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February 22, 2010


SNCC A 50th Anniversary Conference of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) will be held from April 15-18 in Raleigh, North Carolina. For those of you too young to remember, SNCC was the cutting edge of the '60s civil rights movement, and played an absolutely critical and courageous role in building that movement and in winning its many successes.

The work of SNCC has been recounted in dozens ofElla Baker books -- among those I heartily recommend are my old friend Joanne Grant's biography of Ella Baker (right), the woman who inspired SNCC  ("Ella Baker: Freedom Bound" -- John Wiley & Sons, 1998), whom I was honored to have met on several occasions; the first volume of Taylor Branch's 3-volume Pulitizer Prize-winning history of the civil rights movement, "Parting the Waters: America and the King Years, 1954-1963 (Simon and Schuster, 1989); and "Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement" by former SNCC chairman and now Congressman John Lewis (Harvest Books, 1999); and, of course, the late, great Howard Zinn's "SNCC: The New Abolitionists" (South End Press, 2002). You can find a brief history of SNCC's vital early years on the anniversary conference's web site by clicking here.

In the early 60s as a teenager, I was part of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which was then a solid SNCC ally (I served on the SDS National Council SDS and also on the national staff for awhile at a subsistence wage). The story of those early years of SDS is told in the documentary "Rebels With a Cause," directed by an old SDS colleague of mine, Helen Garvey. In those years, we SDSers participated in many SNCC conferences, actions, demonstrations and boycotts, and those of us in the North mobilized support for the SNCC workers in the South. I'm proud to say I marched on many a SNCC picket line, and was even arrested along with hundreds of others in a SNCC-sponsored mass civil disobedience action to desegregate an amusement park in Maryland. But my tiny contribution was nothing compared to the life-risking work of SNCC members on the front lines in the Deep South to bring down the Jim Crow system of segregation of the races.

In connection with SNCC's upcoming 50th anniversary conference, a group of surviving former SDS members has taken out a full-page ad in the conference's journal to honor our comrades in SNCC and its historically important work (this ad was organized by my old SDS comrade Danny Millstone, who has also created a Facebook page for former SDSers where one can find contact information for many of them, which you can access by clicking here.) The ad reads:

"Veterans of the Students for a Democratic Society salute the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: the struggle continues and we are still with you after all these years."

Here is a list of those of us who paid for and signed this tribute to SNCC:

Jane Adams

Ted Auerbach

Barry Bluestone

Heather & Paul Booth

Tom Canterbury

Rachel Brown Cowan

Carl Davidson

Thorne Dreyer

Martin Elsbach

Alice Embree

Dick & Mickey Flacks

Helen Garvy

Karen Gellen

Todd Gitlin

Neal Gosman

Alan Haber

Barbara Haber

Skipper Hammond

Tom Hayden

Janet Heinritz-Canterbury

Chris Horton

Doug Ireland

Michael James

Barbara Joye

Harlon Joye

C. Clark Kissinger

Fred Klonsky

Michael & Susan Klonsky

Mark A. Lause

Margaret Leahy

Sharon Jeffery Lehrer

Jessie Lemisch

Charles Levenstein

Roger Lippman

Steve Max

Ken McEldowney

Don McKelvey

Danny Millstone

Jim Monsonis

Sarah Murphy

Tim Murphy

Robert M. Nelson

Robby Newton

Michael David Nolan

Robert Pardun

Bruce Pech

Bill & Jane Phillips

David Rose

Robert J.S. “Bob” Ross

Richard Rothstein

Vivian Leburg Rothstein

Jay Schaffner

Mark J. Scher

Mike Seliger

Bob Simpson

Jim Skillman

Jimmy Tarlau

Gerry Tenney

Sue Thrasher

Bob Tomashevsky

Monte Wasch

Naomi Weisstein,

Jim Williams

Lee Webb

Marilyn Webb

Jim Zarichny

Bob Zellner




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February 19, 2010


I wrote the following report for Gay City News, New York's largest queer newspaper:

In the coastal town of Mtwapa in Kenya’s Kilifi district, media hysteria and outrage by clerics over a non-existent gay wedding whipped up mob violence that began on February 12, unleashing a house-to-house witch hunt by anti-gay vigilantes, street attacks targeting gay men, the sacking of an AIDS-fighting medical center, and a widening wave of ultra-homophobic national media coverage.

