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‘People in Trouble’: A Case Study of the AIDS Crisis in Historical Memory

In her manuscript for the novel People in Trouble, lesbian author and activist Sarah Schulman tells of a fictionalized AIDS activist organization called JUSTICE. By the time People in Trouble reached the shelves a couple years later, however, the real-life activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) of which Schulman became an active member, was a real-life force to be reckoned with in the real world. ACT UP was formed in New York City in 1987 after a series of meetings at the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street; “Reality was far more dramatic than fiction,” wrote Schulman. ACT UP held an action involving 7,000 people at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, disrupting mass. The activists distributed condoms and safer-sex information to teens and passers-by in the Church (other actions spearheaded by the group have been documented and preserved, by Schulman and other activists, at actuporalhistory.org)

Of People in Trouble, with its fictionalized view of the powerful AIDS activism and coalition-building of the 1990s, Schulman writes, “it was my job to record the specificity of the experience… of the eye of the hurricane that was life inside the AIDS crisis at that time.” Schulman’s literary visions of the AIDS movement came from her life experiences as a lesbian activist deeply entrenched in gay communities in New York, especially in the East Village.

Sarah Schulman was also a part of the East Village-based Lesbian Avengers, a direct action group dedicated to issues of lesbian survival and visibility. With headquarters located on East First Street, the organization’s ranks included activists Maxine Wolfe, Anne-Christine d’Adesky, Marie Honen, and Anne Maguire. They pushed political change by “redefin[ing] dykes as the coolest, most ferocious, girls on the block.” We have the Lesbian Avengers to thank for the New York City’s Dyke March, an annual public demonstration and celebration of lesbian identity.

Schulman’s book addressed the overlap between expensive real estate development in New York, homelessness, and AIDS. The book fictionalized a Trump-like character “coming to real power and sacrificing the homes, and therefore the lives, of the vulnerable simply for more profit.” The fictionalized villain Ronald Horne is modeled after Donald Trump, inspired by Schulman’s experience wandering into the Trump Tower’s lobby, which she described as “so ugly, so anti-New York,” while writing the book (Schulman’s interest in the intersection between the AIDS crisis and real estate would continue with her publication of the fabulous The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to A Lost Generation, in which she narrates the convergence of real estate conversion and the AIDS epidemic in her East Village neighborhood in the 1980s). People in Trouble’s villain, under the auspices of his company Horne Realty, buys up downtown apartment buildings with high numbers of gay occupants, “in anticipation of imminent vacancies hurried along by AIDS.” Running for Mayor, the vile Horne promises New Yorkers that the vacated apartments of the tragic deaths by AIDS would be “converted to luxury co-ops for intact nuclear families, which statistics show are the least likely to spread AIDS.”

Excerpt from Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind

On April 29, 1996, the AIDS crisis entered the mainstream cultural sphere in a major way with the production of playwright Jonathan Larson’s musical RENT. Taking place in the heart of the East Village during the mid-to-late 1980s, Larson’s musical described, as he said to a New York Times author, an East Village ruled by “poverty, homelesseness, spunky gay life, drag queens, and punk.”

Larson openly embraced the inspiration he drew for his work from Puccini’s opera La Bohème. But his work arguably bore an even closer resemblance to People in Trouble. Like Schulman’s novel, RENT centers around a love triangle involving a female performance artist who cheats on her heterosexual male partner with a lesbian (in People in Trouble, the third character was based on Schulman’s own experience). The performance artists in question in both stories target wealthy developers profiting off the tragedy of AIDS. Schulman told a Slate reporter, “The gay part of Rent is basically the plot of my novel, but with a slight shift. [Larson] has the same triangle between the married couple and the woman’s lover, but he made the straight man the protagonist, whereas in my version he was the secondary character. But there are scenes in Rent, and events in Rent, that come right out of my actual life, via the novel.”

RENT: The Musical

“At base,” continues Schulman, “it’s the issue of taking authentic material made by people who don’t have rights, twisting it so they are secondary in their own life story, and thereby bringing it center stage in a mainstream piece that does not advocate for them. That’s an insidious but very American process.” Schulman refers to other AIDS-themed play-film adaptations, as well as movies like Dallas Buyers Club and Philadelphia, as “stories that ultimately cast straight people as heroes of the crisis.” As writer Trish Bendix argues, “At its core, Rent‘s hero is inevitably the lead, Mark, who is traditionally portrayed as white and Jewish…Mark and his fellow straight roommate Roger command most of the musical’s focus. Roger, along with two other queer characters, has HIV. But Roger lives, while Angel, a drag queen character often read as gender nonconforming or trans, dies.”

Schulman has written a great deal about the implications of what she views as Larons’s theft of her story and the implications of RENT’s popularity, especially at the expense of other pieces of art narrated by those who lived the AIDS crisis more directly. Much more is available in Schulman’s 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.

There are many more resources available for firsthand accounts of the AIDS crisis which so devastated our neighborhoods. The ACT UP historical archive, ACT UP oral histories, and the ACT UP digital collections hosted by the NYPL are some good places to start. And forthcoming in 2021 from Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, is Schulman’s LET THE RECORD SHOW: A Political History of ACT UP, NY 1987-1993.

NYPL Digital Collections

“AIDS has been only one of a number of arenas of human experience that have occupied my creative and emotional life, but it has been consistent,” writes Schulman. “And that is itself meaningful, since most of the writers who began to convey the AIDS experience from the beginning in the early 1980s have died. So while I, of course, hope that each work stands on its own and creates a distinct aesthetic, historical, and emotional experience, the continuity itself also, hopefully, creates an experience for the reader.”

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