What the forgotten remember: Trauma, failure, and the political potential of radical passivity in the ACT UP Oral History Project

Heather McConnell, Oxford University

2012 marked the 25th anniversary of ACT UP, one of the most widely known AIDS activism groups in America. ACT UP was organized in 1987 as a response to the negligence and homophobia of the government, pharmaceutical companies, and mass media in regards to the AIDS crisis. During its most active years, ACT UP worked to change the way pharmaceutical companies ran drug trials and provided medication to terminally ill people, to change public health policies with regards to AIDS and its attendant conditions, and to bring AIDS to the forefront of public concern. Many of the commemorative works surrounding the 25th anniversary of the group repeatedly raise the question of how to appropriately remember such an important group without ignoring its faults. Beginning in 2002 and continuing through 2014, Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, two video artists, have created a video oral history archive for which they interviewed surviving members of ACT UP New York. The oral histories raise troubling questions about memory and representation alongside the central issue of whom and what is remembered or whom and what is forgotten amidst the ever-present specters of those who were lost to the crisis. Whilst many works written around this anniversary draw extensively on these interviews from the oral history archive and, indeed, begin to address issues of race, memory, and generations, they often remain grounded in a positivist narrative structure, which attempts to either condemn or redeem ACT UP’s flaws. However, resisting this positive framework to deconstruct and reflect upon the “flaws” and the effects of trauma presents a new and more illuminating perspective on this archive and its significance.

One of the challenges of dealing with traumatic memories is that these memories ‘are largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control’.1 This becomes particularly evident in the ACT UP archive during the interviews with minority subjects (specifically gay men of color, lesbians, and other groups whose narratives did not match the gay white male image of ACT UP), where the participants seem determined not only to forget, but also to assert their forgetfulness.2 These instances could be written off as the result of the natural and inevitable decline of memory or attributed directly to the effects of trauma, but I believe these assessments are reductive and, moreover, symptomatic of the positivist narrative structure scholars have been too quick to impose.. Instead, I argue that theories of negativity and radical passivity can help us make sense of the way this ‘traumatic forgetting’, especially among minority subjects, may function as a resistance to the normative structures of ACT UP’s history within these interviews. In many cases, what is forgotten is just as important as what is remembered. Through this lens, I observe that when minority participants of ACT UP are unable to remember certain names, dates, or events, they in turn use their forgetfulness as a ‘tool for jamming the smooth operations of the normal and the ordinary,’3 specifically by drawing forth memories of actions that are less aggressive and less easily represented, such as educational projects or art installations that were designed to inform rather than incite. Exploring the ways in which the interview subjects perform this ‘jamming’ provides valuable information about the operation of marginalised groups within ACT UP, and also clarifies the dynamics and functions of the group as a whole; indeed, ‘the margins may be the only place where the centre becomes visible’.4

In one of the many articles written for ACT UP’s anniversary, Alexandra Juhasz (2012), a former ACT UP member, begins to address some of the problems inherent in memorializing ACT UP as the face of 1980s-1990s AIDS activism. She argues that ‘when ACT UP is remembered […] other places, people, and forms of AIDS activism are disremembered’.5 Juhasz goes on to suggest that:

Given that its participants were more photogenic, wealthier, more powerful, and simply sexier (in the eyes of the dominant culture) than the rag-tag group of feminists, lesbians, drug addicts, people of color, homeless people, poor people, immigrants, mothers, and Haitians who were also engaged in activism at this time, ACT UP activism is quite memorable.6

This representation is problematic in that members of all of those ‘rag-tag’ groups did, in fact, participate in ACT UP. While it is important to acknowledge other minority activist groups, Juhasz’s generalization, along with that of the ‘dominant culture’ that she seems to criticise, effectively erases the members of marginalised groups who did contribute to ACT UP. Even writing with the benefit of hindsight, Juhasz privileges an oversimplified narrative of minority exclusion, doing a disservice to those who faced significant obstacles but still contributed to ACT UP. It is troubling that an essay written with the intent of illuminating the ‘incredible range of activities and activisms […] within ACT UP itself’ falls into the trap of ignoring stories that fail to fit the dominant narrative, when these stories provide rich insight into the organisation’s history and function.