Many gay men have gone into hiding or fled the area.

From Nairobi, the nation’s capital, Denis Nzioka, a prominent 24-year-old gay activist, told Gay City News, “Ever since the outburst of violence in Mtwapa, gay people have had to fear for their lives. Vigilante groups are hunting down gay men, going door to door, and anyone who is overly flamboyant is attacked in the street.”

According to an internal report jointly prepared by on-scene representatives of both the leading Kenyan queer group, the two-year-old Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a non-governmental organization formed two decades ago, the wave of anti-gay violence had Kafkaesque origins in a false rumor about a gay wedding supposedly planned for February 12.

“There is even a suggestion that it was a planted story,” said the GALCK-KHRC report, adding, “In any case, the most repeated version is that about two weeks ago a well-known and popular gay man in the Mtwapa area went to a barbershop for a haircut. When one of the barbers commented that his hair looked really nice and asked him where was going, he responded jokingly that he was going to get married. However, the barber took it seriously and went to his local mosque and reported that there was a planned gay wedding set for Friday, February 12 in Mtwapa.”

That mosque’s imam then announced the so-called “wedding” to his congregation and instructed his flock to begin monitoring any community gatherings to insure that no gay weddings could take place.

After this, “a local radio station, Kaya FM, picked up the story and started a series of programs on gays,” according to the GALCK-KHRC report, which Nzioka told this reporter included phone-in talk shows filled with homophobic discourse and incitements to violence.

“Kaya FM presents in Swahili and many of the Minikenda languages, and therefore has a real grassroots reach,” the report said, adding, “The main focus of the discussions was the impending ‘wedding’ of two men in Mtwapa. Other local radio stations also picked up the story, including Baraka FM, Rahma FM, and ultimately national radio stations including Kiss and Classic FM.”

Five days before the date of the alleged wedding, “many of the muftis and imams discussed the impending wedding during Friday prayers and asked the community to be vigilant against homosexuals. They told their congregants to demonstrate and to flush out homosexuals from the midst of Mtwapa and to ensure that no gay wedding took place,” the GALCK-KHRC report declared.

Nzioka told this reporter, “Mtwapa is predominantly Muslim, and the imams have a lot of power and influence there.”

Some 60 percent of Kenya’s Muslim population lives in the coastal area where Mtwapa is located. Kenya is roughly 10 percent Muslim, 33 percent Roman Catholic, and 45 percent Protestant, according to the country’s entry in the CIA World Factbook.

As a harbinger of things to come, on the evening of the February 7, following anti-gay preachings in Muslim mosques, a group of young men invaded Kalifornia, the main gay club in Mtwapa, and while dancing warned in the form of a song, “Gays have no joy and this time round they will have no joy or happiness for them.” In the days that followed, calls were heard from rioters to burn down Kalifornia.

On February 11, a homophobic press conference condemning the next day’s purported wedding was held by Sheikh Ali Hussein, regional coordinator of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), together with Bishop Lawrence Chai, regional representative of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK).

According to a story in the Daily Nation about the press conference, “The clerics claimed that a large number of youths were being recruited into gay clubs and warned that ‘God is about to punish the fastest growing town in the Coast region. Come night, come day, we shall not allow that marriage to be conducted in this town tomorrow. We shall stand firm to flush out gays who throng this town every weekend from all corners of this country,’ the religious leaders said.”

The two clerics “said they had given the government seven days to close down night clubs they accused of fuelling homosexuality in the town,” the Daily Nation reported, adding that the two “asked the government to ‘save the country from the shame of being used to conduct a marriage between people of the same sex.’ They also warned the owner of a building in the town, who was allegedly renting rooms only to homosexuals, to evict them or face their wrath. They gave him a seven-day ultimatum to throw out tenants.”

The two clerics also denounced the Mtwapa clinic run by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), a large national organization with 750 staff members nationwide that runs a research program co-sponsored by Britain’s Oxford University. The clinic has an AIDS program for counseling and treating men who have sex with men.

Sheikh Hussein and Bishop Chai demanded that the government investigate the KEMRI clinic for providing services to homosexuals.

