Keeping Up the Momentum: Support the Transgender Law Center

transgender law center banner

I’m writing this to other queers — and I’m writing it to straight/ cisgender allies.

Last Friday, when the Supreme Court ruling came in about same-sex marriage, I wrote this:

We won marriage. Let’s take this weekend to celebrate. It’s Pride Weekend in San Francisco and in many other cities: let’s take this weekend to celebrate, to recognize the hard work we put into this and to to enjoy our victory. And on Monday morning, let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work — on employment rights, on housing rights, on homelessness among LGBT teens, on school bullying, on the epidemic of violence against trans people and especially against trans women of color, on the hundreds of other ways that LGBT people are still treated as second-class citizens.

We won marriage. Let’s take that momentum, take those changed hearts and minds, and put it to work.

If you’ve been working for marriage equality — in any way, whether that’s volunteering, donating money, doing visibility on social media, simply talking about about it with your family and friends — thank you. That is awesome. And we’re not done. For LGBT people, equality and an end to bigotry and hatred and oppression are by no means over. We’ve won the right to marry. I think it’s an important right. But there is a lot more work to be done.

So let’s keep this momentum going.

Every day this week, I’ll be posting about a different LGBT rights organization. Please support them however you can. That can mean with money, of course — even small amounts help, and small automatic monthly donations help a LOT. But you can also support LGBT organizations by following them on social media, and helping spread the word about their actions and fundraisers. That’s a small, easy thing to do — and if a lot of people do it, it can make a real difference.

Today, I’m plugging the Transgender Law Center.

The Transgender Law Center works to change law, policy, and attitudes so that all people can live safely, authentically, and free from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression. Their programs include: a legal information helpline; legal clinics in the Bay Area; a Detention Project that works to end the abuses transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) people experience in prisons, jails, immigration detention, state hospitals, and other forms of detention, and at the hands of law enforcement; and more.

Please support them with a donation if you can: you can make a one-time contribution, or a monthly sustaining gift. And please follow them on social media: they’re on Twitter at @TransLawCenter, and they’re on Facebook at facebook.com/translawcenter. Please support them any way you can. Thanks!

And if you have suggestions for other worthy LGBT organizations, please make them in the comments!


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Being Part of History

In February 2004, Ingrid and I were married in the “civil disobedience” weddings, when the mayor decided to legalize same-sex weddings in San Francisco. We stood in line at City Hall for hours, with hundreds of other couples who knew that the window would be closing any day, and who were willing and able to stand in line for hours to walk through that window. (Those were the weddings that got annulled by the State of California.)

In November 2005, we had what we tend to think of as our “real” wedding: the one where we spent months writing our vows, the one with the guests and the dancing and the dresses and the cake, the one with no legal standing, the one where our celebrant, Rebecca Hensler, said, “By the power vested in me by Ingrid and Greta…”

In June 2008, we were married at City Hall again, during that brief window after the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and before Prop 8 passed banning it again. We were one of the roughly 18,000 same-sex couples in California who, after Prop 8 passed, got to have a deeply strange “special right”: the right to be a married same-sex couple whose marriage was legally recognized by the State of California.

“We make a little history, baby/Every time you come around.” -Nick Cave.

I still do, sweetie.

Same Sex Marriage a Constitutional Right!


YAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!


Ingrid and Greta holding hands at Skepticon 6 Biblename Foto Josiah Mannion

It’s not just that the Federal government recognizes same-sex marriage. It’s not just that states have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states.

Here’s the full majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy. It’s worth reading. It got me tearing up in places.

I’m tickled pink about this, for all the obvious reasons. I’m actually finding myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied: this is so obvious, it has been so obvious for so long, I’m finding it hard to put into words exactly why this is important and wonderful. Marriage equality is, you know, equality. Millions of couples around the United States are no longer second-class: our marriages are seen as fully valid, with the same rights and responsibilities as any other. To put it in personal terms: Every year, Ingrid and I go to Skepticon in Missouri. This year, it’ll be the first time we won’t have the constant worry in the back of our minds, “What happens if one of us gets sick or hurt? What happens if some asshole at the hospital decides not to let us make medical decisions for each other, or even let us visit each other — because they think gay sex makes baby Jesus cry?”

