Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Illuminations on San Francisco in Flux and Howard Zinn (Book Fair): On Labor and Time, Politics and Punk, AIDS Activism and Estrangement, Sex and Solidarity

Shawna, Alice, Michelle, and James. 
San Francisco is flooding  and other scenes from the Howard Zinn Book Fair. 

"What a fun stimulating afternoon being on a panel with Kate Jessica Raphael and Benjamin Heim Shepard on AIDS Activism in San Francisco in the 90s , sparked by Benjamin’s book. We had about twenty many of them very young people eager to talk about activism then and now, Eros, grief, Sex, demonstrations, feminism, public health, memory, bathhouses, harm reduction, marijuana, Act Up, respectability,Occupy, the WTO, San Francisco and New a York. All at the 6th Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair: Discovering Our Power!"

All weekend, we talked about cities in flux, ever-shifting.

How gentrification, or as James Tracy says, displacement is transforming urban space. 
Cities go through an ever moving cycle of people arriving, finding a place, building community, influencing culture, before inevitable patterns of displacement. 
It’s the story of cities.
Repeating ad infinitum.
The story of Capital.
This is not to say the process is without struggle.
It is.
My favorite chapter in  Capital describes the process,
bankers and developers taking control of land, 
displacing, transforming workers into a landless people.

Nearly three decades ago, I arrived in San Francisco in a period when people were still arriving, as they had for generations, as my father had as an aspiring Beat poet before all that.
Ex pats, writers, runaways, outsiders, anarchists, queers, draft dodgers, everyone who didn’t fit in elsewhere converging in this island of misfit toys. 
Recent years have marked a turn in the story line of the city,
With people forced out, priced out, not unlike the dynamic Marx describes.

“The city is  changing beyond our control,” notes San Francisco supervisor John Avalos.
“Our game needs to be stepped up.”

We don’t know what the history of this expropriation will look like.
Yet everyone is surely talking  about it.
Ron’s students are suffering it.
James is organizing around it.
Everyone is talking about it.
Is there still room for agency?
Many would suggest so.
Others are not quite so sure.   
Read Sam Stein’s Capital City, suggests Ron.
Exploring the question, people from around the world converge at the Howard Zinn Bookfair.   
Ron and I meet James, Charles and the other bookfair organizers at 4 PM for a pint at the Zeitgeist bar at 199 Valencia.
“Here’s to Howard Zinn” we toast.
Chatting with a few early arrivals for the bookfair.
John Law, a Brit who’d just arrived from London, who was going to talk about how advertising shits in  your brain.
James is drinking bullet whisky, talking  about the politics of punk panel he’s organized for the bookfair the next day.
“Is Penelope going to be there,” I inquire, referring to the singer for the Avengers, a San Francisco punk  band who wrote perhaps  the most beautiful punk song of all time.
“No she is probably at the library.  You should drop by.”
“I could never,” I laugh.
“Ben has had a crush on Penelope Houston for years now,” announces James.
Certainly, James would know it. 

The conversation is spinning in  countless directions.
James shows us the flyer for the bookfair, with countless great overlapping panels.
Charles with AK press and I start chatting.
He tells me he saw me speak with David Graeber years ago at Bluestockings Bookstore during a book talk on  the Constituent  Imagination.
Good thing I finally learned what that meant, I confess.

Ron and Ali are chatting about Radical Generosity, his new book.
Gradually the conversation  turns to debates  about politics and anarchism. 
Sometimes the idea of the beautiful non-violent anarchist revolution finds itself mimicking  larger social dynamics, including intellectual justification for violence.  
“Anarchism is not a hegemonic discourse” says Ali elaborating on his idea of radical  generosity; “it opens the possibility for the transformation of ethical and political practices
and a move toward cosmopolitanism.”
He pauses, smiles, and says. You would love Rudolf Rocker.
“Stanley always talks about him,” I reply.
Rocker explains:
“For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility of every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities and talents with which nature has endowed them, and turn them to social account.”
Ali pauses. Rocker  continues:
 “In Russia the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat has not led to Socialism, but to the domination of a new bureaucracy over the proletariat and the whole people.”