“How can a state institution be involved on the pretext of providing counseling to these criminals?,” the two clerics said, according to the Daily Nation, and they added, “We ask that the government shut it down with immediate effect or we will descend on its officials.”

The day after this inflammatory press conference, a well-organized mob of some 200 to 300 people armed with sticks, stones, and other weapons, and led by a vigilante leader named Faridi surrounded the KEMRI clinic, which was alleged to be the site of the non-existent wedding, and demanded that all the “shogas” come out of the building. “Shoga” is a Swahili word used as a pejorative against homosexuals — the equivalent of “faggot” — but also by women when referring to their close female friends.

Faridi, the vigilante leader, entered the clinic accompanied by police officers and confronted a staff member wearing a World AIDS Day T-shirt with a pink triangle that read “Condoms prevent AIDS” in Swahili. The vigilante is reported to have said, “This man is a shoga,” and at his demand, the police arrested him. Another KEMRI staffer was arrested later, also at Faridi’s insistence.

Nzioka told Gay City News that the KEMRI clinic was subsequently sacked, with material including computers destroyed, and was forced to shut down. This disruption of the clinic’s work means that many HIV-positive people who access care and treatment there have not been able to get their medications for days, which has serious health consequences for them.

Later that same day, “after Friday prayers” in Mtwapa’s mosques, “mobs of individuals went to the homes of suspected homosexuals looking for them,” said the GALCK-KHRC report, which also recounted speeches to a large mob that had gathered outside the local police station. Sheikh Hussein addressed the crowd in a manner “that was inciting, and he kept talking about Sodom and Gomorrah and the need to root out all homosexuals from the Mtwapa area,” the report said.

A former member of Kenya’s parliament, Omar Masumbuko, was one of several politicians who also addressed the mob. “He said that homosexuality must be stopped and every means used to make that happen,” according to the GALCK-KHRC report. “He told the crowd they should not even bother to bring the homosexuals they find to the police station but should take care of the issue themselves,”

Sodomy and sex “against the order of nature” are crimes in Kenya, punishable by ten years in prison, under a law inherited from the period of British colonial rule, which ended in 1963.

February 12 was punctuated by numerous attacks on gay people. At 8 that morning, before leading the mob attack on the KEMRI clinic, Faridi was joined by police in storming and ransacking the home of a gay man, who was arrested along with a friend who was visiting from abroad. While searching the guest’s luggage, they found jewelry that included some rings. Faridi immediately said that these were the rings for the intended wedding.

In a separate incident, a 23-year-old security guard was descending from a bus heading toward the center of Mtwapa when he was set upon by a mob that threatened him with death and beat him senseless. A female sex worker tried to protect him with her body and yelled at the crowd that they can’t kill people like that and that the man had not done anything, but the mob doused the man with kerosene, preparing to burn him alive. At this point the police arrived, but instead of arresting anyone in the mob, they arrested the man it had attacked. The bloodied, dazed man was incarcerated and denied medical attention.

The following day, a volunteer at the KEMRI clinic was attacked by a mob, which chanted that it was actually his wedding they had disrupted. The man was severely beaten and burnt with cigarette butts. As the mob prepared to douse the man with kerosene, he too was arrested. After his arrest, a mob attempted to attack the Mtwapa police station but was repulsed with tear gas.

In total, six men presumed to be gay were arrested, some of them forced to undergo medical examinations for evidence of sodomy, and all were scheduled for a court appearance on February 15. But Nzioka told this reporter that, after intervention by an attorney provided by KHRC, all six were released from custody, and have now fled the area. Ironically, notes Nzioka, all the men arrested were Muslims.

Nzioka also said that the wave of anti-gay violence and protests in Mtwapa had received “huge” publicity in all the national media, particularly radio and television, but that “all of it was, sadly, very, very homophobic,” and that the media had utterly failed to reach out to representatives of the gay community. Instead, he said, gay-baiting commentaries and reactions from imams and other religious and anti-gay leaders were featured.

Asked by Gay City News if the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was sending a staff member to Kenya from its branch office in Johannesburg, South Africa, the organization’s executive director, Cary Alan Johnson, replied in an e-mail, “We are not sending a staff member to Kenya at this point, as we have full confidence in the local LGBT movement, which is grouped together under the banner of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) to respond to the situation. Also, a number of national and local mainstream human rights partners, particularly the Kenya Human Rights Coalition, are engaging with the clear recognition that an attack on the rights of individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is an attack on the freedoms of all Kenyan citizens.”

