Our Cultural Supernova
Our Cultural Supernova

"Stonewall 25 will be a place where worlds collide": Irene
Elizabeth Stroud looks at the complexities of queer culture
and politics in the '90s.

     Stonewall 25 is on its way. As I write this on a rainy
April day, the latest herald is the special supplement
attached to my copy of OUT magazine, inviting me to a
traumatizing array of benefit parties, performances, and
special events. Traumatizing, because (a) ticket prices
range up to $75 and I have no money; (b) they want to sell
the tickets in advance, by mail order or through
Ticketmaster; and (c) while writing, activism, and academics
provide me with a limited sense of direction and purpose in
life, not to mention a handful of friends and a community, I
am a social failure.
     I'm terrible at parties, and I can't dance. The
implication that I should already start thinking about going
out this June is upsetting. What if I buy a ticket to, say,
the sunset cruise/Casselberry-Dupr‚e concert on the Circle
Line boat, which sounds kind of nice, only to find out later
that the Lesbian Avengers are boycotting it for some reason
and having a cookout on the pier instead? On my salary, I
can't afford a $25 mistake.
     If only this were the seventies. I could get away with
my nerdy glasses, radical analysis, and penchant for dopey
folk music, and still be a lesbian sex object. If this is a
movement, it's the only one in the world where you can get a
ticket through Ticketmaster. Sometimes I think it is, after
all, what Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff incredulously called
a "lifestyle" movement last April, wondering (at the first
post-March-on-Washington Wednesday lunch at Monthly Review)
why the unemployed of the 1990s weren't able to pull off a
march as big as ours.


     Along with the rest of ACT UP, I was frustrated by the
March on Washington. I felt lost in the middle of all the
sunny optimism, stuck behind the military service poster
boys marching goose-step. We projected our finest queer
anger, screaming ourselves hoarse at the Department of
Health and Human Services, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturer's
Association, the Capitol. But our universal health care T-
shirts, and the ones proclaiming SILENCE=DEATH in American
Sign Language, appeared to be utterly out of style,
overtaken in queer trendiness by Army-style dog tags.
     Washington also felt more big-budget festive than
political, a week-long party for anyone who could afford the
airfare and still have money left over for restaurants,
nightclubs, and cabs: a week on Fire Island, only in
Washington. Its nerve center wasn't the Mall, where the
march and rally were held, but Dupont Circle, where
thousands of gay men and hundreds of lesbians posed,
cruised, shopped, ate out, and danced all day and night.
     Debriefing afterward, ACT UP began adjusting uneasily
to feeling like the lesbian and gay movement's long-
suffering marginal left instead of its vanguard. A flurry of
newspaper and magazine articles asking rhetorically, "Is ACT
UP dead?" despite the fact that we were patently still
alive, did nothing to help our mood. We were bitter. We
fought among ourselves.
     Nothing indicates that Stonewall 25 will be enormously
different. An international lesbian and gay organization is
now negotiating the route for a major march that will
emphasize a human rights agenda. After all, it does get
worse than the U.S. government's malign neglect of the AIDS
crisis: around the world, homosexuality can result in
imprisonment, torture, or the death penalty. The plans for
this march, however, appear to be largely overshadowed by an
array of expensive benefit parties and the Gay Games.
     What do you do when what you thought was a political
movement starts to look like an expensive lifestyle? My
crankiness last year took too much energy. Now, I'm taking a
more philosophical view.


