Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 27 October 1997

ANN NORTHROP
The Radical Debutante

From Making History by Eric Marcus

 

UNTIL 1987, Ann Northrop's resume reads like that of a journalist on her way to the top: "ABC Sports," Ms. magazine, Ladies Home Journal, "Good Morning America," and "CBS Morning News." The impressive list of national media ends with 1987 because it was in that year that the silver-haired, Vassar-educated Boston debutante abandoned her career.

Ann Northrop jumped ship and became an educator on AIDS and homosexuality. Along the way, she also joined the ranks of the new wave of direct-action AIDS and gay rights activists. Today, Ann is an outspoken member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and has been arrested twice while participating in public protests, including the much publicized and controversial disruption of Sunday services at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1989. She's also an active member of Queer Nation, the highly visible and very vocal rights group that has spread to cities across the country. At forty-two, two decades older than the average Queer Nationalist, Ann is an energetic late bloomer who is determined to make up for lost time.


All through my teenage years I tried to convince myself, These feelings will go away. They're not real, because I'm not one of those awful people. I can't be one of those weirdoes, those Martians, those horrible disgusting perverts. The image I had was of limp-wristed men and women who looked like truck drivers and wore motorcycle boots--unattractive, disgusting people, fairies and bull dykes. I said to myself, That's not me. I'm a nice upper-middle-class blue-blooded Boston debutante.

So I hid throughout my teenage years. I dated boys. I sometimes say I've dated half the men in the world twice, including people like Pete Coors, now president of Coors Beer. This amuses me. I actually went out with Pete for quite a while in high school. I went to high school in Denver with all the Coors girls and that kind of crowd. As a teenager I didn't see any positive gay images. I wasn't able to find them. And they certainly weren't in my high school curriculum. But I remember getting excited by characters in books who were marginally alluded to as gay. I also went to Rock Hudson and Doris

Day movies and spent my time focusing on Doris, putting myself in Rock's place. I was thinking about kissing Doris, rather than kissing Rock.

I went to college at Vassar from 1966 through 1970 and continued to date men, but less frequently. I wasn't enjoying it. But I thought that maybe I had to wait for someone to come along who I could really like. It wasn't that I didn't know how I felt, because I knew perfectly well how I felt by then. And it wasn't as if I didn't know any gay people. There was an openly gay group of women in my dorm at Vassar, and they happened to be friends of mine. But I didn't feel comfortable being associated with these friends and I distanced myself from them. I certainly never talked to them or anyone else at Vassar about my feelings of attraction for women. I did not come out to anybody there, and I did not join the group. I just did not want to identify myself as a lesbian, which was a word I absolutely couldn't use because if I accepted that identification, then I had to accept being alone for the rest of my life. I thought that being gay meant that I would never, ever be able to have a relationship with any of the women I was actually attracted to because they were all straight. All those other gay people could go out and have fun, but for me being gay meant being alone.

I CAME out in 1976, when I was twenty-eight, which was when I first got involved with my lover, Linda, who I'm still with. Linda has two sons who live with us, whom I've helped raise. I did not feel comfortable talking to another soul in the entire world about my homosexuality until I met my lover and felt there was now one other person who cared enough about me not to hate me for who I was. I was very scared and very conservative.

Five years later, by the time I went to work as a free-lance writer for "Good Morning America" ["GMA"] at ABC television, I was completely open, and that got me in a lot of trouble. When I got to "GMA," they had an institution called Lesbian Hour, which was quite interesting to me. Lesbian Hour was at about four in the afternoon when people would take a break. We'd hang out at Joy Behar's desk and talk. Joy is now a famous comedienne, but at the time she was a secretary at "GMA." This gathering was called Lesbian Hour because it was all girls who gathered around to talk. But there wasn't a lesbian in sight until I announced myself.

I was still feeling very fresh in my relationship at the time. This is a period when you want to go out and tell the entire world, so I was very aggressive about it--I felt it was my turn. Everyone else in the world had had the opportunity to have relationships and celebrate and enjoy them. I had been alone essentially for twenty-eight years. I had been holding back for my entire life, and this was my first chance to have a relationship and celebrate it and wallow in it and enjoy it. I was extremely flagrant in ways that I'm a little embarrassed about now. Not that I regret any of it, nor do I think I was entirely inappropriate.

