When worlds collide
Activists look for life after feminism and ACT UP
by Rebecca Lavine
It was 1990. Nearly 100 gays and lesbians thronged into a sweaty room at
Boston's City Hall to talk about forming a local chapter of a new political
group founded in New York: Queer Nation. The crowd was rowdy and impatient,
forcing the facilitator to move from point to point quickly. Often they shouted
down anyone who talked too long or whose views they didn't like.
In a group of chairs in the front row, a cluster of 10 women sat armed with
electrical tape. Whenever a woman got up to speak and was shouted down by the
louder group of men, one of the group of 10 would walk down the aisle to the
front of the room and add another strip of tape to the mouth of a mannequin.
"You are silencing women," she would announce above the din. Most of the
men -- and, significantly, many of the younger women -- groaned in exasperation
at the tactic.
This scene was repeated in major cities all over the country. Queer Nation was
the collision of two different direct-activist models -- the consensus-based
style of '60s feminist activists, who encouraged the "processing" of feelings
and the right of everyone to speak, and the more confrontational tactics of
AIDS activists, who felt there simply wasn't time for such niceties in the face
of a deadly epidemic. Neither model has survived in one piece. Traditional
feminist-based politics is seen by some as obsolete, perhaps an appropriate
response to the blanket oppression of the '50s but ineffective against the more
subtle forms of homophobia and sexism that persist today. And in-your-face AIDS
activism, which eschewed coalition-building in favor of street theater,
promised more than it could deliver. ACT UP and Queer Nation may have kept
their distance from the compromising and deal-making of traditional politics,
but they also failed to build bridges to older gays and lesbians with
Five years after the brief heyday of Queer Nation, a new group of
twentysomethings are looking for ways to address the issues that have always
been integral to the gay-rights movement, plus the new concerns of AIDS and the
growing power of the religious right. Unfortunately, they must also deal with a
lack of communication between generations of activists in the lesbian-and-gay
Initially, the lesbian-and-gay movement was inspired by the activism of its
time: not only the feminism, but the black civil-rights movement and the
anti-war movement. Meetings involved networking, reaching a consensus, and
initiating new members before activists could come close to holding real clout.
Gay liberation was, if anything, more intense than other movements.
"The community was very small, and everyone knew everyone else back then,"
says Jacob Smith Yang, a former staffer at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and
Defenders who now works at the Boston AIDS Consortium. Another long-term
activist agrees: "Whether you liked everybody or not, you were a part of their
lives. . . . You were just like family in that way."
Lesbian organizing was even more conscientious in its meeting style. "Everyone
had a voice," says Felice Shays, who became active in feminist politics in the
early '80s. The assumption was that members of oppressed groups in
society might not feel free to share their thoughts in a group setting, so they
had to be encouraged with patience and understanding. This was doubly true for
lesbians who were also part of other oppressed groups, such as
African-Americans or the poor. "It definitely grew tedious," says Shays. "We
had long, painstaking meetings, but things did get accomplished."
In the late 1980s, many factors altered the gay-and-lesbian landscape. ACT UP,
created in 1987 to battle the AIDS crisis, changed how many gay and lesbian
activists saw their work. "They didn't do a lot of processing, and they
got stuff done. There was a real allure to it," says Shays. "It was stylish and
sexy, but also made a difference in people's lives." Many ACT UP members either
had AIDS or were HIV-positive, and almost everyone else knew someone who had
the disease. "That gave us a special urgency," says Adrien Saks, a long-term
ACT UP/Boston member.
Some of ACT UP's tactics, such as civil disobedience and demonstrations,
weren't that different from those of their immediate predecessors in the
gay-liberation era. But the flamboyance and urgency that accompanied ACT UP's
"zaps" were certainly new, and their outrage drew attention. ACT UP's slogan,
"Silence = Death," (at right) crystallized the new style of gay-and-lesbian activism.
Instead of seeking an alliance with the National Organization for Women or
negotiating for a few minutes at the podium during a Democratic convention, ACT
UP chapters blocked rush-hour traffic on Wall Street and shouted down speeches
by presidential candidates.