GALCK is not a membership organization but an alliance of five other groups — Ishtar, a health group for men who have sex with men;
Gaykenya.com, a web site; Minority Women in Action, a lesbian group; the Gender Education and Advocacy Project (GEAP), a group for transgendered and intersex people; and The Other Man in Kenya (TOMIKI), a social network of gay professionals in the medical, legal, and other fields, most of whom, Nzioka said, are “very discreet.”

The consciousness informing at least some in GALCK’s leadership has raised concerns. In a statement demanding government protection for gays published on the group’s website, its general manager, David Kuria, wrote, “We also call upon the religious leaders in Kenya to appreciate that compulsory heterosexuality is not the way to enforce their religion. GALCK members are willing to enter into dialogue with them, and if they truly have a cure for homosexuality, then we are most happy to take it, BUT NOT UNDER CONDITIONS OF DURESS.”

Since the American Psychiatric Association and most of its Western peer groups have not only completely discredited the notion that there can be a “cure” for homosexuality, but also affirmed that attempting to inflict such a “cure” on those with a same-sex orientation can be extremely harmful psychologically, it is quite disturbing to see the leader of a gay group like GALCK say that his members would be “happy to take” such a so-called cure if available.

Kuria could not be reached for comment by press time.

GALCK has five paid staff members and, Nzioka told this reporter, receives the bulk of its funding from LLH, the Norwegian LGBT Association.

There is no immediate prospect of repeal of the anti-gay sodomy statute in Kenya. Nzioka told Gay City News that Kenya’s gay community has “copiously” inundated the experts drafting a new national constitution with documents supporting the repeal of anti-gay laws and the extension of human rights to LGBT people, but that the committee has turned a deaf ear, and “has even buckled under to homophobia by removing a section which said that ‘every person has a right to start a family,’ which was interpreted as giving gays the right to have or adopt children.”

Moreover, said Nzioka, while there are a handful of friendly elected public officials and politicians with whom queer groups are in contact, “all are secretive, very discreet” about their support for gay rights and there is no organized evidence of that support in the national parliament.

Meanwhile, the Mtawapa witch-hunt shows no signs of letting up: at the beginning of this week, Sheikh Hussein launched radio appeals for a mass anti-gay demonstration in Mtawapa on February 19.

A video report on the Mtwapa incidents from Kenya’s NTV is at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLM0vagfOgY&feature=player_embedded. The web site of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is at http://galck.org/index.php. Gaykenya is at http://www.gaykenya.com. The Kenya Human Rights Commission is at http://www.khrc.or.ke/.

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February 13, 2010


My weekly columns for the feisty French political-investigative weekly BAKCHICH are no longer being posted on the magazine's daily web site, as my editors  want them exclusively to help promote the newly-relaunched and re-designed print edition. But so many online readers have written to say they miss these columns that from time to time I'll put the important ones up here on DIRELAND. Sorry, they're written in French, and I haven't time to translate them. Here's my latest column, which appears in this week's print edition of BAKCHICH:

Sarah_palin_makeup Vous vous dites qu'une écervelée comme Sarah Palin ne peut pas être élue présidente des États-Unis? Erreur !

Début février, Palin a fait un triomphe à la première convention nationale du Tea Party, le nouveau mouvement populiste de droite et anti-Washington qui revendique déjà 6 millions de militants, et dont elle est dorénavant la porte-parole. Les délégués ont scandé « Run, Sarah, Run ! » pour l'encourager à se présenter à la Maison Blanche en 2012. Et pour la première fois, l'éphémère gouverneur de l'Alaska a déclaré, en clair, « J'irai si c'est bon pour le pays ».

Déjà en tête des présidentiables républicains dans tous les sondages, Palin est favorite dans la course à la nomination pour une simple raison technique : les républicains utilisent le système du « winner take all» c'est-à-dire que dans chaque état le vainqueur aux voix rafle tous les délégués de cet état. Parmi trois ou quatre candidats, Palin pourrait aisément l'emporter avec 30% ou 35% des voix dans une primaire. C'est le cas de la Californie -où un tiers des électeurs s'identifie avec le Tea Party- ou de l'Ohio, où Palin finance les campagnes de ses candidats républicains locaux préférés. Ajoutez-y trois ou quatre gros états similaires, les plus petits états sudistes et ceux de la « Bible Belt » (la "ceinture de la Bible" de l'Amérique profonde où elle est archi-populaire), et elle sera la nominée des républicains.

