Feasting with Panthers (and Palestine): Edmund White’s Jean Genet #LPW2020

If writing is a committed utopian action, then the Jean Genet of Edmund White’s engaging, impressive, transformative Genet: A Biography was the epitome of  manic depression. Genet wrote his five novels in five years, from 1942-47. After seven years of sadness and silence, he wrote his three best known plays in two years. The subsequent 1960’s were filled with death as his lover, Abdallah (a high wire performer) committed suicide, his agent and English translator Bernard Fruchtman committed suicide, and Genet himself tried to commit suicide. Then he entered into the other utopian endeavor: activism. From 1970 until his death in 1986, Genet was aligned with oppressed people and supported them in energetic ways, on their terms and on his own.  White calls him “an apostle of the wretched of the earth.”

White’s use of the word  “apostle” is, of course, an open invitation to question it.  Apostles believe that the mortals they adore are not mortal. And, in that way, they err.   Sartre, who, White points out, was an atheist, called his homage Saint Genet, so there was an ironic anti-religiosity to the book.  But Genet was a man for whom adoration was deification; he described lovers as Gods. Genet’s love was possible, encompassing, invigorating – and annihilating.  And since many people can only love in one way, one could assume that he might emotionally connect with oppressed people in the same manner that he loved his Nazi soldier lover/apparition turned underdog when left behind in liberated Paris in the novel Pompes Funebres.

Edmund White, if his life’s works are an indication, has loved far more rationally than Genet.  He has been torn open, sure, and been impulsive and been destructive-  i.e. human – but he has also been sensible, reasonable and accepting. His books are often a process of coming to terms.  I would not use the world “apostle” to describe Edmund White as a lover, yet the concept of the “wretched of the earth” does unite the two. When White co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982, he got up from the typewriter on behalf of a despised group of people with no rights who were abandoned by their families and societies.  They were living in illegality and were facing a terminal disease for which there was no epidemiological information, no treatment, and no cure.  White – who has himself been openly HIV positive for decades – was one of them. Genet, on the other hand, died in 1986 at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Although he had been poor, outcast and incarcerated, he was never, for example, Palestinian. There are universes of difference between the conditions of people with AIDS and Palestinians –  though when I began to become a conscious and active worker for Palestine, I did notice some resonances. In both cases these were categories of people who were profoundly oppressed, who were treated with brutal abandonment and indifference, who were falsely cast as dangerous when they were in fact endangered, and who were treated like predators when they were the ones being attacked.  In my carefully considered estimation, both people with AIDS and Palestinians have been lied about, pathologized,  and inhumanely discarded. If a despised gay man, who had spent his life unjustly blamed when he hadn’t done anything wrong, truly understood his own condition he could – perhaps should – relate to Palestinians.  That would, to me,  be a rational response to oppression. Unfortunately, history shows that oppressed people often identity more strongly with the element of their demographic that still connects to domination. Many white gay people aspire to the unjustified powers of whiteness. Many male homosexuals rue any obstacle to male supremacy. When we are debased by ruthless ambition, we look up longingly towards the corruption of domination as we wish better for ourselves.

Born in 1910, Genet had already been arrested 8 times by the age of 17 for running away, for taking trains for free, for embezzling money to go to a carnival, and for stealing pens and notebooks.  He was sentenced to two years at an agricultural prison for juveniles. White tells us that in order to get out of Mettray (a place that looms large in his work), Genet joined the army and was promoted to corporal.  He then  “volunteers” specifically for duty in the eastern part of the Mediterranean known as the Levant. In other words, at the age 19, he chose to be in an Arab place – in this case Syria. So the Arab world offered him an escape from the pain of France.  The Arab world is to the young and French Jean Genet what France becomes to the young and American Edmund White: a place of permission.  And permission is a kind of romance.  It’s a rhapsody of relief, indulgence, and light-headed elevation. Of course, Genet’s arriving as a French soldier gave him a different source to his permission than Edmund White who not only loves men, but also graceful stylish beautiful things, sophisticated ways, and elevated traditions.  Genet also found in the Levant male beauty, ancient cultures and intoxicating aesthetics, but his permission to do so came with the power of the French state. He had a uniform, a gun, a rank, and an historically imposed social role. The marginalized, despised, punished and alienated Genet came to his place of peace as a colonial. White had only the willingness to be reconstructed as a Francophile.