Now, multiply that by millions. Millions of couples around the country can now visit each other in the hospital, make medical decisions for each other, adopt kids together, file state income taxes together, travel from state to state without their marriages disappearing and re-appearing and disappearing again.

I’m also, just personally for myself, enjoying an opportunity to have been proven wrong. When the recent cases on marriage equality were first brought to the Supreme Court, I was one of the people saying it was a bad idea. Many of us thought that the current court would deny the freedom to marry — and that this would set a precedent it would take decades to overturn. I’m deeply happy to have been proven wrong.

And finally: I’m delighted that we can now move on.

There’s been considerable debate within the LGBTQ community about the priority that’s been placed on same-sex marriage. Many in our community argued that other issues — employment rights, housing rights, homelessness among LGBT teens, school bullying, the epidemic of violence against trans people and especially against trans women of color — were more important for more of us. It was argued that other issues have a greater impact on queers who are poor, working class, disabled, immigrants, trans people, people of color, and others in our community with multiple marginalizations — and that the emphasis we placed on marriage was another example of more privileged LGBT people being put front and center.

Myself, I had mixed feelings about this. I certainly saw that point, and even agreed with it. At the same time, I also thought that we don’t always get to choose our battles: some issues catch the public heart and the public imagination, and same-sex marriage has clearly done that. And I thought winning same-sex marriage would make our other fights go easier. The legal precedent helps, of course: but maybe more importantly, the fight for same-sex marriage has changed people’s minds about us, in a way that few of other our fights have done. I think that when straight people saw us fighting for love, and fighting for the right to make commitments and take on responsibilities based on that love, it humanized us — and I think that will help us win our other fights. But yes, I definitely saw the point people were making, and even agreed with it. I think there are other issues for LGBTQ people that are more important than marriage.

I’m delighted that we can now move on.

We won marriage. Let’s take this weekend to celebrate. It’s Pride Weekend in San Francisco and in many other cities: let’s take this weekend to celebrate, to recognize the hard work we put into this and to to enjoy our victory. And on Monday morning, let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work — on employment rights, on housing rights, on homelessness among LGBT teens, on school bullying, on the epidemic of violence against trans people and especially against trans women of color, on the hundreds of other ways that LGBT people are still treated as second-class citizens.

We won marriage. Let’s take that momentum, take those changed hearts and minds, and put it to work.

Comment policy for this post: If you want to be negative or douchy about marriage, do it another time, or don’t do it here. Today, I just want to celebrate and be happy.

Photo copyright Biblename Photo/Josiah Mannion.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Do Cats Know What We Think Is Cute?

I swear — sometimes I think our cats know what’s cute.

Or, to be more precise: I don’t think our cats have the faintest concept of “cuteness.” But they know what gets our attention. They know that when they do the tuck-and-roll, the upside-down gaze, the crossed paws, the stretched-out paws, the nuzzle-nibble, the squirming on the back, the paw over the nose, the showing off of the belly with the paws in the air, the paws wrapped around our hand — it gets our attention. It gets us to give them skritches, and make cooing noises. It gets us to put down our devices or stop watching TV, and focus the full firehose of our attention on them. They know that when they do certain particular cat-like things, it gets our positive attention — more so than when they just sit there.

Comet especially. Talisker, I think, doesn’t care that much what we think of her — but Comet is an attention hog, and she knows how to go through her paces to get the attention she craves.

Yes, you heard me:

I’m saying felinity is performative.

Comet upside down gaze

Comet upside down gaze with paws in air

Talisker belly

More nuclear cuteness and performance of felinity after the jump. [Read more…]

Why I Like Ebooks

Please note, before I begin: The title of this piece is not “Why you should like ebooks.” It’s “Why I like ebooks.” I’m both amused and irritated when questions of subjective taste get treated as arguments about morality or character or the well-being of society. So I’m both amused and irritated when people insist that ebooks represent the decay of all that is truly beautiful about reading — and when people insist that people who prefer paper books are out-of-touch fuddy-duddies who need to get with the times.

