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Queer People Must Use History as a Guide to Fight Hate

5 minute read
Goldin is a world-renowned artist, photographer, filmmaker, and founder of the direct action collective P.A.I.N. Strangio is Deputy Director for Trans Justice with the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project

In many ways, queer people have been in this moment before.

This year alone, a resurgent right wing has demonized us as a threat to the straight way of life. The health care many of us need to live is treated as itself a danger, politicized and mischaracterized, while all but the most wealthy and privileged are locked out of receiving it. A moral panic over our existence is stoked in schools and communities, leading to increased criminalization and policing. Those whose bodies are marked as deviant and inherently criminal are forced to navigate a dangerous and policed public. And all of this happens under the eyes of a media establishment whose attitude toward our lives and perspectives ranges from indifference to open hostility.

As director Laura Poitras documents in the Oscar-nominated documentary All The Beauty and the Bloodshed (which features Goldin as the subject), the political and health crisis faced by queer people during the height of the United States AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s holds renewed relevance for the current generation of queer people facing a full-frontal onslaught on their existence and well-being. Similarly to today’s tidal wave of legislative attacks and revanchist politics targeting transgender people, the most extreme wings of U.S. politics saw the AIDS epidemic as a consequence of our supposed moral decline and a justification for stripping away legal rights, increased policing, and withholding material support.

Read More: If You Watch One More Oscar Movie, Make It All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Queer people have no one as much as we have each other, and this is particularly true in environments of crisis. While the queer movement has simultaneously grown more politically powerful and visible in mainstream society—including the securing of critical legal victories and prominence in the culture at large—we have also been told a lie about where our true power resides. In a process Sarah Schulman famously called the “gentrification of the mind,” we have been asked to sacrifice our most vital assets in favor of integration and assimilation.

The necessarily radical politics and strategies of groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation are often treated as relics of the past, folded into liberal daydreams about the inevitable, upward progress of the country. In truth, those movements represent a refusal to wait for rescue from a political and public health establishment that had long since shown an inability to understand queer people’s lives or needs. As queer lives are increasingly visible and mainstream, it can become easy to believe those strategies are no longer necessary—that the soft power of visibility and the uneven security of legal rights are the surest paths toward liberation and survival.

While the activism in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is mostly remembered for its public displays of rage and sorrow—shutting down the Food & Drug Administration or pouring the ashes of those lost to AIDS on the White House lawn—often left untold and unseen were broader networks of support, shared knowledge, and art. Direct action and community-building remain powerful tools, perhaps all the more so for a generation equipped with digital networks and social media (which hold promise even as they offer exploitation and surveillance). But they are most powerful as reflections of connections and relationships among and between marginalized people.

This was the goal at the center of the founding of Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N) in 2017. In the face of the massive toll of the overdose epidemic and our country’s continued criminalization of drugs and drug use, it became apparent that the pharmaceutical establishment that ignited the opioid crisis and profited so handsomely off people’s suffering was eager to convert a public health crisis into one of individual misbehavior. The establishment turned blame away from the destructive and murderous activity of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma and towards drug users themselves in an effort to justify a violent drug war. They’re aided and abetted in this moral crime by art institutions dependent upon their philanthropic dollars. And in turn, the Sacklers are dependent upon these established and venerated institutions to cleanse their name and image.

P.A.I.N seeks accountability where legal and lawmaking institutions have failed. As depicted in All The Beauty and The Bloodshed, P.A.I.N deploys the strategic use of public art, street theater, and the direct action AIDS activists made famous to take a stand. Paired with that, however, is a proactive effort to establish the networks of support and harm reduction resources that we know keep people alive, built from the needs and perspectives of those most harmed by this ongoing crisis.

In the midst of such violence and loss, the allure of apocalyptic thinking must be resisted with the hard and daring work of resistance. Particularly for young queer people, often intentionally isolated from the stories of our own history, it is tempting to characterize the current moment as newly oppressive or threatening. Perhaps one of the most important and enduring messages to take away from the film is Goldin’s refrain, “the wrong things are kept secret and this destroys people.” There is a strong urge to hide our queerness, our trauma, and our pain. But it is in the keeping of our secrets and the deliberate erasure of our histories that we face the most suffering.

As we chart our paths of resistance into the future, our history can be our guide. Our worlds have ended before. We have faced the eliminationist politics of extremists and built the resources we need to survive. Not only can we do it again–we must.

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