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The Voice of ACT UP Culture


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Sarah Schulman’s new book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 is the culmination of twenty years of research, interviews, and writing on the history of American AIDS activism and the grassroots organization ACT UP. In the excerpt below, Schulman describes the impact of OutWeek, the first major national publication to call itself a lesbian and gay magazine, through some of its founding members.

outweek.jpeg

The first and last covers of OutWeek magazine, published weekly from June 26, 1989, until July 3, 1991. Images from the OutWeek Internet Archive and courtesy of Gabriel Rotello. Photo credit to Jim Fouratt and Michael Wakefield, respectively.

In the eighties and nineties, queer people were excluded from authentic representation in corporate television and film, both news and entertainment, and most lesbians as well as queer people of color could not get serious stage time for plays from their points of view. As a result, print was the most important venue for community communication. Queer and feminist bookstores were all over the country. In 1992, I was able to do a book tour that stopped in each gay bookstore in the U.S. South. Every big city had a least one gay and/or feminist newspaper, and some, like San Francisco, had more than three. Most heterosexuals, whether civilians, scientists, civic/political leaders, or cultural gatekeepers, did not read the queer or women’s press because, frankly, they didn’t know it existed. The walls between countercultural queer life and the official mainstream were thick and invisible. The queer press was made for queer people, and it both reflected and created the countercultural bonds that built community.

*

ANDREW MILLER

Andrew Miller grew up a “squirrelly, hypersmart, bookish, musical, isolated kid,” who was also gay, and he was afraid early on because he lived through a time when lots of his friends died. But the cataclysm crept in through a kind of slow unraveling of the fabric of our community, “through lack of information, and fear, and not having answers, and being sick, and not knowing what to do, or having somebody else be sick, and not knowing how to fix it, and not knowing if you were gonna get it, and not having anybody that you could ask about it, or not wanting anybody to know … not being able to tell anybody else.” Andrew remembered rushing out to get his passport, because there was a six- or nine-month period when President George H. W. Bush and Congress were considering making an HIV test a requirement for getting one.

Andrew joined the ACT UP Actions Committee and the Coordinating Committee while working as a stringer for out-of-town gay weeklies. He was writing for the Bay Area Reporter (San Francisco) and Windy City Times (Chicago) and, most of all, Gay Community News (Boston). At this time, around 1988, the situation in New York with the gay press was dismal.

“The only game in town was the New York Native, which had broken the story about AIDS and had some wonderful writing in it, originally, including by Larry Kramer, also some really solid reporting. But by this time … they refused to believe that HIV was the cause of AIDS and their reporting was getting very bizarre. They had become very hostile to ACT UP … My frustration was that often there were better stories about New York—often by me, but also by other people—in the papers in Chicago and Boston than there were in New York. And I hated this … there wasn’t a way to circulate meaningful information.”

Andrew met Michelangelo Signorile at ACT UP. Mike had been talking to Gabriel Rotello, who had access to someone who could provide funding. That person turned out to be a PWA businessman named Kendall Morrison, a phone sex entrepreneur who made his money from a service called 550-TOOL. Kendall was in ACT UP, and he signed on to fund the publication. A paper was also a way for him to have a vehicle in which to advertise his phone sex lines. “So he was a smart businessman.”

*

MICHELANGELO SIGNORILE

OutWeek came about when a bunch of people who had been working on the Media Committee, along with others in ACT UP, were talking about how they needed a publication, something that would be the voice of the new bold, oppositional, and coalitional politics coming out of ACT UP. Sex was very much a part of the ACT UP culture, so having phone sex ads, as a result of Kendall’s patronage, “just seemed appropriate and fine.” There was never really a clear delineation between OutWeek and ACT UP—not only in the coverage but also on the business side. It was widely distributed on corner newsstands in the city, and “other people were reading it who hated ACT UP, and hated OutWeek, but they would read it.” So it was broadening the debate to more people who needed to be engaged.

