'We Got to be Very Good at Republican Drag': How ACT UP Challenged the Sex Police
June 1, 2017
Sometimes I forget what year it is. Reading through HIV news updates and the stories of present tense stigma and criminalization takes me back more than 25 years.
In 1991, California Senate Bill 982 was proposed, and sought to criminalize sex for people living with -- or suspected to be living with -- HIV. SB982 was authored by then-Senator Ed Davis, who civil rights activists had been battling since his days as the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Under his command, the LAPD had escalated its official use of violence against historically marginalized communities -- especially communities of color and queer communities. In response to SB982, dubbed "the Sex Police Bill," ACT UP chapters in California committed to blocking the bill.
The following chapter is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress Blood/Loss: Toward a Queer Poetics of Embodied Memory (a love story), about my experiences in ACT UP/Los Angeles and Queer Nation/Los Angeles. This is the story of one of our actions against SB982.
Criminalization, a Disruption (1991, Los Angeles)
We got to be very good at Republican drag. Sometimes it was to infiltrate Operation Rescue meetings to find out which women's health clinics they were going to try to close so we could get there first and build a human wall to keep them open. Sometimes, like this time, it was to scope out the site of an upcoming demonstration. For this stealth queer field trip I had dressed in a simple black skirt and white sweater, the most conservative outfit I could put together. The one pair of shoes I had that weren't Birkenstocks, running shoes, or bright purple Dr. Martens boots. My hair in a long french braid. I was with Michael, one of the ACT UP fags from my affinity group who was not tattooed lower on his arms than his shirt sleeves, and who had taken out his facial piercings. Another team had already scoped out the hotel and the surrounding grounds a few days earlier. We were doing one more pass before the demonstration.
We drove out to the hotel on a weekday afternoon, walked into the hotel lobby holding hands and smiled at the front desk clerk, then took the elevator up a couple of floors. We walked around the halls gauging which rooms would have windows that looked out onto the street where the rest of the demonstration would happen, which rooms would be easiest for us to get in and out of, which were closest to the elevators, how long it took for a called elevator to arrive, and then how long it took to get back down to the lobby. When we got back down to the lobby, a different clerk was at the front desk, by himself, busy answering phones. We sat for a few minutes, taking notes, looking like a very different kind of meeting than we were having.
I was watching the lobby, distracted from our conversation about logistics and tactics, thinking about surveillance.
"What's wrong?" Michael asked.
"What do you mean?"
"You're wound up."
"Um, we're preparing to disrupt this place and it's going to be secured like a fortress. Besides that?"
"Yes," he said, laughing. "Besides that."
The dinner we were planning to disrupt was a birthday fundraiser for California Senator Ed Davis, who had introduced SB982. The proposed bill would criminalize sex for people who are HIV positive, making it a felony for anyone seropositive to have unprotected sex. It also proposed a possible life sentence for anyone who knew they were seropositive and passed the virus to someone else. Governor Pete Wilson was expected to speak at the fundraiser. It had only been a few months since his veto of AB101, the LGBT housing and employment discrimination protection bill. We intended to disrupt their night as many times and from as many angles as we could.
For weeks, an ACT UP committee had been working on a nuanced informational flyer about SB982, including the following information:
Michael was still talking, but I was looking around the lobby, thinking about how I move my body through the space anticipating cameras and surveillance, even when I can't see them, about all the ways we move stealth through the world. All the subtleties of code that we internalize, even when we don't mean to. Michael and I are unnoticed in the lobby, which I know is because of his whiteness, my white-passing, my femme-ness, our assumed heterosexuality which we consciously play at by misdirected coding in the easy affection between us. With no visible signifiers of our queerness, we are only seen through the assumed shared context of the conservative hotel.