As more people became involved with the group across the country, ACT UP
offered the opportunity to socialize as well as organize. The group's
unapologetic stance inspired a new movement of even younger activists: Queer
At the same time, change was afoot in the feminist community. Older leaders
prided themselves on promoting dialogue, but many were surprised by one group
that felt oppressed and was clamoring to have its say. These women, often in
their 20s, resisted the more rigid aspects of feminist organizing. Labeled
"sex-positive" or even "post-feminist," they complained that the earlier
feminist style was victim-based. They felt stifled by a feminist agenda that
did not seem to acknowledge their beliefs, such as opposition to laws against
pornography, or even laws against prostitution. Hostile reactions from
the mainstream feminist community stiffened the resolve of these younger
women, some of whom still considered themselves feminists.
"I called myself a dyke, rather than a gay woman or a lesbian," says Diane
Fagan, who was active in Queer Nation, "because it was a way of separating
myself out from the older identity that didn't seem to quite fit." From that
split emerged young women who saw the feminist processing and
consensus-building of the '70s as patronizing and based on a discredited
assumption: that women were too weak to speak out and had to be shielded from
The split became apparent at one Queer Nation meeting during which a visiting
group of lesbian homeowners confronted an unrepentant group of younger
activists who had plastered their neighborhood with racy posters. A
woman in her late 30s angrily complained that the posters exploited women. A
younger woman, identifying herself as a member of Queer Nation's Urban
Redecoration Committee, stood up to respond. "I planned the projects, I posed
in the photos, and I designed and wheat-pasted the posters," she said. "How
could I exploit myself?"
Tweaking the mainstream gay-and-lesbian movement was a stated function of both
Queer Nation and ACT UP. "We served as watchdogs," Saks explains. The new
activists saw older organizations as being co-opted by political parties and
other institutions that inevitably advised a "go slow" approach toward social
change. But ACT UP served an equally important role as a training ground
for younger activists. "A lot of us cut our teeth in ACT UP and learned about
community activism," Saks says.
Today, as ACT UP has gone the way of similarly dissolved organizations such as
Queer Nation, it is difficult to understand how such a vibrant community
changed. Where have those activists -- so recently the vanguard youth -- gone?
And where can young gay and lesbian activists today "cut their teeth"?
"Provocative organizations, like ACT UP or Queer Nation, tend to be
short-lived," says Don Gorton, former co-chair of the Lesbian/Gay Political
Alliance of Massachusetts. "Queer Nation started in 1990, and by 1992
fell off the face of the earth."
"AIDS politicized a whole generation of men," agrees Mary Breslauer, recently
elected co-chair of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest
gay-and-lesbian political organization. "But it's difficult to maintain rage
Former ACT UP members argue that other factors forced the group to fold. "ACT
UP was everything for those who were really involved," says Saks. "It was a
social network and a support system for people who need help or were sick. As
tremendous amounts of those people died, it became a pressure cooker. It was
easy for personality conflicts to start, which would help people burn out. But
also, a lot of people right now are being caregivers full time."
Contrary to popular belief about ACT UP, Saks maintains, the primary fuel was
not rage, but "outrage, which encompasses tremendous sadness and compassion."
He says, "We had actions when we thought they would be the most effective, not
just to yell."
Yelling, however, was a favorite activity of groups such as Queer Nation. "It
was mostly about visibility, " says Fagan, "and at first we had tremendous
energy. It felt liberating." But within six months of the infamous mannequin
meeting, Fagan left the group.
"The last meeting I went to," Fagan says, "we were talking about an action
about police violence against gays. A few of us kept trying to get the rest of
them to think about networking with other organizations and communities
affected by police violence or harassment. But they weren't willing to do that.
Finally, one guy got up and said, `Gay people are getting bashed, and that's
what we have to worry about.' They didn't want to educate themselves."
By keeping a laser-like focus on gay-bashing, the younger activists were
missing the chance to join forces with African-Americans and other groups with
grievances against the police. Fagan accuses this kind of activism with
emphasizing "style over substance."
Since Queer Nation dissolved, a few other groups have tried to take its place
in Boston, including the Lesbian Avengers. Another New York-inspired
organization, the Avengers formed a Boston chapter after the legendary 1993
Dyke March in Washington, DC.
"I think the Lesbian Avengers are refreshingly running against the
tide," says Gorton. "It's a time of increasing conservatism for the rest of the
gay-and-lesbian movement -- but that might also be the difference between men
and women. There's more of a connection for women with a left agenda."