“Exactly,” I reply.
“Well, even Marx said I am not a Marxist,” Ali follows. “Engels said that at his funeral.”
James has another bullet.
We discuss a few of the panels for the next day.
The rules of the bookfair are simple.
There are no rules and no power points, unless you bring your own.
The organizers would rather not have factionalism,
No sectarianism.
PhD’s have to hang with no Ds.
Everyone shares ideas, without resorting to hierarchy or rank.
It’s designed  as a conversation,
building links between the old guard or left authors and the new ones.   

Cyclists are forging paths toward utopia, notes John  Law, talking about H G Wells.
Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
What can we learn from cities we wonder, to help the world sustain itself.
What could be defining engredients?
“Three day work weeks.
Non polluting transportation.
It’s a plan.
We’ve solved it over  beer on Valencia Street.

Gradually, everyone leaves.
There’s a book fair to  attend to.
Ron,  Ali, and I wander out into the Mission to get a burrito,
past my old  haunts, the Roxy, on  our way.
The size of a tennis ball can, my burrito so good, I want to cry.
I finish it in a second. 
The chat about work and  play,  labor and  possibilities continues and  continues. 
Until we arrive  home.
San Francisco pulling and lulling at me.

Amy Schlink is talking when Ron and I arrive for the panel More Power, Better Jobs, Less Work the next morning at 10:30 AM.
“We’ve gotta look out for each other,” she implores the audience, talking about plumbing and organizing.
One of only two female plumbers in SF, how could that be?
“We have collective strength, when we have to reply on each other, that’s the strength.”
Connecting issues, she hopes we can see more unions taking up environmental issues.
I am hoping for more conviviality, less fighting.
My old buddy Jamie McCallum is next on the panel.
We took classes with Stanley Aronowitz together years ago.
Jamie continues Stanley’s investigations of labor, exploring the themes of work and time.
Can we  ever have free time, he wonders.
For well over a hundred years, the labor movement in the US succeeded in producing free time for workers, suggests McCallum.
Labor declined precipitously, hours down, wages up.
In recent decades, the trend has reversed itself, with hours up, pay down.
How might the situation be changed, wonders McCallum.
Expanding vacation?
The history of capitalism is a struggle to control time.
Workers  need time for  something else.
Beyond means of necessity.
They/ we need  time to think,
To imagine.
To be social.
If you can’t contemplate the world, you’ll never change it.
All these ideas have roots in the movement for democratic socialism.
Greater control by workers allows people to control time,
To control their lives.
Our world.
Without reading a word Jamie, explores the idea  of labor as metaphysical space for us to imagine other forms of time, for lingering and  thinking, for poetry and possibilities, for lumbering and loafing with Whitman.  Well, he didn’t quite get to the ludic part. But it was implied. Play is the dialectical twin of labor.  We’ve talked about that for years now.
And all too often the labor movement forgets that.

Jane Mcalevey follows with a sobering assessment.
We’ve lost the courts for a generation, she declares beginning her talk about democracy.
Everyone who went to the Kavanau hearings knows that.
Trump appointed two judges to the supreme court.
He might get a third.
I’m not sure we’ll survive a 6-3 conservative majority.
I’m  intrigued with the question, how to win.
What strategy is needed.
These are topics in  which many of us tend to disagree.
What works in Chicago does not necessarily work in New York.
Echoing LA Kauffman’s point, she suggests the future of working power is female and feminist. 
It’s a point worth repeating over and over again.
We’re not winning right now, she explains.
Nothing is going to happen until we do strike, she suggests.
The supreme court is gone.  And they are just getting started.
Fight for space.
Fight the forces of the electoral college, the red states, and voter suppression.
Stacy Abrams won.  Its real. I’m not just saying it.
Repeal Prop 13 in California.
We’re not going to end austerity until we re tax the rich.
Unions are such a pain in the ass.
But they are essential for democracy.
Unions still have a lot of power to use.
We can still create advances through collective bargaining.
Stay tuned for a fight against collective bargaining. 
Why are places producing progressives, because these are spaces where there are strong unions.
It takes a lot but its doable.
The biggest strike in recent years was  the Mayday 2006 strike in LA organized by DJ’s and immigrants.

