Thursday, September 8, 2022

Q&A with Ron Goldberg


Photo by Joey Stamp



Ron Goldberg is the author of the new book Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York. A writer and activist, his work has appeared in publications including OutWeek and POZ


Q: What inspired you to write Boy with the Bullhorn, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: I was aware, from almost the beginning of my involvement with ACT UP, that I was taking part in history. I also knew it was my responsibility as a participant and witness to try to write it down and pass it on, even though when I first began writing in 1994, it was mostly an attempt to make sense of just what the hell I’d been through over the past seven years.


As for the title: that was easy. I was, among other things, ACT UP’s unofficial “chant queen,” or “chant-euse” if we’re being fancy. Though I did many other things with the group—facilitated meetings, chaired committees, wrote fact sheets and fundraising letters, etc.—I was probably best known for writing and leading chants at many of our demonstrations.


There’s also a musical theater reference in there from the song “If He Walked Into My Life” from Mame: “Where’s that boy with the bugle.” I’m a nice, gay, Jewish, theater queen, so it’s a subtle wink that lets people know that there’s queer sensibility to this book.


Q: What impact do you think ACT UP New York had during the period you write about?


A: New York was the first, the largest, and the most well-known chapters of what became an international AIDS activist movement. ACT UP and its chapters successfully pressured the government to increase funding for AIDS research and support services.


We forced the CDC to expand the AIDS definition to include the infections that affect women and IV drug users, earning them access to treatments and AIDS-related services. We refocused drug research and streamlined the drug approval process and created AIDS housing, education, and harm reduction programs.


Along with these and other AIDS-specific victories, ACT UP provided a blueprint for successful patient advocacy and played an important role in changing the public’s perception of LGBTQ+ people from just a “sexual preference” to a powerful, caring, and politically important community.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: Most of my research came from my own boxes (and boxes) of files: original flyers, posters, fact sheets, and newspaper and magazine clippings, along with my personal writings and datebooks.


While I also had the opportunity to go through the files at the New York Public Library and the LGBT Center, as well as the personal files of some of our members, the most surprising information came from the ACT UP Oral History Project, which includes interviews with over 188 ACT UP members.


Not only did it help me fill in missing pieces, faces, and stories, it also helped me get to know many of my ACT UP comrades in a very different way. We didn’t really know much about each other—where we came from, what we did for a living, even, in some cases, what our HIV status was—and the oral histories allowed me to rediscover and fall in love again with the extraordinary people who were my comrades in the streets.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Along with various strategies for activism and an appreciation of how much has changed and how much has not since those days, I hope people take away that a small group of individuals can make change happen. That you don’t have to know all the answers ahead of time—or even know what all the questions are—to make a difference.


Despite the gloss of “expertise” now attributed to ACT UP, we were often making things up as we went along. I always tell people the most important thing they can do is to take that first step. Make the call. Attend the meeting. Go to the demonstration. Show up. The rest will follow.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on getting the history of AIDS and AIDS activism to the students and young activists who need to hear these stories, and into schools and colleges where it should be taught as part of mainstream 20th century American history.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Activism can be hard, but it can also be fun, sexy, and joyful. It’s also a great way to meet people. I met my husband in ACT UP 31 years ago. Our first date was a Labor Day weekend demonstration at President George H.W. Bush’s “ancestral home” in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Sept. 1, 1991.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment