Edited by Veronica Vivi
Art by Holly Summerson http://hollysummerson.wixsite.com/arts
I was gifted Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012) for my 24th birthday. Schulman was 24 when her friends started dying. The year was 1981, and an unknown disease – ‘something to do with white blood cells’ (Schulman 59) – had begun ravaging communities of sexual outcasts in New York and San Francisco. Although we meet some of the virus’s victims, Gentrification is not a cataloguing of the dead, nor a mere homage to their wasted creative potential. Instead, the memoirs read as a lyrical, historical, and sociological thesis, albeit inspired by grief for the un-mourned, and a profound sense of injustice. Schulman argues that when tens of thousands of gay, lesbian, and bisexual New Yorkers died of Aids as a result of governmental and societal neglect, diverse neighbourhoods, and a genuinely counter-cultural art movement died with them.
We may lessen academia’s complicity in this process of erasure and replacement by responding to Schulman’s call to give the Aids epidemic and ACT UP – the movement that forced the U.S. government to stop neglecting the Plague – a place in American history, and, I would add, in humanities and social science education more generally. Schulman’s analysis is multi-layered, but, at its most banal and depressing level, revolves around the simultaneity of the Aids epidemic with the corporate subsidization of an influx of suburb-born white people into Manhattan following New York’s near-bankruptcy in 1975. When gay men died in flats that they rented for between $150 – 350 in mixed, impoverished neighbourhoods, their surviving lovers and friends of course had no claim over their leases. Recalling walking past a dumpster filled with the cartons of a lifetime collection of playbills, Schulman writes that she ‘knew another gay men had died of Aids, his belongings dumped in the gutter’ (Schulman 37). These flats were swiftly claimed by developers who ranked up their rents to $1,200, if not more.
One consequence of the epidemic was thus an ‘acceleration of the conversion process [that] helped turn the East Village from an interracial enclave of immigrants, artists, and long-time residents to a destination location for wealthy diners and a drinking spot for Midtown and Wall Street businessmen’ (Schulman 38). And with homogenous neighbourhoods came homogenous thinking. Where queer artists had sought to fight back against boundaries, their successors catered to a clientele to whom art was commodity rather than creativity.
Complexity gave way to conservatism in the realm of politics, too. There is a stunning interview transcript from 1998 in Gentrification’s fifth chapter, which traces how a minority of perspectives came to represent the gay community. The interviews are conversations Schulman had with Edmund White and Andrew Sullivan, both well-to- do white gay men but with widely diverging points of view. While White disavowed monogamy because ‘if gay life meant just reproducing straight life, I’d rather be a monk’ (Schulman 121), Sullivan considered Stonewall a ‘diversion from the capacity of gay integration.’ (Schulman 128). White was a community activist, whereas Sullivan deemed queer activism a product of left elitism. It is the latter’s voice that was elevated to represent the gay community when Sullivan prematurely proclaimed the end of the HIV/Aids crisis in a 1996 New York Times article. (For almost all of the 1980s, the publication, like Ronald Reagan, refused to mention HIV/Aids.)
And here we are today: The Observer tells us to celebrate ‘50 Years of Freedom’ (Kellaway 2017), and we wipe away a tear as Edinburgh’s Castle lights up in rainbow colours to mark marriage equality. But reading Schulman – especially in conjunction with Kath Weston’s ethnography Families We Choose (1991) or Judith Butler’s Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual? (2002) – reminds us of what is lost when we gentrify our politics. We surrender to the state the definition of what is normal, and we give it the power to legislate away our friendships, sexual contacts, and complexity in favour of monogamous marriage- like relations. Reading Gentrification alongside these more conventionally ethnographic or theoretical perspectives in my anthropology ‘Kinship’ class could help turn queer inclusion -currently in the form of a well-intentioned week on reproductive technologies and ‘gay kinship’ – into a transformative rather than tokenistic exercise. Students could easily dedicate 4,000 words to Schulman’s complex relation to gay male privilege, her disclaimers on gay racism, or her relative silence on trans issues.
Its building materials, the minutiae of intimate friendships, and observations from a New York stoop, Schulman’s thesis does not fit easily into the syllabi of ‘American History 1A’ or ‘Anthropology’s Culture & Power’ – which does, notably, already have an article on ACT UP in its recommended reading list. Schulman shares with her reader the difficulties in finding an academic publisher broad-minded enough to print a book that sits somewhere between the essay, a critic’s review, and a lefty pamphlet. Indeed, aside from invaluable social and artistic history, Schulman’s narration of the Plague and ACT UP reads as a manifesto for a politics of care and accountability that moves beyond the solipsism of twitter- based identity politics.
Let me end, however, on a personal note as to why every student should read Gentrification. I quote from a chapter titled Realizing That They’re Gone:
Last week I saw a young queen walking by. Coiffed hair, eye makeup, tight stretch pants, scarves. Maybe nineteen. This was the most endangered type of man in my generation, the kind most likely to die. For years whenever I saw a really nelly queen, I felt frightened for his safety. Being so tough and brave about how they looked on the street showed they were bold about their desires. At one point they seemed to have disappeared, to have been wiped out. But then new ones were created. Do they know their own history? Do they wonder why there are so few sixty-year- old versions of themselves passing by on the side-walk? What do they want to be when they grow up? (Schulman 63)
I wept when I first read this, and I am choking back tears now. Triggering as it may be, we deserve to be taught our history. Schulman allegedly once claimed that ‘straight people are the most pathetic of all – they don’t know anything about themselves.’ (Schulman pg). Let’s make sure us queers don’t meet a similar fate.
Butler, J. ‘Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?’. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 2002, pp. 14-44. Duke Journals, doi: 10.1215/10407391-13-1-14
Kellaway, K. ‘Glad to Be Gay: Leading Figures on 50 Years of Liberation’. The Guardian, 2017, www.theguardian.com. Accessed on 30 May 2017.
Schulman, S. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
Weston, K. Families We Choose. New York: Colombia UP, 1991.
About the author:
Corné recently finished his degree in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. Although his degree offered no courses on gender and sexuality, he has always found ways to make everything about LGBT+ people. He concluded his last exam with a manifesto on the merits of studying anal sex.