Velvet Reds and Velvet Rage
by an Anonymous Comrade
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
For Terri–if you had healthcare to fix your back right the first time and a safe injection site to go to, you’d still be here. Justice, justice I must pursue.
What happens to an outcast groped in public by a sneering pig? Do they hide in the closet and take off their makeup? Do they sag under the weight of the NYPD and resign themselves to suffering? What happens to a dream deferred?
Do they pick up a brick and aim for the head?
Stonewall was a bunch of poor queers throwing bricks at cops out of survival. People romanticize it as a valiant fight for freedom and tolerance with cutesy picket lines and slogans, but Stonewall at its core was a wordless, leaderless, spontaneous expression of rage.
Stonewall Inn was a mafia bar where the poorest, most vulnerable queers sought safety in numbers. Frequently, NYPD vice and Public Morals squads would raid gay bars, arresting patrons and booking them for cross-dressing and lewd behavior. In New York it was illegal to dance with your same-sex partner. It was illegal to wear more than three items of "opposite sex" clothing. Because they were queer, they were shown no mercy; they got batons to the head and public undressing. They had no money for legal games, no money to bribe police officers.
A butch lesbian being dragged in handcuffs screamed "DO SOMETHING". The homeless teen gays thrown out by their parents, and roaring drag queens done up in feathers and lipstick, and stunning trans women hanging on to survival, and resilient people of color who were all but guaranteed to die young and forgotten–
They picked up bricks and did something.
Some Marxists fumbled applying the immortal science to queers–gay men were diagnosed with extreme hatred of women. Lesbians were victims of the material conditions of patriarchy. Trans people and crossdressers didn't get much press. Abolishing the gender hierarchy was assumed to 'correct' these people. Many leftist groups of the time did not understand gay organizations that sought to normalize new ways of assembling relationships and gender expressions. But at Stonewall, they understood rage. Dave Van Ronk, a straight New Left participant, wandered over to hurl bricks at the cops because of his own experiences with the police. Leftists understood picking up bricks and terrifying ten armed police officers into barricading themselves in a little hole in the wall bar, Van Ronk and other arrestees in tow. Leftists understood uprooting a parking meter and using it as a battering ram in an attempt to free your arrested friends, then coming back the next day with hundreds of people for a roaring showdown with lines of riot police. The New York queers were out and about–and they were not hiding ever again.
Rage is a commonality between queers and lefties. Rage is nothing new to us. Rage is the only emotion you can feel when faced with a suffocating structure designed to inflict pain on you and your loved ones. Rage is a reflex in response to the crushing pain of this world dying, and the monsters roaming around in it picking the flesh from your bones. Watching Black teenagers beaten and shot for being “too scary” makes rage bubble up from deep inside, spinning your head and scrambling your thoughts. Watching peoples' lives being dashed on the rocks of capitalism curls your fists and clenches your teeth. Reading the stories of women dying of sepsis as doctors sit on their hands, worrying about the legality of abortion, forces a copper tang into your mouth. The dizziness of rage encourages open revolt, rage forces you to reach for the better world that is possible but so painfully far away. And most importantly, rage encourages you to abandon respectability in favor of your own survival. Unfortunately, the solution to all our problems does not involve whipping ourselves into a froth–rage is unsustainable.
To the credit of the early gay power movement, rage gave way into organizing durable structures of unleashing our collective power. The Gay Liberation Front started blazing hot, immediately linking their struggle to Black Power fighters and anti-war protestors. They fell apart in months, but GLF laid the foundations for other organizations to thrive. And one of them was the dazzling ACT UP–AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Queers have been known to be a dramatic bunch, and ACT UP made it an art! ACT UP was an intentionally anarchist collective of people who refused to allow their loved ones to die from HIV without a fight. With no leaders, they acted in consensus, planning effective actions in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and across the country.
When HIV/AIDS jumped from primates to people, it was a crisis in every sense of the word. HIV directly attacks your immune system, which means that your body is unable to defend itself from disease. HIV hides in your immune system, and it may take a decade to show symptoms. Transmitting HIV only takes a few months of it living in your immune system. The Reagan administration responded to these conditions with mass murder. They refused to fund treatment, they refused to do research, they refused to spend money on what they considered a god's punishment for filthy people. Drug users, queers, sex workers–they all were deemed expendable. There were no little bowls of cute rainbow condoms, no teachers putting condoms on bananas.
Only silence. Silence as hundreds of healthy young people coughed, bruised, shriveled, and died in the span of months. One day they were voguing and living wild and free, the next they were sick. Then there was only ashes. Families rejected the bodies of their loved ones, and disowned them as they died alone. Hundreds of funerals were held and attended by queers frightened that every cough or fever could be their last. People nursed each other, doing their best to care for their dying friends when straight society abandoned them.