I  run into James Tracy, before he opens the next panel on the politics of punk.
He gives me a pin for his latest book,
No Fascist USA, written with Hilary Moore
You are sitting in a contested space, he begins, describing the battle over the City College of San Francisco, Mission Campus, where the conference is taking place.
I have a fantastic panel, he continues.  We want to questions and dialogue here.
A back and forth.
I learned more feminism from Spitboy than any book, he confesses introducing his panel.
If you want proof that punk is not dead, listen to War on Women.
Punk rock has always been a transmitter of radical politics.
Its always been a contested territory.
You can see it in a few of the scenes in Decline of  Western  Civilization, the 1981 documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene. There are both the glorious moments and the racist ones.  The scene drew outsiders, some of whom embraced white nationalism; others such as Alice Bag, of the Alice Bag band, a first generation of punk featured in the documentary took a different direction, embracing feminism and anti-racist politics.
Over the years, the tension between a liberatory DIY ethos and the Nazi punks only became more and more pronounced.
Michelle Gonzalez, of Spitboy, who I saw speak at last year’s Zinnfest, opens, bantering back and forth with Alice Bag.
Talking about seeing the Clash, she recalls Joe Strummer saying its not just about the great white way.  There were other words. It was as if Joe was speaking straight to her.
 “I was radicalized by punk in the early 1980’s,” she explains, seemingly continuing the conversation from last year’s HZBF.
Raised by single mom, bullied as a Chicana, most of her friends has single moms.
Then the president started trashing them, calling them “Welfare Queens.”
And she got pissed.
Gonzalez participated in Rock against Racism.
That was a seminal moment for her.
You can’t have feminism without questioning patriarchy, she explains.
When you think of punk  rock,  you think of white males, but the people she knew were of different subject positions. 
Over the years she’s tried to explore that space, to highlight it.
This spring she saw Bikini Kill and had a meltdown.
It made me so sad that Alice opened.
Gonzales wrote a story called  “A Love Song only a Feminist Could Write,” about the show:
“I’ve  had this reoccurring dream for several years.
Spitboy has decided to reform.
We have just a few days before our first reunion show and for some reason, or for many, we haven’t practiced.  I realized I  don’t remember how to play any of the songs.”
It’s the most human of sentiments.  
I had a dream I forgot all the words.
I forgot the test.
I  forgot the math.
I had a reunion and couldn’t remember anyone’s names.
We have all had that feeling.
That dream.
Its a story about being human and fragile.
Not what one expects from a panel on punk rock.
But punk is about being honest and human.
The  reality is  I can’t play these venues, Michelle confesses, passing the mic.

Shawna Potter, of War Against Women, continues the theme, pointing out that surviving is hard,
especially living on food stamps. Poverty sucks.
  Punk is a way of living, a way of fighting against the status quo.
Nothing is more normy than sexism and xenophobia.
“I love the idea that we can take care of each other.  Look out and create safe spaces, making it easier for  everyone to have leisure time.”
Listening I’m thinking about Jamie’s panel from earlier on.
Responding to the often aggressive male dominated feeling of punk spaces,
Potter wrote Making Spaces Safer.
It’s a sentiment a lot of us have had through the years. 
When the anarchist collective I was working with, ironically called Times  Up!, rolled out a safer spaces policy before a Valentines party a few years ago, one of the best organizers in the group was harassed by another  member, who she lived with.
At the time I was  drafting my book Rebel Friendships, about our anarchist inspired affinity groups.  And it all fell apart. Our failure to resolve the issue inspired me to start my newest project on Friendships and Fighting. The topic has expanded and expanded in my mind and in our discourse. Not a unique phenomena, countless groups have faced similar challenges, without clear resolutions. Whenever we try to create spaces without that misogyny, those pushe back and with a vengeance

