Sarah Schulman: An American Witness
Part 1: Gentrification, Trauma, & Sex

Sarah Schulman is one of America’s most profound witnesses. As a writer, activist and caretaker she has seen HIV/AIDS from the beginning. She was an early member of ACT UP, the seminal social action AIDS activist collective; she was among the first reporters to grasp the importance of HIV; and her novel, People in Trouble, was a ground- breaking work, among the first to give voice to what it was to live in a world with HIV.

The witnessing has caused her profound loss, and provided her with an important and compelling perspective on America. In her fifteenth book, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (University of California Press) Schulman picks up where her influential collection of essays, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Regan / Bush Years, left off.

The Gentrification of the Mind weaves together insight on how HIV/AIDS, urban issues, queer ingenuity, and shrinking imaginations have come together to create the era in which we live. At the core of Schulman’s argument is the ongoing impact of HIV/AIDS.

In Part I of this two-part interview, Schulman shares how she came to understand the relationship between HIV/AIDS and gentrification, while illuminating the ongoing impact of HIV/AIDS as an unresolved trauma that affects us all.

12th Street: When did the relationship between AIDS and gentrification click that you wanted write about it? 

Sarah: In 1999, prior to starting this book I was on a panel at New School with Greg Bordowitz and Richard Elovich, and my talk was called “The Gentrification of the Mind.” And it was about – I didn’t know what I was talking about yet – it was about people acting differently, people not being as nice as they were three years ago, or four or five years before. So the title existed already. Then a few years later, I went and saw Penny Arcade and she said, “There is a gentrification of ideas.” She is someone I listen to, someone I have listened to for thirty years, so she reinforced for me that I was on to something.

12th Street: What do you mean by gentrification?

Sarah: Gentrification is a replacement process. So it is where diversity is replaced by homogeneity, and this, I believe, undermines urbanity and changes the way we think because we have much less access to a wide variety of points of view. We are diminished by it. So literally, the range of our mind’s reach is much more limited because of gentrification.

12th Street:  So our imagination suffers, our capacity to consider other things suffers…

Sarah: …and cities, of course, are the sources for new ideas for the world. Cities produce new political movements, revolutionary visions, and art movements. Gay liberation was not created in the suburbs. It comes out of the city. When you homogenize a city and you undermine its urbanity, you are limiting the kind of new ideas cities can produce, so the whole world loses.

12th Street: Instinctually, I agree. Then I think of two things; one, that great essay by John Preston entitled Good Bye Sally Gearhart (1982) about the power of clones within the gay world, how becoming clones of each other was a form of communication, identification. If you see a guy in a letter vest, you know…

Sarah: Right. But in 1982 those people had absolutely no rights, and their sex was illegal. So even though they were criticized for being clones, they were completely disenfranchised legally.

12th Street: So “clone” is not the same as “gentrification”.

Sarah: Gentrification is when a neighborhood is considered to be getting better because it becomes dangerous for those who live there.  The point of view shifts from the inhabitors to the invaders. It is a colonial paradigm.

12th Street: The second thing I think about in relation to your idea of gentrification is how the Internet was born in suburbs. Can good things come from gentrification? 

Sarah: Well the suburbs are themselves a different phenomenon now. After World War II, we had the GI Bill, and it gave working class people who had been in the military the opportunity to own homes for the first time at very low interest.  And at that moment when the GI Bill came in, suburban tract housing was being developed. Suburbs were being built for the first time.

These were racist places. Black people who had been veterans could not buy into the suburbs. A lot of ethnic whites left the cities for the first time, and moved into these housing developments.

These places were highly stratified, privatized housing. You lived as one privatized family, so you didn’t have the experience of living in an apartment building. It was very conservative sexually. Compulsory heterosexuality was enforced, and it was based on car and consumer culture. This left the city in a state of what was then known as “white flight.” Many whites had left the city, so there was a lot of extra housing here. Therefore, the culture was a lot more flexible and open.

When New York went broke in the 1970s, the argument was falsely made that the reason was because so many poor people were living here, the city didn’t have enough tax base. The argument was made to gentrify in the city, to expand the tax base so we could have public schools, and transportation and all that stuff. Of course, we now know this is false. We have more rich people in the city than we have ever had, and we are constantly cutting back everything in the public sphere. So that turned out to be a lie—a lie used to justify the moratorium on low-income housing and corporate welfare, and to help private developers to develop luxury housing.

