Lesbian Feelings in a Global Context
When discussing the oral history interviews I conducted with AIDS activists, I always feel compelled to admit up front that I am not trained as an oral historian. I am a literary and cultural critic who was drawn to oral history because, when my research on trauma inevitably led me to the genre of testimony, I was so curious about its dynamics that I felt compelled to have the practical experience of doing interviews myself. In my book An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, I explore most of my topics (which include incest, butch-femme sexuality, migration, and archives) through cultural artifacts such as literature, film and video, performance, and memoir. For a chapter on AIDS activism, however, I conducted interviews with lesbians involved with ACT UP/NY (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the direct action group formed in 1987 that combined civil disobedience with new styles of cultural and media activism. Activism often remains ephemeral and under-documented, and since I was especially interested in the emotional dynamics of activism in order to explore how it constitutes a response to trauma, I found oral history a useful tool. It was also my hunch that oral history could be a way of extending the work of activism by creating a collective memory that persists even after a movement ends.
I feel humble not only about my status as a relative newcomer to oral history, but also in the face of the geopolitical context established by my co-panelists at the February 2001 session at Barnard College on "Memory, Trauma, History, Action" - Marianne Hirsch, Saidiya Hartman, and Nieves Ayress. What does it mean to think about lesbian participation in AIDS activism in New York alongside slavery, the Holocaust, political violence in Chile, and 9/11? Addressing this question has, in fact, been central to my book, which makes a case for why lesbian feelings and experiences might matter in a global and transnational context, without presuming to equate them with other instances of geopolitical trauma and without necessarily presuming them to be traumatic at all since, in many cases, including my investigation of activism, I was looking at the widespread effects of trauma on those in its vicinity, not at trauma survivors themselves. I have, however, had to grapple with the ways sexual trauma and queer trauma can be relegated to invisibility by distinctions between private and public trauma, often a gendered distinction, and by structures of homophobia. Yet as a national and transnational category, trauma actually provides a point of intersection between our everyday feelings and systems of violence, oppression, and exploitation, and the historical record also makes clear that public recognition of collective forms of trauma has always required cultural and political struggle.
For example, it was a considerable task to acknowledge that AIDS produced losses so widespread and so staggering in the U.S. that it should be understood as part of a lineage of national trauma that includes the founding violences of slavery and genocide, or the impact of the Vietnam War. As we move into a third decade of the pandemic, it is clear that AIDS is a problem of global proportions with multiple connections to other sites of trauma. The most vital forms of AIDS activism are now transnational, and the legacy of ACT UP continues in the work of transnational coalitions of AIDS activists at the International AIDS conference in Durban in 2000 and the United Nations Special Session on HIV/AIDS in 2001; indeed, South African AIDS activists, building on the foundation provided by anti- and post-apartheid political infrastructures, have been very prominent in this international arena. (For information about global AIDS activism, see the websites of Health GAP (Global Access Project) and South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign.) There are, then, inevitably going to be points of intersection between my geopolitical sites of experience and those of the other plenary session speakers, and I hope to suggest here how the lessons of sexual politics and AIDS activism, as documented through oral history, might be useful in other contexts.