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Review: Christophe Broqua, Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).

Benjamin Shepard

Movements fly, ascending, descending, ebbing, shifting, with overlapping stories building on each other, ideas crashing across borders. This is what I thought of when I heard about Christophe Broqua’s study Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France, the English translation of his history of ACT UP Paris, by Jean-Yves Bart and Kel Pero.  I was immediately intrigued.  ACT UP chapters around the world take their own composition, with their own cultures and quarrels. ACT UP Golden Gate split from ACT UP San Francisco when I first joined their actions over a quarter century ago, AIDS denialists moving in one direction, Gay Liberationists and more scientifically grounded AIDS activists in another direction. 

The images I know of ACT UP Paris include die-ins on the Champs-Élysées, men kissing men, women kissing women, queer fists in the air, wrapped about each other, usually in public, in grand public gestures of affect, defying social mores in favor of expressions of care, Eros ever dancing with thanatos.  The city is a stage set and a work of art, none more majestic than Paris, where Boroqua’s story takes place in a grand drama. ACT UP New York, the first chapter of the group, had their fair share of kiss ins and of course borrowed from the cultural legacy of French social movement thinkers, including Michelle Foucault.  The group founded to “unleash power.” ACT UP reminds us ideas matter, as do bodies in space and time.  

By the mid-1990’s, Act Up–Paris was perhaps the most high-profile activist group in France. Founded two years after ACT UP New York, it borrowed from aesthetics and activist praxis of the New York model, echoing the controversies, creating a few more. A center of government, culture and commerce, the activist playing field in Paris is distinct and unique. Christophe Broqua’s fascinating intellectual, activist history work explores the French group’s ideas and through lines linking AIDS and gay activism. Of course, one cannot read about ACT UP now without feeling the echoes of history, plagues shedding light on our flaws, reminding us of our limitations. AIDS is not history, neither are our plagues.  Epidemics expose a great deal about who we are. They always have. New ideas are born. Old orders fade.  Mirrors shatter. A few words about our current moment inform this history.

“My Friend Roger died of COVID-19 Wednesday night,” writes Alan Timothy Lunceford-Stevens, a veteran member of ACT UP, who has been a part of the group for well over three decades and still goes to actions today. For AIDS activists this has been a huge déjà vu. “Friend, Nathan Kolodner, died 31 years ago last night, at 38 years of age, of AIDS and I let it pass, thinking of friend Stephen Addona, who died this week,” recalls Lunceford-Stevens.  “Both left earth at early age. Stephen and were working on helping Long Term Survivors not feel alone. I did tonight, thinking of the two of them and the loss.”

With friends dying of a strange unknown affliction that seems to gravitate to the poor and vulnerable, COVID-19 feels all too familiar to AIDS activists. History takes odd shapes, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” as Marx put it.

But this isn’t quite farce.

“It’s been a colossal management and leadership failure,” says ACT UP veteran Gregg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Medicine. “As somebody who watched the AIDS epidemic unfold in this country, I recognize it as a political crisis first and foremost,” he says.

 “1,112 and Counting” wrote Larry Kramer in 1983 as the AIDS crisis began, each week new numbers. “If we don’t act immediately, then we face our approaching doom. By 1987, activism moved from service delivery to direct action, as the body bags piled up and we lost friends. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power fashioned a distinct brand of activism around batting stigma, connecting the separated, taking a data driven approach, harnessing science for the people, arguing healthcare is a right, healthcare is a right. Like today, a primary front of the activism meant supporting civil liberties. William F Buckley famously proposed tattooing people with HIV/AIDS, and activists beat back the attack.

“First a list, then a tattoo, how would you feel if it happened to you,” we chanted with the City of New York proposed names reporting in 1997. Over the years, AIDS activism involved a distinct form of mutual aid, community support and information exchange. Shortly after the pandemic began, ACT UP members formed the ACT UP – fight covid-19 working group. April 1, Anne-Christine d’Adesky, the author of The Pox Lover: An Activist’s Decade in New York and Paris, reports: “ We are almost at 3300-member mark! Welcome all newcomers! We are Act Up- Fight Covid 19!, a global community united in action to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Many veteran Act Up members are in our ranks…We are about collectively uniting in reflection, action and protest against failures and gaps in the response … we welcome your participation.”