In discussions of ACT UP’s legacy, racism within the organisation is often mentioned. However, it can be counter-productive to give an organisation the totalising label ‘racist,’ or to use that label to discount its work; a more productive means of exploring such dynamics is to consider how such racism was experienced by minorities in the group. In her article ‘ACT UP, Racism, and the Question of How To Use History’ (2012), Deborah B. Gould examines the ‘ways that racism manifested in ACT UP’, along with the ways in which it affected ACT UP’s minority members.7 Many of the non-white participants in the oral histories address race and racism within their interviews, highlighting the ways in which these factors shaped their experiences and their relationships to the organisation. For instance, Kendall Thomas, a black gay man, discusses ‘how naïve a lot of the white gay men, especially in ACT UP, were about power’, demonstrating a nuanced awareness of the functions of power.8 This kind of knowledge held by minority members of the organisation is potentially valuable to its historians. Due to the intersecting categories of race and class, along with their sexual differences, these minority participants experienced the traumas of the AIDS crisis in unique ways. Dan Keith Williams, another black gay man, emphasises both these intersections and their isolating effects as he describes his position within ACT UP: ‘you’re over there with the gay white guys. […] You’re ostracizing the black community, because you’re hanging out with gay people and the AIDS thing […] The white people never liked you in the first place. You’re nobody. You’re way down there’.9 Furthermore, these issues of racism were compounded within ACT UP by what can be termed ‘the queer/gay split’10 between the ‘more established, normative’11 ‘“regular” gay guys’12 who lived in the West Village and the more “queer” ACT UP members who lived in or identified with the East Village. “Queer” is used here as Teresa de Lauretis introduced it as part of ‘queer theory’ in 1990. When used in place of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, the term can trouble what is often ‘a monolithic, homogenizing discourse of (homo)sexual difference, and […] offer a possible escape from the hegemony of white, male, middle-class models of analysis’.13 This hegemonic narrative is frequently demonstrated in the oral history interviews with white gay ACT UP members, along with their tendency toward dramatic actions and a drive to normativity. For instance, Russell Pritchard says he participated in AIDS activism because he ‘wanted to show people that gay people are just sort of regular folk’, and that they were ‘normal people [with] normal lives’.14 Whilst Prichard’s desire to be seen as ‘normal’ is, in many ways, understandable, it is a desire for a world foreclosed to queer people of colour, who were automatically marginalised as a result of the multiple and often visible differences that prevented them from accessing the kind of power associated with the mainstream acceptance for which many white gay men strived.

This apparent progressivist turn to normativity in both ACT UP and gay activism in general has been critically examined by academics in recent years, and the term ‘Gay Pride’ itself has become, they suggest, ‘a code name for assimilationism’.15 In light of this, many scholars have chosen instead to explore the implications of gay shame.16  As their theories have suggested, negative feelings should not be ignored, discounted, or even necessarily redeemed.17 Through consideration of these emotions, with particular emphasis on negativity, backwardness,18 and trauma, we can address problematic aspects of ACT UP – namely its relation to race and its tendency to normativity – and bring the voices of potentially erased subjects back into the organisation’s history.

In The Queer Art of Failure (2011), Judith Halberstam analyzes various forms of ‘low culture’ to dismantle normative views of failure and success.19 Through her analysis, she explores ways in which ‘failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact be more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.’20 In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007), Heather Love explores the negative feelings that those experiences of failing and losing may cause, as she examines the importance of emotion and affect in social and political movements. Love pays ‘particular attention to feelings such as nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, ressentiment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism, and loneliness’; these emotions arise time and again in the ACT UP oral histories, particularly in interviews with individuals of colour.21 As Halberstam’s and Love’s works suggests, if success is measured by white, male, heterosexual standards, then queer people are already doomed to failure: queer people of colour even more so. Thus, refusing stories of success in order to explore the potential of failure may actually be an inherently queer way of looking at history.