Vous dites que contre Obama elle n'aura aucune chance ? Faux ! Car outre les candidats des deux grands partis, il est presque certain que Michael Bloomberg, le maire multimilliardaire de New York, sera lui-même en lice sur un ticket autonome. En 2008, il était prêt à déclarer sa candidature à la Maison Blanche, mais s'était désisté après le succès d'Obama auprès des électeurs indépendants.

Aujourd'hui la donne a changé : les indépendants désertent Obama en masse, et Bloomberg, conservateur du point de vue fiscal mais progressiste sur l'avortement ou le mariage gay, est en phase avec ces centristes. De plus, il n'est pas de la culture washingtonienne si honnie par la masse des électeurs, qui considèrent au contraire que Bloomberg est trop riche pour être corrompu, et aiment l'idée d'un entrepreneur à succès à la tête d'un pays en pleine crise économique. Bloomberg prendra davantage de voix à Obama qu'à Palin, et celle-ci pourrait être élue présidente avec 35% ou 40% des suffrages, un seuil à sa portée dans un pays de plus en plus à droite.

Obama sent venir l'incendie populiste : il a admis à la télévision qu'il pourrait n'avoir qu'un seul mandat. Palin présidente ? Le cauchemar pourrait bien devenir réalité…


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February 11, 2010

ACT UP'S BRIEF, SHINING MOMENT: a review of Deborah Gould's new history

I wrote the following review for Gay City News, New York's largest queer weekly:
At the end of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, in a 1989 essay in October, theOctober avant-garde quarterly he edited, noted gay intellectual and activist Douglas-Crimp Douglas Crimp (left) recalled what a younger gay man in ACT UP had said to him after seeing an early ’70s gay erotic film:

“He was very excited about what seemed to me a pretty ordinary sex scene in the film, but then he said: ‘I’d give anything to know what cum tastes like, somebody else’s that is.’ That broke my heart, for two different reasons: for him because he didn’t know, for me because I do.”

Crimp’s comment encapsulates all the powerful, bittersweet, contradictory emotions that swirled around militant queer activists in the early years of AIDS as they contemplated “a disappearing gay world — people, institutions, practices, ways of being, an entire alternative world,” as Deborah Gould writes in her important new book “Moving Politics: Emotions and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS.”

ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — changed history in the few brief years when its spectacular actions of civil disobedience, confrontation, and emotional Actup manipulation made headlines and forced a nation (and a world) that didn’t want to pay attention to the epidemic to do so. Over the course of its life beginning in 1987, more than 80 ACT UP chapters sprang up across the country almost overnight, creating a radical, national direct action movement that even went global; eventually there were also more than 30 ACT UP chapters internationally.

Gould is perfectly positioned to tell this important story and draw from it lessons that can help us construct new futures. Although she is today an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, she is also herself an activist who spent years deeply involved in ACT UP’s Chicago chapter, and was part of the Windy City’s visible queer left.

Gould’s militant activist background makes “Moving Politics” stand out from yourMoving Politics average, dry academic text, for at many points she inserts herself into her narrative and draws from the well of her own profound emotional and political experiences in figuring out what the history of ACT UP has to tell us about the swirl of feelings accompanying the construction of queer identity and about the nature of political organizing in general.

Gould writes, “In addition to the many crucial victories that prolonged and saved lives, ACT UP’s interventions posed a powerful challenge to conventional understandings of homosexuality and of sexuality more broadly. Indeed, ACT UP gave birth to a new queer generation [emphasis in the original] that shook up straight and gay establishments with defiant, sex-radical politics,” in the process “re-eroticizing and revalorizing all kinds of sex” in a strong response to the sex-negative early years of the epidemic.

Silence_equals_death1 I’ve frequently found that many young queers today are woefully ignorant of what gays, lesbians, and gender rebels of all stripes went through in those agonizing early AIDS years, which were also the years of Ronald Reagan’s reactionary presidency. Gould does a fine job of invoking that scoundrel time, when six years into the epidemic Reagan had yet to mention the word AIDS, while consistently fighting to slash Congressional appropriations to fight the epidemic.