*

ANDREW MILLER

Gabriel was the editor. Mike was the features editor. Andrew was the news editor. Maria Perez became art director, and Sarah Pettit was arts editor. OutWeek’s cultural framework intersected with ACT UP’s. It covered shows by ACT UP artists, reviewed books by ACT UP authors. Maria Perez’s visual style was very downtown and contemporary, a combination of camp and sophistication. Handmade and sleek, it was interactive with ACT UP’s countercultural aesthetic. When there were rifts in ACT UP, OutWeek covered them, and when ACT UP attacked politicians, OutWeek always asked them for a response. Its main political difference with ACT UP was that OutWeek endorsed candidates for public office, which ACT UP would never do. Even with a small regular circulation of ten thousand, the weight of being on New York’s political and cultural cutting edge gave it a long reach. “Gay people weren’t out in publishing, to the extent that they are today. OutWeek made it possible for there to be a National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association.” Gay Community News in Boston was the only other queer newspaper so closely aligned with activist movements. The national gay press, especially The Advocate, started out bold, but as the community expanded, it remained white male oriented and thereby became more driven toward assimilation. The Advocate also gave up its sex ads in order to attract the first mainstream brand, Absolut Vodka, that dared to advertise in a gay publication. One Advocate editor told me that when they put anyone but a white male on the cover, they lost sales. OutWeek, on the other hand, regularly had women, people of color, drag performers, or genderqueer people on the cover. The publication closed in 1991, a year before ACT UP’s split, and no queer publication has been both that cool and that influential since.

*

GABRIEL ROTELLO

Gabriel Rotello was raised in “WASP Connecticut.” His mother was a teacher, and his father invested in real estate. He moved to New York in 1974 and became a keyboard player. His partner, Hap Hatton, got sick in 1986 and died two years later. Gabriel went to a support group at GMHC and then saw ACT UP’s concentration camp float at Gay Pride. What stood out for him in ACT UP was the structure. There was no hierarchy. There were no paid officials. There were no offices.

He joined the Fundraising Committee, and then, one day, “this light bulb went on in my head, and I thought, Oh my God. What if somebody started a new publication that reflected what’s going on in ACT UP?” Gabriel went to Barnes & Noble and bought two bags full of books on how to start a magazine, read them all, and took notes. He made a list of, in his opinion, the smartest lesbians and gay men in New York who had been involved in politics in ways that he had not been involved. He called them all up and said, Hi, my name’s Gabriel Rotello. I’m going to start a new gay magazine in New York, and I would love to just meet with you, and you could just tell me everything that I need to know. And every single one of them said yes. The way he understood it was that he created his own, independent affinity group, and OutWeek clearly could not have been an affinity group of ACT UP, because it was a commercial enterprise that cost about a million dollars overall. Yet it was far from traditional. Gabriel knew that they were not going to get corporate ads. “We were calling the cardinal a fucking pig.” Sometimes, when something particularly outrageous was on the cover, they could ramp up the print run to thirty or forty thousand and sell out. Even if it was just a typical week and it was the middle of summer, OutWeek could print fifteen thousand copies and sell out, running on a combination of circulation and queer-friendly and countercultural ad revenue. The pharmaceutical companies didn’t even try to advertise.

OutWeek’s biggest controversy had nothing to do with ACT UP directly, but everything to do with AIDS: outing. Initiated by Michelangelo, the goal of outing was to confront powerful people in positions to influence AIDS policy who hid their homosexuality—usually to maintain their currency—and in this way deprived the AIDS community of arenas of support and visibility that were necessary to shift the paradigm. “At the end of the day, I think you can put on the fingers of one hand the names of the famous people that we actually outed. We talked about it as breaking a barrier in journalism.”

*

THE WOODY MYERS CONTROVERSY

The overwhelming majority of the lesbian and gay vote had turned against Mayor Koch because of his languid response to AIDS, and instead supported Mayor-Elect David Dinkins. As one of his first orders of business, Dinkins announced that he was appointing a man named Woodrow Myers to be his new health commissioner, who would be in charge of AIDS policy. Myers, who was Black, had previously been health commissioner of Indiana. Dinkins was the first African American mayor, and African Americans had a huge number of health issues in New York City. Gabriel began calling people in the Indiana state government to find out what Myers was like, and he discovered, to his horror, that Myers had advocated for mandatory contact tracing, mandatory name reporting, and the quarantining of people with AIDS in Indiana. And everybody Gabriel called said the same thing. “It was common knowledge in Indiana.”