White describes Genet’s commitments to Palestine and to the Black Panthers as support for the “homeless,” and, it could be argued, both African Americans and Palestinians are living in exile, diasporic displacement, and elaborate fantasies of resolution and repair.  Even Edward Said understood Genet’s pro-Palestinian position as the identification of one oppressed person with another. “Genet made the step, crossed the legal borders, that very few white men or women even attempted,” Said has written.  “He traversed the space from the metropolitan center to the colony; his unquestioned solidarity was with the very same oppressed identified and so passionately analyzed, by [Frantz]Fanon,” Said continued, referring to the Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary concerned with the psychopathology of colonization. And while it is easy and truthful to say that Genet also was homeless, in the most intimate sense of the word, unlike Palestinians, he did have a nation state, a passport and la langue natale which allowed him to be a writer with readers who also have passports, nation states and their own indigenous language. 

White writes of Genet’s perspective of himself as an exception in the eyes of the various Arab communities he was sent to occupy.  Of course, we don’t know what the Syrians actually thought of him, but we do learn that he felt they saw his difference in a positive light. Like Genet, I also see myself as a “friend of Palestine” and yet I do understand that that has nothing to do with whether or not individual Palestinians like me.  Political relationships of solidarity are rife with the problem of supremacy, no matter how alienated or excluded the dominant party feels from their own societies. And it is easy to project one’s own enthusiasm of connection onto the less powerful partner.  White wisely acknowledges this by pointing out that one of Genet’s favorite fantasy tropes is that of the benevolent/enamored cop, or complicit soldier, transgressing the rules of punishment because he is so moved by a vulnerable – and fictionalized – Genet.

At the age of 21,  Genet re-enlisted, this time volunteering to go to Morocco.  In 1934, at 23 and out of the army for only six months, he signed up for a third tour of duty, this time volunteering for Algeria.   In 1936, for reasons I do not understand, he did not show up for roll call and deserted. He falsified his passport with the name Gejietti, was arrested in Albania. Then arrested in Yugoslavia.  Then arrested in Vienna.  Then arrested in Czechoslovakia, where he asked for political asylum.  Despite some kind of asylum, he fled again and was arrested in Poland before crossing over into Nazi Germany. (Nazis were never a problem for Genet.) He got to Paris and was yet again arrested, this time in a department store for stealing twelve handkerchiefs. Over the next two years, he was arrested and incarcerated for desertion, expelled from the army, arrested for more free train riding, for stealing bottles of aperitifs, for carrying a gun, for stealing a shirt, for vagrancy, and for stealing a piece of silk. At the age of 30, he spent ten months in prison for stealing a suitcase and wallet, then anotehr four months for stealing history and philosophy books.  He worked as a book-seller on the Seine, where he met readers, writers and intellectuals. Then he was arrested in front of Notre Dame and sentenced to three months for stealing a volume of Proust. In prison, at the age of 31, he started writing his first novel. Notre Dames des Fleurs.   Two former customers, one of whom was a right-wing editor, introduced him to Jean Cocteau, who helped him immeasurably. Arrested again for stealing a rare edition of Verlaine, he was then eligible for life imprisonment but Cocteau argued in court that Genet was “the greatest writer of the modern era” and thus he was sentenced instead to 3 months, during which he wrote Miracle de la Rose.  Three weeks after being freed, he stole more books and was jailed for four more months.

It’s a manic cycle, and most obviously filled with repetition and pervasive disregard for the obvious consequences of actions that might have alternatives.  In this place and this time, Genet was a man who could not solve problems, unless his goal was to remain in prison. Certainly the meeting with Cocteau was lucky, but even luckier was the fact that Cocteau helped him at all – and to the extent that he did.  I have to disclaim here that Edmund White himself helped me by reviewing my lesbian erotic, formally complex, 1994 novel  Rat Bohemia in The New York Times and, thereb, elevating me with his accomplishments in the tradition of Cocteau’s helping Genet.  But, I assure you, that most people with real power in literature do not help people who cannot help them back.  That Cocteau, himself the homosexual author of Les Enfants Terribles  (about a love affair between a brother and sister), understood Genet’s talents and bothered to make the effort is just a fluke of literary history. Lucky, lucky Saint Genet.

