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. A WEEK-LONG PARTY 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. CROSSROADS OF MANY COMMUNITIES 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 on. 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." AND WHAT OF POLITICS? 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 power. 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. COMPLEXITIES ABOUND 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 expectations. 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 game.