Charles King, a veteran of the ACT UP Housing Committee and founder of Housing Works is organizing a shelter for homeless kids coping with this.  “They are the new outcasts,” said King, 65. “This resonated deeply with me because back in the 1980s you had AIDS organizations that were not dealing with the homeless and homeless shelters that were not taking anyone with AIDS.”

Kate Barnhart is organizing volunteers, including myself, getting poor people meals. My friend AlanTimothy Lunceford-Stevens writes, “I was aware of HIV (not the name) in 1980 when my friends were dying of a mysterious illness, in San Francisco and New York.  I searched for an answer and did not find it, until a fuck buddy died, and anger surfaced in my GUT, and I found ACT UP NY, with US government inaction on June 22, 1987.  Republican Ronald Reagan did not utter the word – AIDS for seven years.  And let thousands of Americans   COVID-19, this past year and a half.  Deaf ears to AIDS and the White House, other priorities, like teen vaping and the election.  Donald Trump allowed thousands of Americans to die of COVID-19. The Republican Party can never escape those two presidents and that they care about nothing but white heterosexual people.”

The last lines of my first book about AIDS in San Francisco, White Nights and Ascending Shadows: suggest: “The cycles of the life and disease continue. Stories about disease eventually all fall into the same form.  Whenever it looks like we are about to pull ourselves out, a new test returns malignant.  In the end, they all become retreads of Defoe’s A Journal and a Plague Year and Camus’ The Plague.”

From 1348 to 1350, in Paris, there was not enough living to bury the dead.” From the Bubonic Plague to HIV/AIDS to COVID 19, the cycles make their way, revealing themselves anew in a strange reverberation. The question is how one lives, how one responds. “The dying of despair continually converts itself into a living,” writes Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, the Danish  existentialist philosopher.  Broqua looks to Kierkegaard’s words as a “The Rationale for Public Action” in his study of resistance to our modern plague. This is a story about how we act when we are fighting for our lives.  Each chapter in Action = Vie  builds on this question, how do we respond?

“The AIDS epidemic has definitely exploded.  A strange deflagration, shattering the eardrums only of those affected,” notes Pasc De Duve, in the opening epigraph of the first chapter. The screams break the silence, reminding the world people need help. Narratives of activists and philosophers trace this story.  “I want to die screaming that I want to live, screaming that I need medication, screaming that I’m sick of politicians not doing shit, that maybe society needs to wake up.  I want to die screaming,” declares Cleews Velley, opening the second chapter.

“Today, the main enemy of gays is their dark corner.  And all the tests and articles that have attempted to analyze Act Up’s work, not a single one appears to have seen that it is the only group to try to bring them into light,” says Didie Lestrade, in Act Up,: Une histoire, opening the conclusion.  Light expels the darkness. This is a story about ideas, each borrowing from another, creating new narratives, each more abundant.

“It was because Michel Foucault’s work gave ammunition to resisting medication power that AIDS activists appropriated it,” Broqua quotes sociologist Eric Fassin. “What we are dealing with in this new technology of power is not exactly society,” notes Foucault in his 1976 college of France lectures, extrapolating on the workings of “biopower” and “state racism” that would be so informative for ACT UP. “…nor is it the individual-as-body.  It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted.  Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as political problem.”  Certain populations are seen as problems.  The job of activists is to remind the world of new ways of viewing them, new ways of defining, of understanding, of seeing these bodies, queer bodies, immigrant bodies, Black bodies, bodies in jail cells, bodies in a democracy.

Movements overlap, stories building off each other, movements and ideas crashing across borders, through time.

Gay Liberation Front explodes out of Stonewall. Guy Hocquenghem, a veteran of the front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire,a Parisian Gay Liberation Group styled upon Gay Liberation Front, formed in in 1971, ruminates on Homosexual Desire: “Rather than being lovers in order to breathe, we are queer in order to escape asphyxia.”  In The Screwball Asses, he asserts that pleasure is an integral component of this social movement: “Leftism dries up whatever it touches.” Instead, “we rebuilt the Leftist theater. There, we rebuilt the carnival of stars to assemble the next barricades in evening gowns. Theory for the sake of theory collided with madness for the sake of madness, and they both tried to reconcile themselves in the imperialism of youth and beauty.” Gay Liberation would remind the stodgy, often homophobic left, that pleasure matters. In this Gay Liberation built its own abundant lived theory and praxis.