The Avengers, too, experienced an age split. "When I first started, there were
women in their late 20s and 30s and 40s, but there was a breakup," explains
Sarah Shreeves, an Avenger until recently. "Now it's really young -- mostly
women in their late teens and early 20s." At 25, Shreeves says, "I felt the
Though some young Avengers say they don't know why older women won't come to
meetings anymore, one former Avenger thinks the difference is the
"unsophisticated politics" of the group. "No one knew how to run a decent
meeting or why it was important," she says. "They rejected a lot of what they
didn't know, and they had incredibly simplistic ideas about feminist
organizing: overprocessing was bad, consensus was bad, talking about group
dynamics was bad and boring. People would resent it if someone brought up class
or race." Pretty soon, according to the former Avenger, the agenda would become
"stale, ridiculous -- really simplistic."
Shreeves says that so-called visibility actions, the pranks that the Avengers
use to make their points publicly, have merit, but that her recent experience
organizing Boston's Dyke March -- an alternative to the traditional Gay Pride
March -- was more satisfying. "It went beyond making noise. There was a broad
range of people with different backgrounds and ages, and it was fantastic to
draw on all those different experiences."
"I don't think direct action itself is dead," says Saks, noting the recent
success of the Reproductive Rights Network and the Abortion Access Project,
groups that recently picketed Boston Regional Medical Center when it refused to
allow its doctors to perform abortions. Within a week, the Seventh Day
Adventist-based Langwood Foundation, which operates the hospital, had
reversed their policy. Generally, though, many direct-action groups are torn
apart by similar issues: how to educate the next generation of activists, who
may or may not want to assume the mantle. "I feel shocked, when I interact with
college-age kids, by how little they know," says Smith Yang. "They aren't
cognizant of what's current, much less the recent past."
Nineteen-year-old Pejman Razavilar, co-chair of Harvard's Gay and Lesbian
Student Union, is trying to synthesize the two traditions. "There are
differences between queers that have to do with all sorts of other things than
age," he points out. In addition to producing gay and lesbian cultural events,
the group, which includes a separate women's section called Girl Spot, has
organized die-ins and other ACT UP influenced actions.
Abe Rybeck, director of the Theater Offensive, which sponsors the Teen Theater
Project, sees a new generation less obsessed with identity politics. "They aren't as interested in naming who they are as we were," he says.
"Their impulse is instead to de-moor themselves. I do think a lot of what
younger folks are talking about is: `Can we build a movement around how to be
ourselves rather than how we can name ourselves?' "
Many twentysomethings are eager to let go of a strong gender identity, instead
claiming blurred gender boundaries. This can confuse older activists,
who had fought so hard to gain recognition of gays and lesbians as distinct
identities, with particular concerns and fighting narrowly targeted forms of
oppression. Marsie Silvestro, the current chair of Lesbian and Gay Alliance,
decided to go to a Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Youth meeting to talk to younger
people about activism. "I was the old fart, " she says, laughing. "They started
talking to me about transgendered lesbians, and I was like, `What's that? That
sounds like a man to me.' But the dialogue is really important. It gives you a
"The difference is: they were gays and lesbians, and we're queer," says
Harvard's Razavilar. When pressed, he isn't sure what that difference means,
but says it has something to do with "how you present yourself." Razavilar says
that the younger generation of queers is more inclusive of bisexuality and
transgenderism, more open to diversity. But Smith Yang says that even though
the movement as a whole tacks on "bisexual and transgendered" pro forma
these days, under the surface "really ugly personal prejudices" against
transgendered people remain.
Rybeck points out that any social dissent, much less identity politics, is
difficult in the '90s. "Whenever there's a whimper of protest, it's pounced on
and marketed back to you. A movement can't exist a week without a label.
Society at large is infinitely more savvy at co-optation than when I was coming of age."
Similarly, Saks is concerned about the recent state intervention with gay and
lesbian youth. "I worry about the supposedly benevolent forces involved in a
lot of gay-and-lesbian youth activism," says Saks, recalling a gay-youth march held in Boston this spring, organized in large part by members of the
Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. "I worried about the
gay-and-lesbian youth pride -- a separate pride as though they need to be
separated from the rest of us."
Rybeck advises that budding activists do what he did when he was young and
looking to join the gay community. "I just pulled out the phone book and joined
NOW," he says, recalling the days in the '70s when feminism still heavily
influenced the gay-right movement. "These days, there are many more
names in the phone book." But establishing connections with older activists can be more complicated. Where are all the old-timers, anyway?