It was now 1943 and France was in the midst of its Nazi occupation.  French people – especially Jews among them – were being deported to concentration camps in Poland and exterminated. Genet found himself held in Camp des Tourelles, a deportation cite.  He was visited by Marc Barbezat, the powerful publisher of the magazine L’Arbalete who, with other powerful people, got Genet released. n I have no idea what role this publisher or Cocteau or any of Genet’s other powerful supporters played in interfering with the deportation of Jews.  Cocteau did flirt with the German power elite, and other artists like Max Jacobs and Robert Desnos were deported and exterminated for being anti-Nazi or Jewish. Genet’s friends were not deported and continued to publish during the occupation.  So, despite his homosexuality, his desertion, his endless incarcerations for crimes petty and pathetic, this homeless man’s life was saved in a period in which thousands of citizens of far greater social standing were sent off to be murdered because they were Jews, communists and Nazi resisters. I would like to know more about this and to understand more about Genet’s feelings about Jews, French anti-Semitism and the European Holocaust. Sartre claimed Genet to be an anti-semite, but understood it as a revulsion of other oppressed people. White quotes Sartre: “Since Genet wants his lovers to be executioners, he should never be sodomized by a victim.  What repels Genet about Israelites is that he finds himself in their situations.” But actually, no, he was excused from their situation.  So, given that he had more power than Jews, just as he had more power than Arabs, there is a contradiction in the theory of Genet as pro-Palestinian because he identified with the oppressed.

In 1944, still under Nazi occupation, Genet’s first novel, Notre Dame des Fleurs appeared in except in L’Arbalete.  He met Sartre, also still in France, at Café Flore, which was still open despite the Nazi seizure of resources and severe rationing. And Genet’s lover, Jean DeCarnin died on the Communist barricades fighting to liberate Paris. Strange juxtaposition of events: one dies, the other drinks coffee.  From then on, most of Genet’s important love relationships were to be with Arab men. The Nazis were defeated in 1945 and three years later Sartre and Cocteau petition for amnesty for Genet.  In 1951, Gallimard published the complete works of Genet.  All his books were banned in America until Grove Press broke the ban in 1963. This was another good reason for Edmund White, future author of explicitly gay literature, to have been enamored with France. It offered him a legacy of freedom.

But there is such a strange imbalance of values in all of this.  A France brutally colonizing the Arab and African world – and deeply complicit with the deportation of Jews –  listens to its own intellectuals and frees, publishes and awards its own homosexual experimental writer ex-convict. Then again, perhaps the things that made white homosexual men intolerable to American culture – principally the refusal to build families and reproduce – didn’t really matter that much to the French. Overt empires reproduce in their own brutal ways, and histories such as  Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, which is about the colonization of the Congo by Belgium, depict colonial culture as a homoerotic, homosocial and, in many cases, homosexual refuge. It is similar perhaps to our own genocidal westward expansion and cowboy culture.