     The organized gay community (and even that is an
oversimplification: what I mean is queers who get together
on purpose with other queers, whether it's for
demonstrations or just a good game of volleyball) is a
cultural supernova, the crossroads of many communities and
cultures. Its parts don't always intersect; sometimes they
just exert a magnetic influence on each other, repelling or
attracting and thus changing direction. Living in New York,
I am constantly reminded what a slender gay parabola I am
     ACT UP, for example, is my universe: here, I wrestle
with enough life-and-death issues, fight enough bitter
fights, hang on to enough good friends and even have enough
doomed love affairs to populate a Russian novel. But at
every corner and edge of ACT UP, a parallel universe exists.
The Log Cabin Club, a gay Republican group, meets in the
same building. On Sunday mornings, the room which houses our
Monday night meetings is packed to double capacity for gay
Alcoholics Anonymous. Sunday afternoons the room used to be
filled with a black gay Pentecostal church, but they
recently bought a building in Brooklyn.
     Sometimes the worlds collide. Sometimes they meet.
We've had gay parents of schoolkids come to our meetings and
plead with us to tone down our strategy vis a vis the Board
of Education. We've dealt with gay teenage ACT UP members
suddenly homeless after coming out to their parents, and
been reminded that our single-minded focus on AIDS leaves
out plenty of other life-and-death issues. Recently, gay
Black and Latino ex-prisoners on parole, from an
increasingly militant group in Harlem, have been more and
more visible in ACT UP; meanwhile we have been raising money
through sales of a limited-edition box of art objects at
$1,500 to $2,500.
     No march, no meeting, no party, no athletic festival
can comfortably accommodate all these worlds. Perhaps the
carnival Stonewall 25 promises to be -- with parties, swim
meets, performance art, conferences, religious services, and
small, medium, and large demonstrations (so far I've heard
of at least a lesbian march, a drag march, and what sounds
like a spirited but poorly organized civil disobedience
action in addition to the main event) -- actually comes
closer to representing our supernova than one strong
political demonstration with a clear agenda.
     The managing editor of Christianity and Crisis, a
heterosexual woman and the first Marxist feminist I ever
met, used to read through lesbian and gay publications with
a puzzled expression. She'd say, looking over a long story
on butch-femme sexuality, "Do you read this stuff? Don't you
find it -- well -- excessively cultural? I mean, there's
more to life than sex and films."


     Politics? Look at any queer studies curriculum or
journal, any book catalog, and most of what you find will be
about gender, representation, and identity. You won't see
much about job discrimination. You'll see work on AIDS
that's about the social construction of the body and
disease, but not a lot about losing jobs and insurance and
going on welfare, let alone pharmaceutical industry greed.
     Thus, my first year in ACT UP, I avoided the
excessively cultural. I was overwhelmed with my first taste
of politics, which was a revelation. I had never understood
what sitting down in the street to block a bridge could
possibly have to do with a disease. But the connections
began to dawn on me -- that the government was lying about
how much money it spent fighting AIDS, that the resources to
house and care for people with AIDS existed but were going
into the military machine and the S&L bailout instead -- and
they all added up to the concept that people's actions made
things happen and therefore my actions might make things
happen, too. Combine that with discovering that I could
break laws and the sky wouldn't fall, and it was like
finding God.
     I looked disdainfully at headlines announcing THE NEW
QUEER CINEMA, thinking: People are dying, why are you making
these weird movies? When I wasn't working on an action, I
cleared paper jams from ACT UP's copier, or read files of
press clippings from actions past. What was the use of
plays, or music, or dance clubs, or even novels about
anything but this all-encompassing catastrophe?
     But my total devotion to ACT UP was ultimately
frustrating. People died: my activism couldn't change that,
at least not in time to save my friends. On many political
and scientific fronts, AIDS had us stumped. I saw my role
models burning out, or teetering on burnout's edge.
     ACT UP is just one strand of the supernova. Gay culture
links us to all those other queers, those who are not
politicized in the same way even though they are equally
threatened by the policies we are fighting and our lives are
bound up in theirs. Their words and ideas and images have
things to say to us to keep us going, to shift our attitudes
and strategies to find a new way forward, to refresh and
entertain us, to feed us. At the same time, our own creative
work, informed by our activism -- novels, performance
pieces, videos, lithographs -- may also make its way under
the skin of those who tune out our slogans. And gay culture
will live: whatever struggles we lose, that much is in our
     The ticket prices are still hard to swallow. I'd like
to see the same-sex pairs figure skating and the Pomo Afro
Homos, and maybe try to get over my fear of dancing at one
big party. But I probably can't afford all three without
some sacrifices -- such as postponing getting my cavities
filled, or breaking my resolution to make a dent in my
credit card debt this year.
     I've been accused of being married to poverty, treating
it as a mark of political virtue and looking down on those
who want to have a good time. That's not true: I'd love a
six-figure salary and dental insurance. But my low-paying
job is actually one of the better deals. I'm in a union and
an HMO; many of my friends are unemployed or have contingent
jobs, and few have insurance. There's a real dissonance
between the premium alcohol ads targeted at queers, the high
ticket prices for benefits, the fashion spreads in OUT, and
the triage I have to perform on each month's bills in order
to have enough left over for groceries.