Did you write this after the Dickie’s incident, asks someone.
Punk is always been about shocking the status quo, to be offensive.
It can also be a place where boys don’t play well with others.
I’ve certainly been that boy, slamming too hard in the mosh pit.
So we go into these spaces where guys play to make it a point, explains Shawn. 
There is nothing shocking about heterosexual misogyny.
In 2017 at the Warped Tour, the Dickies…
What followed was a long, misogynist tirade directed at her from the singer.
This person obviously hates women, Shawna thought at  the time.
“Blow me!” the audience screamed over and over again.
“It was explosive and ugly. It was rape culture,” recalls Shawna. “There is nothing more  normal than hate. Use the power you have for good.”  Reflecting on the incident, Shawna wrote an article about the incident.
“A rift formed.   Are  you with the Dickies or War on Women?”
All these battles take place within the context of a city in constant flux.
Sometimes they involve challenging fears.
“I was scared but I go anyway,” Viv Albertine writes in her memoir,  Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
I’m scared but I go anyway.” Scared to get beaten, scared  to  be humiliated, scared to go on stage. “That should be written on my gravestone. She was scared. But she went anyway.”
Can  you describe similar sentiments, I ask the panel.  

House parties were hard, Michelle replies.  Other gigs were more manageable.
Lots more drinking and belligerence at house than normal shows.
But sometimes we had to play them to get the money to keep the tour going.
She tells a story.
At one house party, a guy screams,
“Spread your legs or play!”
It was so ugly, we started to cry, stopping the show.
Afterward the organizers apologized.
And all the guys brought Spitboy T shirts.
Our community backed us.
It went from being ugly to beautiful.

Shawna tells a similar story, emphasizing  a point:
Interrupt the moment,
Interrupt the violence.
Create space.
Public space for the people.
I’m thinking of the Cannibal Girls shows, in which Maya screams,
“All female mosh pit!” and the ladies go at it without the boys’ rough elbows.
 I tell Michelle about this after the panel.
Cannibal Girls rule,” she writes in the copy of the her memoir,
that I’m  buying for the Cannibal Girls base player.
The panel ends with a hopeful homage music bringing people together.
Every kid likes every genre, says Shawna.
Welcome all of us in.
You need to show up, Michelle concludes.
Go to shows. Music is for social change.
Punk was my first social movement, before joining ACT UP.
It’s amazing to see where the discourse that was punk, that is punk still takes us.

My panel is later in the afternoon.
Jim and I go for a few coffees outside.
A flood is coming, a man tells us.
A great catastrophe.
He’s probably right,
As we prepare for our 4 PM panel:

On AIDS Activism and Estrangement, Sex and Solidarity

A conversation about Illuminations on Market Street, my new novel.
A reading and conversation between Benjamin Shepard and Jim Mitulski and Kate Raphael, discussing the sex and social justice of AIDS work in pre protease San Francisco, when death was in the air, and treatments were nowhere to be found. The conversation will address issues around social justice and sexuality, writing and religion, care-taking and Eros in a time of plague, HIV/AIDS in San Francisco during the hardest of the AIDS years. A perfect conversation for #WorldAIDSDay #loveisstronger. The novel traces the narrative of a young caregiver in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Cab is on the deep end of a losing streak. After having been dumped yet again, he moves to Haight-Ashbury fresh out of college. It is the middle of a recession, before the dot-com boom, and AIDS is an immediate and untreatable reality. A story about AIDS and sex, acting up and praying for the dead, living and fighting.

I begin with introductions of my co panelists.

Jim Mitulski is Interim Pastor at Island United Church in Foster City, CA Minister in United Church of Christ and Development Director at Oakland Peace Center.  Jim was the pastor of the LGBT church in the Castro from 1985-2000 during the bleakest AIDS years.
Today, he continues to find ways to be involved as a pro immigrant, feminist activist.