That being said: I do have a personal preference for ebooks over paper books — so this piece is a bit more of a pushback against the “Ebooks are destroying literature!” crowd. I like ebooks. Unless a book is an art book or has a lot of illustrations, I almost always buy books in ebook form if I can. I think this is a reasonable preference. Here’s why — and also, here’s why I understand that some people feel differently.

suitcases airline tickets and globeTravel. I travel a lot — and my ebook reader has been the secular equivalent of a godsend. Before ebooks, I hated the fact that when I was traveling, I had to decide ahead of time exactly what I wanted to read. I often wound up bringing four or five books with me — making my suitcase heavier, with less room for other stuff — and I still often wound up not being in the mood for any of them. (“I thought I wanted to read Great Expectations on this trip, but I’m just not in the mood for something that serious — can’t I just read Georgette Heyer again? No, because I don’t have it with me.”) When I’m tired and crabby at the end of a travel day, or bored and crabby on an airplane, I love having hundreds of books to choose from.

Plus, I love being able to flip back and forth between my books, depending on what I’m in the mood for — the serious novel or science book at the beginning of the long plane ride, the light familiar comfort book at the end of a long day. That’s also true when I’m at home, but it’s even more true when I travel. I’m something of a promiscuous reader — I often read more than one book in parallel. And I don’t always know what book I’ll be in the mood for when I’ve finished the last one. Ebooks make this a non-issue.

Immediacy. I love, love, LOVE the fact that, with an ebook reader, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. Ebooks mean that I’m not wandering into bookstores asking the clerk, “There was this book I heard about a few weeks ago, I don’t remember the title or the author, but it was something about feminism and pop culture, or maybe the history of female characters in pop culture, or something like that, it had a writeup in the New Yorker, or maybe it was The Toast.” With ebooks, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. (This is also dangerous, of course — being able to buy books on impulse means buying more books — but this is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that ebooks tend to be less expensive.) [Read more…]

The Part about Black Lives Mattering Where White People Shut Up and Listen

Listen up, fellow white people.

If we care about racism—and if we’re humanists, we bloody well better—there’s something we need to do. It’s enormously important. If any other action we take is going to be useful, we need to take this one. And sometimes, it can be really freaking difficult.

We need to shut up and listen. “Black lives matter” means—among many other things—that black voices matter. So white people need to listen to those black voices. In person and online, with friends and colleagues and friends-of-friends and in-laws and strangers, wherever there are conversations about racism, white people need to listen.

And listening means not talking. It doesn’t mean jumping in with arguments about topics we know little about. It doesn’t mean waiting patiently until the other person has stopped talking, so we can say whatever we were going to say anyway. It doesn’t mean making the conversation all about us and our hurt feelings over being told we said something racist. It doesn’t mean constantly changing the subject away from racism and towards something we’re more comfortable with—like how black people are being mean to us, or how we’d be more likely to listen if they spoke more pleasantly. It doesn’t mean telling black people how to run their movement or telling black people how to talk to white people—especially when that advice is almost always “tone it down,” and “don’t make us feel bad.”

Listening means just that—listening. It means letting the other person have the floor. It means letting the other person decide the topic and set the tone. It means that whatever talking we do is peripheral, done in service of understanding and amplifying. And sometimes—much of the time—it means shutting our mouths, and opening our minds.

*****

humanist cover july-august 2015 do black lives matter to humanismThus begins my latest “Fierce Humanism” column for The Humanist, The Part about Black Lives Mattering Where White People Shut Up and Listen. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

The Times I Miss Rob

This weekend was the 25th anniversary of the 6th International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and ACT UP’s week of protests — so I’m reposting this.