I remember taking my lover, Linda, to a staff party at the home of a writer who was then married to a minister. She couldn't bear me because I was much too flagrant in my outness. Linda and I were being very affectionate, necking in the living room with a lot of other people around. You know, if a straight couple--or a gay couple did that at a party now, I would probably find it objectionable because I would find it unfriendly to the party. At this particular party, they would have been offended by any couple necking in the middle of the living room, but I think they were much more upset by the fact that it was a gay couple, rather than a straight couple. There were mean remarks made behind my back, several of which were reported to me.

I THINK if I had been cooler and less aggressive in my behavior, I probably would have had a somewhat easier time at "GMA." In fact, by the time I got to CBS Morning News, I had gotten a lot of that out of my system. I think I had a very successful and happy time at CBS with my colleagues. My problems there had to do, for the most part, with a small group of my superiors with whom I had conflicts over editorial issues. I was not an easy employee for them because when I didn't like something, I said it. The last year I was there I went around screaming, "Intellectual bankruptcy!" at them.

One of the lovely things at CBS was how my colleagues dealt with my crush on Angie Dickinson, which was treated in the same way that any heterosexual crush would have been. I had a picture of Angie on my telephone, and I would talk aggressively about her as someone I found enormously attractive. And I would refer to the fact that I was attracted to older sleazy blondes, of which she was the epitome.

There came a day when Angie was booked in the entertainment unit for a posttape she was going to be interviewed on tape following the regular broadcast. When that got put on the schedule and became known, virtually everyone on the entire staff called me up or came running to my office to say, "Ann, Ann, guess who's coming! Angie!" They were so excited for me. They were truly happy for me that I was going to have the experience of being able to meet this movie star crush. I escorted Angie around the building for a couple of hours. I got to chat her up and had a great time. I loved her even more after spending time with her because she was fully as wonderful and humorous as I thought she would be.

ONE OF the people at CBS who was totally supportive and totally accepting was Diane Sawyer. Besides really taking to my stepson, Peter, who I would occasionally take to the studio with me on mornings when I had to meet with guests, Diane always regarded me as having a family. I remember one morning when Linda and I were home watching the "Morning News" in bed. Linda is a high school English teacher, and she must have had the day off. At the start of the second half of the show, at eight o'clock, there was Diane saying, "Call me Ahab...." Linda gave me a sharp jab in the ribs with her elbow and said, "Call me Ahab? It's 'Call me Ishmael!' " And I said, "You're absolutely right." So I picked up the phone and called the control room at CBS and said, "Tell Blondie it's 'Call me Ishmael.' " I settled back. Sure enough, ten minutes later, Diane said, "You know, I misspoke myself a few minutes ago. It's not 'Call me Ahab,' it's 'Call me Ishmael.' "

Nine months later we threw a " Morning News" Christmas party in May, black-tie, two hundred people. Linda and I. went. Diane was at the party and came toward me at one point. I started to introduce Linda to her, and Diane stuck out her hand and said, "Oh, you must be the one who corrected me when I said, 'Call me Ahab.' " We had not discussed this from the time I called the control room, but Diane never forgets. And she never forgets to ask me about my family whenever we talk. She's one of the few people I know, and certainly the only "star," who says, "How's Linda?" every time I talk to her. "How's Peter?" Diane could not be nicer about asking after them as my family.

GIVEN WHO I am and how completely out I was, I rose nicely through the ranks at CBS in ways that other people didn't. I would insist on referring to Linda as my spouse and equating my life with theirs and making it have equivalent status. Nonetheless, I was given a great deal of power and responsibility there. I was hired as an associate producer and promoted to producer and then to coordinating producer. I had a lot of authority. I think that speaks well for the place.

After five years I decided to leave CBS. I had never worked anywhere before for more than a year and a half. I was not happy, and the show was getting worse and worse, so I quit. I left CBS for unemployment. I wasn't worried because I had done well financially at CBS, I had a wife who worked and made a decent salary, and I had some trust in my ability to survive.