By the Reagan years, the feisty, raucous, anti-establishment spirit of radical gay liberation which had launched the modern gay movement in the early ’70s in the years after Stonewall was already nearly dead, as organized gay politics adopted “an agenda oriented toward gay inclusion rather than broader social transformation, a concomitant focus on the legislative realm, and an embrace of what some have called ‘a politics of respectability’ that required downplaying gay sexual difference,” as Gould nicely puts it.

But the AIDS epidemic, and the horrific inadequacy of the response to it by government and dominant mainstream institutions mired in vitriolic homophobia, called into question the new gay search for respectability and inclusion in such a way that “sexual and gender minorities had to reconsider who they were and where they fit within society,” and how they should feel about this constellation of challenges.

Gould portrays the heroic struggles of early AIDS activists, and rightly argues that “the movement of thousands of volunteers into ASOs [AIDS service organizations] should be understood as a successful mass political mobilization [which was] political in the sense that to love and care for those whom state and society had betrayed, for those deemed better off dead, was a forceful refusal to accede to existing notions of worthiness” regarding gay men and lesbians.

At the same time, many gays found themselves drowning in a centuries-old legacy of self-hate given new force by the epidemic, as they internalized messages from mainstream media that “gay sexuality was so perverted that gays might actually deserve AIDS” (emphasis in the original).

The earliest voices of resistance to this template in the spring of 1983 were largely ignored or shunned. This was the case with Larry Kramer’s now-famous and widely reprinted article “1,112 and Counting,” an apocalyptic manifesto for direct action in the streets and civil disobedience to fight the growing death toll. ) (Or with the call by Virginia Apuzzo (right), then executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force,Virginia apuzzo for a renewal of radical actions. In a rousing speech at a candlelight vigil, she thundered, “If something isn’t done soon, we will not be here at Federal Plaza at night in this quiet, we will be on Wall Street!... No politician will be immune to a community that will not take no for an answer!”

These minoritarian appeals for a return to the kind of militant, attention-grabbing tactics early gay liberationists had deployed were, for the most part, largely denounced or dismissed by the gay press of the time. Gould has done a yeoman job of research, and her documentation of the dismissive and self-hate-tinged calls for decorous behavior in the face of death in the gay community’s own media in response to the jeremiads of the likes of Kramer and Apuzzo is a depressing account indeed.

But the mood changed dramatically following the 1986 US Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick upholding the constitutionality of the so-called “sodomy laws” in the case of a Georgia man arrested for performing oral sex in the privacy of his own home.

Warren Burger To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to set aside millennia of moral teaching,” proclaimed Republican Chief Justice Warren Burger( left), a Nixon appointee, in his Hardwick concurring opinion dripping with sarcastic homophobia.

The Bowers decision was a wake-up call, and gays immediately took to the streets. At a July 4 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty with Reagan and his wife in attendance, some 10,000 gay men and lesbians chanting “Civil rights or civil war” broke through police lines to bring their angry protest to the attention of the national media. And a few weeks after the Hardwick decision, 4,000 queers in San Francisco disrupted a visit by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with a simultaneously angry and playful chant of “What Do We Want? Sodomy! When Do We Want It? Now!”

These were the largest gay demonstrations since the ’70s, and they were followed by more street demos in cities all over the country. Increasingly, speakers at these protests began to link the Hardwick decision to the lack of government response to the AIDS epidemic. And ACT UP’s predecessor, the Lavender Hill Mob, a lesbian and gay direct action group formed soon after the Hardwick decision, after organizing disruption of a New York speech by Chief Justice Burger, began turning its attention to the AIDS crisis. In February 1987, the Lavender Hill Mob disrupted a conference of the Centers for Disease Control demanding safe-sex education and care for the victims of the epidemic.

The next month, Kramer (right) gave a speech at New York’s LGBT Community Center thatLarry Kramer repeated his call for a militant activist response to the AIDS epidemic, a meeting heavily attended by members of the Lavender Hill Mob. Two nights later, 300 gays, lesbians, and sexual radicals attended the founding meeting of ACT UP.