In 1970, Genet was arrested with Marguerite Duras at a demonstration protesting the death of four African immigrant workers. As a Frenchman, he had often traveled in Africa, especially in French colonized countries. Yet he had little contact with African Americans outside of James Baldwin who was in sexual and racial exile in France. But once he surfaced as an activist, Genet was contacted by  Black Panthers Connie Mathews and Michael Persitz  to speak out on the jailing and government murders of much of their leadership. How the Panthers made the decision to ask him for help is unclear. A lot has been written about the macho nature of the Panther party, and much of that has also been softened, retrospectively. Huey P Newton, party chairman, famously said, “The homosexual may be the most revolutionary,” which is certainly very far from the white left, busy yelling “Pull her off the stage and fuck her,” when Marilyn Webb of Women’s Liberation tried to talk feminism at an anti-war rally that same year. Certainly the handsome Panther, Chairman Huey P Newton, and the stylish rank and file were a lot sexier than white leftists whose torn, baggy jeans and flannel shirts de-sexualized working class clothing, which would soon be tightened and re-masculinized by gay clone culture.  Wanting to help the Panthers, Genet was denied a visa by the US because of his homosexuality, and so crossed the border illegally from Canada. For two months, he traveled the country, giving many public talks at universities and to the press on behalf of the Panthers. His many American adventures included a cocktail party at Stanford’s French department where he compared the Panthers to the Marquis de Sade due to their shared authenticity. He had a crush on Panther leader David Hilliard.  Jane Fonda proposed doing a film with Genet.  And one night he danced for some Panthers in a pink negligee. He may have been a Marxist, but he was still camp. The Panthers gave him a black leather jacket.  He met 26-year-old UCLA Philosophy professor Angela Davis, who was a fluent French speaker from a family of learned French speakers. On May 1, he spoke to 25,000 people in New Haven and his speech was published by the Black Panther Party.  He then hastily departed America when contacted by the Office of Immigration. Back in Europe, he published a defense of Angela Davis, who was now on FBI Wanted posters, named “Public Enemy Number One.” When she was arrested, he agreed for the first time to go on television where he delivered a talk “Angela Davis Is At Your Mercy.”  In Prisoner of Love Genet reflected that “The Panthers symbolism was too easily deciphered to last. It was accepted quickly, but rejected because it was too easily understood.”

As the Panthers fractured, Genet became friends back in France with Mahmoud El Hamchari,  the Paris representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization.  His wife told Edmund White that Genet would come to their house unannounced and have long talks with El Hamchari about the divisions and corruption within the Panthers. So, as one political partner crumbled, another was born. White writes, “After following events in Jordan that proved disastrous for Palestinians, known as ‘Black September,’” Genet “accepted an invitation” to visit Palestinian refugee camps for one week. He stayed for six months and returned four times over the next two years.  In November, 1970, he met Yasser Arafat for less than thirty minutes.  But Arafat did give Genet a pass permitting free travel in any PLO territory and asked him to write a book about Palestinians, which Genet completed fifteen years later.  White writes that Genet “preferred to think that the Arab world should be Palestinized rather than the Palestinian revolution should be Arabized.  To Genet the only positive vision of the future should be socialist, not theological: his analysis of the failure of Zionism was that it had begun as a socialist experiment but had degenerated quickly into a theological state.”

Just as in Syria, there is not much information about how the Palestinians experienced Genet, most of the information coming from Genet’s version of the relationship. As in Syria, he described himself as well-liked. Genet says that he shocked Palestinians by telling them he was homosexual and an atheist, “an avowal that made them burst out laughing,” he claimed.  But who knows what really happened.  I am fascinated by Genet’s “invitations.” As an openly lesbian woman who is a “friend of Palestine,” I wonder if Genet was the first out queer in political solidarity with Palestinians,  as opposed to colonials whose only investments were a sexual interest in Arab men.

The visit took place after the 1967 Six-Day War, and much of the world was troubled by the Israeli occupation of more territory and the creation of yet more refugees on top of the people still in exile from their expulsion by the founding of the Israeli state in 1948.  Although Palestine is and was a “place”, the specific geographical boundaries of this “home” were different in people’s minds than in legal realities. In fact, “Palestine” was now The West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, refugee camps in Jordan and in Lebanon and in Syria, as well as a global diaspora of refugees from Kuwait to London to Detroit. “Palestine” was also the memories, the still-standing houses now lived in by Israelis, and the land, sea and hills that many Palestinians would never see again.  His visits stimulated a series of articles and  petitions and participations with Michel Foucault on anti-prison work and with Gilles Deleuze in support of Arab workers in France, as well as the rights of North African immigrants.