Kate Raphael is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, feminist and queer activist and radio journalist, who makes her living as a law firm word processor. She lived in Palestine for eighteen months as a member of the International Women’s Peace Service, and spent over a month in Israeli prison because of her activism. She has also done international solidarity work in Bahrain and Iraq. She received a Hedgebrook residency and was a Community Grand Marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Her novels, Murder Under the Bridge and Murder Under the Fig Tree, have won several independent press awards and been nominated for a Lambda literary award.

Kate is wearing a pink and black t shirt that reads,
“Queer liberation means a world without prisons.”

“Still, we kept at it. We would meet at Safeway early in the morning, the sun barely rising, and drive out to Sacramento for a political funeral. Standing at the state Capitol, everyone chanted: “ACT UP!!! FIGHT BACK!!! STOP AIDS!!! ACT UP!!! FIGHT BACK!!! STOP AIDS!!!” We hurled ashes of our dead friends and cried out “Shame! Shame!” while we stood on the steps of the State House. The energy I had always loved at punk shows—the authentic emotions, tears, anger, visceral and raw—were pumped up even higher by ACT UP. Those throwing ashes would be arrested, the police declared, apparently freaked out about ash in the air. Horses rushed us as we marched in; drums sounded, and tears poured as we threw the inanimate ashes, dust that had been body parts. “That was my boyfriend,” screamed one of the activists to a police officer on a horse, who proceeded to step on him. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” screamed the crowd, pushing back the cops. Half the group was arrested that day in this opera of sex and death and activism. After everyone got out of jail, we took our signs and headed home. The ride back may have been the best part of the whole day. Right outside of Sacramento, we stopped for gas. We bought sodas, chips, HoHos, and carried them back to the bus, high on sugar and activism. Two women sat in the seat in front of me sleeping in each others’ laps as the adrenaline waned. One woman played a ghetto blaster. Others talked excitedly. I sat chatting with the woman who’d had a skeleton painted on her face during the action. “So what brought you here?” I asked. “My roommate is sick with this. He couldn’t go. So I went for him,” she explained. “This shit scares me.” “Me too!” “I hear an accent,” she said. “Where you are from?” “Texas.” “Wow. Me too!” I asked what high school she had attended. “Kincaid, in Houston” she said. “Same conference as my school, Greenhill.” She looked at me and nodded in acknowledgement. 23 “We used to play you in football.” “Yes you did,” she sighed. Looking around the bus full of tired bodies, I remembered why we were there. “I hope your roommate is okay.” “I hope so too. I’m not sure he’s gonna be.” She paused. “What about you? What brought you here?” I told her about my godfather dying of AIDS the year before. For that ride we were united against a common cause. But the togetherness didn’t last. ACT UP San Francisco had split in half a couple of years before, with ACT UP Golden Gate forming their own group. That was the group I was with. After we returned, we went dancing, shaking our way through the city, and its culture of caring for the sick, praying for the dead, and partying all night. After our night out, we parted ways at the Safeway where we’d met eighteen hours earlier. Few of us would unite again for a long time, if ever. When I got home, I sat in my room and began to come down from the euphoria of the action, not knowing how much we had achieved beyond creating a spectacle of political theater, looking like crazy people screaming and throwing ashes of our dead friends. People were still sick and getting sicker and we hadn’t changed that. I looked around my bedroom walls, the moonlight shining in, sighed, took a drink of beer, and began to crash; the same hollowness that seemed to characterize so much of life was there waiting for me. “Here you are again old feeling,” I said to myself. “Here you are again.” The feeling seemed to encompass a sense of futility from decades prior when Dad was sick and there was nothing we could do about it. On one flight, they had had to pull the plane down in an emergency landing in Alaska. He’d spend weeks laid up in the hospital. Right around this time, his best friend from childhood in Thomasville, Georgia killed himself. That was back in 1975. And no one knew why. What happened? Was he gay as mom suspected, conflicted within his Catholic faith? Why not just move to San Francisco and forget out all that? Why was Dad such an alcoholic? He’d tried to run away from the south, only to be rejected by the Northeast, returning to that strange place he knew as home. And his heart exploded.”