"It doesn't take long to become an elder in this community," says Rybeck. Many
key figures in the electoral political community are in their late 30s and 40s,
but, increasingly, that world is dominated by activists in their early 30s --
the very generation that came of age with ACT UP and similar organizations. But where have the forty- and fifty- and sixtysomethings gone?
"It's complicated," says Loie Hayes, who is part of the South End Press
collective and who became active in the '70s. "There are radical 80-year-olds
who will do civil disobedience whenever they think it's important, but of
course they are fewer than people in their 20s."
The age range in the gay-activist community is shortened because of a
generation that did not come out, says Breslauer. "The generation before mine
was a very closeted one. None of them ever conceived they'd see a time when you could be as out as you can be now." That leaves Breslauer, at 45, calling
herself "an old gray lady."
Thurston Smith, in his 50s, is a special assistant to the gay-and-lesbian
community at Harvard. "It's not that people in my generation -- and a
generation older, even -- didn't get involved," he says. "There still are
people involved my age. But we were a generation hit especially hard by
Marsie Silvestro, of the Lesbian and Gay Alliance, speaks admiringly of Elsie
Smith, a woman in her 70s who was recently arrested for protesting cuts in
Medicare. "She's doing that now so I won't have to when I'm her age," says
Hayes points to other generational differences: "When I was in my 20s and
working part-time as a short-order cook, I could risk arrest and stay in jail
for a night or two weeks." Now that Hayes works at South End Press, she says,
"I can't just disappear for a month. I have a daughter now, and choose to be
political [by teaching her]." Hayes points out that as activists become
involved in community politics, whether that activism involves housing rights
or anti-violence organizing, that work is still "lesbian activism, if I'm a
lesbian doing it."
Though Shays says she's more cynical and has less energy now than she did in
her 20s, she does not discount the effect of years of hearing feminism
dismissed as "irrelevant or stodgy." She says, "Feminists got put down as
boring. The nightclub scene was much more valued than the pot-luck scene. Sure,
it's easier to seem hip and cool in a club, but it's harder to establish real
connections or learn something."
Fagan agrees that dismissing "old-style" politics hasn't seemed to help the
community. "It's harder now, to find the people who have the skills --
old-timers, or people who followed the old-timer style -- but they are
around. . . . We need them to pass down those skills. They are
very valuable." As she reflects on her own experience in both camps, Fagan
sounds almost wistful. "In many ways, I'm on the same wavelength as younger
women, but now I don't have anything much to do with them," she says. "We bond over people who wear Birkenstocks, but when you're done with that, where do you go politically? You can run around with your tattoos and your piercings, but it doesn't really say anything about your politics anymore."
Hayes is sometimes surprised by how she is viewed by younger women. "I enjoyed seeing Go Fish," she says, "But of course I was offended, you know, to be characterized as an herbal-tea-drinking woman. That's me!" Hayes thinks that
communication between generations is underrated. "It's a shame that there's no
institutional structure left to provide a place for people of different eras to
meet and learn about each other," she says.
Shreeves thinks that working for a specific common goal helps
intergenerational activism succeed. And Fagan suggests establishing activism
classes and urging younger people to draw upon their leadership skills. "Even
direct action takes time. You have to learn. You have to think it's
worthwhile," she says.
Fagan, Saks, and Shays acknowledge that they are in the best position to work
with younger activists, because of their relationships to both "styles" of
activism. According to Fagan, "People have to hear about it from someone they
The need to engage -- either in direct action or in electoral politics -- is
urgent. Smith Yang predicts an erosion of legal rights over the next few years.
"It's much harder to fundraise from a defensive position," he says. "It's
tougher for the organizations that focus on change from within, but they're
necessary. My overall sense is that we need everything -- all elements are
truly reflective of our community."
Sheer numbers are part of the reason lesbian-and-gay activism needs new
participants. Everything from letter-writing campaigns to fundraising, from
demonstrations to voting, depends on volume. "Movements are numbers, numbers,
numbers," says Shays. "One individual definitely makes a difference, because it
gives the movement momentum. You can't underestimate that."
Age or background doesn't matter. "At some point, you have to think, `What
contribution can I make?' " says Breslauer. "The answer is, `So
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