A Conversation with Sarah Schulman

By Ella Boureau

Sarah Schulman is a writer, activist and Distinguished Professor at CUNY.  Her books include : Empathy, People in Trouble, Rat Bohemia, The Child, The Ties that Bind : Familial Homophobia, and After Delores, among others. We sat down to talk with her on her home turf: The East Village, also the subject of her new book, Gentrification of the Mind : Witness to a Lost Imagination just published by UCPress. Of course, we did not stay on topic, and the discussion opened up to include OWS, Pinkwashing, Trauma, Sex Wars, Direct Action Tactics, Secret Lesbian Book Exchanges, etc. You know, the usual.

In the Flesh: So my very first impression of this book- I thought it was going to be a little bit depressing, I thought, okay, this is going to be, like just a confirmation of all the horrible things that I notice are going on in New York. But actually, you immediately say you think this is the end of gentrification, that you define it as a historical period. Why did you choose to open the book that way?

Sarah Schulman: Well I think I turned out to be right, because you know these books get written a year before they get published and who knew that Occupy Wall St. was gonna happen? Because I just thought, you know, gentrification requires a certain amount of financial flexibility, and it seemed that it was gonna be over for a really long time, so I just wanted to say, you know, that process, although it can’t be undone, may perhaps have ended.

ITF: What do you think about OWS, now that they have taken the turn to actually occupying foreclosed homes? Do you see that as something exciting?

SS: I love anyone who does something. I’ve always loved OWS but I’ve always wished they would do concrete things and now that they’re starting to take concrete action and make concrete demands, like student loans abolition,  I love them even more than I loved them before.

ITF: What do you think the tipping point for people is to act courageously vs just letting shit slide? Because you talk so much about AIDS and ACT UP, this is your paradigm of activism. Do you think it has to be a life and death situation to get a critical mass of people?

SS: Why don’t you answer that first? And then I’ll answer it!

ITF: Um well, I think it has to be– I think a person has to physically see and feel people being harmed in their community. I think it does have to do with—but if people aren’t seeing it or feeling it in their everyday life—I don’t know— I think hard if you don’t have any community of activism. I think you have to see someone or yourself around you being harmed.

SS: I don’t know the answer that’s why I’m asking you, I mean I think it has to do with the historical moment that you’re living in, because if it’s happening, it’s a lot easier to be part of it, right?

ITF: I was just thinking about that when I was reading your book because this is one of your central tensions action vs. inaction… you don’t have any other thoughts about that?

SS: I don’t know because in the ACTUP Oral History Project, one of the questions that Jim and I had like 10 yrs ago was “What do these people have in common?” Because here you have this really incredible group to study, these are some of the most effective activists that ever lived. They’ve completely turned around a major paradigm in this country. It’s interesting to look and see who they are. And it turns out they had nothing in common, you know, and so we kept looking and looking and at first I thought it was going to be that they grew up in some sort of community oriented family– absolutely not. They didn’t even have the same experiences with AIDS. There were people who joined ACTUP who didn’t even know anyone who had AIDS. And it took like 8 years and we finally realized that what they had in common was characterological. You had a certain type of person who couldn’t stand there in the middle of a historical cataclysm and do nothing, they were compelled for some reason that cannot be identified, it may even be biological, but I mean, you don’t need that many people to make change. You just need a small, dedicated, effective, focused group.

ITF: Yeah I think the keyword there is focused. *Laughs*

SS: Yeah, I’m all about focus. My fear about OWS is that they are gonna dissipate, and also police violence. Police violence is something that has destroyed so many movements. So those are my concerns, but if you are very, very focused and you have a do-able, winnable goal, and you have victories that are concrete, then you can go on and on.

ITF: Did you hear about OWS, or maybe an affiliation group, they did manage to protect an 82 yr old woman in Bed-Stuy who was going to be foreclosed on. The day that the City Marshall was supposed to come and they couldn’t get through because there were so many people blocking access to the house. And there was so much coverage that the bank actually agreed to re-negotiate her mortgage, and she no longer has to pay it.