After CBS I made a very definite decision not to look for work. I wanted to reenter the world. I had been working on the late shift for a long time. I wanted to see my friends again, whom I hadn't seen for years, and my family. As part of the process of reentering the world, I also thought about what it was I liked to do in life, what it was that would make me happy on a day-to-day basis. I realized that what I really liked about television and CBS was teaching people things, conveying values, getting my point across. I liked when clerks at "Morning News" would come to me and say, "You gave me values. You gave me standards. You taught me how to do it right."

I started thinking in terms of being an educator and then I thought, Aha! Maybe the line I've been saying as a joke for years is true. When people asked me what I really wanted to do when I grew up, I would say, "I want to be a gym teacher, but I'm afraid of fulfilling the stereotype." After I left CBS I said to myself, You know what? It's absolutely true! I had always enjoyed teen sports more than anything else in my life, but I was desperately afraid of being the stereotypical little butch gym teacher.

So I decided that I was going to teach field hockey in a private girls' school, like Brearley, where one of my grandfathers was headmaster many years ago. I would teach elite, smart-alecky girls just like me, and no more fooling around with what anyone else thought I should be doing. I would probably divide my time between team sports and maybe a little nineteenth-century English literature on the side. A little field hockey, a little Jane Austen. They would learn values and teamwork and have a good time like I did when I was their age.

In the midst of exploring this option and talking to friends who had been involved in schools like Brearley, I had lunch one day with a friend of mine, Vivian Shapiro. Vivian is a lesbian who has been politically involved for quite a few years and who is somewhat prominent in the current movement. As I described my thoughts to her, she said, "What about the Harvey Milk High School as a place to teach?" (The Harvey Milk High School is an alternative high school for lesbian and gay adolescents who need a safe place to continue their studies. The school is certified and staffed by the New York City Board of Education and is located at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for Lesbian and Gay Youth.) I thought, Perfect! What a great idea! I can have all the teaching function I've wanted and I can have it in a gay context. Vivian told me to call her friend, Joyce Hunter, at the Hetrick-Martin Institute.

When I met with Joyce, I showed her my resume, which knocked her out. She gave me a look that said, "What are you doing here?" So I described my little teaching dream. I had adjusted my thinking to the Harvey Milk School by then, but I still had grandiose dreams. I had said to myself, I'll take all these gay boys and make them into the city champ softball team and destroy all the stereotypes of gay boys. This will be my great accomplishment. I described all this to Joyce, and she just got hysterical. She thought I was the funniest thing that had ever walked through the door because, as she explained to me, the Harvey Milk High School was not some great Gothic structure with hundreds of kids. It was one room in the back with maybe fifteen cross-dressers. And they certainly didn't have a gym or anything approaching a sports program.

Joyce told me that the Harvey Milk High School was not appropriate for me. But she said, "We have a contract from the city Department of Health to go around and talk to community groups, parents' groups, the Board of Education, whatever, to advocate for AIDS education." She asked if I would be interested in that. And I said, "You want to pay me cash to do public speaking? Me, the big ham? Where do I sign up?" I didn't care that it was AIDS. I didn't care that it was a gay agency. The most important thing to me about that offer was that I was going to get paid to do public speaking.

It turned out that I loved the subject matter and have gotten deeply involved in it. The most ironic thing of all is that I found what I enjoyed most was direct AIDS education with kids. The most exciting experience was at one of my earlier appearances, in 1988. I had been asked to go in and do AIDS education with an alternative high school group at a drug rehabilitation facility in Brooklyn. I sat down in a circle with about twenty kids, boys and girls. We had been talking for a little while, when one kid sitting next to me said, "Well, you know, the way to get rid of AIDS is to kill all the queers." This was the first time I'd had something like that happen, and I turned to him and said spontaneously, "It's interesting you should say that because I'm one of those queers and I'm certainly not crazy about your language. What you're suggesting is not the answer, but let's talk about it." Everybody's jaw dropped to the ground, and we proceeded to have a two-and-a-half-hour nonstop conversation. One girl came out as having a lesbian mother. The kids talked about their gay friends and how they felt about them and the difficulties they had dealing with it. Two and a half hours nonstop! Kids do not sit and talk to grownups for two and a half hours nonstop.

Talking with that group of kids was one of the most exciting experiences I've ever had. It was thrilling. It was like they were in the middle of the Mojave Desert and someone offered them a canteen of water.