As queer immune systems failed, people began to band together to act as a community immune system. ACT UP activists slammed pies into faces, invaded news rooms during prime time, and screamed as loud as they could. ACT UP brought pain directly to the people killing them. The FDA office in Maryland was ground to a halt by one thousand people screaming "Where's the FDA? 4200 people dead per day!" Piece by piece, they forced drug companies to lower medication prices and forced the FDA to allow fast-tracking of new HIV drugs. Writing a full log of ACT UP's effective actions would need hundreds of pages. Their work encompassed people locked up in jail who were explicitly denied HIV treatment, homeless people, drug users, women, communities of color, journalists, politicians, everything. Just like capitalism, the crushing hand of HIV was on every throat. But each of these groups experienced both capitalism and HIV differently. ACT UP couldn't afford to be selective and focus exclusively on the "good" victims, or reduce sufferers to a single class.
As a reward for their loving, life-saving work, ACT UP was scolded by the media and arrested in massive chunks. All of the effective actions were illegal. They were "uncivil" and "impolite." But they didn't have time to be polite, their friends were already coughing and bruising and shriveling and dying. They needed the FDA to approve HIV medicine quickly instead of just wasting time with slow independent trials. Silence was not an option, leading to their famous slogan "Silence = Death.” These words, paired with the pink triangle that signified the mass murder of queer people by Nazis, connected their deaths to human action. The willful inaction of the government was the cause of death, not disease.
Their loved ones dying was political. In 1992, leather daddies, lesbians, gay men and other assorted ACT UP characters performed a political funeral befitting the horrifying number of political deaths. Ashes and bone chips were scattered on the White House lawn–the Bush administration didn't pay attention to their funerals, so the act of communal grief was performed in front of them. They were met with lines of mounted police and riot battalions, but broke through the police line. With screams of rage and grief, people scattered ashes through the fence. The green lawn was snowy with the remains of eighteen vibrant and loving people who were deemed unworthy of being saved. Grief and rage came together to dramatise the cruelty of denying healthcare, of denying needle exchange sites. There is no plaque. There is no gravestone. The White House is their final resting place, their unmarked and unremembered burial site a reflection of violent ignorance. Hundreds walk by that section of lawn every day without knowing the human cost of the AIDS crisis, and the suffocating apathy that accelerated it. Today, HIV is no longer a death sentence. HIV positive people, with proper healthcare, can lead long healthy lives.
ACT UP still lives today and fights HIV and recently, opioid addiction. Opioids are pain relief drugs synthesized from poppies; the category includes legal drugs created to treat severe pain like oxycodone and illegal drugs like heroin, a derivative of morphine and opium. It is important to remember that opioids have their place in modern pharmaceutical treatment–many people with chronic pain and severe illnesses take opioids to live comfortable lives.
The opioid crisis is a direct result of human action–drug companies concealed how addictive their medications were and wooed doctors into over-prescribing to create demand so the drug manufacturers could make more money. The opioid crisis has murdered more people than the AIDS crisis at its worst. It's the same story, and ACT UP is still fighting. Drug users are deemed unworthy of life, so they fight. The searing pain of this capitalist society drives people to seek relief, and the monsters that roam it are more than happy to hide how addictive opiates are with their right hand while selling expensive overdose reversal drugs with the left. People sob and rage at funerals for people left to die. People surrounded by used needles are silently screaming for someone to DO SOMETHING. The sex workers trying to pay rent, the houseless trying to cope with appalling living situations, and the working poor led to addiction by work injuries and shredded by a cruel, uncaring justice system are trying to assemble themselves to fight back. Drug users’ unions and sex worker unions are sprouting up over the country–will they persist in their quest for dignity?
What happens to a dream passed out as people hurry past them? Does it die hiding under a thick pall of shame? Every opioid death is political. The same capitalist conditions that caused the AIDS crisis are accelerating the opioid crisis. When faced with the sheer numbers of missing family members and friends, the only thing we can do is shake with rage.
Why are so many queers anti-capitalist? Why are there demonstrations about racism at the predominately White gay bars? Why do queers blockade police floats in pride parades? Discovering my queerness was the earliest radicalizing experience I had. It cracked the facade of a perfect, gentle world created just for me. It proved a stubborn wrinkle in my experience of being a White woman in America. It connected me to the queers around the world, and set me on the road to discovering colonialism through their struggle and critique–there is a long history of European settlers imposing rigid sexual structures as a tool of control. Following the threads of gendered oppression led me to the ugly knots of racial and class oppression. I could not reconcile all these little details I kept tripping over without an anti-capitalist critique. I carved myself into my chosen gender–I no longer needed permission to destroy what hurt me. I never needed it in the first place.
We do not need permission to build a better world. We will not receive permission to build the better world that is necessary. There are no construction permits for base-building. You can throw them or stack them–but pick up a fucking brick.