Philosopher Michel Foucault, was of course, a part of the social movements of the period to which Broqua refers. He understood that movements, not laws, change culture. Networks of friends, this is what Foucault talked about in his seminal 1981 interview dubbed “friendship as a way of life.” His writings on power informed ACT UP, while this support for groups GIP (Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons) took shape through his advocacy for those in the movement to find their own voices, needs, desires, and give them expression. The point of much of his thinking and activism was to lay out questions rather than directives; power could be found in multiple voices of the body of the group, not from the analysis of one charismatic leader. This disposition was part of how he supported friendship as a way of transforming social relations. Rather than dictate the implications of friendships for queer activism, he asks readers to think about what it means, strengthening their means of resistance.

Here friendship is delinked from sexuality as well as connected to it. Such friendships shift between one and the other, changing form. With amorphous definition, for Foucault, friendship was a vital element of queer politics.  While sex and friendship are not opposed, the ties between can be described in terms of communities of friends. Most certainly friendship finds its way into movements including civil rights and women’s rights, yet gay liberation – a movement born of a denial of access to legal forms of social bonds – had a unique claim to this disposition. While marriage is not an option for queers in most of the world, friendship, however imperfect, always has been. Without defining what this friendship could mean, Foucault implies this practice entails the formation of new models of ethics, suggests Tom Roach in Friendship as a Way of Life:  Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement.

Foucault would not live long after famous interview, succumbing to the virus himself in 1984, one of the early public figures in France subsumed by the virus.  The links between Act Up and Michel Foucault’s ideas about bio-power, as well as friendships would provide an enduring connection.  It would be up to queer activists to explore these new ethics, within the context of a disease that changed the ways people have sex, share bodies, and explore themselves. Our promiscuity would save us, posits ACT UP New York member Douglas Crimp, articulating a queer theory of activism and pleasure.

Across the world, ACT UP would explore these questions, with chapters popping up from San Juan to Paris. Composed of interviews and readings, Broqua’s study traces the history of Act Up–Paris and the culture clash that would be the AIDS years, dovetailing through sex wars, debates about condomless sex, queer theory, HIV treatment, and critiques of capitalism, as public consciousness about people with HIV, queers, and sexual outsiders shifts and laws change. The work begins with Vichy France, and the criminalization of homosexuality during the 1940’s.  Movements respond. Flux is constant. In the subsequent years, “Homophile” and Revolutionary Movements reimagine questions about homosexuality, their competing narratives of queerness seem to echo the tensions between reform vs revolution witnessed between Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance here in New York.

The church becomes a target.  On Easter day, 1950, the Situationists dressed as friars, disrupt mass in Notre Dame Cathedral, declaring god is dead in “The Declaration of Mourre“:

“Today, Easter day of the Holy Year,
Here, under the emblem of Notre-Dame of Paris,
I accuse the universal Catholic Church of the lethal diversion of our living strength toward an empty heaven,
I accuse the Catholic Church of swindling,
I accuse the Catholic Church of infecting the world with its funereal morality,
Of being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.
Verily I say unto you: God is dead,
We vomit the agonizing insipidity of your prayers,
For your prayers have been the greasy smoke over the battlefields of our Europe.
Go forth then into the tragic and exalting desert of a world where God is dead,
And till this earth anew with your bare hands,
With your PROUD hands,
With your unpraying hands.
Today Easter day of the Holy Year,
Here under the emblem of Notre-Dame of Paris,
We proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that Man may live at last.”

ACT UP New York and Paris would have their own disruptions at St Patrick’s in New York and Notre Dame in Paris.  Act Up–Paris builds on an imported model of AIDS activism in the United States, informed by a French philosopher, constructing a collective transnational identity and framework of movement practices.  An ever-expanding community takes shape, across marches, gestures of direct action, black boots and kiss ins, shared grief and memory, Eros and loss, political funerals and competing memories. To understand these symbols, Broque looks to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who saw such efforts as “symbolic struggles”: “The objective of every movement committed to symbolic subversion is to perform a labour of symbolic destruction and construction aimed at imposing new categories of perception and appreciation, so as to construct a group…”  And destruct and construct a group ACT UP did, with stories and expressions, activism and sex, gestures of care and internal conflicts, controversies over unprotected sex, or “barebacking” and “a threatening closeness.”  The splits would go on ad infinitum, through a space between normalization and dissidence, AIDS activism and imagination as catharsis. Broqua traces these dialectic schisms through the group’s intellectual and activist history, from responses to treatments for HIV infection to debates over normalizing homosexuality. There are countless versions of this story.  This one ends in the mid-2000s before HIV/AIDS normalization and marriage equality caused Act Up–Paris to decline.

