UNITED IN ANGER: A History of Act UP
Originally Published in 2020
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP is an inspiring documentary about the birth and life of the AIDS activist movement.
Hi Jim thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been holding up during the lockdown, has it offered you any creative inspiration?
For whatever reason, the lockdown has inspired me to work on older footage. I’ve been preparing years and years of Pride footage for uploading onto my website jimhubbardfilms.com. I’ve been filming Gay Pride Marchessince 1979. I first filmed on Super-8, in 1985 I switched to 16mm and then in 1991, I started videotaping. I’ve used various forms of videotape or digital recording ever since. Only a few of the early years on film have been digitized, but I’ve been putting them as separate years as I put them together and color corrected them. The Leslie-Lohman Museum asked me to participate in a virtual exhibit for Pride this year. I decided I would put together all the Pride footage I had available. It turned out to be over 9 hours of material. The file was so big that it was impossible to upload to either YouTube or Vimeo.
The Supreme Court held that Federal civil rights law protects gay, lesbian and transgender workers, for all the fighters, many of whom are not with us, and for the legacy of ACT UP how significant is today's decision?
I was surprised and delighted by yesterday’s decision. For decades, I’ve thought that the prohibition against discrimination because of sex in the Civil Rights Law covered Queer people. Clearly, the discrimination would have to be based on a conception of how a “man” or a “woman” should behave, should dress, should be. So, of course, that is prima facie discrimination based on sex. But I was astonished how far we’ve come in convincing straight people of that proposition. I contrast this the Hardwick Decision of 1986, which allowed states to continue criminalizing homosexuality. The Supreme Court session ends in June, so many decisions are announced throughout the month. With Hardwick, the Court waited until the Monday after the Pride Marches to announce the decision, thinking that they would avoid demonstrations. This time they were forthright enough to announce it in the middle of the month.
I’m not sure how much of this decision is attributable to the legacy of ACT UP. ACT UP utterly changed how straight people viewed Queer people and made them a little bit scared of us. The success of same-sex marriage is clearly a reaction to the AIDS crisis, but is also a conservative response to the problem of homophobia. Basically being a trade-off consisting of you behaving more like us and we’ll give you certain rights, most of which are financial and do not benefit many people.
Trump's handling of Coronavirus shares similar traits with Reagan silence and inaction on AIDS, and in both cases this caused thousands of deaths, why was Reagan's response to the AIDS epidemic so disastrous?
Government inaction and the Reagan Administration’s unapologetic homophobia resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in this country and served as a model for other homophobic leaders that resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths. Trump has added incompetence and arrogance to the mix. The underlying problem is a healthcare system that is designed to leave millions of people without.
Throughout the early days of the pandemic, I kept thinking that the government’s response, inadequate and incompetent as it was, was vastly more than the Reagan Administration’s response to AIDS. If, at the start of the AIDS crisis, the U.S. government had supported efforts at safe sex education, had had a sense of urgency around the epidemic, provided the healthcare and the social services that people with AIDS needed then thousands of lives could have been saved. If the U.S. had offered a model of engagement and care instead of hostility and neglect, then millions of lives worldwide could have been saved.
You have been part of Pride since its inception do you think Pride's could benefit from returning back to its roots?
Not quite the beginning. I went to my first Pride March in 1977 and have been filming the marches since 1979. Here in New York, with the emergence of Reclaim Pride’s Queer Liberation March, we have returned very much to the beginning. Last year the route was the same as the original, starting at Christopher Street and 7th Avenue and proceeding up 6th Avenue to Central Park. This year the corporatist parade put on by Heritage of Pride has been cancelled, but the Queer Liberation March will happen with masks and social distancing on Sunday, June 28th.
As I put it on my website:
Lesbian and Gay Pride Marches were community affairs in the early days. There were no barriers between the viewers and the marchers. Often marchers would spot friends on the sidelines and stop to talk and watch the march for a while, rejoining the march when other friends or interesting groups passed by. Similarly, people who started out watching would spot friends and join the march. Thus, there was a fluidity to the event and no clear distinction between observer and participant – everybody was part of the same community. Also, as this was a community event, people marched as individuals or as members of community organizations or ad hoc groups (e.g., Fags Against Facial Hair). The only corporate floats represented bars, not huge international corporations.
Were you much of an activist growing up?
I went to my first protest against the war in Vietnam when I was 16 years old. I had to sneak out of the house. I have no idea what excuse I gave my parents. My father especially was a reactionary and an alcoholic bully, so we were constantly fighting. That first protest was a police riot with cops on horseback charging into the crowd. I’ve been anti-police ever since.
What was it about the Lesbian and Gay activists in the 1970s that inspired you to want to create record of these trailbazers?
