Steven Weissman

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The Queer Issue

Ban Heterosexual Complacency

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100,000 BC-1968

Gay Bars

Young

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Having My Cake and Eating It Too

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Lesbian Bathhouse

1969

Public Sex

In a 'Star Trek' Outfit

Learning the Ropes

Anger

The Fag-Hag Emancipation Act of 2006

2008

You Go, Gays

1970

Diva Worship

On a Deadline

The next time you're at a meeting where a bunch of queers have to plan something important (does that even happen anymore?), and a lesbian about 45 or 50 years old takes too much of her allotted time emphasizing "group consensus" and passes around a sign-up sheet for the formation of yet another work committee (that will then report to the organizing committee), take a fond moment to recall the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

It wasn't all throwing used condoms at Cardinal John O'Connor in St. Patrick's Cathedral and playing corpses in Keith Haring–style chalk lines on the asphalt of outrage. There were also many endless meetings, where everyone got excruciatingly equal say, which was the price of anarchy. If you want to know what the late '80s (the AIDies? The Laties?) felt like, do the following: Cut off a pair of jeans at the knee; roll them up snug, about mid-thigh (as when Mrs. Sean Penn and Mr. Sandra Bernhard pretended to be girlfriends); pair that with a Silence = Death T-shirt; squirt a little mousse in the bangs; and then sit in a metal folding chair in a student union basement for about four hours.

I loved ACT UP, but I loved it in the abstract. I had to, seeing as how in the spring of 1987, when Larry Kramer and a raft of other angry, grieving, and radicalized homosexuals set forth their rallying cry, I was a virginal, quasi-closeted, politically clueless, frustratingly fucknutty college student, and did not happen to be living anywhere near New York or San Francisco. I was on a Catholic campus with no gay student groups or John Waters film festivals.

The one fallacy in lecturing the youth of today about the glorious ACT UP years is this idea that everyone back then got a chance to really act up. Some of us wanted to, fashionably, but to really feel it, it helped to have friends and lovers dropping dead around you. This wasn't happening to me, because nothing was happening to me. Some of us had to settle for watching people die of AIDS in Paul Monette essays (is Becoming a Man still in print? Is it still good?), and photocopying Village Voice articles at the library, and going to that one art-house cinema in town to see "our" movies, such as Parting Glances and Longtime Companion. (Netflix 'em for the deathbed scenes, but also to see the stunning amount of aqua blue and teal green in our wardrobes.)

So I "acted up" in small ways. A lot of things clicked together right then for the low-impact radical fag: the gothy, Anne Rice-y androgyny went with the music and the ambiguous Smiths song lyrics (Morrissey was closeted then; everybody sort of was; 1987 in my memory is this big, well-lit, Bret Easton Ellis–style walk-in closet). Your newfound politics went with the pent-up Reagan anger, which went with the poetic specters of sin and disease. You'd wait and wait to be turned into a vampire at the dance club, only nobody would bite you. There were lots of Salvation Army raincoats. We were so bi-curious we were bi-nosy. I had to settle for things like doing my history term paper on the sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde.

This turned out to be the very last time in America you could legitimately think you were completely alone in being a young homo. News traveled slowly. You simply got this growing idea that, somewhere, in far hipper cities, some really certifiable hotties were getting something done. I didn't know what, but something. Chapters eventually started in other cities, but chapters of what? ACT UP resisted the act of formalizing; it never filed for 501(c)(3) status because, its consensual leaders agreed, it's not very anarcho-democratic to file government paperwork. The vibe caught on anyhow—and then there were Queer Nation groups (an ACT UP offshoot, and far more sexy) everywhere, and you could sit in those folding chairs and feel rather bold.

It's stunning to think that these uppity gays launched their first attack on, of all foes, capitalism. The greed of the Man! The targets at first were the big pharmaceutical companies, who were withholding affordable, though ultimately ineffective, drug therapies. ACT UP tried to shut down the stock market. There was no such thing then as a gay-affinity credit card.

This anti-money thing never got much truck. Silence = Death became a marketable logo, especially once our annoying loudness equaled life (new drugs, new awareness, the insistence on being heard). Gays became a market niche, alive and well, shopping till we drop. Thanks in no small part to the legacy of ACT UP, we at least stopped dropping dead.

Hank Stuever writes for the Washington Post.