This luxury housing happened first in abandoned buildings. People got evicted, and the new housing was aimed at the children of the GI Bill families –children who had been born in the suburbs, who had lived in racial segregation, compulsory heterosexuality, and consumer culture. It was people who had an emotional or sentimental attachment to the city because their parents were from the city, or perhaps they came here to go to the theater, visit their grandparents or something like that. They were attracted back, but they were very different from those who had come to live in New York City to be freer, who came here to come out, to have sex, to get rid of religion, to leave their family, to be artists, to make money, whatever. These people (children of the suburbs) did not come here to become New Yorkers. They came here to change New York because they were the first generation that had been born and bred in an artificial environment. They came here with the gated community mentality, willing to trade freedom for security. They viewed difference as a threat. And this was a different kind of person that who had ever come to this city.

Now we are seeing much more poverty in the suburbs. We are seeing food pantries and intense foreclosures. The role of suburbs is a different social role. And what the prodigy of that will be in the future I do not know.

12th Street: There is a moment in the book when you make the connection between gentrification and AIDS. You recall walking past a tenement, and there was a lifetime collection of Playbills and you immediately understood that a gay man had died or had been kicked out of his home. You knew AIDS had impacted his life –a physical body had been replaced by trash.

Sarah: Yeah. That is true. It was common, especially around here that people would die and all their stuff would be on the street. Very common.

12th Street: So is this the replacement idea?

Sarah:  Well let’s talk about that. So gentrification really starts in the mid 1970s, and then totally coincidentally, AIDS begins in New York. 80,000 people have died of AIDS in New York City since the beginning of the crisis. So you have very high death rates in certain focused neighborhood: Harlem, Lower West Side, East Village, West Village, and Chelsea. And you had laws at the time where if a leaseholder died of AIDS, they could not give their lease to their partner.

12th Street: Because of AIDS?

Sarah: No, because we had no partner rights.

So every time a leaseholder died, there was an eviction. So you had an unnaturally high number of apartments people had come into at a low rent, now going to market rate all at the same time in key neighborhoods. Today those neighborhoods are the most gentrified in New York. Similarly if you look at the whole United States, the most gentrified cities in the United States are New York and San Francisco – cities with the highest AIDS-related death rates.

12th Street: Have you heard of Richard Florida and his gay index, the idea that a city will be successful if it has a large gay community?

Sarah: If only that was still true. Gay people are so fucking boring right now.

12th Street: Ha! Agreed.

Sarah: Once that was true.

12th Street: Do you think straight people are more interesting than gay people right now?

Sarah: Well, I do, as I describe in the book, I think there is a post-AIDS trauma that is in people’s unconsciousness, directing a lot of gay people towards very normative values.

12th Street: Unconscious in the people who lived through the trauma?

Sarah: No, the people who did not live through it. I equate it with post-Holocaust American Jewry assimilating in dominant Christian culture. I think if you go through a period in which you internalize that others don’t care about what happens to you, there is a certain sort of impulse to assimilate as self-protection – even if they are not aware of it. It is a trauma expression. So that is why I say we are living the gay 1950s right now. All of this emphasis on marriage, parenthood, privatized living, monogamy. These are structures we already know don’t work and that people can’t live in, but for some reason gay people are desperately reaching for them. And I believe soon it will become apparent that they are not viable. And there will be another sexual revolution. But now we are not there.

12th Street: Is this something you are seeing across the global LGBT landscape?

Sarah: There is a global divide. For want of a better term: the LGBT Homonationalists vs. Queer. In New York, we have the corporate Pride March with all the companies and government support, and then we have the queer events: the Trans March, the Dyke March, that don’t have permits and have no corporate underwriting. This split is around the world. So even in Tel Aviv, you have the Queerim, Hebrew for The Queers. They are anti-occupation, they oppose and have separate identity from the homonationalists who support the occupation. You also see it in Madrid, Toronto, and Berlin. Judith Butler had to turn down an award from the homonationalist side of the German gay movement because they were racist towards Muslims, and immigrants, constructing Muslims as the enemy of gay people – as if they were two separate categories, which is already absurd. The homonationalist impulse is to assimilate into the racial and religious supremacy that some gay people yearn to be able to access.

12th Street: Because of gentrification?

Sarah: Well, if you are a white gay man, and you live in England and have all the rights in the world, or you live in the Netherlands and you have every single right a straight person has, the only thing that makes you different is consciousness  – if you have it – but experientially you have no disadvantage.

