December 1995

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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.

["red 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 organizing skills.

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 community.

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.

["ACT 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 Nation.

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 rigorous debate.

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 endlessly."

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 difference."

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 fresh perspective."

"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 AIDS."

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 Silvestro.

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 trust."

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 much.' "

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