ACT UP/Queer Nation's Cory Roberts swarmed by the LAPD during an AB 101 protest (photo by Karen Ocamb)
The Unimaginable Future
By Keiko Lane
“You need gloves,” was the first thing Cory said as I walked into his house. It was Los Angeles 1991, the first week of queer street rebellion in response to then-Governor Wilson’s veto of AB101, the bill that would have outlawed workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians. Cory had been arrested and badly injured by the LAPD. I was preparing to bandage his wounds.
“Let me see, first,” I said, taking of my jacket.
“Gloves. Don’t argue,” he said, tired and pissed off. As close friends and comrades in ACT UP and Queer Nation, we loved each other fiercely and argued constantly. I rummaged through my bag, which in those days always contained latex gloves—both a safe-sex prop and a precaution against blood contact when taking care of police-inflicted injuries. Cory peeled off his T-shirt and jeans. Even though I had seen him injured before, and seen other ACT UP and Queer Nation friends injured in demonstrations, I still gasped at the damage to his thin body. He was covered in scrapes and bruises, his joints swollen where the police pulled his limbs in unnatural directions before they cuffed him too tightly, cutting off the circulation to his hands.
For hours I washed his wounds, some of the scrapes breaking through and bleeding, some of the bruises so deep and pushing against the boundaries of his skin that they bloomed like the KS lesions we had tended to on other friends. The gloves, slippery with antibiotic ointment, made holding onto his limbs too difficult. I took them off, without him noticing, gently stretching his arms trying to assess the damage to his joints, and whether any of the muscle micro-tears and spasms were protecting severed ligaments. I worked limb by limb, ice packs against the deeper bruises. Eventually he slept.
Twenty years ago. Twenty years—almost the lifespan of some of my graduate students. Here’s what happens almost every time I teach my Queer Bodies in Psychotherapy class to graduate counseling psychology students in San Francisco: There’s at least one person in the class—an elective –doesn’t know anyone who has died of AIDS. And most of my students are queer. I don’t know how to feel about this.
There is a small part of me that wants to feel hopeful, that wants to believe it’s because the dying has ceased, that the plague now really is a chronic manageable illness, that infection rates are slowed. But this is a fiction. We know that infection rates have not slowed, but that the demographics have shifted, first in primary risk slightly away from gay, white and affluent, toward communities of color where HIV infection is often co-occurring with other issues of marginal survival, and now rising again in multiple overlapping—and not-overlapping—communities.
In my class we talk about the psychological impact of infection and the various kinds of needs expressed by members of different communities who students might see while in their psychotherapy training internships.
Psychoanalytically, infection is symbolic. It is also literal, somatic. I tell stories, as do some of my students who lived through the queer and AIDS activisms of the 90s. Rebellion, as a tool of empowerment and a fight against the loss of agency, was sometimes successful. Rebellion as a defense against grieving was not. And so in class, we also talk about loss. Or I do.
Cory roberts (l) with other Queer Nationals (Wayne Karr, second from right) at a high school "teaching" youthabout homophia (Photo by Karen Ocamb)
The role of grief in the queer psyche is the most tender of class lectures for me, more so than talking about navigating the imbedded sexism that underlies much of heterosexism, while simultaneously claiming responsibility as a community member, professor and ally to my transgender students, clients and friends, for my cisgendered privilege as a queer femme. Lectures about grief and loss leave me shaking and my breath rattling much more than when I talk about racism and cultural accountability in queer communities—even when I’m the only person of color in the room.
On the first day of class, I show a film of Tim Miller’s wonderful performance monologue “My Queer Body.” I’ve known Tim’s piece since I saw it premiere at Santa Monica’s Highways Performance Space in 1992. I love his remembrance and embodiment of his young queer self. And my students love the connection they feel to his portrayal of the anxieties and desires of queer adolescence. Sometimes they weep as they laugh in recognition. Sometimes I weep with a different recognition.
Tim moves through the audience at Highways, where the show was filmed, engaging the audience, talking with them, making physical contact, and sitting on someone’s lap. In this performance, the lap he sits on belongs to Steven Corbin.
In my psychotherapy practice, my clients often bring in photos of family and friends, wanting me to see the faces and bodies that they talk about. For many of my heterosexual and younger queer clients, that means families of origin, friends, lovers past and present. For my older queer clients, it also means ghosts of the plague. We talk about them, invite them into the room with us. Sometimes clients read entire lists to me, calling out names the way I have over the past twenty years, refusing to let anyone go. Sometimes the lists sit on the couch next to them, not opened or read, a constant presence in the room.