So now that the right wing has also changed, in that secular right-wing movements are more open to gay people, rejection of homosexuality is almost exclusively within religious right-wing movements.  But the secular nationalists and racists, like The National Defense League in Britain, and the anti immigrant movements in Germany and Holland, are welcoming white gay people. And many white gay people are going along with it.

12th Street: What does homonationism mean?

Sarah: Well we have to ask Jasbir Pour, who coined the term. However, sometimes when you coin a term, you can’t control what meaning evolves. For me, it is when the separation between gay and straight within a certain race or religious identity ceases to exist. The stigma is removed. Therefore it gives that gay person the opportunity to access all the supremacy ideology straight people of their race and religion have access to.  The only thing separating the gay people is consciousness – not oppression. Jasbir might not agree with that, but that is what I am going on.

12th Street: I think you talk about this in your book, or maybe in one of the earlier essays, this idea of white gay men’s anger at not being able to fully conquer…

Sarah: I think what I wrote is, after thirty years of writing about gay male courage, I wanted to say something about gay male cowardice. And that it was rooted in this rage about not being able to dominate everyone else.

12th Street: I think it is important when it comes to HIV/AIDS. I was talking to a friend who is living with HIV and he said, in his world, no one cares about HIV anymore.

Sarah: Well, one of the things I am trying to do in the book is re-articulate AIDS because what he is saying is, there is this repetition of the slogan, this trope that is tired, that people don’t respond to, that isn’t relevant. And I agree with him. So I try to talk about AIDS in a slightly different way.

12th Street: Are you referring to the terms you put forward, AIDS of the PAST (AIDS crisis pre-meds), and Ongoing AIDS (globalization of the pandemic)?

Sarah: Well, that is the background. What I am trying to say is, you can’t have 80,000 people die in a country and it have no impact. It is impossible. So I try to talk about all the different kinds of impact. Everything from children of people who died of AIDS (in the book this is a three-sentence throw away, someone could write an entire book about it). In my view as a witness, people did not die of AIDS; they died of government neglect and indifference. So these are political deaths. Normally when children’s parents have been murdered or allowed to die because of political negligence, they develop an identity around that experience. But the children of people who died of AIDS are entirely silent and invisible in our culture as a constituency because, I believe, they falsely internalized the idea that their parents died because they used drugs or were gay. They died because of government indifference.

12th Street: Even people living with HIV are silent…

Sarah: It has become a private experience.

12th Street: Which again relates to gentrification.

Sarah: There are reasons for the crisis in prevention. In my view, as I expressed in my book, we have privatized prevention. We have said we are going to allow gay people to have fewer legal rights than straight people, and we are going to continue to have untrue or absent media representation. We are going to continue to allow familial homophobia to go unabated. And we are going to continue to stigmatize within the school system. However, given all of that we are going to tell those people living with all those pressures that prevention is their own personal responsibility. And that is untenable as a structure. But unfortunately we have a huge prevention bureaucracy that cannot politicize because it is entirely state funded.

12th Street: What if it is too late for prevention? What if the minute the crisis was the crisis, prevention became a moot point? Or to put it another way, how do we reduce the harm of HIV because now we are living with it?

Sarah: Well, I think we came to that a while ago. Darnell Moore, who works in Newark, has said that HIV prevention should be done in the home. Which I think is a very important idea. I know I learned about birth control from my parents, and I think most people do learn about birth control from their parents – most women do. What if parents sat down with their children and told them about HIV? Darnell has this idea for a Mother’s Day campaign: Mothers, Love your Gay Sons. If HIV prevention were part of the most intimate familial bond, perhaps that would be more successful than giving stigmatized, ostracized, punished people Metrocards so that they will show up at GMHC.

12th Street: Right. There is that essay by Eric Rofes, Desires as Defiance, in which he suggests prevention does not work because gay guys grow up in defiance of public health, so they will be opposed to any messages directed at them. 

Sarah: One of the things we learned through the crystal meth epidemic is that people didn’t just get fucked up and then had unsafe sex; they got fucked up so they could have unsafe sex.

Join us February 23 2012 at Barnes & Noble for the 12th Street web launch with authors, Sarah Schulman, Leigh Stein, and Patrick McGrath.

To learn more about the history of HIV/AIDS and Sarah’s work visit 

In part two of this interview Schulman discusses her upcoming film United in Anger with collaborator Jim Hubbard, the connection between AIDS activism and OCCUPY, and the narcissism & responsibilities of socially engaged writers.