And, of course, in March of 2020, Larry Kramer died.  I attended the funeral for Larry Kramer, the founder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, many of us did, wearing masks, breaking quarantine, meeting for the first time in public in weeks, cracks opening. All week, the world swirled with action.  Word about a policeman in Minneapolis, who kneeled on unarmed George Floyd’s neck 8 minutes and 46 seconds as he begged for life, was making national news.  Watching the video of Floyd, face on the concrete, saying “I can’t Breathe,” before dying, tears pour down my face, a flood of images of everyone who had died lately, mostly from communities of color.  And then the sense of shame, frustration, déjà vu. Here we are again. Rodney King and Eric Garner, whose last words were, “I Can’t Breathe” in Staten Island.  And then Larry Kramer, a white man who started ACT UP and GMHC. He sounded the alarm that this would impact everyone.  Kramer reminded us that there was a place for anger. We could use that anger. We could channel that anger. The feelings about the horror could be translated into action. This wasn’t the stuff of adolescent misbehavior. We could ACT UP. We could and should disobey, especially in the face of the horror. When Black people are killed by cops, when Abner is tortured, when Patrick is shot, when George is killed, when your friends are getting sick and no one is doing anything about it.

            It is all the same thing, homophobia and racism, says Jay Walker, of Rise and Resist, speaking at Kramer’s memorial. Foucault was right. State power kills.  Over the next few months, he takes part in subsequent street actions calling for the city to defund the police.  I’d run into him almost daily at protests, activists responding to the deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of the police as well as the pandemic.  Walker writes, “First, the inaction in response to Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, then the police execution of Breonna Taylor, then a white woman calling the police on birdwatcher Chris Cooper in the Central Park Ramble, and the one-two gut punches of the death of legendary activist Larry Kramer, less than a year after he had delivered an impassioned speech after our inaugural 2019 Queer Liberation March, and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Our members and organizers took to the streets in protest.”

Visibly moved, ACT UP veteran Timothy Lunceford-Stevens, was one of the first to speak at Kramer’s memorial, recalling being in the hospital with Kramer when they were both sick, a familiar face in an otherwise horrific situation without an exit in sight.  Now Kramer is gone. He found a way out.  Still, the dialogue continues, even when bodies decompose. When Lunceford-Stevens returned home from the funeral, he wrote a poem about Kramer and the whirlwind of history.

LARRY – The WORD

By Timothy Lunceford-Stevens

Larry was a whirlwind, a pain in the ass.

Anger, Vinegar!

Saw no one was playing it safe in the 80s!

Time of Reagan, it took that President seven years to utter,

One WORD

AIDS!

It would kill tens of thousands before,

Protease Inhibitors in 1996

Larry Kramer wrote…

AN ARMY OF LOVERS MUST NOT DIE WE ARE NOT CRUMBS, WE MUST NOT ACCEPT CRUMBS,

1112 AND COUNTING, BE VERY AFRAID.

FAGGOTS, A book some could relate to,

While others hated

As much as Larry Kramer 

Hated those who did nothing to

End AIDS Now

LARRY KRAMER died May 27, 2020

HIV Positive since 1988

At 84 years old, just a month before his 85th, living with HIV,

A LIVER TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT with HIV

Since 1980, No one from with HIV

Has lived that long.

Larry’s LEGACY, he Co-founded

GMHC, founded ACTUPNY, and inspired thousands of offshoot

Activist organizations that came later…

TREATMENT ACTION GROUP, HEALTHGAP, HOUSING WORKS.

Just to name a few.

Now there’s Protease Inhibitors. PreP, PEP

And new plans for prevention and treatment

Keeping folks

NEGATIVE

Keeping folks

POSITIVE & UNDETECTABLE & UNINFECTABLE

The WORD

RECKONED

A Failure by the system to stop Millions of the Worlds population from

The WORD

AIDS

The WORD

KRAMER

The WORD

LARRY

Benjamin Heim Shepard is the author/editor of a number of books, including From ACT UP to the WTO, with Ron Hayduk, and most recently, Illuminations on Market Street and Brooklyn Tides, co-written with Mark Noonan. Email: bshepard@cutytech.cuny.edu. http://benjaminheimshepardplay.blogspot.com/p/bio.html