October 9, 2013
After attending an ACT UP meeting a few months ago, artist and writer Zachary Frater wrote this piece in which he considers what activism looks like for him and his generation.
I don't usually go to activist meetings. I feel like I should. I have friends that organize around sex workers' rights, AIDS discrimination, immigration reform. A lot of what I know about being a queer cis male of color in 2013, I have learned through my peers. At the same time (no shade to them), I'm not totally convinced that belonging to a frontline organization is the only context for shifting paradigms, or raising awareness. For many millennials, our political subjectivity was not necessarily realized by parading ourselves in front of legislators, but rather, showcasing our bodies to each other, both in the ambiguous space of the internet, and in real life in explicitly QPOC spaces.
Regardless, it's 8pm on a Monday and I'm sitting in an ACT UP meeting at the LGBT Center of New York. A lanky and enthusiastic kid my age, James Krellenstein, is giving a teach-in about current trends in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I disassociate as he recites troubling statistics. In the U.S., men who have sex with men (MSM) are the only group (for which there is a category) in which incidence rates of infection continue to rise, while the rates of IV drug users, heterosexual men, and heterosexual women have either decreased or stayed the same. A new MSM is infected with HIV every 20 minutes. According to the way that James looks at the stats, more than half of millennials (54%) will be positive by the time they turn 50. 1 in 2 black men of our generation will be positive by 35. I am 22.
Some of the numbers James shares I have seen on signs at marches, or heard parroted in the news, or referenced in HIV awareness ads, or on somebody's Tumblr. At several points in James' talk, senior ACT UP-ers offer anecdotes validating and elucidating his numbers. At rapt attention and squirming at the same time, I listen while they recount in detail the fervor of their lives: the rallies they witnessed and organized, their frustrations with "gaystream" organizations that never prioritize AIDS relief, their drug addictions, their disappointments with today's apathetic youth ...
It is at this point I start to wonder what it is us youth have been doing this whole time. While the immediacy that characterized AIDS activism in the 80s and 90s has appeared to fizzle, young people today are not any less sharp, or do not yearn for change. I cannot count the times the millennial generation has been pegged as incurably apathetic, and I get a little indignant because it's like, can you really think of no youth coalitions?
Did members of QUEEROCRACY not protest nude in Speaker John Boehner's office last November?
Isn't SRLP majority youth-led?
And maybe it's a little obvious but like, did Occupy even happen?
I start to identify the fissure between generations, their frustration with our complacency, our acceptance of death, maybe. I feel like we are the first generation to live in the face of AIDS, armed with the knowledge of this plague and its effects at the same time that we are numb to it. Living through our elders' collective memory of this virus but also believing that even if we get AIDS, we won't die. Who dies of AIDS anymore? "We have antibiotics now, we have health care now," I guess is how we think. I can admit, there is smugness in the face of danger that belies our ignorance -- if James' numbers are any indication; we forget that we are continually at risk.
To a generation reared in struggle, this attitude might resemble apathy. But on what gauge can we measure a generation's level of political involvement, anyway? I can think of so many people who are just radical for living, being themselves. In a meme/me-me generation, our activism manifests differently. Our bodies are our first sites of protest. As we start to recognize ourselves as independent subjects, we realize we are victims of injustice. As many "radqueers" of this generation accrue external knowledge of our condition, we simultaneously invert. We want images of ourselves to represent the tension of knowing we are oppressed, and undeniably fierce. The level of self-awareness cultivated by the use of social media means that a "selfie" can serve as a manifesto. A pic on Tumblr of a black, transfeminine youth from Texas for example, contributes saliently to TWOC visibility, in a different way that Sylvia Rivera and STAR marching on Washington contributed to progressions in trans-histories.We recognize one another and the unique conditions that have molded us. We build coalitions in ways most non-profits cannot.
Perhaps therein lies the crux of millennial activism -- it is about creating a situation out of which we can organize, rather than seeing organizing as the end goal.
Through our myriad experiences growing up and/or going to school with mostly white people, being called upon to represent our race/gender identity to people who wouldn't get it anyway, learning European histories and having our cultures censored or even blatantly ridiculed by our peers, we have learned that every space that we occupy as queer persons of color is automatically infused. Why else would we be asked to respond to atrocities in our parents' countries, or have our hair touched, or confirm our gender, if our very presence didn't make produce some kind of anxiety? We carry with us the weight of our collective and disparate histories, sometimes very intentionally, so that whatever space we inhabit is a potentially radical space. Through monthly POC-centric parties, film screenings, Tumblr meet-ups, and potlucks, we actively reclaim the collective power we were robbed of, so that the mere desire to commune, dance, and share space with like-minded, like-bodied individuals itself becomes an act of resistance. In these spaces, we are in incubation. It is the step before frontline activism, where we get rid of our inhibitions and demand honesty from one another, on issues of state, culture, and relationship troubles. We voice our opinions, make connections, plan events, and get hired to do jobs that benefit our communities. Wherever QPOC congregate with intention, a context for change is established, even when it's a room to dance in.
Maybe that's the real reason I don't go to activist meetings. Sometimes I fear they will not see the use in this form of collectivizing, that they'll think whole thing is narcissistic and why don't we get a real job organizing with a non-profit so we can make a difference. I would posit that although in the 90s there was certainly a struggle to make queer people look like citizens deserving of support and basic rights, there were and still are issues of race and sexual identity (namely women and trans folk) that did not always make it onto that poster. What QPOC need -- which white queers take for granted -- is a space to connect with one another outside of "real life," where we have white bosses and professors and group leaders and panelists that don't really know our lives. I truly believe when we gaze lovingly at our bodies on a screen, get feedback on our angry social justice statuses and compliments in our "ask box"; and we screen our friends' films at our homes and workshop over pizza and rum; or have expressly queer parties in locations that change every month so we can network and fill spaces with our bodies and our music and vibe off one another because "sometimes the dance floor is a space for conversations that aren't meant to be had with words"; that it is all so good and necessary.
When it comes to HIV, I think people my age need and want to recontextualize the discussion. The movement isn't over, it's just changing. We're teaching ourselves to communicate and understand one another -- even QPOC need sensitivity training from time to time -- but it gives me life to see us attempt to create utopic situations. We're on our way to liberation, and I'm glad to say I'm witnessing it. Now, everybody smile.
Zachary Frater is an artist, writer and performer.