Lesbian & Gay Activism During the Reagan/Bush Era

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

Julie R. Enszer

My American History:
Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years
By Sarah Schulman
New York: Routledge, 1994, $15.95 paper.

BY ANY MEASURE the Bush/Reagan years were devastating for queer people. While some argue that the late 1980s and early 1990s were the fruition of the gay and lesbian movement, the counterpoint of anti-gay initiatives, increasing hate crimes, and lack of response to HIV/AIDS demonstrate that despite strides in visibility and powerful mobilization by the queer community, the legacy of the Reagan/Bush years is one of hate, violence, discrimination and oppression.

In her retrospective, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years, Sarah Schulman’s stated project is to outline the impact of the Reagan/Bush administration on queer liberation. More interesting than that project, however, is the subtext of the book, which describes the cultural development of a lesbian activist, historicizes the queer and progressive media, and frames the state of the queer movement.

Schulman begins her introduction: “In 1979, at the age of twenty-two, I took on my first journalistic writing assignment. A newly founded feminist newspaper called Womanews sent me out to cover a demonstration by Women Against Pornography at the Playboy Club on Valentine’s Day. Womanews, Women Against Pornography, and the Playboy Club have all passed out of this life, but that emblematic assignment was the beginning of an ideal training for this young reporter.”

And, I would argue, for a young lesbian, feminist activist. From these beginnings, we learn through the essays that Schulman wends her way through reproductive rights activism, a critique of the Seneca Falls Peace Encampment, membership in the Women’s Liberation Zap Action Brigade, AIDS activism, ACT UP, and the Lesbian Avengers. Arguably, these organizations and sites of activism imply a changing consciousness and analysis.

Unfortunately, these changes remain unilluminated in the book. Rather, Schulman’s articles are reprinted with follow-up commentary written by Schulman during 1992-93. Although interesting, these snippets of analysis and commentary, do not provide a cogent analytical framework with which to understand the history that she is seeking to write. Moreover, they miss a potentially marvelous opportunity for Schulman to share her reflections on her activism.

Far more rewarding would be to read a detailed textual and contextual analysis of the essays reprinted in the volume as opposed to the few paragraphs we are given. Nevertheless, Schulman’s essays provide an interesting history of queer publishing. Rarely are articles from Womanews, Outlook, and speeches to the Outwrite conference all collected in one volume.

Indeed, the places where these essays were originally published provide an interesting history in and of themselves. Womanews and Gay Community News were the main sites of Schulman’s work in the early 1980s. By the early 1990s neither of these papers were being published (although GCN is now making a comeback).

By the mid-eighties, Schulman is reporting for New York Native, the oldest gay newspaper, known in Schulman’s words “for its political conservatism and white, male hegemony.” The bulk of her writing for this paper centers around AIDS, an issue that took the political center stage in the late 1980s and fueled writers and activists like Schulman.

Schulman’s fame as an author, despite being marginalized as a lesbian, and the current penchant for gay/lesbian writing in the New York publishing world, brought this collection into existence and brought together these “essays” to be printed from a conglomeration of various queer and progressive publications. Seeing these essays and Sarah Schulman reach a broader audience is certainly positive for the queer movement, but the loss of progressive and radical publications as reflected in this book is a sad commentary on the “mainstreaming” of gay and lesbian people from a queer movement in the past few years.

Bicoastal Bias

The third subtext of My American History frames queer politics and exposes two critical issues in the queer movement. The book capsulizes the political issues and controversies of a particular era in New York City. In doing this narrow project, then presenting itself as speaking for a broader movement, My American History reveals urbanism and bicoastal bias — two factors which work in opposition to building a broad-based queer movement.

The queer movement and its spokespeople tend to see a dual locus: the east coast, particularly New York City, and the west coast, particularly San Francisco and Los Angeles. Schulman reflects this bicoastal bias by not contextualizing her contributions to the movement as a New Yorker and by playing fast and loose with the universal voice.

This bicoastal bias is compounded by Schulman’s assumption about queer organizing and “the” queer movement. Writing about the anti-gay ballot initiatives, Schulman says, “Each small gay community was basically left to its own devices . . . no one provided ongoing organizing support. This was a dramatic mistake since most of the small towns and rural counties facing these measures did not have the resources or the skills to defeat them.”