At the age of 64, Genet  met his last lover, Mohammed El Katranai, in Tangiers.  They lived  together in a small apartment in the Saint Denis suburb of Paris. At the age of 72, suffering from throat cancer, Genet moved to Morocco. From this base, he traveled to Lebanon with Leila Shahid, a young Palestinian activist.  In September, 1982, Genet was in Beirut when Israelis invaded. This assault enabled Christian militias to massacre Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps where Palestinians are still living in 2017.. Jim Hubbard and I visited Sabra with Lebanese queer activist Lynne Darwich in 2013.  Genet was one of the first outsiders to enter Shatila on September 19, 1982,  and found the place strewn with corpses. He wrote “Four Hours at Shatila,” which was published in The Journal of Palestinian Studies. I don’t know if he chose this venue to support the journal, or if the piece had been rejected by more widely-read and mainstream publications. Returning to Morocco, he started to write Prisoner of Love, based in fifteen years of notes about the Black Panther and Palestinian experiences. On April 15, 1986 he died of cancer at the age of 76.  He was buried in Larache, Morocco. Prisoner of Love was published one month later.

 If Genet ever had a “home,”  it was in the Arab world, a world he first entered as a colonial soldier. It was as a colonial soldier that Genet had his first experience of authority, group belonging, sway.  It was in the Arab world that he found lovers, often younger, poorer, with less social currency. It was Palestine that “invited” him, while America refused his request for a visa.  American homosexuals now have, what Rutgers Professor Jasbir Puar has named “Homonationalism,” i.e. those of us who are white and male, who marry and reproduce, who are documented, who are not incarcerated, who have homes and who support the military and US imperial wars, are now invited to identify with the American, Canadian, British, German, French, Dutch, and Israeli state apparatus of punishment and enforcement. Despite being a homosexual convict, Genet experienced this same elevation by being a French soldier.  But the status of Palestinians has not changed since Genet walked into Shatila and witnessed murdered civilians lying on its grounds in 1982. Palestinians are still mass murdered; they are still denied a “home.”   There are still questions for us to grapple with regarding Jean Genet.  Was his support for Palestine – which was unusual, energetic, sincere, effortful and significant – rooted in the identification of one homeless person with another, one marginalized, unjustly punished person with another?  Was it, simultaneously, a relationship of a French person to an Arab one, a Frenchman whose only place of supremacy in his own cultural framework was in relationship to the Arabs he could love and to whom he could make a difference?  Or was he attracted to the Palestinians and the Black Panthers who needed “Jean Genet”?

What Does a Queer Urban Future Look Like?

[ *Back during the making of Cidade Queer (an inquiry opened by Lanchonete.org), I got the chance to ask some colleagues their views on queerness and a right to the city. I asked Sarah Schulman if ‘the urban’—yes, cities as well as urban encounters…but also the space and right(s) to live in, work in, and share the contemporary city—is an important source or reference for her work? Jose Esteban Muñoz begins his book, “Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity” (2009), with these words: “Queerness is an aspiration toward the future. To be queer is to imagine better possible futures.” So I guess what I’m asking is what a queer urban future might look/feel like to you? xo, Todd ]

Obviously, great cities are in terrible trouble as gentrification homogenizes their souls. However, there are still some core experiences of difference that make a place like New York City a center for the production of new ideas. After all, it is the mix that signifies urbanity, the irrefutable knowledge that people are different, which is built into real city living. In some places people wake up in privatized houses, they walk through their front doors and step into cars, and then drive to work and park.

This twice-a-day seminal experience is one of isolation and repetition. But waking up in an apartment building means recognizing your neighbors’ realities: who was fired, who is sick, who is in love, who can’t control their drug use, whose kid has finally gotten a job. By the time you get outside, there is already the knowledge that other people are real. Then, we walk through the neighborhood, see which businesses have been driven out, what new chains are devouring territory, which brave independent entrepreneurs are trying something new, waving, avoiding, chatting, making amends. Jump on the subway, where the knowledge that people suffer, have contradictions and need support is always present. And finally, get to work. This is an experience of recognizing difference. Of having to think about other people, notice them, and maybe even talk. This engagement is the source of great inspiration.

I have written so many books about the people in my building, my neighborhood, on the subway, on the street. They embody my life and my pages. So, when I imagine a future for myself and for my city, they are inseparable. My city is part of my heart, not something to drive through on the way. And New Yorkers love to talk to each other. We practice recognition. Recently, I have come to understand, profoundly, the difference between provincial cities and really urban ones: the range of communities.