They were so thirsty for this information, for this conversation. It took them about five seconds to drop their misbehavior and to lean forward with curiosity and a desire to learn, and listen, and exchange information and opinions. I felt privileged to be with them, privileged to have that conversation, privileged that they would respect and trust me enough to have that conversation. I feel very warm toward kids. I think they're very intelligent, caring, sincere, and basically wonderful people who have had rotten things done to them and are therefore missocialized into a lot of rotten behavior.

I had not been hired to go talk about homosexuality to people. But that experience made me understand how that was possible and how important and valuable it was. So I went on to develop a curriculum for teaching people about homosexuality.

Now I go out to high school classes with a gay male partner in a nice little imitation of heterosexuality as a male-female couple. We have a set routine. We start the class by saying, "Okay, divide yourselves up into small groups of four or five. Make a list of every word you've ever heard having to do with homosexuality. Any curse word, anything nice, any phrase, any description." They make all these lists, and they laugh and giggle. It gives them permission to get all that out in the open. Then we say, "All right, call out the words." As they call them out, we write the words on the blackboard. My favorite phrase that I learned from the kids is fudge packer--we hear it all.

After making the list we say, "No one knows where sexual orientation comes from--straight, gay, bisexual, whatever you want to call it. But we do know that orientation, the ability to be attracted to whoever you're attracted to, is set either by birth or within the first couple of years of life. It is not something that happens to you later on. So, say you're nine, ten, eleven, twelve, and you're coming to a realization of your sexual feelings, and these words are all you've ever been taught?" Then we point to the blackboard and say, "These words are all any of us are ever taught about homosexuality. This is it. This is all we ever learn about the subject. So the fact that you think that gay people are disgusting is absolutely legitimate. I thought that, too."

I don't go into these classes and get defensive. I don't challenge the kids and I don't point fingers at them and put them in a position where they have to say, "No, I'm right, and you're wrong." I say, "I'm with you." I tell people that they're right to feel the way they do because they are products of their environment and the education they've had. I don't tell people they're crazy because they're not. Now, I also say to them, "We're all starting from the same point of information. We are all blameless because we've all been taught this and we were never given an alternative. So if we all hate gay people, that's fine, because that's all we've ever been taught. But now I'm going to give you a different point of view. If you still disagree with me after what I have to say, then I may hate you. Then I may get angry at you. But until then, we're all pals." They laugh when I say that to them.

I have found that these conversations are marvelously revolutionary. In forty or forty-five minutes in a public high school classroom, we can have a very meaningful exchange about our lives with twenty or thirty very misinformed lower-class kids. I think we change their lives by giving them an alternative point of view they've never had before. We're giving them the experience of finding out that we're human beings. For these kids, it's the first time that they've had a chance to really have a conversation about homosexuality with someone who's gay. A surprisingly great number of them announce that they have gay friends. That's different from twenty or thirty years ago, when I was their age. But I don't think they feel comfortable, as much as they may love their gay friends, talking to them about their gay lives or about their own feelings.

When these kids I've talked to get called faggot or are tempted to call someone else a faggot, when they hear these kinds of slurs, I want them to have an alternate point of view. I want them to stop and think and say, "Wait a minute, that isn't what I thought of her. She was a human being. So maybe these stereotypes aren't right."

I've heard stories that I've left waves in my wake all over the five boroughs of New York, not to mention everywhere else I've been, because I go in with what is, in fact, a radically different point of view, which is my own normalcy. Don't tolerate me as different. Accept me as part of the spectrum of normalcy. That turns out to be a radical point of view, but one that is very exciting to most people.

I think this kind of education is crucial. There was a poll taken by the governor's office that confirmed for me how important it is. The poll asked teenagers all over the state how they felt about members of different minority groups and whether they would be willing to live next door to a member of this or that group. There was a list of about a half a dozen. All the kids, no matter what group they came from were very willing, at levels of 90 to 98 percent, to live next door to members of any minority group except gay people. When the kids were asked whether they would be willing to live next door to gay people, the yes answers were in the 40 percent range. We are still regarded as weirdoes from outer space. We're regarded as disgusting human beings who have made a choice to do something self-indulgent, disgusting, and sinful. We are not regarded as legitimate. I see as my agenda the need to go out and attack the root of the problem, which is this feeling of disgust toward us. That's what I'm out to change, and that's why I see the conversations I have with teenagers as so important. I do it for those who are having feelings of same-sex attraction, to feel better about themselves, particularly at an age when they are tremendously isolated and at very high risk of suicide. And I do it for those who are not having feelings of same-sex attraction, to decrease their panic, loathing, and violence against those of us who are lesbian and gay. It's possible to create a better world with the generation that I think is open to this change, as opposed to those who are already in power, who are harder to reach.