OutWeek came out every Monday, the same day as the ACT UP meetings. Gabriel wrote a story, five days before publication, during which time the mayor might actually appoint Myers. And Gabriel felt that the scoop couldn’t wait. So he called the New York Times and said, I have a story that I think that you’re going to want to put on the front page of the New York Times, but it’s going to be on the cover of OutWeek next Monday. But we sort of feel like we can’t really wait, so I will give you the story, provided that you credit it to OutWeek magazine in your lede. And they said, Well, let’s see what it is.

So he faxed it over, and about five minutes later, they called and said, It’s going to be on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow, and it’s going to say “OutWeek magazine” right in the lede. And that started what has often been called the most bitter dispute of the Dinkins administration. In typical OutWeek fashion, they ramped it up: there had been a selection committee for Woody Myers, and there was a very prominent gay person on that committee named Tim Sweeney, who was the associate director of GMHC. Gabriel called him up before the Times ran the piece and asked, Did you know about this? You were supposed to be vetting this guy or anybody for Dinkins. And Tim said, Yeah, I did know about it, but I didn’t really think it was that big a deal. You have to understand, Indiana’s a very conservative state. I actually felt that he was sort of taming even worse things that might have happened in Indiana. He was trying to keep it from being even worse than it was going to be. And he seems like a really nice guy, and I met him and he was really great. Gabriel called everybody back up in Indiana and said, What’s up with this? They were like, Are you kidding? He was the guy. Nobody even talked about contact tracing or mandatory name reporting until he came along. It was his idea. What are you talking about?

In OutWeek’s role of trying to keep gay leaders accountable to the grassroots, Gabriel wrote a strongly worded editorial, in which he excoriated Mayor Dinkins. He said, He’s broken the vow. We regret having endorsed him for mayor. He’s proven himself to be an enemy of our community. And then he called for Tim Sweeney to resign or, if he refused to resign, for the board of GMHC to fire him. That’s the kind of thing that OutWeek did on a fairly regular basis.

“In ACT UP there was accountability. You got up to say something on the floor, and if you were an asshole, people screamed at you and told you. It was like Parliament in London, Get off! Sit down!, you know, whatever. But with our [greater queer] community, there was this self-perpetuating group of people, boards of directors that were dominated by very wealthy people. That’s mostly how you got on a board; you were really rich and you had lots of money, then you would sit on the board and decide the policy and elevate various people, and there was just no accountability.”

The next week the letter section exploded in OutWeek, with a number of leaders of gay and lesbian organizations calling for Gabriel’s resignation. But Gabriel experienced a lot of people supporting him, indicating a more radical turn in the general stance of the community toward its own organizational boards. “And it just turned into this cacophonous thing.” Sweeney did not resign, but Woody Myers did. And he was replaced by Margaret Hamburg, who had previously worked closely with ACT UP in Washington at the NIH. The threats of mandatory testing were averted, setting an entirely different tone for the future of AIDS in New York City.

“What we were trying to do—in OutWeek—was to take the vision, or at least my vision, of what the floor of ACT UP was, that energy, that anger, that whole worldview, and just send it out to the world. To people that could never make a Monday-night meeting because they lived in Des Moines, Iowa, or Tallahassee, Florida, to a high school kid that could never even get to New York. Just to send that out there to inspire people to believe that we could get through this nightmare, you know, with strength and positivity and power and humor and effectiveness.”

 

Sarah Schulman is the author of more than twenty works of fiction (including The Cosmopolitans, Rat Bohemia, and Maggie Terry), nonfiction (including StagestruckConflict is Not Abuse, and The Gentrification of the Mind), and theater (Carson McCullersManic Flight Reaction, and more), and the producer and screenwriter of several feature films (The OwlsMommy Is Coming, and United in Anger, among others). Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York TimesSlate, and many other outlets. She is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at College of Staten Island, a Fellow at the New York Institute of Humanities, the recipient of multiple fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and was presented in 2018 with Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award. She is also the cofounder of the MIX New York LGBT Experimental Film and Video Festival, and the codirector of the groundbreaking ACT UP Oral History Project. A lifelong New Yorker, she is a longtime activist for queer rights and female empowerment, and serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Excerpted from Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993, by Sarah Schulman. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 18, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Schulman. All rights reserved.

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