Seems like Cab was (thus I presume you were) living a double life during the period of the book, Kate responds, that there was not much crossover between his friends from college and punk, etc., and his friends from 1194 Market. If that's an accurate reading - and it certainly fits with my own experience; the straight left mostly had nothing to do with ACT UP or other AIDS activism - how did that affect you? And do you think there would have been any way to bridge the worlds? Or was holding them separate something that you wanted, so you had a place to retreat from grief and loss (though it didn't seem like Cab was very successful in getting away)?

Cab certainly was.  ACT UP was inviting in ways the straight left was is often not.  It was not about a Marxist Hegelian schema or politics you had to understand to participate.  As long as you were willing to scream or fight back, you were in.  Few really cared. Some did.  That created a little estrangement.
But so did the sex, overlapping with stigma.
Pleasure was seen as suspect.    
ACT  UP, San Francisco helped me to realize, I didn’t need  the people who didn’t care, the normies who did not seem to understand why I cared.  This was coming for everyone if we didn’t get a grip on it.  I no longer needed them. There were enough of the queer activists, who did care, who did support a community I could be part of. Yet, there were parts of the activism that left me feeling outside of things.

Everyone coped in our own ways replies Jim, sometimes through sex and drugs, or protests and spirituality.  Seeing all that pain meant, he had to fight back.  He had to get involved, even if that meant getting arrested, lots and lots of emotions, always. He had to get involved. Lot of emotions then and  now.

Kate recalls an event.  The other night on the 20th anniversary of the WTO shutdown, someone said that no one remembers the international solidarity movements of the 1980s and 90s, but everyone remembers ACT UP, because it was people struggling for their own survival, and it was successful. My feeling is that none of that is true - I don't find that people who weren't involved remember it, even most younger queer people don't seem to know about it and older folks who weren't in it have forgotten it, and insofar as it has any more status among straight radical historians, I feel like it is because it had more tangible successes than other movements at that time, and because of its contribution to a certain arts activist style. I feel like I've had to fight very hard for our place in the timeline of Bay Area radicalism. What's your take on how and by whom the movement is remembered?

Movements and memories overlap, I reply.
But I despise lefty nostalgia.
1968 or ’99.
Still its important to remember and learn.
The cliché is history is written by the winners.
It’s a hard one to unpack.
Mattilda aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore once said movement history disappears as soon as it happens.
There are countless memories of movements and actions we put everything into that disappear as soon as they happen.
Those through lines are always changing.
People are rewriting their own histories every day.
So much of it has to do with the media.
If a tree falls in a forest did it really fall?
If a demo happens without a photograph did it really happen?
We all have our histories.
My first arrest during on October 19, 1998 Matthew Shepard political funeral is recognized with a small reference in the Laramie project.
Other than that, it is all but forgotten.
So are so many of these moments.
Buy Nothing Day 20 years ago, we organized a street party in Times Square. Dozens of arrestee,  hours of jail support, up all night, staying up talking, before getting arrestees out and on their way to Seattle.
In the years to follow, we organized zillions more  actions.
History intervened.
Bombs dropped.
We lost.
We  said we  are winning.
We lost.
We won.
We  lost.
People remember Seattle not the zillions of little actions that built up to it that we were all a part of that made it potent.
Even when we were losing,
We  said we  are winning.
Sometimes we were.
But were we?
Did we really stop the WTO?
Or just shut it down for a  weekend?
Even  as the Seattle story changed and was impacted by the cruelties of history, war, and backlash.
Even today in New York people are remembering the Stop the Church actions disrupting St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Still the whole spectacle, the story from ACT UP to the WTO changed storylines for our movements.
After we kick the shit out of this disease, I intend to be around to kick the shit of this system so that it will never happen again,”
Vito Russo declared in one of ACT UP’s peak moments, inviting a new generation to act.