In NYC, if you burn out on one queer, black, arts community, there are actually several other queer, black arts communities to connect with, and all the other larger communities that also include queer and black. There isn’t one clique controlling experimental film. There are many. While of course, being on the outs with those in power can be awful—just the worst—the machine is just too big to stay stagnant. And while some people are afraid of speaking back to power, plenty are not. When I see what kind of group bullying goes on in smaller places, where queers and artists act like In The Heat Of The Night, or those realist horror films where all the “best” citizens are secretly in the Klan and there is no escape, well, in NYC, there is always an escape. And what that means is that we have the freedom to change. Despite gentrification, there are still subcultures, substructures, undergrounds—some of which desperately want to be recognized, and others which absolutely don’t. There are hundreds of dance scenes, multiple ethnicities of Chinese, everything you could ever want to eat, more musicians than there are places to hear them, the greatest actors in the country, and beauty at your fingertips. There is the petty and there is the very deep.

“Queer” is a category in flux, and urban queer is on a huge continuum. We have the banal, the spoiled, the exploitative, the boring. We have the expansive, the inquisitive, the creative, the open hearted. We have the consumer, and the producer. We have the new abject object, the new queer: the undocumented, trans*, HIV positive, the queers whom the police shoot to kill. We have those of us who are not in families, and therefore not the ideal consumer, the community-based queers, who share a public space, and the privatized queers who put their citizenship first. Right now, everything “queer” that has a place of honor is somehow rooted in the family. Just this year in media: TransparentFun HomeThe Argonauts, even Carol—who, in the book, was somewhat repulsed by her child, but in the film became a mother, giving that famous plea for tolerance speech that is required by the tolerant. 

But what about the rest of us? Where are we? Looking around, I see queer in the leadership of Black Lives Matter and the new Black Student Movement. I see queer inside Palestine Solidarity. I see a place for queers who have an agenda bigger than their queer selves. And for the rest, I see an invitation into the status quo. And some of us are inside each room. And some of us don’t have a room as the city struggles to find homes for its own children. There is a building on 57th Street in which every apartment is a floor through and costs 100 million dollars. Real estate is like a security box for some of the globe’s elite. It’s a safe place to put your money. East New York was offered graduated income housing, but it’s not a graduated income neighborhood. We need 500,000 housing units to save our soul. At least we know the terms of the goal. We need to be rescued and to save ourselves. The homogenized lose consciousness, and don’t understand the fight. But it only takes a critical mass to make the change. A new society is literally being built on top of the old. All extant housing stock is already claimed; now, they are constructing towers without public aspects: no hospitals, no schools, a heliport on a building’s roof. And yet, my over-crowded classroom has 16 nationalities. My job is to open their hearts.


*To read 10 more responses to ‘What does a queer urban future look like?’, click here.

‘People in Trouble’ at Thirty: On Realism, Trump, and the AIDS Cataclysm

Thirty years after its completion, my novel People in Trouble has taken on resonance far beyond my original passions and intention. Its most notorious cultural eruptions: the uncredited derivations of the novel into the musical Rent, and the premonitional nightmare of Donald Trump as a world “leader”–are filled with meaning and have been fodder for speculation. Yet these later manifestations stray far from the originating emotions, influences and open-hearted vulnerabilities that led me to write it in the first place.

In 1986 I was 28, and met and fell in love with an older woman in a long-term relationship with a man, who both occupied seats in a mostly straight avant-garde art movement. I wanted her to accept me and our relationship as something worth protecting, but that was impossible because of her ideologies. Some were rooted in fears, some in privileges, some in fear of loss of those privileges, some in fear of having to acknowledge those privileges, some in freedom from having to change. In some ways what stood between us was an investment in a particular kind of bohemianism filled with great ideas, huge amounts of fun, unconscious sustained class protections and its accompanying supremacy perceptions. I remember the one time I brought her to meet my parents, hoping she would use her age and class to help them love and understand me, but she ended up lecturing them on the history of the avant-garde, and complaining about how under-recognized she was in her art career, thereby re-enforcing their degraded thoughts about me. It was a waste with long-term consequences, losing this singular opportunity to show them that I was, in fact, loved. In the end, all of these constructions that were in fixed positions before I ever came along kept her from being able to learn from me, and all that I had lived and was living and longed to share.

