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1994

Lighten Up!

“There’s not any cruising in here at all!” my friend Alphonse complains, looking around. He’s right. The predominantly queer crowd of ACT UP members stuffed into Revolution Books on Avenue B in New York’s East Village is rigid, alert, and crisp with...
October 1, 2009, 12:00am

by mark allen

illustration by jim krewson

“There’s not any cruising in here at all!” my friend Alphonse complains, looking around. He’s right. The predominantly queer crowd of ACT UP members stuffed into Revolution Books on Avenue B in New York’s East Village is rigid, alert, and crisp with conversation and debate. The group’s usual Monday-night meeting at Cooper Union was moved at the last minute to this makeshift location, via last-minute flyers and ACT UP’s “phone tree.” The cramped quarters heighten the intensity.

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“Che Guevara was the racist!” screams Kathleen Greaves, 23, towering in dreadlocks and John Fluevogs, on her turn at the mic. She yells the word “Guevara” with an excruciatingly correct accent and a straight face.

“Oh, she thinks she’s a diva!

Thinks

, darling! Thinks!” Alphonse whispers in my ear. I’ve brought my friend Alphonse to show him firsthand what he’s been telling me for years is “wrong with the fags in New York City these days,” as he puts it. We’re witnessing the New Gay Seriousness. Alphonse is a veteran of the decadent heyday of Gay New York circa the late 1960s and 70s… even earlier. He was born in 1932, before many of ACT UP’s members’ parents were even alive, and lived in downtown New York City when the first gay bars in Greenwich Village were mere speakeasies run by the Mafia. He’s now 62.

“Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?” Alphonse adds, rolling his eyes.

The meeting’s agenda had started with a debate on how to tactfully disrupt the Stonewall 25th-Anniversary March in downtown NYC, coinciding with the official Gay Games bombarding the city this week, but has temporarily veered off course into a heated discussion concerning Che Guevara’s supposedly secret homophobic and racist past. The initial group that brought up the subject of Guevara’s homophobia—and whether queers should be wearing his image with pride on the buttons of their leather jackets—is now being labeled racist by other members of ACT UP, particularly members of color.

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Gregory Wolens, a 25-year-old gay activist by night who works for the New York City Coalition for the Homeless by day, is this evening’s hapless meeting facilitator. “Tonight’s gonna boil over,” he says, sitting next to Alphonse and me, in between scolding people for speaking out of turn. According to Wolens, discussions about anything at ACT UP (and often Queer Nation) meetings often derail into this type of unresolvable, high-minded argument. “My job is to make sure they don’t break out into fistfights,” he says, half-joking.

Wolens and Greaves speak to Alphonse and me after the meeting. When I ask them about the subject of “political correctness,” Greaves proudly tells me she’s a founding member of the Pink Panthers, an often-armed, Guardian Angels-style group who patrol areas of New York where assaults on gays and lesbians are commonly reported, to offer support and a queer show of force. Her t-shirt—a bright pink paw print—reads “Bash Back.”

“The Pink Panthers and Queer Nation short-circuit the historicity of a hetero/homo binary division in our predominant heteronormative culture, OK?” Greaves says at us, motioning her hands like a teacher. “Through queer visibility, like political actions and kiss-ins, we seize the public space as defined as a zone for heterocentric, political pedagogy.” On the subject of Che, Greaves states, “I think queers are slowly waking up to the consequences of worshiping a hero because of their celebrity. Look around you, substance hasn’t just trumped style in gay New York City culture, it’s trampling it.”

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“Isn’t that a form of gay-bashing?” says Alphonse, placing his elbow in one hand and holding one hand aloft as if he’s holding an imaginary cocktail. Greaves looks at him confidently, with no response.

“Who’s your friend?” Wolens asks, leaning toward me.

“Gregory, meet Alphonse.” I say enthusiastically, expecting a confrontation. Alphonse refuses to shake Wolens’s outstretched hand.

“He’s so great,” Wolens eventually says with a warm smile and the tone someone might use in a retirement home. Alphonse coughs loudly and stumbles for the door.

Alphonse rants as we later walk from Revolution Books toward the Tunnel Bar on Second Avenue. “I hid in my apartment the night of Stonewall. I could hear it happening right down the street!” Alphonse frowns. “What a disrespectful way to mourn Judy Garland’s passing!”

Alphonse thought the height of gay activism had faded after the Stonewall riots in 1969, only to see it return a decade later when William Friedkin’s film Cruising was filmed in the meatpacking district in 1979. “All those queens giving themselves a stroke over poor Al Pacino! I have no problem with protests, those clever chants, and those cute little signs… But fags should be fabulous, not fascists!”

