Revisionist History

Jacket belonging to ACT UP activist David Wojnarowicz, reading "If I die of AIDS forget burial, just drop my body on the steps of the FDA."

Jacket belonging to ACT UP activist David Wojnarowicz.

In 1987, friends of my parents gave me a book of Oscar Wilde stories for my 10th birthday. No one ever told me what gay was, and it is only in retrospect that I recognize that they were a couple. By 1993, when I started volunteering for a youth AIDS hotline, one of them was dead and the other gravely ill. By 1994, when I started to come out to myself, I didn’t know any LGBTQ adults who weren’t involved in AIDS activism, and very few who weren’t sick themselves. I am only just starting to grapple with what it means to have come up and come out in a community that was itself coming out under the shadow of death.

I started activist work fueled by rage and anger. It burned away everything that was good, that generated life and dreams and possibility. It left me hollow inside. I didn’t have a concept of a healthy queer life. I subscribed fully to the “live fast, die young” model of civic engagement. I couldn’t imagine living past 30.

Now I’m 38, and I can imagine 38 more years of speaking truth to power. The older I get, the more I know that I need to be driven by love, by connection, by possibility. I’m still holding fast to my revolutionary ideals of liberty and justice for all. Most of the time I come to the work from a place of love and joy and inspiration. But reading Hillary Clinton’s comments on Nancy Reagan as an AIDS activist brought back the rage. Tonight, I want to BURN IT DOWN.

But today, Hillary Clinton praised Nancy Reagan for her quiet activism on AIDS, and I am DONE. I am ENRAGED. I can’t sit by and let her tell these egregious lies about the Reagan Administration, who arguably could have stopped the global pandemic we grapple with today, and instead chose to spit on their gay friends. Since Teen Vogue and The Guardian UK have written about this I don’t need to say more about the Reagans’ horrific legacy.

I haven’t spoken up much on this election cycle, for a lot of reasons. I’m pretty pragmatic at this point in my life, and I know there is no such thing as a perfect candidate. Many people, especially women, whom I love and respect are big Clinton fans. I can see the sexism in most of the arguments against Clinton. In a lot of ways Bernie Sanders speaks my language, but I’ve been around long enough to be cynical about the feasibility of a real class revolt. Everyone on the Republican slate scares the bejesus out of me. But today, I’m done being silent. Clinton’s hawkish positions on foreign policy, and her involvement in racist/classist “welfare reform” and mass incarceration of people of color makes me sick, not to mention the legacy of DOMA that we are starting to shake off. Yes, if she becomes the nominee we need to support her over any of the possible opponents, who want to roll back all of our rights save the right to bear arms. But we don’t have to accept that as the inevitable end game. SILENCE = DEATH. ACT UP. FIGHT AIDS. Live for more.

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  • Wayne W

    Thanks Jenn. I’ve been feeling much the same and I appreciate your articulate expression.

    • Jenn Steinfeld

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Wayne. I felt really awful yesterday but writing it down and sharing it has been amazing. Glad to be in community with you!

    • Jenn Steinfeld

      Thanks Wayne. So glad to be in community with you.

  • Evan Warren

    i have been flip flopping so much on hillary. i mean, she’s never been my candidate. there are constant moments where i get angry about her comments, i think about her voting record, and I think feel some pretty valid anger. but on the flip side, i question whether or not it’s right to paint her as an adversary when we have so many devils screaming out our better angels it gets really hard to understand the implications of what people are saying no matter how informed you are.

    I guess this is just a really long winded way to say this really put a lot in context. amazing read jenn, i can’t wait to see more.

    • Jenn Steinfeld

      Hi Evan:
      Thanks for writing. I hear you on the flip flopping – and I’m so tired of moral relativism and of pandering for the right to be rejected. I’m pretty wonky about politics and pretty used to going for the lesser of two evils, but the rhetoric around this year’s election feels heavy and disheartening. I’m so glad I wrote and shared, though, it’s certainly making me feel less alone and it seems to be resonating with others as well. I think I shall do more of it!
      Warmly,
      Jenn