Creating a culture of liberation


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Author and filmmaker David France reflects on Stonewall, the AIDS epidemic, building walls and tearing them down


Photos



  • David France, center, in the 1983 Pride march. Photo: Nelson Sullivan




  • “How to Survive a Plague,” France’s 2012 documentary about the AIDS epidemic, won a Peabody Award and was nominated for an Oscar. Photo: © Ken Schles




David France was 10 years old in 1969, when the Stonewall Uprising changed the course of gay life in America. He didn’t hear about the historic event until 1979, when he was a student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. “I had just come out,” he recalled in an interview, “so I must have been 20. We started a queer student group on campus, there had not been one, and someone came back from New York and gave a talk about Stonewall and its significance. It was oral history, it wasn’t written. There were no queer history books then. There was no way to find out about this except from passing along stories from mouth to ear.”

Forty years later, France is doing as much as anyone is to make sure that queer history is preserved and readily accessible for future generations. His 2012 Oscar-nominated and Peabody-award winning documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” and his book of the same name, capture the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and the fury of the war that gay activists waged on the bigotry and complacency that made the epidemic that much worse. “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” his 2017 documentary, is about the transgender leader and Greenwich Village legend who played a central role in the gay liberation movement before and after Stonewall.

In the Wake of the Uprising

France moved to New York in June 1981, after graduating from college. “Immediately,” he said, “like the next day, to come and find a gay community.” He got involved with the Pride march committee and landed a job at the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, which was founded in 1967 by Craig Rodwell. “I got a job working for Craig at the bookstore, which every gay activist dreamed of doing because that was the nerve center for so much of the political activity that happened in the movement.”

As France sees it, there were two major developments in the years after Stonewall (aka the 1970s). One was the creation of the “structural foundation” for the modern movement — the building of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and the diversification of the political movement. “And the second thing,” he said, “was building a kind of culture of liberation, which isn’t the same thing as liberation, but it is a kind of a modeling of it ... What was happening was this experimentation with liberty. And that looked like parties, it looked like gatherings, it looked like dance clubs, it looked like a lot of sexual expression.”

For all that, France notes, the 70s were hardly the glory days of LGBTQ life that some people might imagine. “There certainly were no laws protecting LGBTQ people in New York,” he said. “It was more likely than not that you would get fired from your job if anybody found out you were gay. And there was the rise of a reactionary anti-gay violence, which took hold immediately after 1969.”

Imagining Freedom

France has spent years researching Marsha Johnson’s life and studying her impact on LGBTQ life. While she was one of the principals in building post-Stonewall political organizations, he said, “the role that she played, more than anything, was to imagine what freedom was like. Freedom from all constraint, freedom from prejudice and expectation. She found a kind of revolutionary joy in queer life, and exercised that in a very strategic and political way. ‘This is what it’s going to be like. We will not have to conform in any way whatsoever.’”

The Stonewall Uprising kicked off what France describes as the largest migration of LGBTQ people the world has ever known. “Huge numbers of people, everybody who had a queer consciousness of any sort, got up and soon as they could and moved.” They created queer ghettoes in New York, San Francisco and cities around the world, France explained, and joined the great, gay experiment that was taking place.

AIDS Arrives

“That’s why it was such a perfect environment for the arrival of a new retrovirus,” he said. “Very closed communities, all within certain geographical boundaries, all right on top of one another, all involved in the same exercise, which was radical sexual display. And boom.”

It was almost exactly 12 years between Stonewall in June 1969 and the first public reports of AIDS cases, in early July 1981. The disease changed everything. “It just became so urgent that there was no room anymore for infighting,” said France. “And it drew people with more strategic thinking about politics into the movement. It expanded the size of the community tremendously, because it rendered the closets transparent, so people were no longer coming out, they were just out and there was nothing they could do about it. There were a lot people joining the anti-AIDS movement who had real organizing talent. And that’s when we started getting traction.”

In France’s analysis, the crisis was driven by the more common disease of inhumanity. “The reason that AIDS went from a small cluster of infected individuals to a raging global pandemic was because nobody considered the people who were suffering from AIDS as having basic human rights,” he said. “So what the movement really did initially was to argue for and to establish the humanity of gay people. And it sounds so stark to say it like that, and almost unbelievable, but that’s exactly where we were.” Among the offenses he listed — hospitals were turning away sick people, doctors were saying in surveys that they would not touch an AIDS patient and the ant-gay violence of the 70s surged to new levels in the 80s.

A New Era, Born of Necessity

Ultimately, the AIDS epidemic forced post-Stonewall gay communities to abandon the strategy of isolation that had helped them thrive in the 70s. “[Those years were] about building these ghettoes that were facsimiles of freedom and acceptance, and making them very rich and culturally outré and very productive for arts and thinking and writing. But it was all really about creating a separate space… a parallel universe. We just started doing everything for ourselves.”

When AIDS hit, France said, they tried to do the same thing. They set up their own parallel pharmacists and buyers clubs, peer-review medical journals and drug-trial networks. “And it just became really obvious after a while that there was no way we could do this ourselves. And these walls around our ghetto that we had built so meticulously over the years, we had to start dismantling. And we had to go back to America and say ‘Look, we need those institutions that are supposed to be responding to these things to actually respond to these things.’”

Clues and Messages

With the 50th anniversary of Stonewall just days away, France shared one final memory from his college days, when, he said, “I felt like I was the only gay person alive.” One day in the winter of 1979 he noticed that all the parking meters had little stickers on them, on the bottom of the post. “And I got down on my knees to read the writing, and each one was handwritten. They were notices about the national gay march, which had already taken place. And I point this out because that’s the way secrets were passed back then. People left little messages, they dropped clues. That’s the way you found life, and that’s the way you found your community. You really had to keep your eyes open for little symbols that would suggest that larger things were happening.

“That was such a key moment for me, to try to picture somebody writing all those things and putting them there for me to find them. It kind of launched my journey to try to find the community and find the center of things, and that’s what brought me to New York.”





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