The recent anniversary of ACT UP and its attendant commemorations provide a motivation to look at this history through such a lens. If, as Halberstam claims, ‘memorialization has a tendency to tidy up disorderly histories,’ the raw data of the ACT UP oral histories provides a less organized but more comprehensive version of ACT UP’s story – one that includes the experiences of racial minorities and lesbians. Examination of these individual’s experiences casts light on the less “media-friendly” actions of ACT UP and the disorderliness, in turn, becomes a rich source of forgotten memories, which illuminate previously unrecorded aspects of the organisation’s history.22

  1. Cathy Caruth, ‘Introduction’, American Imago, 48.4 (1991), 417-24 (p. 417). []
  2. The interviews can be found online at:[accessed 8 Mar. 2013] []
  3. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke UP, 2011), p. 70. []
  4. Leo Bersani, ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’, October, 43 (1987), 197-222 (p. 215). []
  5. Alexandra Juhasz, ‘Forgetting ACT UP’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 98.1 (2012): 69-74, (p.69). The connotation of “disremember” implies a more deliberate action than simply forgetting. I will be using an understanding of the concept “as a rupture in the logic of remembering […] that shapes memories into acceptable and palatable forms of knowing the past.” Halberstam, The Queer Art…, p. 82. []
  6. Juhasz, ‘Forgetting’, p. 72. []
  7. Deborah B. Gould, ‘ACT UP, Racism, and the Question of How To Use History’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 98.1 (2012), 54-62 (p. 56). []
  8. Kendall Thomas, ‘Indicted at the Level of My Desire’, Interview by Sarah Schulman. ACTUP Oral History Project. MIX—the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, (2003) <> [accessed 8 Mar. 2013], p. 11. []
  9. Dan Keith Williams, ‘300 People Do the Same Thing, Change Happens’, Interview by Jim Hubbard. ACTUP Oral History Project. MIX—the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, (2004) <> [accessed 8 Mar. 2013], p. 20. []
  10. Thomas, Interview, p. 10. []
  11. Ibid, p.10. []
  12. Williams, Interview, p. 37. []
  13. David M. Halperin, ‘The Normalization of Queer Theory.’ Journal of Homosexuality 45.2-4 (2003): 339-43 (p. 340). []
  14. Russell Pritchard, ‘The Death of Mark Lowe Fisher’, Interview by Sarah Schulman. ACTUP Oral History Project. MIX—the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, (2003) <> [accessed 8 Mar. 2013], p. 2. []
  15. Love, Heather, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007), p. 153. []
  16. These include Love, Halberstam, Gould, Muñoz, José Esteban, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999), and Halperin, David M. and Valerie Traub, Gay Shame, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2009). []
  17. Love, Feeling Backward, p. 153. []
  18. I will be using the idea of ‘backwardness’ as developed in Heather Love’s Feeling Backward. Love explores the fundamental tension between societal progress and its reliance ‘on excluded, denigrated, or superseded others’ (p.5). She asserts that humanity moves forward, in part, ‘by perfecting techniques for mapping and disciplining subjects considered to be lagging behind’ – techniques that make it nearly impossible for ‘these others ever to catch up’ (pp.5-6). These left-behind subjects include, among others, racial and sexual minorities. As the failures and passivity discussed earlier do not need to be redeemed, but explored, so do the instances of backwardness evidenced by the subjects of the ACT UP oral history interviews. []
  19. Halberstam, The Queer Art…, p. 2. []
  20. Ibid., pp. 2-3. []
  21. Love, Feeling Backward, p. 4. []
  22. Halberstam, The Queer Art…, p. 15. []

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