During the worst years of the AIDS crisis, I was relatively lucky. I wasn’t one of the people who lost almost every one of their friends; who went to three funerals a week; who was on half a dozen care teams at a time; who lost a partner to AIDS, and then another, and then another. I just didn’t have a lot of gay male friends back then: I’ve always hung out with straight people as much as queers, and even at times when I’ve had more queer friends than straight ones, most of them have been women. I’ve always felt a weird survivor guilt about it, actually: in the ’80s and early ’90s, the queer community went through what could reasonably be called a holocaust, and for the most part, I was only ever on the fringes of it.

I didn’t lose a lot of people to AIDS. But I lost one. And the one I lost was… how shall I put this?

At any given time in my life, there have been a pretty small handful of people I’ve considered to be real friends. Capital F Friends. Friends I could call any time, day or night; friends I could say anything to; friends I never ran out of things to say to; friends who got stuff about me that nobody else got. Friends who seemed to feel the same way about me. Friends whose crises and arguments and late-night phone calls felt like a gift. At any given time in my life, I’ve had maybe half a dozen people in my life who were like that.

Rob was one of those people. I assumed we’d be friends for decades.

I wrote this piece over twenty years ago. I never published it anywhere except my Website and my blog. I’m printing it here unedited, as it was when I finished it in 1992.

The Times I Miss Rob
by Greta Christina

The times I miss Rob the most go like this: I’m reading the paper, I come across some article about dinosaurs or black holes or genetically engineered sheep, and I think, I should ask Rob about this, he’s a science guy, he’d know something about it. The thought flicks by, just for a passing moment, and then — boom. I remember, and remembering is like being kicked in the chest from inside, and he dies all over again.

You don’t realize how often you think about someone until every time you think about them hurts.

This is going to sound ridiculously self-evident, but the thing about someone being dead is that they are no longer alive. They don’t change, they don’t get older, they don’t do new stuff that they can tell you about or meet new people they can introduce you to or come up with outrageous new ideas that you can argue with. You don’t have their life as part of your life anymore. What you have instead are memories, like a videotape; and, like a videotape, memories are static, changing only in that they disintegrate. You remember, maybe, what they said about the ethical responsibilities of the scientific community or your relationship with your parents, but you can’t ask them now, what do they think about it now, what is different now from a year ago, or two years, or ten, the last time you talked with them about it, the last time they had an opinion, the last time they were alive.

One of the more frustrating things about a death is the way your memory fades. When someone is alive, you are reminded each time you speak, or write, or see their face, of who this person is. They change, and the change, whether promising or disturbing or just plain there, reminds you of the fact of their life. The event of their death, the crisis and break, separates you from the one who has died, perhaps even more than the actual fact that they are dead. You immerse in the pain of the loss, and lose touch a little with exactly what it is you have lost. You shy away, at first, from images of the dead person, flinch, pull back from the pain that’s still too sharp. Later, when the grief passes a bit and you begin to want to remember…so much gets lost without the weekly phone call, the dinner-and-a-movie, the silly thing in the paper you cut out to send them, the reminder. The image becomes fuzzy, your love for them becomes vague, almost generic. You remember that he liked animals, argued for pleasure, enjoyed his body, was shy about talking about sex. These things mean nothing. They read like a personal ad.

This death has brought up ugly thoughts in me, unspeakable thoughts, thoughts that make me cringe. I want to acquire the status and respect due to a survivor of tragedy by telling everyone about it. I want to protect and hoard my grief by not telling anyone about it. I want to tell his other friends and gain the power of bearing important news. I don’t want to tell his other friends and have to deal with their goddamn grief, too. I want to make people be nice to me and do what I want because my friend has died. I don’t want to get close to another person with HIV and go through this again. I want to prove that he was exceptional in order to make my grief seem less ordinary. I really belong to the gay community now that I’ve had a close friend die of AIDS. I wonder if they’ll have decent food at the wake. I wonder what’s happening to his fabulous art collection. I wonder if I was mentioned in his will.

I think these things, and know them to be ugly, absurd, stupid and silly and no way to live at all. I don’t even want to give them power by speaking or writing them.

I also don’t want to give them power by not speaking or writing them.