     Even this, though, is more complicated than it appears.
Being a stereotypical seventies lesbian would of course be
cheaper in absolute terms than being a nineties Avenger:
think of the savings on lingerie alone. Yet working class
lesbian writers in the eighties and nineties have pointed
out the middle class origins of that politically correct,
androgynous lesbian lifestyle of the past. After all, you
have to have had some money or comfort at some point to
place such a premium on downward mobility. Butch-femme
glamour itself is a glorious product of working class
lesbian culture, and classist sneers at dykes who wore
lipstick or ties were barely concealed in seventies lesbian
feminist theory.
     The more I think about it, the less ready I am to
automatically shout "Danger!" at homo glitz. Just as the
Black family serves a special function in resistance and
survival, so perhaps does the gay market. Not an entirely
benign function -- just one that cuts both ways. We emerge,
often with fragile self-esteem, from families that usually
do not accept or understand our homosexuality. We get beaten
up or isolated in high school. We get kicked out of churches
and synagogues. The market could perhaps do worse than
bombard us with messages that queers are smart, queers are
successful, queers are funny, queers are attractive, queers
have artistic talent, queers set trends, and queers dress
well. Unfortunately, under capitalism, queers are rich is
silently understood as a precondition for all the above.
     Right now, ACT UP New York has lots of hard work to do.
Our mean-spirited Republican mayor is threatening drastic
cuts to city AIDS services, even while the number of AIDS
cases in the city continues to spiral. We are educating
ourselves as never before about City Council districts,
welfare benefits, Federal matching funds, and other
community organizations. We are building stronger coalitions
than ever, queer and non-queer: with the ex-prisoners with
AIDS in Harlem, with the mothers' group that asked at a CD
training (when told to bring ID to present in jail) "Would
we have our pocketbooks with us at this point?"
     The upshot of all this is that no matter what we think,
we don't have time to get as worked up over Stonewall as we
did over the March on Washington. Our best approach will
probably be to enjoy it for what it is, ignore the less
enjoyable or affordable parts, and be refreshed. Moreover,
it's a chance to cross paths with other strands of the gay
supernova, not all of whom will be at the pricey events.
There will be queers at Stonewall 25 from all over the
world, many of whom deal with AIDS and other life-and-death
issues in their own countries. It will be good to meet them.
Who knows, maybe their presence and ours will set the tone.
More likely it won't. But maybe, like any carnival,
Stonewall 25 will be a time for worlds to collide with more
force than usual, upsetting everyone's assumptions and
     All the parties may seem like so much fiddling while
Rome burns, but I can hardly blame any queer for wanting to
stop thinking about death and have a good time, any more
than I blame a homeless person for spending the money I give
her on heroin. It's one logical response to an intolerable
situation. Hoping the supernova at large will understand and
embrace ACT UP's continued militancy, or anyone else's, is
wasted energy. As long as we keep doing the work we need to
do, and maintain room for new ideas and strategies, people
will join us. They know where to find us.
     In the meantime I could use a good queer volleyball