Kate follows, noting there's a through line in your book about the relationship between failed romance and failed politics. I would love to discuss that some, and to know how you see that now.

I’m losing you, we’ re losing connection.
That’s a sentiment that takes place over and over  again.
Sometimes, its just something we couldn’t get right,
I reply.
No matter what. 
Bill Clinton tried healthcare and it go nowhere.    
There always too many errors.

Hearing me mention Clinton, Jamie gestures to throw a tomato.
 I try to duck.

Jim  suggests San Francisco is like a character itself in the book, pointing to passage early  in Illuminations on Market Street.

“The rows of pastel Victorian homes shone a mosaic of wondrous, outlandish potential and the elusive frivolity that came with it. Arriving late at night on a road trip from Southern California, as I had, it was like taking in Fauvist painting, with a California twist. The city was a perfect postcard we could send off, asking ourselves, “Can you believe we’re here?” There was a giddiness to it. Everywhere, people were escaping something and getting away with it. When I thought of San Francisco, a cosmopolitan greeting card with a chubby Buddha with his legs crossed in Chinatown came to mind. San Francisco was always a place where the colors from all those childhood memories came alive. Utopian dreams still existed here. Even decades after the heyday of the Flower Power of the Haight-Ashbury, you still felt the optimism of a decades-old experiment in living here, the myths of connection and transcendence still drifting through the air. San Francisco was like an irreverent perch at the top of the world overlooking the sea defiantly flipping off the rest of America and I loved it for that. In San Francisco, I found we could be separate and connected from the rest.”

I recall seeing men hopping through the streets naked.
That wasn’t something we saw in  Dallas.
A half million in leather.
Thousands marching just down this street for mummia.
Direct  Action to Stop the War with mass arrests, in 2003 shutting down the city.

How do you see this city as a character, as a stage set, Jim asks.
I refer  to another passage:
“The neighborhood’s streets are a hotbed for the shifting meanings of a purchase, demand, and commerce of sex,” she said, lighting another cigarette. She took a puff of this one, and gestured to the streets, looking around. “I’m gonna keep on walking,” I said. “Good look with your work.” She nodded. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” “You too.”

She was right. Sex pulsed through these streets with their ever-present clashes between possibility and desolation, high-octane desire and bleak disappointment, pleasure and violence, closeness and isolation, and health and illness. These sensations ebbed from the sidewalks, cars, phone cables, and cultural mores of San Francisco’s neighborhoods…”

I’m curious about how AIDS seems to have diminished in public health discourse, Jim follows.

I refer to the latest data from the Ending the Epidemic campaign in New  York.
In which Tim Murphy writes:

I am curious about how you relate to queerness, asks Jim. If that has changed since the '90s and if you think current attitudes about gender make that question less important.

AIDS changed all  that, I reply. The entire book is about how AIDS queered us all.  The sex  panics in high school over a broken condom and STD, fear of  disease, contagion, body fluids, fear of desire, and lost innocence. Douglas Crimp suggests that the stigma left all of us impacted.  Fearing intimacy at a time when sex is stigmatized fearing intimacy could be lethal. No one gets out the same. Herosexuality is just a bore. Not the sex. The idea of straightness.  Leo Bersani makes the point, there’s a little homo in all of us.  San Francisco offered a larger space to engage those feelings.  Even if I was straight in the sheets and queer in the sheets, poetry allowed more room for the contradictions.  The bountiful contradictions.

Here’s a personal question which you can leave out, ask Jim.  But which I was thinking as I continue to read. To what extent if any his the trauma of AIDS affected your affectional or sexual orientation in the course of your life.