One of the facts here is that Rob is a victim of the epidemic. This does not make his death any less special or individual. What it does, instead, is to make the epidemic far more personal. It makes my anger over the epidemic far more visceral. It makes me realize yet another absurdly obvious fact: that every single one of the hundreds of thousands of people killed by this virus had friends who loved them, families that annoyed them, books they wanted to read, work they hadn’t finished. Each of them, like Rob, was an individual, with a life that took up space in the world. Each of them left behind people who feel the way that I feel now.

I realize that I’ve said very little so far about Rob himself. I’m sure that’s intentional. For one thing, I’m a coward about pain, and it hurts to remember him. But it also hurts to remember, and not be able to explain. Describing what Rob was like is proving to be a sad and angry exercise in futility, a struggle through storm and mud that winds up in a shopping mall. “Handsome, intelligent, wealthy gay white man, graduate student in genetics, loves art, animals, the outdoors, reading, performance art, playing piano, working out, dining, dancing, and lovemaking…” No. So I’m not going to try to tell you who he was. I’m going to tell you about some things we did.

I remember riding with him in his fire-engine red Porsche 944, telling him about some book I’d found interesting, and watching him make a detour to pull into a bookstore and buy it right then and there.

I remember going to Disneyland and taking LSD with him and his friend Steve, and each of us having our own little areas of Disneyland fear and resistance that we had to overcome. Mine was Space Mountain, Steve’s was the spinning teacups, and Rob’s was It’s A Small World. I remember Rob being very, very stubborn about not wanting to go to It’s A Small World. I remember his outright terror of the figure-skating penguins and the smiling pink-and-purple hippos doing kneebends and the three-foot-tall cute and adorable People Of All Colors And Nations, all singing that stupid fucking interminable song. I remember he was the last of the three of us to capitulate. I remember him enjoying it in spite of himself, and fuming at us about it anyway.

I remember a long and fierce argument we had over the telephone (one of many lengthy and expensive long-distance phone conversations) about some writing I’d done. I remember him trying very hard to understand why I cared enough about society and social constructs to spend my time arguing against them.

I remember yet another long-distance phone call, sitting in my San Francisco apartment and calling him up at his beach house in Laguna to tell him about some article I’d read about a new theory of evolution. I remember talking with him for hours about kin selection and the possible evolutionary value of homosexuality in mammals and the work he was doing on the genetic causes of aging in fruit flies. I remember thinking that he was only person I knew who thought this stuff was interesting.

I remember talking with him about a performance piece he was thinking about doing, something about the military metaphors used to discuss AIDS, and suddenly being whisked off to the toy store to buy dozens and dozens of little plastic soldiers and tanks and astronauts and space aliens and cowboys and Indians and farm animals; then sitting for hours in some generically decent Southern California restaurant, eating our generically decent Southern California sandwiches, and playing with these dozens and dozens of little plastic war toys, arranging and re-arranging them on the table, putting them in our water glasses to see if they’d float, giggling, confusing the waitresses, and discussing performance art.

I remember doing a Tarot reading for him, a year or so before he died, on the question of whether or not he was going to die of AIDS. I remember wanting to tell him, “You stupid git, you have AIDS, of course you’re going to die of it,” and I remember wanting to tell him, “Don’t talk like that, you’re never going to die,” and I remember flipping up one card — The Magician. I remember him saying that the card meant his death was under his power, that he wouldn’t die of anything he didn’t want to, and wouldn’t die until he was ready. I remember hoping to God that it was true, because anyone who got as much of a kick out of living as Rob did would never be ready to die.

I remember getting mad at the cards for lying to me.

Shortly after Rob died, I went to his house, where his belongings were being dealt with and sorted and handed out, and found myself becoming grasping and greedy, piling up stacks of his things (books and music, mostly) to take home with me. I took weird, almost random things: things that seemed to capture the essence of what I loved about him, or that seemed to capture the essence of what I never knew about him and now never would. I took things I admired but would probably never read or listen to, things that reminded me of something he’d once said, things I just plain wanted, things I didn’t even particularly like. I seemed to believe that having the books he’d loved in my possession would, in some way, be like having the person who loved those books in my life. I seemed to believe that I could read a book he’d had that I’d never read, and discover another piece of his nature, thereby keeping him a little bit alive.