I truly believe I can reach most people. I have some of my most enjoyable conversations with self-identified fag bashers on Staten Island. I really enjoy talking to people like that because I find that they're so open to if--they really are.

The problem I have is with religious fundamentalists--they are the most resistant. They're the ones who you can't get to with the kind of argument that I make because they accept as their guide a biblical injunction against homosexuality. Although we can very easily argue technically that the Bible does not condemn us, I don't try. When I get challenged by someone in an audience who says, "But the Bible says...." I say, "Look, I know perfectly well that that's your point of view and I'm not going to affect it. That's fine. You're entitled to your views. But I have a different point of view, and while I could argue scripture with you, I'm not going to."

WHEN I first plunged into the AIDS-education work, I quickly became horrified by what I saw: AIDS education that was not getting done or was getting done very badly, news media Iying about the epidemic and refusing to talk about the virus because they said the truth was too complicated, a federal government that would not look at things the way they were, and city and state governments that were not doing what they should. I was seeing the breakdown of the healthcare system and racism and the old issues that I had been seeing for years and years and years.

At around this time, I became aware of an event about to happen. It was called the War Conference, and it took place in February of 1988 in Virginia, a little ways outside Washington. It was a weekend conference of about 220 lesbian and gay leaders--so-called--from across the nation. Because of my old journalistic instincts, I can't bear to miss important events if I can possibly help it, so I wangled an invitation.

The conference was a fascinating affair, but the most important thing for me happened on the last day at a plenary session. A couple of people got up and talked about ACT UP and the importance of people being on the front lines, being out in the streets and marching and demonstrating and protesting, not just doing this work professionally. I was a child of the sixties who had marched and demonstrated against the Vietnam War and for the rebirth of feminism. It really felt very nostalgic.

Almost in reaction to this emotional blackmail, I decided that I at least needed to check this out. I came back to New York and went to my first ACT UP meeting the next night. It was around the first of March 1988. I haven't left since. I was totally head over heels in love at first sight.

At ACT UP I found a great working democracy that was very positive and supportive of everybody. All the goals appealed to me. They included everything from finding a cure for AIDS to doing the right education, which meant telling the truth, being explicit, not pulling any punches, and supporting real protective health measures, as opposed to ineffective supposed moral standards. ACT UP was willing to confront all these things directly, to go out in the street and scream and yell. So that was the beginning of my activist work, which I did in addition to my professional work.

I started going to ACT UP meetings just at the very end of the organization's first year, just as all the excitement was building about the Wall Street II demonstration. Wall Street II was a protest to acknowledge the first anniversary of the founding of ACT UP/New York. The idea was to repeat a Wall Street demonstration that had taken place at the beginning, in March of 1987. ACT UP chose Wall Street because the business community is seen as having large responsibilities in this area. Businesses profiteer on AIDS drugs, and insurance companies won't cover people. It's all about money and companies being unwilling to spend what it takes to do a good job of taking care of people. Some ACT UP protests are targeted at specific issues or goals, but a lot of it is just screaming and yelling to say, "Pay attention! Don't ignore this! Do something!"

For Wall Street II we chose a busy location during the morning rush hour. We chose the morning on the assumption that people would be a lot less upset if they were interrupted on the way to work than on the way home, which I thought was a very clever approach. We split up into what were known as "affinity" groups. One group would take to the street and sit down and all be arrested. Then as soon as they were cleared up, the next group would go in. That went on for awhile. About one hundred people were arrested. I was one of them. That was my first arrest ever. It was fabulous!