Although it may be the case that there are more out gay/lesbian people in urban areas, it is not true that people in rural areas lack resources and skills, as Schulman asserts. This perspective of disrespect and marginalization of rural areas has been vociferously criticized by rural activists. Despite this critique, Schulman persists in maintaining her New York-centric view of the world.

Schulman’s negative perspective on people in rural areas would appear to be contradicted, according to recent reports in The Nation (“Gay Politics in the Heartland With the Lesbian Avengers in Idaho,” by Sara Pursley, January 23, 1995, 90-94) and Z Magazine (“We Recruit” by Sara Pursley, January 1995, 15-16), by the Lesbian Avengers’ ability to be a positive organizing force in Idaho.

Pursley, unlike Schulman, emphasizes the role of local activists in organizing against the Christian Right. She describes the strategy of the Lesbian Avengers Civil Rights Organizing Project (LACROP) as “to support lesbian and gay activists in communities under siege by the Christian right.” While acknowledging the challenges of organizing in closeted, rural areas, Pursley resonates with the strengths of gay men and lesbians in rural areas and the need for organizing to be empowering, decentralized and centered on the grassroots.

In light of the recent reports from Idaho, it seems that the analysis of the Lesbian Avengers is evolving from a paradigm of urbanism, which Schulman frames, to one of partnership between activists in urban settings and activists in rural settings.

Raising Questions

Schulman’s book raises a number of important questions for progressives and socialists. During a speech to The Socialist Scholars’ Conference, Schulman criticized leftists for failing to address AIDS as an issue during the 1980s. Granted, Schulman’s critique of the left lacks the historical understanding of the relative power and influence of the left during the 1980s. Still, raising the issue at this particular conference prompted the involvement of Dan Cohen, one of the straight editors at the Guardian, in ACT UP. Moreover, in general, the left’s ability to respond to such uncomfortable challenges is a test of its own health.

Schulman broaches the question of sex. She writes, “The left has never come to terms with the passion of homosexuality. And AIDS cannot be adequately discussed if you cannot say `ass-fucking.’ Furthermore, how can somebody who has never fully explored the scope of his or her own sexuality deal with it in the social discourse?”

Despite Schulman’s polemic, in this volume she only broaches the question of sex and does not adequately discuss it herself. Schulman reports extensively on AIDS, particularly when she gathers the reports on the bath house debates in New York City for this collection. There is, however, no direct dialogue about sex. This absence from Schulman’s text begs for a thoughtful, cogent analysis of sex and sexuality, including queer sex, still to be written.

Finally, Schulman raises the issue of cultural work in movement organizing and left politics. She writes, “By the end of Reagan’s first term, the women’s movement was separating into identity groups which focused more on cultural expression and less on direct action.”

Schulman greets the movement of mainstream feminism toward cultural work with derision. There has been a preference in mainstream feminism for culture: concerts, music, arts, and literature, as opposed to movement work in the forms of political activism, social analysis, and direct action. Yet that cultural work is part of what makes Schulman’s book possible.

The connections between politics and cultural work need to be further assessed by writers such as Schulman and other “cultural workers.” An initial step in this process might be to reject the cooptation of movements into culture while still leaving space for cultural, literary, and artistic work. This is a space that still needs to be negotiated by the left in practice and in theory.

Perhaps the most exciting part of My American History is the reprint of organizing materials for The Lesbian Avengers. The Lesbian Avengers is a grassroots, direct action organizing strategy to promote lesbian visibility and enhance lesbian lives. Schulman used her book tours to promote The Lesbian Avengers and organize lesbians throughout the United States. The last section of the book, a “how to manual” for Lesbian Avenger organizing, is an excellent resource grassroots organizing, and will likely inspire and ignite lesbians everywhere.

Schulman writes, “I realize that I am proposing a reperiodization and reconceptualization of the lesbian and gay community as a protest from Below.” This is a valuable project necessary for the growth and development of the queer movement. Her book is, however, but one step in that larger project.

ATC 55, March-April 1995