Now I find myself rarely reading those books or listening to those pieces of music. When I pick one up, I don’t think, This is something Rob liked, and therefore I’m likely to enjoy it as well. I think, This is Rob’s, and the reason I have it is because he is dead.

So I have these weird aberrations on my shelves; huge volumes of modern poetry, stacks of gigantic color-plate books on surrealism, an almost-complete set of the works of Philip Glass that I would never in a million years have collected and that has to be explained to every new visitor who comes to my house and looks over my music. No, I say hurriedly, I’m not that crazy about Philip Glass, I didn’t buy those, they belonged to a friend of mine who died. Most of my visitors are queer. None of them asks how my friend died.

And now I sit at my keyboard, with a dead man’s jacket in the closet behind my back, trying to finish this piece, not wanting to finish it, hating to write it, not willing to abandon it. Rob died on August 18, 1991: I started writing this almost immediately, and now, more than a year later, I find myself struggling to finish it. I started it to get some closure on his death and my grief, and now I don’t want to end it because that would mean getting some closure on his death and my grief. I have a not-so-irrational fear that, by completing this work, I will be closing another door on Rob, saying yet another goodbye to him. And I hate that. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.

Goodbye, Rob.

-San Francisco, 1992


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

“There was rage, anger, pain, and determination”: Guest Post on AIDS Activism by Tim Kingston and Liz Highleyman

silence equals death posterThis is the second in a guest-post series about ACT UP and the history AIDS activism. There are some amazing events happening in San Francisco this weekend, commemorating important events in the early AIDS activist movement (specifically, the 25th anniversary of the 6th International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and ACT UP’s week of protests). This is important and fascinating history, well worth knowing and remembering. If you’re interested in queer history or the history of street activism, and you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, I urge you attend at least if you can.

There’s a great article in the Bay Area Reporter by Liz Highleyman about ACT UP, 6th International AIDS Conference protests, the history of AIDS activism, and the reasons behind this weekend’s commemorative events. (A full calendar of the weekend’s events is in the article.) She interviewed Tim Kingston, who in 1990 was a reporter for the LGBT community newspaper San Francisco Bay Times. But as is almost always the case with reporting, only a small portion of the interview was quoted. Liz and Tim have given permission to quote the interview here in full.

Liz Highleyman: Why were these events so important at the time?

Tim Kingston: I just found and re-read my article from the AIDS conference in San Francisco, and it was both sobering and informative. It’s hard to put myself back in those times, but a couple of things stand out. First was how universal the condemnation was of the Bush (senior) administration by everyone at the conference; second was the lack of treatment options. There was parallel track drug approval in place (i.e. a faster drug approval process than existed at the time) that AIDS activists had managed to get put in place, but there was only one drug in it. And that was ddI, remember ddI? Everything else was AZT AZT AZT.

The frustration and rage as a result both of those situations was palpable in the air, and floated off the pages of the Bay Times reading it 25 years later.

There were all these little images I was reminded of: when Louis Sullivan was shouted down, how Dr. Paul Volberding just stared at Sullivan, stone faced. He was not staring at the AIDS with anger, he was staring at Sullivan. Sullivan, by the way, missed the start of the conference because he was at a Jesse Helms fundraiser!

What comes across years later is the sense that for the first time, AIDS researchers and activists were on the same page. But it was not a pretty page. They may not have been exactly in agreement, but everyone there was pissed off with a US government whose response to the epidemic was to ban people with HIV from coming to the country instead of working on expediting research. Both inside and outside the conference there was rage, anger, pain, and determination. I remember that well. When you have activists and delegates all trashing the US government, you know something different was happening.

Unlike the Washington AIDS conference where no one had heard of ACT UP, or Montreal where activists were banging on the door to get in, one way or another AIDS activists were a critical part of the conference and a welcomed part. I could not find any delegates inside willing to defend the government. The problem was there were no drugs in the pipeline. Think about that. We had got ourselves inside the circus, finally inside their doors, but there was no show, no main attraction. As I said, it was all AZT.