At one time, getting arrested seemed like the scariest thing in the world to me. But somehow, during the Wall Street II protest, sitting in the street just seemed to me to be a perfectly sensible thing to do. But I think the real key is that once I came to work in the community, six months earlier, it took away the last barriers in my life. Now I could be totally free and be who I was. It made all sorts of things possible that I was scared to do before. When I was working in the straight world, there always seemed to be the chance that I could ultimately be punished for being lesbian, and if I wasn't going to be punished directly, they would punish me for everything else I did. I always felt that I was in danger.

When I went to work in the lesbian and gay community, it was an enormously liberating experience--contrary, of course, to my assumption when I went to work there. I thought it was going to be a death, a dark cave from which I would never emerge. I thought I was limiting myself, cutting off possibilities. The irony was that I was, in fact, liberating myself completely, opening up my life in ways that I couldn't begin to imagine or anticipate. The proof of this was that I felt completely complacent about the idea of getting arrested, which was a complete departure from how I felt before. At any previous point in my life, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near a situation that could have resulted in my being arrested.

The police were fairly rough. They threw me onto a bus with about twenty or thirty others. The bus drove around for a while and finally ended up at a police precinct. We were all herded off and into cells, three in each cell. We went through about three or four hours of processing: Fingerprints. Polaroids. Being questioned. One of the things we'd been told at civil-disobedience training was to be prepared to spend several hours in jail. I had followed instructions and brought two peanut butter sandwiches and a book. I think that's some of the best advice I'd ever received in my life.

I PARTICIPATED in scores of demonstrations over the next couple of years, but I wasn't arrested again until the St. Patrick's Cathedral protest. (I am not someone who goes out and gets arrested routinely.) There were a number of reasons ACT UP chose St. Pat's as a target for a protest, but it was particularly significant for me because of AIDS education. The archdiocese in New York does everything it can to interfere with instruction about safe sex in the public schools. It is currently trying to stop any availability of condoms in public high schools. It's doing this in very nefarious ways. And Cardinal O'Connor, especially at that time, was telling the general public that monogamy would protect them from HIV infection and that condoms didn't work. As far as I was concerned, those were both major lies that were going to kill people. I thought it was important to alert the public to the fact that these were lies. And while people were certainly entitled to make their own decisions about their lives--and far be it from me to tell them what to do--I would not sit by silently while they were being lied to. So when the group decided to target St. Patrick's, it just made absolute perfect sense to me because it is an extremely important target in this epidemic.

There was a lot of publicity leading up to this protest, which was planned for the 10:15 A.M. mass on December 10, 1989. People were amazed at the turnout. It really took on a life of its own and became a huge, huge protest, far beyond anybody's expectations. People were so angry at Cardinal O'Connor and the archdiocese here that they came out in droves, even though it was extremely cold. There were five thousand demonstrators outside from ACT UP and Wham!, the Women's Health Action Mobilization. It was chaos in the streets.

Forty or fifty of us drifted into the church in little groups at about 9:10 A.M. We tried to get there early to make sure we could get seats. But then they cleared the church, for one of the few times in history, filled it with cops, took bomb sniffing dogs inside, and made us wait outside while they searched everything. Then they opened up the doors and let us in again.

The entire broadcast and print media were there on a special platform built for them in the middle of the congregation. Normally the local press was there every Sunday to cover the cardinal's sermon, but because there had been so much advance publicity about the planned protest, there was ten times the normal press in there, including local and network television. Mayor Koch was there to defend the cardinal. The police commissioner was there to defend the cardinal. There were hundreds of cops, bomb-sniffing dogs, and several hundred seminarians who had been brought in as decoration for the front area. There were undercover cops as ushers everywhere. And then there were maybe three dozen of us who planned to do nothing more than just read a statement. The place was quite tense.

We had decided that we were going to wait until the cardinal was giving his sermon before we did anything. Our intention was not to interfere with any hymns or anything else, but simply to make a gesture of protest during his sermon. Every week he stands up in the church and during his sermon makes political statements about AIDS, abortion, homosexuality, and crime in the city. We believed we were entitled through our right of free speech to confront his political statements. Besides, by having the broadcast and print media in there on a regular basis, he had breached the limits of a religious service himself and was setting up a political event.