If the Supreme Court’s Hardwick decision was a catalytic moment, so too was the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which was led by people with AIDS, many of them in wheelchairs. The March’s organizers called for direct action, arguing, “Traditional civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance have been used as a last resort when all other remedies have failed. The feeling is that the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, coupled with continued inadequate and inappropriate government response to the AIDS crisis, indicates that all our previous efforts to secure our civil rights have failed.”

In the largest act of civil disobedience since the Vietnam War protests, 800 March participants were arrested at the Supreme Court, and on returning home many more started direct action AIDS groups. And 200 March participants met that weekend to plan a coordinated series of AIDS demonstrations for the spring of 1988, adopting the name ACT NOW (the AIDS Coalition to Network, Organize, and Win). The ACT UP movement was now a national one.

Act UP 2 Gould’s history of ACT UP from coast to coast is illustrated with some three-dozen photographs of its creative and militant actions and posters. She chronicles the sit-ins, the disruptions of government meetings, political speeches, and pharmaceutical company headquarters, the candlelight marches featuring the ashes of those dead from the disease, which in one instance were scattered on the White House lawn, and the march through the streets of New York bearing the body of ACT UP member Mark Fisher in response to his call to “Bury Me Furiously.”

And, of course, Gould devotes considerable space to analyzing the emotions surrounding participation in ACT UP — the loving camaraderie in fighting death, the soldering of strong links between lesbians and gay men when the two groups had so long been separate, the eroticism and cruisiness of ACT UP meetings that reinforced solidarity and political bonding. Gould has interviewed dozens of veterans of ACT UP and scoured their personal archives for insights, and the voices of those who made up this vibrant movement and won its considerable victories shine through.

One does not have to agree with all of her theses about emotion and political work in order to appreciate the effort she has put into creating this valuable historical record. I cannot restrain myself from noting in passing that she often unnecessarily deploys academic jargon that disrupts her narrative; why do our universities teach our scholars to write this way? The introduction is particularly heavy slogging in this regard.

Despite this caveat, Gould has done a remarkable job in portraying the times that gave rise to ACT UP, its significant impact on the nation’s consciousness and policies despite dismissive denunciations by The New York Times and other major media, its impact on queer consciousness, and its sad decline.

“Despair destroyed ACT UP,” Gould writes, adding that “the despair generated by accumulating deaths in the early 1990s was immense, and its effects on the national direct-action AIDS movement cannot be overstated.” ACT UP collapsed into sectarian faction-fighting when so many of its best and brightest activists, many who had been at the forefront of the ’70s gay liberation struggles, were swept away by that grimmest of reapers, the AIDS epidemic, in the days before the discovery of life-prolonging protease inhibitors. No other important social movement has ever suffered such a vitiating loss in so short a time span.

“Their hopes and expectations crumbling, people increasingly felt powerless in the face of the virus,” Gould writes. “From their perspective, the virus was simply outwitting science, and there was nothing ACT UP could do about that.”

From New York to Paris, there are still shards of this once-vibrant movement that attempt to carry on its work. But even if you’re not a part of this tradition, “Moving Politics” belongs on the bookshelves of every sentient gay person as written witness to a brief time in our history when thousands of queers came together to fight for life and each other. Too many people around the globe continue to die of AIDS, and HIV-infection rates, especially among the young, are once again soaring. In today’s gay world, where AIDS has been effectively shunted aside as an issue by the institutions that claim to speak for us, we urgently need to remember what ACT UP at its best was all about.

Complete Information:



By Deborah B. Gould

University of Chicago Press

536 pages; $23 paperback

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February 07, 2010

My late beloved, Hervé Couergou, speaks about his struggle with AIDS

Remembering Hervé The video below is of my late beloved Hervé Couergou, in which he speaks of his seropositivity and the AIDS virus not long before he was swept  away by it. The video was made in Paris by our dear mutual friend and brother Lionel Soukaz, the pioneering French gay filmmaker, who has only just sent it to me -- it's an extract from  testimonies from 30 years of AIDS which he is compiling in a video journal. For me, watching this video of Hervé is deeply moving and reduces me to tears each time; but it is also a reminder of his sweetness and courage which I'm so glad to have as a souvenir of our years together. How I miss him! Thanks, dear Lio.