Having said that, the groundwork had been laid for later success. The foundation for successful testing of drugs and some level of access was there. That was important, very important. And it was also a point where, instead of always being on the outside, AIDS activists were inside and recognized, by Anthony Fauci and other officials, as important allies to get funding and action. Not only did we understand the inside/outside strategies, but our allies on the inside did too.

Why is it important to remember them now 25 years later?

It important to remember and recognize the activists and the work they did and the fact that we did change the world. Just as with any great social movement and what was achieved, it is hard to remember what it was like before that change. It is hard to go back to that period without it hurting inside. But it is critical that we remember our history — that we have had a hand in creating many of the things about AIDS [currently] at work. We attacked and eliminated a large part of the stigma of AIDS; we changed the medical system forever; we changed the doctor/patient relationship from patronizing to equivalent in many other areas of treatment; we changed how drugs are researched, developed and approved. Without ACT UP we would have been at least ten, maybe twenty years behind where we are in treatment options. That is why it is important to remember the Micheal Wrights, the Jesse Dobsons, the Terry Suttons, and many many others — woman and men, black, brown, white, Asian, rich, poor, young and old, who died fighting.

What did the protests accomplish?

It set the stage for a different world. Here, from the end of my original article:

“This year, however, science and politics meshed. Throughout the conference, PWAs [people with AIDS] and activists were an integral part of panels and plenaries, explaining how more attractive clinical trials will enhance recruitment and obtain real-world data, noting that unless health care and treatments are available to all, entire societies are in danger of collapse. Dr. Johnathan Mann, former president of the WHO’s AIDS program, says, ‘The deficiencies of our health care and social system have been so starkly and painfully revealed that the pre-AIDS paradigm of public health… has been found to be desperately inadequate and therefore fatally obsolete.’

“AIDS cannot be stopped by laws, and it cannot be stopped by science, but it can be prevented by behavior change, and to change that people must have the power to alter their lives. Mann says to fight against AIDS it has become necessary to fight for human rights and social justice. Without such rights, the disease goes underground and spreads. ‘The discovery of the inextricable linkage between human rights and AIDS, and more broadly, between human rights and health, will rank among the major discoveries and advances in the history of health and society,’ asserts Mann. ‘The historian of the future will see that we have had the privilege of participating in the creation of new worlds of thought and action — a revolution based on the right to health.'”

Do we still need AIDS activism today and if so why? What issues remain?

I honestly don’t know about AIDS activism at this point. Yes, activism is necessary, but AIDS is no longer a single issue, if it ever was.

Any anecdote or event you found particularly inspiring?

The most inspiring thing from that conferences was being part of the crew of delegates and researchers and activists who streamed out of Moscone Center into the Gay Pride parade. It was a moment of solidarity and joy in the midst of disaster that I will forever remember. Yes, we are united, and yes maybe — just maybe — we will survive this plague if we stick to it together.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

“There was such a terrible sense of urgency”: Guest Post on AIDS Activism by Ingrid Nelson and Liz Highleyman

ACT UPThere are some amazing events happening in San Francisco this weekend, commemorating important events in the early AIDS activist movement (specifically, the 25th anniversary of the 6th International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and ACT UP’s week of protests). This is important and fascinating history, well worth knowing and remembering. If you’re interested in queer history or the history of street activism, and you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, I urge you attend at least some of these events if you can.

There’s a great article in the Bay Area Reporter by Liz Highleyman about ACT UP, 6th International AIDS Conference protests, the history of AIDS activism, and the reasons behind this weekend’s commemorative events. (A full calendar of the weekend’s events is in the article.) She interviewed my wife, Ingrid Nelson, a nurse practitioner specializing in HIV — but as is almost always the case with reporting, only a small portion of the interview was quoted. Liz and Ingrid have given permission to quote the interview here in full.

Liz Highleyman: Why were these events so important at the time?

