Marion Banzhaf: I was aware of GRID [gay-related immune deficiency] because I would see the headlines in the New York Native, the main gay biweekly. I wasn't working with gay men. I was working with women on international solidarity struggles and on apartheid. I was an anti-imperialist activist. But I noticed this group of men growing and growing and got more educated.At the same time, there was a guy I knew who had been in the Black Liberation Army, Kuwasi Balagoon. He had been a black liberation activist since the '60s. And he had a lover who was a drag queen—now we say transgendered. When he was arrested, he wound up in prison and developed pneumonia and died within six months, probably in 1984. He was one of the first few people I knew who died of AIDS. And then I found out about another person, who was the first gay person I knew—my lab partner in science class back in Sarasota, Florida. Bobby came out in high school, and his parents put him in a psychiatric ward in the late '60s. But then he fled to New York and started working at a bar. I moved to the city in '83 and, through a series of questions, found out that he had died of AIDS. So there was both the fact that I had a personal connection with people who died and that this was a vibrant growing movement.
Banzhaf: It was a sexually charged environment altogether. There was a lot of sex between men and men, and men and women, and women and women. It was experimental, and it was charged. We went to the Republican convention in New Orleans in 1988 and had access to a swimming pool, which turned into a massive skinny dip. The sex was part of dealing with the death. Emergency sex. How do you keep yourself going? Speaking personally, I wound up having a relationship with a man for the first time in many years. He was attractive for one thing, but I was also teaching safe sex and decided to put theory into practice. I wasn't the only lesbian who later turned out to be more bi than gay.Of course, women always face consequences to un-thought-out sex. If it's heterosexual sex, then you worry about an unwanted pregnancy. If it's lesbian sex, then there's the discrimination and horror you face from your family and the ridicule you get from men who want to fuck you so you'll come to your senses. Women always have had a different idea of the consequences of sex. After Stonewall, gay men had a great time partying, especially the ones who weren't so political. They'd go to the discos or the clubs or the gloryhole or the baths. Lots of sex—that was the gay male culture. So I think, when confronted with real consequences, men had to listen to women in a different way.
What did women, collectively and/or individually, bring to ACT UP?
Women always have had a different idea of the consequences of sex.
Banzhaf: Among other things, women brought a sense of bigger purpose. Women and people of color geared towards intersectionality politics versus single-issue politics. Instead of just "drugs into bodies", it was the bigger picture about how to nurture and deal with the body. Women had a lot of energy. Women had been caregivers before ACT UP.Danzig: Many ACT UP women already had years of political and organizing experience behind them from work in the civil rights, anti-war, LGBT, and feminist movements. Jamie Bauer was active in the Pentagon Women's Action movement; I'd done Take Back the Night and other anti-rape work in my undergraduate years. Not only did the women in ACT UP bring years of analysis and understanding of the "intersectional" nature of social crises that were fueling the AIDS crisis which helped give ACT UP strategic direction and focus, but also the women who gravitated to ACT UP were highly skilled in organizing and provided essential tactical skills, including non-violent civil disobedience trainings and marshaling trainings.If ACT UP is known for anything, it's a mixture of cogent analysis and highly targeted direct actions that produced exceptional, tangible results, changing how medicine is performed in the United States and elsewhere—and the course of the AIDS crisis. The skills were shared and taught, creating the collectivist beauty of ACT UP. I became friends with Jamie Bauer in ACT UP in the process of learning the demonstration-organizing skills she brought to the group—non-violent civil disobedience training for direct action, how to scout and run demonstrations, how to run interference with the police—and we're pals almost 30 years later.
Danzig: While I think I was the only lesbian daughter of a gay man who'd died from AIDS active in ACT UP New York, generally the lesbians in ACT UP came to the organization because of deep personal and professional friendships with gay men. Gerri Wells' brother had died of AIDS. A number of ACT UP women worked in the medical field as doctors and nurses and saw close up how gay men were being treated—ignored, abused, made into pariahs. ACT UP women also had experience as "buddies", being care partners to HIV+ men, either through personal friendships or GMHC [Gay Men's Health Crisis] matches. I believe that Vito Russo was honoring both the personal and the political responses of lesbians in the AIDS crisis. Together, gay men and lesbians forged a very strong alliance that worked internally to support each other as friends and lovers died, and to use our mutual anger and outrage to build community awareness of the government's lack of response to the AIDS crisis.
What was your experience—both the rewards and the challenges—of taking on battles that, at least on paper, weren't your own? For a long time, after all, the popular perception of AIDS was that it was a "gay man's disease."
Generally the lesbians in ACT UP came to the organization because of deep personal and professional friendships with gay men.
Banzhaf: I felt a sense of responsibility as a gay person. This was after Stonewall and after Anita Bryant. This was a chance for us to stand up and say we're not ashamed of being gay. I was just hearing about the Black Lives Matter conference in Cleveland—how exciting it must be for young people to get together and fight for what's right. When you see queer discrimination, as a lesbian—I just had to join that. There was a lot of sexism, but also a sense of united purpose that we were all activists and had to fight back.
Banzhaf: Things have to get bad, and people have to be personally affected. People have to make connections with other people instead of being lured into the TV screen, where it seems like the most important things are American Idol and having dreams of striking it rich and knowing more about sports than about city government.
Banzhaf: ACT UP meetings were charged with anger and sadness. I remember one guy whom I didn't know very well. He was pretty sick and coughing in a meeting. He suggested what we should do for an action, and I said something that was going to turn it into a bigger spectacle. He thought that would be trivializing the issue. He said, "We're dying here". He was dead the next week.The main point of that goes to the heart of what you're asking about: who gets to decide what happens and how people have to work together when they aren't being affected in the same way.Danzig: It made a lot of sense to put the needs of PWAs [People Living with AIDS] foremost in ACT UP. This meant that every action was designed not only to make life better for PWAs—whether we were protesting a bad blood bank decision or demanding compassionate release of specific drugs—but also to include people who weren't well, who might need to be there in a wheelchair, or who might need their meds when they were in jail, or who might be undocumented, thereby putting them at risk for real jail-time or deportation. This made our actions very integrated and very holistic. There was very little machismo, upping of the ante, and gratuitous police-baiting that I've seen in other direct action groups. In ACT UP, we were there with real people who were really sick, some of whom were dying. We were there with and for them, and for all the others we'd already lost.
There is a strand of feminism which argues that women have a special responsibility to "repair the world". But this notion can be considered in and of itself a patriarchal construct because it assumes that women, as a group, have a particular set of qualities that men don't. What do you think?
I remember one guy whom I didn't know very well. He said, "We're dying here." He was dead the next week.
Danzig: I think essentialism (feminist or not)—the belief that there is a set of qualities intrinsic to men which is different from those of women—is morally bankrupt and dangerous. I have no "special responsibility" to do anything, I just have my one life to live, to use in the ways I see fit. This is a privilege, and not just a calling. There are lots of people who could not have done what I did while participating in ACT UP, not because they weren't brave or intelligent or committed, but because they would have been much more badly treated by the police, the courts, and the system. I did what I did in ACT UP because I could, and because I had to.As the mother of a teenage son, my job is raise a hardy, resilient mensch, a person who understands how the world works to separate and divide men from women, maintain racial divisions, perpetuate social and economic inequality—and to help him find his own path for challenging these norms in his own way. If you're not angry, you're not paying attention. We all have a part to play in making the world more equitable.