Its something that we spend our lives unpacking.
Today I am teaching a class on trauma informed practice
While cab remains negative, the shadow of AIDS impinges on all romances, I reply.
Negotiating sexuality with partners
The epidemic created a culture of shame.
That stigmatized relationships.
Caused people to implode no one knew what to do.
What was safe.
There was always paranoia and panic.
Maybe this unsafe risky behavior could cause this…
The guidelines for safe sex always changing.
Bleeding gum.  It was a world where HIV created a culture of shame and fear around sexuality.
Even if people were negative, they were frightened of intimacy.

Eros is powerful as to be cruel says pat Califia.
So we fight  this shame.
This hypocrisy in the culture.
Bill Clinton impeached for public sex.
Why can’t we be OK with it?
Why the war on sex?
What about the backlash around queerness, from sexual liberation  to AIDS panic to sex is death to marriage equality and military service…I ask the panel.

The back and forth between Jim, Kate and the audience expands and expands. Many have had little experience of ACT UP. But they know sexual politics.  A few elders recall the sex wars.

Everyone was impacted by it.
In the novel, Cab briefly finds a girlfriend.
They watch old Woody Allen movies, including Annie Hall:

“That’s the perfect lament,” I told Julie, thinking about that scene that seemed to be about all of us, somehow aware that this time with her would follow a similar tragicomic pattern, like they all did, starting with infatuation and connection, giving way to giving way to estrangement. But why? That was the question I still could not figure out. And I’d be telling my own stories about Julie. Separations were part of the connections in this tapestry of friends and devotions, causes and movements somehow making the yin and yang of coming and going seem fluid. But for right now, the coming together felt sublime. Moved by all the sensations, a story was taking shape in my head as we sat there. This would be the story of my San Francisco, in between the losses, hookups, and moments on the couch with Julie, trying to find a piece of some sort of amore in a geography long influenced by a liberationist ethos, contending with a conservative backlash, the wreckage of sexual revolution and disease consuming everyone in its path, as we were coming in the midst of it all. Everyone was impacted by the backlash and queerness of it all, the stigmas of sex, disease and generativity.”

The theme of spirituality runs throughout the conversation.
As do questions about a sexual backlash.

Shared suffering held us together in a solidarity that proved stronger than death. If you were there, you'll never forget that time or place, says Jim.
What about those memories now?

Sarah Schulman and I talk all the time about the lost artists and thinkers, mentors and sex radicals, who built a queer public commons being erased, bulldozed and homogenized.  Eros and Thanatos dueling through the years.

David Toussaint  writes, about Losing All his Gay Role Models to AIDS—Be Grateful You Won’t Lose Yours, he advises. 

Jim and Kate engage in wonderful ways, taking questions, asking, chatting, sharing their years of movement experience and history.

Afterwards, Jim writes:
What a fun stimulating afternoon being on a panel with Kate Jessica Raphael and Benjamin Heim Shepard on AIDS Activism in San Francisco in the .90s , sparked by Benjamin’s book. We had about twenty many of them very young people eager to talk about activism then and now, Eros, grief, Sex, demonstrations, feminism, public health, memory, bathhouses, harm reduction, marijuana , Act Up, respectability, Occupy, the WTO, San Francisco and New a York. All at the 6th Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair: Discovering Our Power!"

Kate reminds us of Emma Goldman’s words: "Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled

Finishing the panel, I walk out into lovely San Francisco,
Ready to say goodbye to the novel and its memories.
There are other stories for my life between here in San Francisco, the South, and New York, the politics of punk, dovetailing between Howard Zinn and Penelope Houston.

It’s hard to disagree.

Walking past Mission Delores Park, I look at the city and the stars,
Recalling playing there my first weekend in town.
When we ate mushrooms and played flag football all afternoon on July 4th.
Its always been that kind of a city.
Blurring through time.
I drop by the Castro, grabbing a drink at Twin Peaks with Dion,
Whose  lived in two of the three cities Williams identified.
He’s been here for decades.
Arriving after a tour in Vietnam.
Those memories are everywhere now.
We chat for hours, going for Chinese before I catch a red eye on my trip back home.
For a weekend, San Francisco feels like home again.
Its raining the next morning in  New York.

Back in holy Brooklyn. 


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