In addition to the sex criminalization bill, there was also an ongoing fight about immigration. The "HIV travel ban," which sounds like an inconvenience, is barely coded xenophobia. Seropositive immigrants, since the late 1980s, were banned from entering the US or establishing permanent residency. The actual impact of the ban forced refugees and asylum seekers into medical and political hiding, and kept people who were undocumented or in immigration status limbo from seeking treatment or testing, so that there was no record of their serostatus. SB982 would add to their jeopardy by escalating the persecution of those perceived to be seropositive.
There are so many reasons to keep so many parts of our lives stealth. That was the impact of so much of the AIDSphobic domestic and international policy -- forcing us into the shadows. I was only half listening to Michael talk about media positioning and camera angles to aim for if our disruptions erupted from one part of the room or another.
"Are you listening?" he asked, his fingertips tapping the top of my hand, which was clenched around the arm of my chair.
"Oh, sorry." I was thinking about Cory and Wayne and Pete. Their radical insistence on visibility and the dismantling of shame. The Infected Faggot T-shirts and the Fear No Queer stickers. Wayne had a biohazard tattoo on his arm. Pete had Silence=Death tattooed on his forearm, his clothing was often so plastered with stickers that you couldn't tell the color of the cloth, and his hair was often either pink or red. Their visibility also meant that the night of the demonstration, they would be in the guerrilla theater affinity group disrupting hotel traffic and media outside the hotel. Not only were Pete and Cory visibly queer, they also weren't white. Those of us who were part of the dinner disruption affinity group had to be able to get into the hotel by blending into the hotel guests and scenery enough to walk, unnoticed, through the front doors. Everything I had learned in ACT UP and Queer Nation spawned from the body positive and sex positive political rhetoric we held on to, led with, insisted upon. And yet in these moments, in service of our bigger picture, we forced ourselves into enacting everything counter to what we believed.
On the drive to the hotel, Michael had told me about a new guy he was dating, and how he was excited because they had easily talked about their serostatus differences on their first date, and neither of them had been worried or looked away. He asked me about my dating life. And I told him the easy answer, that I was casually dating a woman in Queer Nation. We were friends, not romantically serious, but enjoying each other. I said nothing about Cory. Everyone knew that we had become close friends and loved each other and fiercely defended each other at demonstrations and showdowns with the LAPD. But no one knew, at least not explicitly, that for months we had also been sleeping together. I was thinking about SB982. What did it mean to intentionally transmit the virus? My tests had continued to come back seronegative. But what if they didn't? I was less concerned about what that might mean for my health than what it might mean for Cory's safety. I was 17, still legally a minor, and he was a loud, radical fag in his mid-20s. I was less concerned about sex, which had always been safe, than the night I ended up covered in his blood from the open wounds and cuts of a beating by the LAPD.
I didn't know how to answer Michael. I didn't tell him. What would I tell him? What do we keep under cover? What do we hide from each other? We got so good at it. So skilled.
"Sorry," I said, pulling myself back into our conversation about photo angles, noise echoes, and the size of the room. "What do you think about that alcove?" We talked it through as we looked over each other's shoulders, watching out for ordinary surveillance. Imagining how it would be amped up the night of the dinner. We wondered where other security and police, on the night of the fundraiser, were likely to be stationed. Would we have time to get from the elevators to the lobby? Would we have time to get from the lobby into the ballroom to disrupt the dinner? Would there be cameras to aim for, or would it be a singular focus on disrupting Wilson and Davis?
The night of the demo is a blur. We arrive at the hotel in pairs. Hours earlier other members of our affinity group had checked into the hotel room. We do our best to look casual, and we're back in our Republican drag, with our ACT UP T-shirts tucked away in small suitcases and bags.
Outside the hotel, the Sex Police brigade is putting on a show for several hundred protestors. The Sex Police, including Pete, Cory, Miles, Jeff, Kate, and a handful of other Queer Nation and ACT UP members, have dressed in white face paint with bright lips and eyes. Some people are dressed as sex criminals and some as grotesque officers who mime attacking and dragging them away as they mime sex. Over and over. Several hundred police on foot and horseback are surveilling and surrounding the demonstration.