My interest in filming Lesbian & Gay political events began in February 1979. I was doing some local organizing for the National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights to be held in October 1979. I went with a group of friends and fellow activists to the first national organizing meeting in Philadelphia in February 1979. I brought my little Super-8 camera and was the only person there with a movie camera, though there were a number of people there with still cameras. The first thing that happened was a vociferous 45-minute debate on whether cameras should be allowed at all. On the one hand, there were people who thought this was a historic event and should be documented and on the other were people who could lose their jobs, their children, their lives if their homosexuality became known. In the end, it was decided that people who were willing to be photographed would sit on the left side of the auditorium and those who didn’t could sit on the right side. By the end of the weekend, no one was sitting on the right side of the auditorium. I immediately knew that I had to film people for whom images were a life and death issue. To see what the meeting looked like, see more here.
But there was another aspect that kept me filming over the years. Around the same time, I read a scientist’s assertion that even the most effeminate man behaves in a masculine manner 90% of the time. This absurd, incredibly entitled and judgmental comment raised a number of interesting questions: What is “masculine” behaviour? What is “effeminate” behaviour? Who gets to decide what is which? How could you measure such things? I began to wonder if there really was such a thing as “gay” behaviour or gesture. Protest marches provided an unequaled opportunity for looking for this. Because people’s attention was focused elsewhere, they weren’t performing for the camera and so I could record the way people behaved ordinarily. Actually, I discovered a range of behaviour – when people are not aware of anyone watching or recording, the awkward moments when you think someone is watching, but you can’t see who, and performance intended for the camera. For an excellent example of all three types of behaviour, see the last few seconds of my film June 12, 1982 (08:56-9:09).
I never did figure out whether there actually was such a thing as gay or lesbian behaviour or gesture, but it led me to really look at what there was to see in the queer community and a lifetime of fascinating filmmaking.
What was it about ACT UP and their message that connected with you?
In the period 1981 – 1986, those of us with a political bent kept wondering why there was no grassroots political response to the AIDS crisis. In the U.S., the answer was that first people had to create the infrastructure to provide the help and services that the government wasn’t providing. Then ACT UP burst onto the scene.
I was not immediately drawn to ACT UP, but I think that was because of my lack of understanding. My first encounter with ACT UP was in March, 1987. I was coming up out of the subway at the corner of 12th Street and 7th Avenue and saw a small poster announcing a demonstration at Wall Street at 7 AM on March 24th. My immediate thoughts were who the hell would go to a demonstration at 7 o’clock in the morning and why would you demonstrate on Wall Street when the government was the problem. I didn’t realize that 7 AM was a perfect time to reach people going to work on Wall Street and for people who had to be at work at 9. Also, ACT UP realized what I didn’t, that the AIDS epidemic was a crisis of capitalism and Wall Street was the perfect place to attack that.
The next encounter was in June 1987. I was standing on the corner of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue filming the Lesbian & Gay Pride March when ACT UP and its concentration camp float turned the corner. As a Jew, I am very wary of using Holocaust imagery to make a political point. I think that the analogy is simplistic, inexact and not terribly useful, although Larry Kramer always disagreed with me on that. My first ACT UP demonstration was the one against Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in July. It lasted 96 hours straight and I was hooked by the inexhaustible energy, the complexity and the pointedness of the political message, the great signs and the hot guys.
"…there was a fluidity to the event and no clear distinction between observer and participant – everybody was part of the same community."
What was it like attending an ACT UP meeting?
Thrilling, sexy, exhausting! The meetings began at 7 pm and continued till 11 or beyond. There were reports on new medicines in the pipeline, discussions of upcoming zaps and larger demonstrations, fierce debates on political philosophy, occasional camping, analyses of past events, cruising.
Who was the first person at ACT UP you interviewed?
In late 1988, I received a grant from The Kitchen in the form of a Video-8 camera for the purpose of creating an oral history of ACT UP. I interviewed Robert Garcia, Gregg Bordowitz, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Alan Klein, Karl Soehnlein among others. I found myself with 10 and half hours of footage and the filmmaker in me said, how am I ever going to edit all this material and I stopped filming. I had no understanding of the importance of the unedited interviews. The ACT UP Oral History Project is, in part, a corrective to that early lack of awareness.
How important a role did ACT UP's visibility, openness and fearlessness help to bring about our modern understanding of LGBTQ+ community?
This is a difficult question to answer because I do think that ACT UP utterly changed the conception of queer people, but I think that “our modern understanding of the LGBTQ+ community” is largely an assimilationist construction that stands in opposition to ACT UP’s militancy.
Let me quote Ann Northrop on the subject of the change in straight people’s attitude toward gay people: “my favourite story, actually, is from Gabriel Rotello who, several days after [Stop the Church], talked to his mother in suburban Danbury, Connecticut, who said to him, “You know, my friends and I have been talking about this,” – as was the whole world, at that point – “and we’ve decided that before this demonstration, we thought gay people were sort of weak and wimpy. But now, we think gay people are strong and angry.”