When I ask Alphonse about other gay activist heroes of his day, like Harvey Milk, he’s reluctantly congratulatory. “I’m a disciple of gay icons like Lucius Beebe—you’re too young to remember him, dear—well, don’t forget, Harvey Milk partied his unpolitical ass off until he was 40 and suddenly had a sense of purpose. Guess what finally killed him? Politics.”

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Sensing my unease, Alphonse offers, “Don’t get me wrong, the drag queens from Stonewall were adorable! But now, even the drag queens in New York have become thought police! There’s nothing I abhor more than bad drag. And a preachy, political, finger-pointing man in a wig, dress, and heels makes for very bad drag indeed.”

“Gay activism actually started in America in 1950, with the Mattachine Society,” I offer.

“Pull the plug!” Alphonse howls.

“Oh, I understand safe sex and all that,” Alphonse says over drinks at a dim, sparsely populated Tunnel Bar. “I was a member of the Mineshaft when it was just private parties at Wally’s loft! Did I have friends die from AIDS? My Rolodex shrunk down to a brochure. But just because I’m still alive doesn’t mean I have to act like I’m dead! I have a brain, I can think for myself! They have treatments and medications for HIV and stuff now… They’ll have a cure in no time.”

I balk at Alphonse and hold my index finger silently in front of my pursed lips, mouthing, “Shh!”

“Oh, hush yourself! I was at Jay’s on Ninth Avenue the other night when suddenly there was a huge commotion in the back room. Apparently someone tried to fuck someone else without a condom, and a gaggle of do-gooder gays ganged up on him and tried to throw him out of the place. All nude, boners a-swingin’! You’re at a sex club for chrissakes! No one in this city will have sex without a condom—a whole generation of gay men afraid to feel something.”

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“You mean get something,” I counter.

“You don’t get it,” Alphonse says, waving his hand at me. “It’s fine, it’s fine… It’s your age. I’m going to the Bijou. Wanna join me?”

I decline.

A few days later, the Stonewall 25th-Anniversary March is commencing on a balmy late-summer evening. Rather than disrupt the march, ACT UP has decided to simply march in it, more or less. Alphonse and I walk along with it, near ACT UP and Queer Nation. Gregory Wolens and Kathleen Greaves have promised to speak with me again, but I can’t seem to find them in the crowds, which are growing thicker as the march inches toward a very clogged West Village. Amid the route crossing Sixth Avenue on Eighth Street, the crowded pedestrian and stalled auto traffic clashes with ACT UP’s carefully controlled white-knuckle tension. “The AIDS crisis is not a ribbon!” they chant in unison. I join in the chant sporadically. Alphonse refuses.

“I feel old,” Alphonse says, looking at the pavement.

“Support our troops!” a frantic male in his mid-20s screams back at the protesters as they pass Sixth Avenue, holding up an unidentifiable piece of paper and perhaps understandably getting the message of the protest garbled. The chanters file past him, unfazed, determined.

“Yay! Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell! The right to go to war! The right to kill!” a cackling lesbian walking next to us bellows at a group of marchers, who all laugh back.

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When I comment on the slowness of the marchers, Alphonse lights up for the first time in the evening. “Maybe if they wore roller skates they could cover more territory,” he beams.

“That would be festive,” I add.

“Heaven forbid!” he says, sighing, “Gays in New York City in the 90s are just too serious about politics and community activism… They’ve got their brains where their balls should be! They hardly ever go to clubs or parties, have sex, do drugs, worship fashion, or gossip about divas. I’m sure at this rate, by the year 2000, all the gay bars of New York will be closed… We’ll have nothing but political marches and political arguments in the West Village. It will be a gay intellectual mecca, and everyone will wear gray. The religious right will be dead and homophobia won’t exist. I’m sure we’ll even have a gay president by then…”

I roll my eyes.

As the march reaches Sheridan Square, suddenly the mood becomes tense. Several members of Queer Nation and ACT UP have hit the pavement in the middle of Seventh Avenue in a spontaneous “die-in.” The police move forward, deciding whether to arrest activists. Alphonse and I detach from the march and watch. The spectators on the already crowded sidewalks, mostly gay, huddle in to get a better view.

“Heteronormative identity pedagogy! Anti-assimilationist policies!” chant the activists lying in the middle of the street, in unison.

I can’t wait to hear Alphonse’s opinion on the spectacle. I turn around to see his expression. I can’t find him! Is he lying down with the protesters? No, not there. Ahead of me? Behind me?

I’ve lost him in the crowd.