From inside we hear it, and we can feel the tension of it from up in our hotel room as we gauge the best time to go down to disrupt the benefit in the lobby. We're pacing, watching the news, the TV volume turned low, going over our plans and contingencies. Susan and I are the only minors in ACT UP, and this will be our last arrest together before we turn 18. We need to stay together, and we know we'll be separated from the rest of the group. Robin is assigned to keep track of us and make sure we're safe, and eventually, released.
Once we get the signal, we leave the hotel room and walk down the hall toward the elevator, hoping we don't run into dinner guests on the way down who will tip off security that we're coming. The elevator door opens. There's a middle aged white couple dressed up for the benefit, staring at us as the door opens. He's wearing a dark suit. She wears gleaming white pearls above the neckline of her black dress. We all hold our breath. No one says anything. No one moves. The door closes and the elevator continues on its path.
Then, we're nervous, moving faster. Another elevator door opens, this time, empty. We get into it and hope it doesn't stop on the way down to the lobby. It doesn't. Somehow the other elevator must have stopped, because we get there before the couple. We get far enough into the lobby to disrupt the event as we start chanting "AIDSphobia, Homophobia, Genocide" and "Ed Davis is a slime, HIV is not a crime."
Everything stops moving around us. People are staring. Media has paused their photography of the party and are snapping shots of us. We're knocked to the ground as police swoop in and start cuffing us. The wandering string players have walked over to where we are and the violinist is playing over us as the police continue cuffing us, wrenching our shoulders behind us in hard plastic ties. The friction of the heavy rubber gloves the police wear whenever dealing with ACT UP rub against our wrists and arms. They cops have covered their badge numbers and are wearing facemasks so we can't identify them, and because in their AIDSphobia, they fear breathing our same air.
With all the chaos of multiple affinity groups launching almost simultaneous actions, I couldn't see or hear how the other groups were doing, or tell whether anyone was hurt. It was just loud -- crowd chanting, police bullhorns, the occasional scream. I knew we had a legal team shadowing us, but the other affinity groups wouldn't know how our action had unfolded until we were all able to debrief late in the night, after, we hoped, we had all been released from jail.
Years later, when I ask Jeff what he remembers, he says:
As we're led outside to the police vans that will take us away, we see some of what has happened to the demonstration outside the hotel. We're exiting just as someone from ACT UP is screaming, being hogtied by the police and lifted up by his arms, which are tied to his feet. No part of his body is touching the ground.
Susan and I are separated from the rest of the arrestees and put on a separate bus. The night is cold, and adrenaline of the arrest is wearing off. We're shivering as we sit on the bus, wondering where they'll take us. When the bus starts moving, it's away from the rest of the demonstration, and we can see that we're being taken the opposite direction of the other arrestees. We can barely see out the windows. The bus lurches forward and we can make out that we're running red lights. Maybe we're driving in a circle? We look behind and out the window. It takes a minute to focus on the car following us. Robin is in the car. She's making sure that she doesn't lose track of us, that the police can't lose us in the system for the night. It's Friday night and it would be easy for the police to book us into juvenile detention and lose track of us for the weekend. The bus runs another light. Robin's car runs it behind us.
When we're finally released, and as the other members of ACT UP are being released, we join the party on the steps of the police station, where everyone is waiting for us. We're not yet done with Governor Wilson or Senator Davis or SB982, but for the rest of the night Pete's boom box is loud, and everyone is dancing together. No one is too badly hurt. Everyone will be released. We won't leave until everyone is out. Until then, we dance to stay warm.
Keiko Lane, M.F.T., is a psychotherapist and educator in Berkeley, California. She writes and teaches about the intersections of queer culture and kinship, oppression resistance, racial and gender justice, HIV criminalization, reproductive justice and liberation psychology.
This article was provided by TheBody.
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