At any rate, the cardinal began his sermon, and we started doing our prearranged protest. Maybe twenty-five or thirty of us lay down in the middle aisle. Several clumps of people in various parts of the cathedral started to read a statement aloud. A few people handcuffed themselves to pews. They didn't say anything, but just sat there handcuffed. Then, as the cops started swarming all over the cathedral blowing whistles and the parishioners were trying to drown out the statements with loud singing, one particular guy decided that we were all being wimps and started screaming. Then some of our younger, newer members started yelling. The whole place got a little chaotic. The police just arrested us one by one and carried us out of the cathedral on big orange stretchers.

As the arrests were going on, the plan was for one group to go up and take Communion. And as Communion was offered to them, they would politely refuse and make some statement like, "I refuse Communion because the church murders women." One guy, who was dressed in a suit and tie, was handed the host and just spontaneously and very calmly crumpled it and dropped it to the ground. He was planning to refuse Communion, but rather than refuse it or give it back, he instinctively crumpled it and dropped it.

I was the last one carried out of the cathedral. The place was very quiet by then. There was some praying, some hymn singing. I had been silent throughout the entire time I was lying on the floor. I didn't make a sound or do anything other than reach out and take the hands of the people next to me in an attempt to keep them quiet. Later, at the trial, I had one of them testify on my behalf to the fact that I was silent on the floor, because a cop took the stand and said I'd been screaming while I was lying there. After I was picked up and was being carried out on the stretcher, during the time that the cathedral was very quiet, I yelled in a resounding voice through the cathedral, "We're fighting for your lives, too! We're fighting for your lives, too!" and repeated that half a dozen times. Who plays this in the movie version is our next question. I'm hoping Elizabeth Taylor will play me, with Angie Dickinson posters all over her apartment.

THERE WAS a great deal of negative comment in the press and by politicians about the protest. Nonetheless, I think we succeeded in opening up the dialogue on issues that had never been legitimized before. Cardinal O'Connor still can't go around town without being challenged about his position on condoms and safe-sex education. Today I read in the New York Times about the Catholic Church impeding AIDS prevention in Ireland. I don't think that's an article that would have been written without this demonstration. I think we knocked the ground out from under the Catholic Church in this city, revealed that the emperor has no clothes, and made it possible to improve the AIDS-education curriculum in the schools and the availability of condoms. I think we have devalued the church's position on these issues and called them into question forever more. I truly think we did a magnificent thing.

We had our critics and still do. They believed that this protest was a bad thing to do, that it would make people hate gay people. But my favorite positive reaction was one I heard from the mother of Gabriel Rotello, the editor of OutWeek. (A former New York City based weekly gay and lesbian magazine.) Shortly after the demo, Rotello's mother, who lives in Danbury, Connecticut, told him that she and her friends were amazed to see that gay people, who they had thought were weak and wimpy, were in fact strong and angry.

I don't care that people disagree with me. That's one thing about being forty-two years old. I don't care. There are many things in life that I am not sure about and maybe more and more as I grow older. But the things I am sure about I feel enormously confident of. I felt confident that my participation in this action was the right thing to do from the moment it was mentioned. I haven't had a moment's regret about it ever since. In fact, I have only one regret at this point in my life, and that's not having been able to date women in high school.

FROM THE time I first joined ACT UP, there has been tension over what is and is not AIDS-related activism. There are those within ACT UP who don't think it's appropriate to do anything under the aegis of ACT UP that isn't directly and intimately connected with AIDS, the illness. My definition of things that are AIDS related is virtually everything. I heard a guy get up at a meeting yesterday and say, "We should not be working on national health care. That is not an AIDS issue." Well, I couldn't disagree with him more. I think that is a bottom-line AIDS issue. And I think racism is a bottom-line AIDS issue. And I think homophobia is a bottom-line AIDS issue, and sexism and class issues and all of this. I think that we are not going to solve the AIDS epidemic unless we deal with these issues, and vice versa. I think they're all interrelated.

Repeatedly in ACT UP meetings someone would bring up some particular incident that seemed to be only lesbian and gay related and our need to do something about it. Someone would inevitably stand up and say, "What does this have to do with AIDS?" Well, as someone who does AIDS education professionally, as well as education about homosexuality that is regarded as AIDS education, I have very little patience with that question and the position it represents.