I, on the other hand, learned a great deal from her. She’d had a superior education, an exceptional arts experience, and exposed me to people, scenes, histories, objects, places, communities, ways of living, that I had never noticed or even heard of. These introductions have enriched my thinking and my art making all of my life, opened up enormous skies of possibility, and formed my aesthetics, informed my sense of humor, my willingness to take artistic chances, and my ability to appreciate and take in a wide range of ideas. Now I am sixty-one years old and she is in her seventies. After decades of ignoring my work, never reading a single thing, never coming to any public events, not a play, not a reading, in short–pretending that I was not doing what I was doing and not becoming who I had become, she suddenly showed up one day to a screening of the feature film Jason and Shirley, that I had collaborated on with director Stephen Winter and my co-actor Jack Waters, about the filmmaker Shirley Clarke and the making of her 1964 classic Portrait of Jason. We were all shocked to see her come into the theater, and we feared what she would say, but when she raised her hand, it was finally to offer some kind of kindness, and it was really very sweet.

We actually walked home together. She had just had her 70th birthday and she said she felt “lucky to be alive,” so I guess—ultimately–she changed. She realized something about the simple value of acknowledging. And that change made her able to be kind. And whether or not she still believes in the possibility of superior aesthetics, as she once did, the concrete innovations of her artistic peers that required skill, talent, labor and courage to create handmade works in the visual arts, sometimes taking years of painstaking construction, are now available to all through software, and have taken on such a flattened tone, as they have been assimilated into marketing and public technology, that they are hardly noticeable as distinct decisions requiring selective choice.

This whole question of living long enough to understand that the human game of cruelty, superiority, separation is a pose that can simply be dropped, that itself is a very emotional subject among my queer generation, because at the very time that this woman and I fell in love, 1987, I was surrounded by my queer world dying of AIDS, and me and my friends were obsessed with keeping these men and boys alive. So many never had the chance to live long enough to finally be kind. I was in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) while we were involved, and yet she never came to a meeting, nor to a demonstration. It was so separate at that time, the straight world and the gay one. People could step in and out, but they literally took place in distinct spaces, consciousnesses. One of the revelations of this searing relationship was that my lover and her boyfriend seemed to be only peripherally implicated by the raging AIDS crisis, while I was drowning in death. Yes, they knew people who suffered and died. And yes, they cared. But it was hard for me to grasp how we could be so physically close–literally our bodies entwined, and living only a few blocks away from each other, and have such dramatically different daily lived realities of this mass death experience that was the epicenter of the AIDS cataclysm.

Two years after we met, I was at an ACT UP demonstration on May 9, 1988, at the Food and Drug Administration, trying to force the US government to release drugs faster so that dying people could try them. In a historic speech called ‘Why We Fight’, the late film critic Vito Russo described this separation experience exactly:

Living with AIDS is like living through a war that is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them. They’re walking the streets as though we weren’t living through some kind of nightmare. And only you can hear the screams of the people as they’re dying. And their cries for help.

But at this point I had already finished the manuscript. Remember that there is a gap between the creation of a novel, the time when a publisher agrees to take it, and the additional wait of a year or two until it is physically published. So even though People in Trouble appeared in 1990, it had to have been completed 2-3 years earlier. This time frame is important because I imagined an AIDS activist organization or movement in People in Trouble before ACT UP actually existed–as it was founded in March 1987. In my novel, I named the group JUSTICE, which was a far less creative name than ACT UP. And I imagined JUSTICE doing a small action of defiance in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which was modeled on a small, earlier gay liberation action I’d participated in with 10-20 others when we went inside the church and silently turned out backs on Cardinal O’Conner. Again, reality was far more dramatic than fiction, because in December 1989, a few months before People in Trouble appeared on the shelves, ACT UP held a demonstration of 7,000 at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and disrupted mass–an event that will be described in detail in my forthcoming 2021 book Let the Record Show, a nonfiction political history of ACT UP based on the 188 interviews that Jim Hubbard and I conducted with surviving members of that organization over 18 years, and which you can view at www.actuporalhistory.org