SS: That’s great. That was a tactic that the Communist Parties used during The Depression.

ITF: Oh Really?

SS: Yeah, people would be evicted and they would put all their stuff on the street, and then the [Communists] would come and put all the stuff back in the apartment. So there’s a tradition. But yeah I love that, it’s exciting.

ITF: Can you talk a little bit about your first experience with ACTUP? What was your first action?

SS: My first action was in July 1987. It was a 96 hour silent picket in front of Sloane-Kettering hospital because they had money to enroll people in trials for experimental drugs, those drugs proved to be eventually useless, but we didn’t know that at the time. They weren’t enrolling anyone. So I went to that. But that was the thing, ACTUP would have a demand that would be so reasonable, who would be against enrolling people in an already existing drug trial? So it was very easy to accrue, it was very specific, it was this concrete thing, and then we could win it. So I went to that. 

ITF: There’s a lot [in your book] about what a mess the gay community is now after *laughter* after that huge devastation, and you talking about your generation not being able to talk about it or have some sort of public forum to grieve the absence. And I was wondering if you could talk about your experience of dealing or not dealing with that.

SS: I’m sort of so past that now… I mean I just went to this thing at the New School, it was a 6 hr seminar on AIDS literature. And all the people who invented it kind of, who are alive. And it was really interesting, because there were no young people there at all. I mean Ted Kerr was there. It was the devastated middle aged and older people trying to find a way to cope with what they experienced. They had no way of understanding it, and it had just not communicated as a subject of interest to younger people.

ITF: Really? I would think that you would want the through line.

SS: Well Jim [Hubbard] and I have this new movie coming out, United in Anger, and we’re hoping that that will do that. Because the thing is, if someone keeps saying to you “Oh, all my friends are dead, all my friends are dead, all my friends are dead” it doesn’t have any meaning. But in the film one of the things we did is we put people’s death dates as they’re speaking. Someone’s saying like “Oh I’m doing this” and then the death date comes up and you realize “Oh this person is gonna die in 4 months. This person spent the last months of their lives fighting this”. And we’re hoping that visually that will cumulatively convey to the audience of “Oh, all those people are dead”. So that when people say “Oh all my friends are dead”, they’ll actually know what that means. We’re hoping that that will help.

ITF: So what would you like to see from young queer people?

SS: I’m looking for leadership from younger people. I mean all this Israel stuff that I’m doing now, all this Pinkwashing stuff. I mean that kind of if you’re white and you have gay rights, and to a certain extent, I don’t agree that these legal rights are the be all and end all of everything because there’s a lot of other ways that these things are manifested, but is that really where we’re going or can we in a sense go back to a more freedom-loving more radical vision? Which is where we started. You know, and that’s not up to me, that’s up to people in their 20s. So I’m looking for leadership from them to say what kind of role they want and what they’re gonna do about it. I mean it’s really interesting watching the Hilary Clinton speech the other day because people went crazy for that speech you know like “We’re not gonna give money to countries that are homophobic.” And it’s like, this is just gonna end up being more pro-Israel, I mean I could see exactly, this is an anti-Muslim thing. It’s so transparent. And it’s like you know—

ITF: I mean it’s transparent once you undo that knot. I mean your article definitely—

SS: I’m trying.

ITF: I feel like everything I see that’s exciting and radical, I look and it’s like “Oh, wait Sarah Schulman is somehow connected to it” *laughs*.

SS: We’re like a tiny secret clique of people who are trying to get it out there but, it’s hard because historically, when I first came in to the community or whatever. So I’m like the 2nd or 3rd generation of openly gay activists, and I came into all these radical institutions that existed. I worked at this paper called Gay Community News, that was a mixed male and female Socialist newspaper from Boston that came out every week. So that’s where it all started, and then when all the Gay Republicans and Andrew Sullivan and all the bad people started to do their thing, they overwhelmed us because they got all the press and they got all the media and they controlled everything. But now it’s kind of getting back to that because their path is a dead end and it’s becoming apparent.

