"We live in the age of misconceptions- there is so much symbolic thinking going on and many people do not understand the realities around a number of threatening experiences."
Let the Record Show
A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993
October 6, 2021
Let the Record Show is a revelatory exploration—and long-overdue reassessment—of the coalition’s inner workings, conflicts, achievements, and ultimate fracture. Schulman, one of the most revered queer writers and thinkers of her generation, explores the how and the why, examining, with her characteristic rigor and bite, how a group of desperate outcasts changed America forever, and in the process created a liveable future for generations of people across the world.
Hey Sarah, thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
I am actually doing very well. I haven't gotten sick, and I have been working.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
The strong reception for my history of ACT UP, NY has sparked some invitations from magazines for reviews and essays and that has been encouraging.
You worked on LET THE RECORD SHOW for 20 years and the reaction to this important book has been incredible, did you imagine you would get this type of reaction?
The reaction has been complex. The best outcome has been being able to facilitate so many people finally getting credit for the work that they did and in this way putting to rest the false history that had taken hold. I cannot overstate how gratifying that has been.
On the other hand, it is amazing what happens when you write a book about men! Suddenly I had access to much higher levels of discourse - people were noticing for the first time that I am a good writer, or that I have interesting contributions to make. But when I followed up the book with the submission of a new novel, one not about AIDS, but a highly engaged formally inventive novel about lesbian emotionality - a work of art, really- it was rejected by all 15 editors we submitted to. In fact, not one of them would have a real conversation with me about the book. No one used the word "lesbian" in their rejection letter. The letters all made it clear that they wanted something more conventional from me, and this is a long standing curse. I am an innovator, and I often publish books that no one wants or that very few presses are interested in because they are ahead. But then, when the books finally get published and prove to be meaningful to people, gate-keepers then don't want the next innovative piece, and want a repeat of the now-popular book that they rejected in its own time. This is a very complex experience, and not a good one. So, so far it has not opened any new doors. Of course that could change by the time this interview is published, but as of today, nothing has changed.
I am very very grateful to the (mostly) women critics and editors that saw the value of the book and said so. That was very gratifying. However, there were some men who acted in a punitive and gate-keeping way that was very annoying. So, it has been a complex experience. I have enjoyed speaking to young audiences about how change is made, and that was the whole point of the book. So that feels very very satisfying.
At the start of your book there is a Note to Reader in which you share some stats about AIDS in contemporary America, has it surprising to you that this number was so high?
No, I have been up-to-date on AIDS since it started.
Why was it so hard for editors to see value lesbian narratives and how much has the industry changed since the 1990s?
I think it is obvious: realities in which men are not central are unbearable to men in power and to the women who are controlled by them. Sophisticated engagement with lesbian ideas and emotions and experiences is something they reject as valid. If your book is about two married women and their child, that fits into a containment box that is now permissible- but real formal engagement with the power of definition is something they reject.
Parts of your book People In Trouble was plagiarised by Jonathan Larson for his musical RENT, as an author trying to tell lesbian stories what did it mean to you to have your work appropriated in this way?
As it dawned on me, it became a surreal experience of being overwhelmed by the supremacy ideology of a man who believed he could steal from a published novel by a lesbian writer and no one would care. And then to learn that in fact he was right, was enraging and debilitating.
How cathartic was it for you to address this issue with your book Stagestruck: Theater, aids, and the Marketing of Gay America?
Very. I had my say and made record, and anyone can read that book and learn and understand what occurred.
With more space and opportunities being offered to lesbian creatives and narratives would you ever consider turning People In Trouble into a stage or film production?
It is not so much lesbian creatives, as you say- but rather people who write with lesbian protagonists, openly lesbian content, from the Point Of View of the lesbian experience. There have always been lesbian artists (my preferred term) who used subtext or metaphor in order to have more successful careers. Yes, I would love a stage or film version of any of my books but I am dependent on producers and development people to approach me because I do not have the apparatus to get something like that started in a serious way.
As co-director of ACT UP ORAL HISTORY PROJECT did you have any apprehensions about turning these interviews into your book LET THE RECORD SHOW?
Only that I knew how much work it would take, and I wanted to do other things. But the increasingly embedded false histories created a state of emergency and I just had to do it.
Considering all the work you have done through ACT UP has it been jarring to see how quick a vaccine for COVID was found?
No. The jarring thing is to see that - exactly as with AIDS medications- the greed of pharmaceutical companies keep the vaccine from poor countries. We not only need national health, we need global health plans in which every person in the world has access to standards of care.
There is still a stigma around HIV and AIDS and as recently as this year celebrities like Billy Porter have coming forward to share their status?
Yes, in some ways there is more stigma today than years ago because there is no public space for his positive people. Most people keep it a secret.
What more can be done across all the communities to educate and more towards erasing misconceptions about AIDS and HIV?
We live in the age of misconceptions- there is so much symbolic thinking going on and many people do not understand the realities around a number of threatening experiences. Unfortunately in periods of regression, the politics of repetition is sometimes all you can do. But of course more honest and accurate public representations are always helpful and hopeful.
I recently read Elon Green's LAST CALL who interviewed a piano player at The Townhouse who contracted AIDS in the 80s. He says at the end of the book 'the terror of AIDS as vanished' saying that his friends take PREP and so think it's never going to happen to them. I was wondering if this was true and are we being (perhaps from a gay mans perspective) being a little to blinkered to the continued threat that AIDS plays and the issues arisen from a positive diagnosis in 2021 and we should be more aware than just buying a Product (red)...sorry this is a difficult one.
One of the many interesting things about PREP is that if every HIV positive person had the standard of care, then they would all be virally suppressed and biologically incapable of infecting anyone. So the need for PREP is predicated on HIV positive people not having full access to the standard of care.
Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from LET THE RECORD SHOW?
That change is made by community and coalitions, not a handful of white individuals.