Just a little under a year ago, I got a call from a friend of mine in ACT UP. He and his lover and another guy were inviting people they knew to a meeting to discuss doing direct action around lesbian and gay issues, without having to justify everything as AIDS. It made immediate perfect sense to me. Do I go to six meetings a week? Yes, far too often. Do I need more? No, not at all. But this was just one more meeting, and I was interested, so I thought I'd check it out.

I arrived a little late and I walked into a room expecting to find a small group of maybe ten or fifteen people. In fact, there were at least fifty or sixty, arranged in a very large circle. At that first meeting there was a lot of argument back and forth about what the goals of this group should be, how fast the group should move, what its agenda should be, whether there were enough people of color in the room, and why there weren't. Not unlike ACT UP, it was to be an organization that existed to do direct action; to get out on the streets; to scream and yell; to do particular events, targeted at particular things. But unlike ACT UP, the main agenda, the main theme, was to be gay and lesbian rights.

From the very beginning there was a split between those who wanted the organization to function much like ACT UP, which had a fair amount of structure and process, versus those who wanted very little of that. By the third meeting everyone agreed on the process for deciding what direct action to take. We decided that everybody who had an idea for something they wanted to do would stand up and describe it. Then we would split up into groups, one for each direct action idea. We would reassemble and describe the results of these little meetings and then each group would proceed with the actions. The organization as a whole did not have to approve a particular action. Actions would rise and fall, depending on people's interest in doing them.

A lot of little things took place at first, from making T-shirts to lesbian and gay couples going into a normally straight bar just to make their presence known. My idea was to hang big banners on billboards with pro-lesbian and gay messages. So I found an empty billboard, eventually managed to measure it, and got a group together who painted a big sign. The slogan I wanted was, "Lesbians Have Always Run Everything," which I want to see on billboards all across America. But I was out of town when they finally decided on "Fags and Dykes Bash Back." There was a lot of debate about the appropriateness of that slogan. While that was not a slogan I, myself, would have written, it was one that I was willing to support in the end.

They hung it on the billboard on top of Badlands, a gay bar at the end of Christopher Street, facing the West Side Highway. The sign stopped traffic on the West Side Highway.

THE BIGGEST question when this new group was organized was what to call it. At the first meeting one suggestion that everyone loved was that we give it a different name every week so the press would think there were a lot of new groups in town. But somehow we didn't seem able to stick with that idea. By the second or third meeting, people were calling the group Queer Nation. There was a great deal of debate about it. I was one of those who was against it at first. I got up and argued against it once or twice on the grounds that I didn't think it was going to be productive. I said that I didn't remember there being an organization called "The Nigger Panthers." I lost; I didn't feel hugely emotional about it. Within a month I was totally comfortable with it. I thought, Aha. This is just another example of the need for acclimatization.

The minute that news of this organization hit the West Coast, new Queer Nation groups immediately sprung up there. It was the most quickly replicated group on the face of the Earth, and one of the most immediately newsworthy. It hit all over, particularly when a little pipe bomb went off at a gay bar down in the Village, and Queer Nation immediately marched up Sixth Avenue carrying the "Fags and Dykes Bash Back" banner. That "Bash Back" image became very attractive to the press, so Queer Nation got publicized widely, quickly attracting a lot of new people, particularly young people, to the organization.

I'M OLDER than almost everyone in Queer Nation and most people in ACT UP, but you have to understand that having joined the community so recently and having experienced this new sense of liberation, I feel like an adolescent. I'm forty-two now. But I'm not the only older person, at least not in ACT UP. Early on I remember some guy getting up and identifying himself as having been the national secretary of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) twenty years ago.

I joke about myself as the grandmother of ACT UP, but even though I'm operating with all these young people, I feel very comfortable about the fact that we're all peers. If I happen to be a little older and know some things and have seen some things they haven't, well, that's just my particular contribution. I do think I have a unique presence, given the combination of my age, my background, and my silver hair.


Excerpted from Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990, An Oral History by Eric Marcus,HarperCollins, 1992. Eric Marcus' most recent book is Icebreaker: The Autobiography of Rudy Galindo, Pocket Books, 1997. Information about Eric Marcus' works can be found on his Web page: www.EricMarcus.com


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