ITF: Okay, I wanted to talk to you about– you have a ripping criticism of the MFA creative writing program. And you’re the only person I know of who actually proposed a solution by starting the Satellite Academy. How did you decide to start that?

SS: I was giving a talk at Bluestockings. And there were all these young queer writers who were not involved in any programs, and they were like – and we’re talking about how lesbian novels can’t get published—and I was like “Well you guys don’t give up, you know, you gotta just keep working” and they were like “Well what are you gonna do Sarah?” so I was like “Okay,” *laughs* So I started [The Satellite Academy] and we’ve been meeting for 3 and a half years. It’s been really great. But I mean other people should be doing it, it’s not that much work. It’s like once a month, it’s like nothing.

ITF: And are you charging?

SS: I charge forty dollars. It’s pretty cheap.

ITF: Yeah wow *laughs*.

SS: It’s like once every 5 weeks I have 5 kids. I call them kids but whatever, and you know it’s great, it’s great it’s very easy and it all used to be like that because there used to be University of the Streets and Bread Forum where people didn’t have to go into debt.

ITF: In the third section of your book, The Gentrification of Our Literature, you mention an example of the anti-pornography wars, the Butler Code, which was a coalition of conservative politicians and feminists that restricted the production of pornographic material. A lesbian bookstore in Vancouver, Little Sisters, was unable to receive a good deal of their book stock forcing them to close, and you detail their lawsuit which you yourself testified for. They lost their case. This still seems relevant to me. The War on Sex seems to be back, I’m thinking of the aggressive campaign against Sex Workers that’s happening with NOW, Somaly Mam, the End Demand Campaign, etc. It’s just frustrating to feel like feminists, among whom I consider myself, are often the ones allying themselves with conservative causes, and actively trying to stifle the “disreputable” part of our community. It causes such turmoil. You know, do I shut my mouth because they are some of the only effective organizations who are fighting for things like abortion rights? Or do I speak against them because I know their actions are actively hurting people that I care about? I feel I spend so much time criticizing “The Left” and that feels bad, like a trap. I’m not sure how to repair this rift.

SS: Let me say that with all of the visibility around sexual abuse, incest, trafficking, I think what all of that discourse has changed is the experience of being a victim. It’s different now than it was before, because people know they’re not alone, there is still enormous stigma but not as much as there once was. What hasn’t changed is the rate and degree of victimization and the amount of perpetrators. Somehow it doesn’t seem to affect them. So now the incest recovery movement is a billion dollar industry, I mean how many copies of “Courage to Change” have sold, right? And how many therapy sessions? And it’s a huge, huge business, and it has benefited a lot of people. But it doesn’t mean that there’s less incest. So this is, so we’ve elevated and given voice to the victim experience but it hasn’t really affected the perpetrator. So that’s one thing that I’m not exactly clear why. The second thing is that there’s this backlash of false accusation that’s very prevalent. You know I have a friend that was just arrested by the FBI for looking at child pornography and he’s a filmmaker and there’s a big case around this situation now and in my mind, I mean I don’t love that he’s looking at these images, but I don’t know what he looked at. I don’t know if it’s two sixteen year old boys having sex or a child being abused by an adult, and to me those things are significantly different. Right? And I certainly don’t think that he should go to jail. So there’s this over-persecution, and then there’s tons of irresponsible language around this stuff, like stalking, like “you’re stalking me” or “you’re sexually harassing me” when it’s not happening. And it’s created a lot of—I mean when I was looking at the Herman Cain situation this woman— obviously he’s a pig and we hate him— but this woman is like “He came to my hotel room to pick me up, we went out to dinner, we had drinks, and in the cab home he came onto me” is that really sexual harassment?

ITF: I know! It’s this weird backward movement of protectionism with this thin veneer of feminist rhetoric.