But after the urgency of the AIDS crisis began to fade, the assimilationist wing of the gay/lesbian movement came into ascendancy and the focus shifted from AIDS and sexual liberation to the needs of the comfortably middle-class – same-sex marriage and gays in the military, in particular. I came out into Gay Liberation with the notion that we were going to change the world and free everybody’s sexuality, but the movement has devolved into a desexualized, we’re-just-like-you, amiable sort of consumerist, adaptive conformity. I think that one reason the term LGBT and it’s derivatives have achieved widespread acceptance is that it’s just initials and non-threatening and allows people to ignore the disturbing thoughts of messy sexuality and the radical threats to gender norms inherent in queerness.
Can you tell me a little bit about United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, how did this film come about?
I have no recollection about this, but at our first meeting with Urvashi Vaid, who helped us get the initial funding for the ACT UP Oral History, after the discussion of the Project, I blurted out, “and I’m going to make a film.” I’m a filmmaker and it makes sense that I would want to distill and my ideas of what made ACT UP so effective and important into a compact film highlighting the incredible work of AIDS Activist Videomakers and utilizing the interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project to explain and illuminate the actions and to situate them in a larger context and history.
I wanted to emulate some of the tenets of the AIDS Activist Video movement. There is no pseudo-authoritative voice-over to explain the actions and tell you what to think. Because one of the most important tenets was the belief that people with AIDS and the people in the trenches fighting alongside them are the true experts in the disease, I wanted to make them the spokespeople for the movement. Also, in ACT UP, the idea was that any of us, all of us could be spokespeople, so there was a concerted effort to educate all the members. It would have been a distortion of the true nature of ACT UP to have 6 characters stand in for the movement. That’s why over 40 people speak in United in Anger. There is only one character in the film – ACT UP. Finally, I wanted to edit the demonstration footage so that the viewers would feel that they were on the ground in the midst of the demonstration, so all the shots are from eye-level and taken up close in the action.
As a filmmaker how much did your time with ACT UP influence your style and your approach to your films?
For many years in the late 70s and into the 80s, I would be the only person with a moving image camera at Lesbian & Gay demonstrations. That changed completely with the advent of ACT UP and the AIDS Activist Video movement. Suddenly, there were a dozen people with video cameras at an action. This allowed me to step back, to film as I wanted to film, to look at what I wanted to look at, to take the time to process the film and to process the ideas that the footage evoked. It wasn’t my responsibility to videotape with that feeling of urgency that the information had to get out to the world as quickly as possible. I wasn’t good at that. I had the luxury of time to cogitate on the meaning of it. It took more than 5 years to make Elegy in the Streets. I could turn my filmic energies to a meditation on death like Memento Mori, which obviously grows out of the exigencies of the AIDS crisis but isn’t specifically about it.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes. I go to the movies every Christmas Eve to avoid the tumult of that family-laden, consumption-frenzy, Christian holiday. The tradition began with me and my late, greatly missed, dear, dear friend, the writer David B. Feinberg. We were two Jewish boys avoiding Christmas. It grew to the point where a dozen or more guys would go to a movie of Dave’s choice and then have dinner. One time we were having dinner and the subject of “When you were a kid, what did you want to grow up to be?” came up. We went around the table and I was the only one who became what he imagined as a child. I have to emphasize that my actual career has nothing to do with my childhood conception of making movies. When I was a young, I had no knowledge of experimental film or even documentary filmmaking. The ultimate sophistication might have been an Alfred Hitchcock film. Nevertheless, making movies is the only thing I ever wanted to do. But also, and this is important, I wanted to make the movies that I wanted to make and that’s impossible in the narrative traditions of Hollywood. I wanted to make films about gay people that truly reflected their lives, their struggles, their joys. I never wanted to take heterosexual narrative formulas and shoehorn gay characters into them. I’ve made the films I wanted to. It’s been a struggle because there is not a great deal of support for the kinds of films I make, but I’ve managed to do it. Perhaps, I haven’t made as many as I might have liked to, but I did what I could.
How did the Act Up Oral History Project come about?
The ACT UP Oral History Project began with a phone call. In June 2001, Sarah Schulman called me from Los Angeles. She had just heard a report on the radio in commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of AIDS in which they said in essence that at first Americans were upset by AIDS, but then they got used to it. Sarah said that we had to do something about the complete erasure of the work of thousands of AIDS activist who forced the U.S. government to deal with the crisis, to do the research on drugs, to provide the services that people with AIDS needed, forced the pharmaceutical industry to do their part in the research and forced the mainstream media to present the AIDS crisis and people with AIDS in a more complex and humane manner. We decided that the best thing we could do was to allow the activists to speak for themselves, to tell their stories of how they changed the world.
If you could describe ACT UP's legacy in three words what would they be?
Silence = Death
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from United in Anger: A History of ACT UP?
United in Anger has two main purposes. The first is to put ACT UP and AIDS Activism smack dab in the middle of mainstream U.S. History where it rightfully belongs. The second is to present a blueprint for effective, grassroots political activism for whatever progressive political issue. The universal lesson of ACT UP is that a small group of people, with a strong analysis of the problems and obstacles they face, laser-focused on workable solutions can change the world.