The title came from a book by Wilhelm Reich that I was introduced to by activist  Maxine Wolfe. Reich’s People in Trouble opens with him observing soldiers firing on workers, and as he watches the unjustified brutality, the pointless carnage, he sees that the workers and the soldiers are the same people, from the same class, but one has been taken over by the state. Their uniforms are the sign of this control that compels them to kill their own mirror images, who are instead fighting for justice. My model for the style of People in Trouble was Germinale by Zola, a 19th century French Realist novel about a miners’ strike that I had studied with Francoise Meltzer at the University of Chicago before I dropped out in 1979. This version of “Realism” helped me to parse the details of the eye of the hurricane that was life inside the AIDS crisis at that time. It was my job to record the specificity of the experience. I remember reading a story about Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who was sent to Stalin’s gulag where she composed poems with burnt matches on bars of soap. One day a fellow prisoner recognized her, since poets were celebrities in Russian society at that time. And the prisoner asked “Can you describe…this?” Realism helped me describe…”this.” The carnage. Not the loss, which came later, but the chaos of constant suffering. I made pages and pages of notes of details of the crisis, and then selected key observations and scattered them throughout the novel, anchoring my characters in the real.

Ironically, it was the use of some of these details that were the original clues that the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson had used characters, settings, themes, and ideas (and details) from my novel without optioning my book, as he should have done. Of course, at that time queer art was haphazardly considered to be a free feeding trough for mainstream work, the most classic example being Madonna’s hit song “Vogue” based on the Black queer art form of Voguing available to be cherry-picked from the streets of New York. The full and complete story of this strange cultural appropriation has already been told by a number of journalists in fancy legitimate places (Achy Obejas in Chicago Tribune, Dudley Saunders in New York Magazine, June Thomas in Slate,) and in my book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, which was published by Duke University Press in 1998. So, I won’t repeat that information here. But, Jonathan Larsen died on opening night of Rent of an aortic aneurysm and perhaps if he had not died, the show wouldn’t have become a hit. Or if it had, and he had lived, I assume he would have settled with me in some token financial way that would have changed my life entirely and not made a dent in the Rent fortune. But he died mythically, leaving people to falsely believe he had died of AIDS–which is what young men died of in those days, and all I got was the legend. I would love it if someone would make a movie of People in Trouble, so the story could be told properly. Now that 30 years have passed, perhaps the world is ready for it.

The Trump issue is an entirely other matter. Ever since his father got rich by refusing to rent to Black people in Queens, New Yorkers have known and hated the Trumps. The late 80s were the turning point in visibility of gentrification, and New Yorkers knew that developers like Trump and the Helmsleys were receiving corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks to build luxury housing, offices and hotels. As expensive new real estate replaced affordable housing, the numbers of homeless people soared, and I was becoming increasingly aware of the overlap of AIDS and homelessness. It seemed like a reasonable act of imagination to envision Trump coming to real power and sacrificing the homes, and therefore the lives, of the vulnerable for simply more profit. If you look back at the reviews of the novel, no one found this far-fetched or extreme. How sad to have been right, thirty years in advance, in somehow understanding the supreme role this man would play in destruction of the fabric of human relationship, and the suffering he would cause.

My subsequent AIDS novel, Rat Bohemia (1995), while still organically a product of the AIDS immersion, and surrounded by the death of the young, benefited artistically from being the second of my works about the epidemic. People in Trouble relied on a Social Realism approach as part of the message: trying to explain what it was like to be drowning in disaster. By the time I wrote Rat Bohemia, I had my own foundational creation to stand on, and was able to then be more formally inventive without losing the soul of the experience being conveyed. I then went on to write the novels The Child and The Mere Future which reflected the crisis in even more varied ways, and the AIDS-focused nonfiction books The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2013), Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, And The Duty Of Repair (2016) and next this history of ACT UP. AIDS has been only one of a number of arenas of human experience that have occupied my creative and emotional life, but it has been consistent. And that is itself meaningful, since most of the writers who began to convey the AIDS experience from the beginning in the early 1980s have died. So while I, of course, hope that each work stands on its own and creates a distinct aesthetic, historical, and emotional experience, the continuity itself also, hopefully, creates an experience for the reader.



This piece was first published on October 8th 2019 on Lambda Literary