Queer Nation protest (Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Somewhere in a box in my garage, I have a list. It’s a box I always know where to find but haven’t opened in a few years. The box also contains photographs, cards and letters from friends who have died. Over the years, some of the photographs have found their way out of the box and into my house. A black-and-white photo of Cory and me hangs in my dining room. The photo was taken in the middle of a playful afternoon photo shoot in Elysian Park. Cory hadn’t felt quite right for a few weeks—sleepless, fatigued, achy. I had spent nights sitting up with him. His T-cell count had dropped. So had the T-cell counts of a few of our other friends from ACT UP and Queer Nation. They began joking about pooling their resources, the good socialist activists they were trying to be, and sharing their T-cells. Loaning them out to whoever was in greatest need on any given day, the story went. During the photo shoot, we had laughed and played, darting around trees and through open fields.
“You’re feeling better,” I said, when we paused to catch our breath. I passed him a bottle of water.
He drank, then passed back the bottle. “I borrowed a few T-cells,” he said.
I bent to put down the bottle, took a deep breath and kept my head tilted and eyes closed so he wouldn’t see my tears. Cory moved behind me and wrapped his arms around me. He looked into the distance over my head, my hair blowing and catching in the stubble of his two day beard and shaved head. That’s the moment the photographer caught.
I don’t know how to explain this to my students. That our community is a space defined by absence. How do we bridge that experience? Sometimes I think that maybe it isn’t dissimilar to my experience as a young queer radical in the early years of AIDS, when my queer elders told me their stories of “remember when”—when it wasn’t safe to be out or visible anywhere, decades before queer street patrols were formed, when queers bash back was a public oxymoron and singular fantasy, and when Glee and The L Word were unimaginable. And yet enough of them survived to school me, to tell their stories.
Who tells the stories of our dead? Of course we do, but I don’t mean our stories of remembrance, which now are filtered through a future that was unimaginable twenty years ago and remained unattainable to our dead. Steven Corbin was working on a fourth novel when de died. What was it? What would his fifth have said? His sixth? What would James Carroll Pickett’s next play have been? What music are we missing from Michael Callen?
Recently I was asked to sit on a thesis committee about queer art and activism. I wrote a similar thesis fifteen years ago, writing about James Carroll Pickett’s last play, and Sarah Schulman’s novel People in Trouble, which fictionalizes ACT UP. Her novel was published in 1990. In the novel, one character defiantly says from his hospital bed “Not everyone dies. Michael Callen is still alive.” Michael Callen died in 1993. The last time I saw him was at Highways. I was with Steven, who died a few years later.
What is captured in Schulman’s novel, what was captured in our dailiness, was the urgency of justice as our only hope for survival. The idea that “it gets better” would have been infuriating in its passive construction. There wasn’t a guarantee of later. We needed to make it better now, or there wouldn’t be a later. That was the central force of ACT UP, and we were surprisingly successful in demanding drug trials, access to drug treatment, hospice programs and safe sex education. But now, for those of us who have stumbled into the unimaginable future? How does our fight still live and translate?
In class with my students, and with my old ACT UP and Queer Nation friends outside my classroom, we struggle to make sense of how the fight looks now. What about marriage? What about parenting? Some issues are clear—hospital visitation rights and freewill would have allowed dying friends to control their last days instead of the biological families of origin who came to control decisions at the end of lives they had abandoned who had fled from them.
For me, this too is where marriage fits in—transnational couples and queer couples with hostile biological families, fighting to take care of each other, to be recognized as family with primacy and claim, and self-determination.
Some of my younger queer students still look at me like I’m from another planet when I tell these stories. A few years ago, a student told me that he didn’t think it was possible to live through so much loss, that he wouldn’t want to if given a choice. I want to bridge this with my students, and don’t know any other way than to tell them. And so we sit together and watch Tim sit on Steven’s lap, and I tell them who Steven was. And I wonder out loud who he would have been now.
Those of us still here still fight for one another’s lives. But it looks different now. There have been cancers, serious illnesses, surgeries, and the deaths of parents and spouses. We help one another now in the ways we learned then. And, there is still AIDS. We aren’t post-AIDS. The success of the protease inhibitors bought more time for some and the illusion of more time for all of us. But we know that until there is a functional health care system with true access to medication and treatment—and agency about treatment choices for all—we are not post-anything.
Cory and Keiko (Photo by Sonia Slutsky)
That photo of Cory and me hangs in my dining room, and I walk past it every time I walk through my house. Sometimes it leaves me doubled over with grief, with memory and longing. I wouldn’t have it any other way. To my students who say they don’t know if they could tolerate so much loss, I say I would do it all again. There was no other choice. And still. I want them back. I would do anything for that.