Adrienne Rich, Trayvon Martin, and the 25th Anniversary of ACT UP
By Keiko Lane
For the past week, three stories have dominated my Facebook feed: The assassination of Trayvon Martin, the death of poet Adrienne Rich, and the 25th anniversary of ACT UP.
I was 16 when I first started reading Adrienne Rich. At A Different Light Books, I had picked up a copy of The Dream of a Common Language, and read the lines:
… how have I used wars
to escape writing of the worst thing of all –
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?
(“Twenty-One Love Poems, VII”, The Dream of a Common Language, 1978)
On Monday nights, I still feel like I’m forgetting something, then realize that I’m not at an ACT UP meeting. There hasn’t been one to go to in years.
One Monday night weeks ago, a queer friend from the old days posted an invitation to a meeting of the Decolonize collective, formed in response to Occupy Oakland. I was working late and couldn’t go. I was seeing psychotherapy clients, and these days, as many queer clients as not–even the HIV+ ones–have babies. And we talk as much about nonviolent parenting as we do nonviolent resistance to the police.
In Happy Birthday, ACT UP, Wherever You Are, ACT UP founder Larry Kramer wrote:
During World War II, when Jews were being gassed to death by the trainload, the great Jewish scholar of political theory Hannah Arendt told her people they should form an army to fight back, and that they only had themselves to blame if they didn’t. We had that army for a while. It was called ACT UP. What happened to it?
What did happen to us? When I posted Kramer’s article on Facebook, an ACT UP friend and I chatted about it. Most of us who are still alive, my friend thought, are still doing the work, still fighting the epidemic. “It just looks different,” she said, “somehow diffused.”
In 1990, I went to my first ACT UP meeting in L.A. In addition to all of the daytime organizing for universal health care, an AIDS definition which included women, and a needle exchange pilot project, at night we sometimes ran around wearing dark hoodies – though we didn’t call them that then – adorning the city with reminders that Silence = Death. We didn’t get shot at, but we did, sometimes, get arrested.
There aren’t many of us left. Recently I had dinner with a friend from this close HIV+ ACT UP circle. I remember when he and our other friends had so few t-cells left, they named them all.
And I remember that it was a Tuesday, in 1991—Tuesday, because during a people of color caucus breakout group at ACT UP the night before, Steven Corbin and I had started talking about literature. We were meeting at a café to continue our conversation. I was early and staked out a table on the sidewalk on an oddly chilly Los Angeles day. I saw Steven walking toward me – Steven in a black sweatshirt, hood pulled up for warmth because even though the top of his head sprouted dreadlocks, his head was shaved on the sides and back. A white woman walking toward him crossed the street, clutching her purse, glaring sideways at him. Steven watched me watching her as he strolled up. He picked me up, swung me around, and kissed me hello.
“Happens every day, baby,” he said.
The only time I’d ever seen Steven threaten anyone was at a clinic defense action a few weeks earlier. The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue had mass-mobilized their members to shut down a women’s health clinic. A contingent of ACT UP folks were linking arms to keep a corridor to the clinic doors open, but we were heavily outnumbered. A big hulking white man from Operation Rescue had just gotten all up in the face of a man from ACT UP and now was coming for me. Steven threw his body between me and the man, who, seeing Steven’s tall, broad-shouldered, African-American figure coming at him, paused, then backed up.
“You better run,” Steven called after him.
At the café, Steven nodded at the book on the table.
“What are you reading?”
Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World was open in front of me. We spent the afternoon reading to each other holding steaming mugs of tea between our cold hands.
After the Rodney King rebellion, our roles shifted: When we were out in the world together I saw more and more people turning from him in fear. Walking down the street it was my light skinned, female form trying unsuccessfully to buffer him against the world.
But that was 21 years ago. In March 2012, who was there to buffer the world in those final moments for Trayvon Martin? Why does someone still need to? What does it mean that we still live in a time when a young black man is executed for walking down the street? Who would he have become? Who have we all become–or not become–that this is still happening?
What kind of times are these… the line of an Adrienne Rich poem loops endlessly through my head. What kind of times are these…
Yes, my HIV+ clients are parents, but just last week a staff member at a fertility clinic in San Francisco told a lesbian calling about queer fertility services “well, I supposed you could use a gay sperm donor, but why would you want to? They carry diseases.” ACT UP is 25, and sometimes it seems like we haven’t gotten anywhere.
Women’s health clinics are still under attack just like they were when ACT UP affinity groups linked arms to keep the doors open. 20 years ago–a whole generation.
What does it mean to raise a next generation of responsible citizens? Adrienne Rich wrote about this dilemma in 1976 in Of Woman Born. We still don’t have an answer.
And last month, Los Angeles lost another fierce activist to AIDS. Transgender health advocate Alexis Rivera was 34.
Alexis shouldn’t have died.
Steven wasn’t supposed to die.
None of them should have.
We’ve been angry so long that rage feels normal.
This weekend is Passover. And Easter. In this strange mash-up of holidays, as my not-really-practicing Jewish household interacts with our not-very-practicing, but multi-spiritual group of friends and ghosts, I wonder: If our friends could rise from the dead what would they see? What would we tell them? If I were to walk arm in arm with Steven down the street in Berkeley where I now live, or in Silverlake where he lived then, what would happen?
What kind of times are these… At the seder we will attend this weekend, when we sing liberation songs, will we believe them? If we don’t, what will be believe?
Maybe we’ll read Adrienne Rich’s poetry instead.
I look through my bookshelves remembering the poem she read the last time I saw her:
Look: with all my fear I’m here with you, trying what it
means, to stand fast, what it means to move
(from “Midnight Salvage,” Norton, 1999)