Sunday, November 21, 2010

Nora Ephron, ACT UP's 'Mother,'
Speaks in SF Tomorrow

The month of February 1987 was a particularly bleak time for gay men and people with AIDS. Effective treatments were not within reach, the infection and death rates were climbing, many politicians and clergy were using the epidemic to demonize gays and those infected, and the term AIDS activist rarely was heard.

At the time, I was a member of the Lavender Hill Mob, a small yet loud protest group. That February we went to a big AIDS meeting at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta about potential widespread testing for the disease.

Here is how the New York Times reported on the Mob's activism at the conference, and the split in the gay community:

The Lavender Hill group brought the conference to a slightly premature end by interrupting the concluding remarks with a noisy demonstration accusing Federal health officials of Nazism and genocide for debating use of the AIDS test while people are dying for lack of a cure or vaccine. [...]

Some members of the small group have been wearing gray uniform shirts stenciled with numbers and an inverted pink triangle, designed to look, they say, like the uniforms worn by homosexuals in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. [...]

A few weeks after that CDC meeting, writer Nora Ephron was scheduled to speak at the NYC gay community center, and I had plans to go hear her because I had been reading her work, and loving her essays, since I was a teenager in the 1970s. But she caught a cold and had to cancel, so my opportunity to listen to her in-person and meet her didn't happen.

The center contacted Larry Kramer to speak in Nora's stead in early March of 1987, and like so many others, I was ordered by Larry to be at his speech. Of course, what grew out of his talk was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

In his now-famous call-to-arms, Larry poured praise on us Mobsters for our actions in February:

Did you notice what go the most attention at the recent CDC conference in Atlanta? It was a bunch called the Lavender Hill Mob. They got more attention than anything else at that meeting. They protested. They yelled and screamed [...]

Larry used us and our protests, for that conference was not our only action or zap, as the example of what we needed more of and from more people, and that came to pass.

The ACT UP movement changed for the better a few federal agencies, eg the FDA, CDC and NIH, how clinical trials were conducted, the drug approval process, medical conferences, the language of HIV and medicine, the press and the culture, extended the lives of people with AIDS and prevented new infections, and in the process told the world fags were sick and tired of dropping like flies and so few were gave a damn about the dead and dying.

As if all those world- and life-changing accomplishments weren't enough, we also instilled righteous pride, anger, self-empowerment and activist responsibility, and a whole lotta love in too many gays and people with AIDS to count.

And in my view, our humble ACT UP beginning in the first floor meeting room at the NYC center, which in 1987 had no doors so truly everyone was able to participate and plan actions, was partly launched because Nora had a cold.

To my unique way of thinking, Larry is the father figure of ACT UP and Nora the symbolic mother. Because of her friendly, conversational writing, and (absentee) role in ACT UP's history, I feel I can call her by her first name, even thought I have never met her.

Tomorrow night at San Francisco Herbst Theatre, Nora will be speaking and promoting her new book, "I Remember Nothing," and I have a ticket for the conversation. A friend is coming with me, and I have a copy of her new book. She is scheduled to sign books after the chat, and I hope to finally meet her, get her autograph, give her a thank note with a Silence = Death sticker, the most famous motto and image from the heyday of ACT UP.

I hope to also get a few pictures of us together and share them here. It's on my bucket list to meet Nora and then to remove that item from the list tomorrow. So, a plea to Nora: please don't catch another cold and cancel again!


Ang said...

Nora!! How exciting, can't wait to see the pix.

jimeigo said...

Good to hear a shout out to the Lavender Hill Mob. Too little has been written about this important group, an important transition from the early days of Gay Liberation to the Queer Activism that would flourish in tactical imitation of ACT UP. When I joined ACT UP in October 1987, the Issues Committee of ACT UP, the committee that in a few months would give birth to the first full critique of the Federal AIDS drug effort, was mostly staffed by proud Mobsters: Marty Robinson, Herb Spiers, Henry Yaeger, Bill Bahlman. In the early days, they were ACT UP's think tank, but, unlike most intellectuals, not afraid to get down and dirty when circumstances on the ground demanded hardcore tactics. Thanks for the memories. --Jim Eigo