LET THE RECORD SHOW
A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993
By Sarah Schulman
Nearly every Monday night from 1987 to 1992, hundreds of people met on West 13th Street in New York City to plan and execute the fight of their lives. Among them was the author Sarah Schulman, whose new history of ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — is based not only on her own involvement in the movement but on 17 years of interviews she and her collaborator, the filmmaker Jim Hubbard, conducted with 188 members of the group. The resulting book, “Let the Record Show,” is a masterpiece tome: part sociology, part oral history, part memoir, part call to arms.
At its height, the still-extant group’s meetings drew 800, and its largest direct action, “Stop the Church” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989, drew 7,000. ACT UP’s effects were seismic: on the pharmaceutical industry and medical research, on insurance policy, needle exchange laws; they even persuaded the C.D.C. to redefine AIDS so women could get better access to treatment. Similar chapters, not officially affiliated but sharing a name, cropped up in cities across the world.
“AIDS activist history has been mistakenly placed in the trajectory of gay male history,” Schulman writes, when in fact many of ACT UP’s founders and stalwarts, as well as many of its tactics, sprang from other movements of the ’60s and ’70s: Black liberation and civil rights, communism, Quakerism, the Jewish left, the Weathermen, women’s reproductive rights, radical student associations. By nature, Schulman writes, “these were people who were unable to sit out a historic cataclysm.”
In March of 1987, after a lecture by the playwright and activist Larry Kramer at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, these many tributaries gave birth to an organization, leaderless by design, that was bound to grapple with what we now call intersectionality. The public face of ACT UP was often white and male, and that’s the predominant image in the popular memory, in part because a group of white men with financial resources crying for health care was novel, and drew news cameras in a way other groups could not. But the organization itself was (if unevenly) devoted to medical access for all demographics. “It is very unusual,” Schulman writes, “for movements or groups that are dominated by men and white people to achieve transformational victories that improve the lives of women, people of color and poor people” — and this focus owed much to the work of activists from those demographics whose stories Schulman excels in highlighting.