, churches, Jewish solidarity groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, for queers to avoid Pinkwashing – and for us to demand that politicians move forward on supporting changing foreign policies recognising Palestinian humanity.

Jeremy: Madonna at Eurovision?

Sarah: The Boycott of Israel is the only nonviolent strategy that internationals can participate in that is effective.  Clearly the Israeli government hates this campaign.  They are doing everything they can to discredit it.  Madonna’s cynical narcissism is a tragic stance on the wrong side of history.   Those of us who made her a star, need to demand accountability and responsibility from her and people like her.  Many performers from Roger Waters to Lorde, Elvis Costello and Cassandra Wilson are boycotting Israel.  Supporting apartheid is appalling, not cool.

Jeremy: Our fourth event is also at the ICA on 4th May.  ‘The Realm of the Recognisable’ will see you reading from your own work and in conversation with artist and writer Matias Viegener discussing your shared friendship and engagements with Kathy Acker.  In ‘Gentrification of the Mind’ you talk about ‘the death of Kathy Acker in the midst of the AIDS crisis, as another elimination of free space, another shrinking of the community of non-corporate thinking.  Another victory for the power of homogeneity’.  Why?

Sarah: Because the mass death experience that was the epi-center of the AIDS crisis, and that is repeated in different spheres today, is the disappearance of individual lives, communities, context, memory and witness.  So, when Kathy died so young and unnecessarily – not of AIDS – it had a broader impact than it would have had in a different context.


[Picture credit: Kathy Acker]

Jeremy: William Burroughs said ‘Kathy Acker gives her work the power to mirror the reader’s soul’.  What do you think he meant by that?

Sarah: He felt very implicated and moved by her work, and he felt seen by her drive to express.

Jeremy: Beyond our four days in May, I hear you’re making a new show with Marianne Faithfull?

Sarah: Marianne and I have a new play with music, her music – it is called ‘The Snow Queen’ and it is built on 22 songs from her 50-year career.  The show will have its world premiere at the Manchester Factory, a new 700 seat theatre as soon as the building is complete.

Jeremy:  It is fitting you’re arriving in London at almost exactly the same time as us opening ‘Truth to Power Café’ at Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester on 26th and 27th April.  Between now and January, I’m performing the show all over England in theatres, community centres and town halls.  We’re even playing Hull Minster with Back to Ours on 1st June.  Over 250 participants will rise up and respond to the question ‘who has power over you and what would you like to say to them?’  When we come to New York will you take part?

Sarah: I’d love to.

Sarah Schulman
Four Days of Coalition Politics and Queer Liberty
1-4 May
Rich Mix, SOAS, ICA


1 May, Rich Mix
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP
A film by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman
Post-film Q&A with Sarah Schulman, Dan Glass and guests
DJ and Performance
Book here

2 May, SOAS
Let the Record Show: A political history of ACT UP New York
Sarah Schulman reviews the roots of AIDS activism in feminism, civil rights and black power
Book here

3 May, ICA
‘Which way forward?’
Sarah Schulman leads a panel addressing the future direction of coalition politics and how marginalised queer communities can use such politics to challenge authoritarianism.
Curated by Erkan Affan
Book here

4 May, ICA
The Realm of the Recognisable
Sarah Schulman in conversation with Matias Viegener
as part of the ICA exhibition I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker
Book here

Truth to Power Café opens Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester 26th – 27th April and tours thereafter.  Click here for dates and details on how you can take part.