SS: So what we’re seeing is that perpetrators go unpunished, there’s a witch-hunt element around all of this and the experience of being a victim has transformed slightly. So that is my assessment of where all that is at. In terms of sex-worker rhetoric, I mean I have just finished a porn movie myself[1] and so I’ve collaborated with a lot of porn actors it’s… I’m not sure it’s a beneficial experience for everyone—

ITF: No! I don’t think so either I just –

SS: So there has to be some sort of system or filter for whom it’s a positive experience are recognized in that way, and those for whom it’s profoundly exploitative and would be better in some other way of earning a living to have that option. And those distinctions aren’t being articulated well.

ITF: No, I know and that’s why you know with like Sex Worker Outreach Project I just don’t understand why NOW refuses to talk to them, I mean if they’re serious about reducing sexual violence, why they don’t go to the people who are actually sex workers on the ground who are trying to improve their situation?

SS: Yeah but you have to look at NOW historically, it’s a certain kind of organization. It’s kind of part of the democratic party. They have been like that for a long time.

ITF: So, I feel like your writing is like: The truth at all costs. *laughs* The way you write and the things that you’ve done in your life. And I just wanted to know what have been some of the high points of taking that line—

SS: Do you know that it doesn’t feel that way to me?

ITF: It doesn’t feel that way? Why not?

SS: Well, ever since I was a little girl, I just say the thing that seems obvious and then people around me go crazy. I never think, “Oh this is going to be so controversial,” Never! Because it’s just really naturally my point of view.

ITF: No, I know, but I think a lot of people might see what you’re talking about and not be able to weather the sort of turmoil they would cause were they to say something, you know what I mean?

SS: No, I understand, but the thing is now I have the advantage of looking at things over time, and a lot of this has turned out to be right. You know, like in 1998 I wrote a book that said that the gay movement was turning into a market, right? Now it’s obviously the fact. I tend to be a little bit ahead. I tend to be 3-10 years ahead and so sometimes you say something and people are like “Oh my God!” but then it plays out, it plays out that way. So I feel okay about that. I mean like this Israel thing, like I knew there was gonna be a response right? I’m not an idiot, but the thing that I didn’t judge was— Okay so I publish this [article] about Pinkwashing [in the New York Times] and I get a lot of reaction. I mean basically there were about 8-10 negative reactions that got recycled on hundreds of websites and then I got a lot of personal hate mail. Like “you Jew-hater you should move to Iran”. Ok, things like that. And I expected all of that. The thing that I did not expect at all was that not a single person who opposed me addressed what I said. 

ITF: Yeah. Well, I mean, what made you expect a good conversation? The fact that you had written a good article that you were confident about? *laughs* I mean there’s so much—

SS: I thought it was all interesting. I mean I thought people would say “Oh this is so interesting. Look she’s putting Israel’s situation in a global context of anti-Muslim hysteria that’s present in white gay communities around the world”. So I talk about England and Germany and the Netherlands, and the United States and Israel. So I’m not singling out Israel. So I thought people would say “Oh isn’t it interesting. She’s not making Israel a special case, she’s putting it in a global context”. Not one person said that. Or like I say, you know the Israeli Gay community has these hard-won meetings that were being manipulated by a leader of the community. I have the name and a quote from him saying the same thing. And then, nobody mentions that. I just didn’t think it was gonna go that way, I thought they were gonna like, engage. But I didn’t realize that they can’t because their argument would fall apart.

ITF: Did you get any positive feedback?

SS: Oh I got things from all over the world. Especially from queer Arabs all over the world. You know: “you’ve renewed my faith in humanity”, things like that. And you know a lot of Jews agree and they just needed the documentation. I mean Jewish Voice for Peace invited me to be on their Advisory Board after the article came out so it was helpful to a lot of people. But I just didn’t expect that. I didn’t realize how much trouble the Jews are in. I think that the Jewish people are really in trouble. We’re in a very, very bad place. I didn’t quite grasp that…

*Read the entire interview in the forthcoming issue of In the Flesh.

[1] Mommy is Coming directed by Cheryl Dunye