Ingrid Nelson: Because people were desperate for scientific information. There was no Internet! These were the early days of patients learning to be their own advocates. They wanted to find out what drugs were being studied, what clinical trials they might qualify for. And they wanted input into where the research should be focused in the first place. There was such a terrible sense of urgency, and so little access to information. It was a terrifying time.

Why is it important to remember them now 25 years later?

It would be such a shame if all this history were lost. Our community was so traumatized, and I think it’s too painful for a lot of survivors to talk about now. People lost their lovers. Multiple times. They lost entire circles of friends. And many were estranged from their families of origin. It was like a war, except it was invisible to the rest of society. I think those of us who are still here, who are able to, feel a sense of obligation to speak up about it. We want people now to learn from what we accomplished, and also from our mistakes. And we are passionate about honoring and remembering our fallen comrades.

What did the protests accomplish?

We did get passes into the conference for people with HIV and AIDS. Many conference attendees — medical providers and scientists — stood up and publicly joined their voices with the activists, during Peter Staley’s speech. Research protocols became more open, and parallel tracking speeded things along. We got tons of news coverage that was very much on message. We brought issues of race, immigration, poverty, and sexism into the discussion. And huge numbers of queers from the community showed up and got arrested for their first time, and became lifelong activists starting with that week.

Do we still need AIDS activism today and if so why? What issues remain?

silence equals death posterWe didn’t have the word “intersectionality” back then, but that’s what the ACT UP/SF philosophy was all about. It wasn’t enough to just demand “drugs into bodies,” like the treatment activists used to say. You had to ask “whose bodies?” One of our fears was that AIDS might become a two-tiered epidemic, and that’s exactly what is happening now. We have effective treatments, but we don’t have equal access. If you have HIV but you are poor, or a person of color, or trans, or a woman, or a youth, or in prison, or mentally ill, or a drug user, or an immigrant, or homeless, or a sex worker, or live in an isolated rural area or a resource-limited country, you are more likely to get sick and die. There is still tremendous stigma and shame and invisibility. People have this idea that HIV is a problem that has been fixed. We need to shatter that myth. We need to educate the public about the “cascade of care,” and realize that the biggest gap is in retention of patients in primary HIV care.

Any anecdote or event you found particularly inspiring?

There are so many. The INS protest was amazing. The PISD caucus going over the barricades was such powerful symbolism. Seeing so many men getting arrested at the women’s demo was extremely important and meant a lot to me personally as a member of the ACT UP Women’s Caucus. I also loved the red paper chains that the women wrapped around themselves — that was a wonderful visual. Peter Staley’s speech from the podium was huge, and possibly the first time a person with HIV had spoken from the main stage. I remember Peter asking the con attendees to stand up and chant with us, and a lot of them did. I remember him saying (not exact words, but close) “someday, people will talk about how there used to be a terrible disease. But there were some very brave people who fought back.” I will never forget shouting down Louis Sullivan. Our feelings about that were complicated — we believed in free speech, and we didn’t like the idea of a group of mostly white people shouting down a black man. But we talked through all that, and we ultimately decided that the federal government’s inaction was so grotesque, and so criminal in the face of so much suffering and death, that in this case it was justified. That symbolizes so much about how we all felt then — that we were literally fighting for our lives, and that therefore all bets were off and the old rules didn’t necessarily apply. Drastic action, as long as it was nonviolent, was absolutely called for and was entirely appropriate.

I also remember when the con was over, and we all marched to Market Street and essentially crashed the Pride parade. We always refused to get any type of permits for our protests — it was against our principles, and we made no exception for Pride. We didn’t know exactly what the crowd’s reaction would be — there were some people in the LGBT community who disagreed with our tactics. But that march felt like our own ticker tape parade. We got nothing but cheers and thumbs up the whole way. I remember turning and saying to someone marching next to me, “it’s such a lie that this community hates us.” We did our usual routine of “dying in” at regular intervals, and drawing chalk outlines around each other’s bodies. It’s one of my most vivid and proud memories of those times.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.