Saturday, April 12, 2008

Your glamour was their genius

photo of ACT UP Chicago demonstration from

An essay I wrote a while ago, that grew out of my ongoing project in AIDS history:

I have to admit that despite a lifelong professed hatred of musicals, I went to the movie version of Rent when it came out, and I started getting a little teary almost as soon as it started. Rent shows earnest people with AIDS singing about their lives until interrupted by beepers reminding them to take their next dose of AZT; it shows a support group of people with AIDS sharing their fears and finding community. Plus there’s an almost unforgivably sentimental but nonetheless lovely song about measuring the quality of one’s time in the world by the love you find in it. Sometimes I am a sentimental person, and Rent’s sentimentality hits me right where I live.

seemed at first to be an unlikely candidate for mainstream success; half of its characters are HIV-positive, half are gay or lesbian, and two are heroin addicts. But that’s how some of the biggest hits are made. To understand Rent now, we have to remember what preceded it.

Fear and hate of people with AIDS are still widespread in our society, but those feelings were so common, so intense and so irrational in the nineteen-eighties that the counter-reaction eventually created a strange kind of glamour. AIDS acquired a glamour of stigma, like the glamour of Billie Holiday or drag queens. As the glamour gained momentum, politicians who voted for money for AIDS, or scientists who did AIDS research, or celebrities who wore red ribbons all got to benefit from the glamour, without having to suffer from the stigma. To stand up for the stigmatized is to cloak one’s self with the righteousness of the underdog and the aura of the enlightened.

But if we view AIDS simply through the glamour of stigma, we miss essential parts of the story. The lesbian writer and activist Sarah Schulman has written about the way that Rent combines parts of the opera La Boheme with elements of a novel of hers, People in Trouble, for important parts of its plot. But as she herself argues, whether you view Rent’s similarities to her novel as theft, honest borrowing, or coincidence, the bigger problem with Rent is the part of the story it does not tell.

You can find Schulman’s side of the story by reading her novel or in her essay critiquing Rent’s approach to AIDS and gay and lesbian lives in her book Stagestruck. But I think her point is actually made most forcefully by another project of hers that has nothing to do with Rent: an extensive set of interviews, found at, with members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP.

The interviews make clear that in real life, it would have been essentially impossible for the characters of Rent to avoid ACT UP. In the time and neighborhood where the story takes place, ACT UP’s posters and protests were everywhere. Mimi might well have traded in her used needles for new ones at a needle exchange set up by ACT UP activists. Activists wearing ACT UP t-shirts would have been at the eviction protest staged by Maureen, passing out flyers for their next protest. And the people in the AIDS support group might have worried about losing their dignity, as they do in Rent, but they also would have traded ACT UP activists’ insider tips about clinical trials and experimental drugs.

One part of ACT UP’s legacy comes from building collective expertise that allowed activists to sit across the table from scientists and bureaucrats and demand new approaches to health policy and scientific research. But another part of ACT UP’s brilliance could be found in their demonstrations. Some were huge and carefully orchestrated, as when they took over the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration. Others were smaller, including political funerals in which activists carried coffins out into the streets, blocking traffic while they marched with the bodies of their dead friends, protesting against a government and a healthcare system that seemed not to care about their deaths. At the time, that sort of thing made a lot of people furious, and all sorts of people hated ACT UP for their in-your-face stridency.

But with more than a decade gone by, it’s now clear that the provocations of ACT UP and other AIDS activists worked. They changed the science, politics and culture of AIDS. It was after ACT UP that scientists started listening to activists, and after ACT UP that federal lawmakers passed legislation to fund comprehensive AIDS care.

Let us not distort history by thinking that Hollywood led the way to tolerance. It was only after the scientists and politicians had already signed on that celebrities started wearing red ribbons. Even then, though, the red ribbons carried a little of the electricity of being on the right side of a struggle.

AIDS activists had succeeded by transforming the stigma that marked them into a weapon of power and social change. A few years later, based on the energy they had created by angrily drawing a line between right and wrong, Rent became a runaway hit. Viewed in the light of this history, Rent is a musical about the glamour of stigma. The ACT UP oral histories document the genius of the stigmatized.


Bryan Hopping said...

Wow, I love your blog! Just discovered it.

I thought you might find this article interesting,

Discussion of gay/lesbian patients, HIV stereotyping in medicine, etc.



Joe Wright said...

thanks so much Bryan--sorry took so long to reply and to post your comment.

say hello to that beautiful bay for me, and keep on fighting--