For more information on Lionel Soukaz' video journal, a work in progress, contact him via Facebook or directly at [email protected] 

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February 05, 2010


Brian_whitaker The author of this important post, Brian Whitaker (left), is a senior editor at The Guardian in London, its former Middle East correspondent for 7 years, and the author of "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East" (Univ. of California Press.) This critique of Joseph Massad appeared today on Brian's excellent blog on Middle East affairs, Al Bab:

Arabs, gay rights and modernity

Hussein Ibish (right), of the American Task Force on Palestine, hasHossein Ibish written a thoughtful and, I think, important essay about the controversy surrounding Joseph Massad and gay rights in the Arab countries.

This is partly in response to those on the American right who seem more eager to tar Massad with the label of homophobia (and indeed antisemitism) than consider the underlying issues, and also in response to Massad's insulting attack on Helem, the Lebanese gay rights organisation, which I reported here in December.

Massad's argument, put very simply, is that the gay/straight binary is a creation of the west, which the west has exported through colonialism and neocolonialism – and which should therefore be opposed. He claims that this, rather than anything in Arab societies themselves, is the cause of homophobia and attacks on sexual minorities in the Middle East.

The implication of Massad's argument (expounded in his book, Desiring Arabs) is that without foreign interference Arabs would be revelling in a multiplicity of diverse sexual experiences, untramelled by fears of persecution or agonising about sexual identity. This is highly questionable and, as Ibish points out, there is plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such as punishment for same-sex acts and "the existence of derogatory language that appears to predate any sustained encounter with the colonial west".

Ibish's key point, though, is about modernity. Where Massad Joseph Massad (right) views gay/straight concepts purely in terms of cultural imperialism, Ibish thinks they should be regarded as unavoidable products of modernity:

Massad is missing a crucial point about the nature of modernity that I think eludes many intelligent, well-meaning people: modernity is a package deal and not an à la carte menu. It seems to me that almost all contemporary identity categories have been either directly produced or completely redefined by modernity, leaving very little if any meaningful social identity categories that are not, in effect, precisely the products of modernity. 

Contemporary notions, both east and west, of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ideological affiliation, etc. all seem to me to be produced or defined by modernity, that is to say by their modern context. Even well-established identity categories that obviously and deeply precede colonialism and modernity in the Middle East, such as divisions between Sunnis and Shiites (as well as other smaller Muslim denominations) or premodern tribal affiliations, have all been restructured and redefined in the context of a postcolonial Arab modernity defined first and foremost by the Arab state system. 

In other words, I'm arguing that certain kinds of social and political identities, including the gay and other non-normative sexual identities, are, to all intents and purposes, built into modernity in the same way that race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and other comparable political identity categories obviously are. Some of them predate modernity, but have been redefined. Others are new or have taken on new significance, for example with regard to women's rights.

Massad's problem, Ibish suggests, is that he "treats modernity as if it were an à la carte menu in which a society may pick and choose the items it wants for its own purposes and simply decide to avoid some other aspects that are inherent in modernity such as gay and other 'problematic' socio-political identities". 

This kind of cherry-picking, unfortunately, is not peculiar to Massad. It's very widespread throughout the Arab countries – not just in the area of sexuality – and there are many other examples in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.

Massad, a protégé of the late Edward Said, teaches at Columbia University and his work is directed primarily at an academic audience. He does make some valid points, especially about the undesirability of fitting everyone into hard-and-fast sexual identities. But, as Ibish notes, we can't ignore the political significance of Massad's arguments in the real world: they may not be homophobic in themselves but they do risk reinforcing homophobia in others.

This is why Helem and many other gay rights activists in the region find his arguments threatening – especially when Arabs who identify as gay are portrayed as victims of an insidious western influence.

Ibish writes:

[Massad] actually seems to oppose the political agenda of providing Arab gays and lesbians with legal protection as a class because of his opposition to the [gay/straight] binary and the gay identity it produces ...

Ultimately this is a highly irresponsible position, and ungenerous in an inexplicable way. He seems to be so opposed to the gay identity as a socio-political category in theory that he opposes the gay rights agenda in practice. 

Of all of the beleaguered groups and threatened movements in the Arab world, picking on Arabs who openly identify as gay and gay rights activists seems a very strange choice indeed.


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