content warning: queerphobia
Under the pavement at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan’s West Village, leading to the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital, a series of tunnels snake through the ground like a miniature F train. During the 1980s and ’90s, when St. Vincent’s was the epicenter of New York’s AIDS crisis, dead and dying bodies were transported in and out of the tunnels, a grim cycle recurring beneath the city.
St. Vincent’s closed in 2013, 18 years after the introduction of new medications slowed AIDS-related deaths in the United States. The hospital was replaced by a cluster of luxury condominiums, and the tunnels are filled in now, echoing the strange petrification of the AIDS years throughout the neighborhood. Documentaries and oral histories about the epidemic, and the decade or so preceding it, present the West Village as a true ‘gay neighborhood,’ where young queers flocked to seek sexual liberation. When the AIDS epidemic began in the early ’80s, decimating gay populations in New York and other urban centers, the West Village—home to the Stonewall Inn, a massive LGBTQ community center, and countless queer bars and bookstores—became a seedbed for a growing activist movement that sought to respond to the Reagan administration’s neglect of the crisis.
As AIDS-related illnesses claimed growing numbers of queer and trans people, as well as intravenous drug users, groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) staged a series of increasingly public campaigns and protests. In a 1988 action led by the artist collective and ACT UP offshoot Gran Fury, activists plastered the city with red handprints and posters declaring that “the government has blood on its hands.” The following year, activists traveled by the busload to the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters to demand faster and more inclusive testing for HIV treatment, swarming the building with homemade banners and staging guerilla theatre on live TV.
At a moment when ambitious, provocative direct action feels badly needed, it’s difficult not to romanticize the efforts of these AIDS activists. Because despite the death tolls that climbed exponentially through the ’80s and early ’90s, these actions worked: after the action at the FDA headquarters, members of ACT UP were invited to sit in on FDA meetings and to provide input for pharmaceutical companies. Activists testified before congressional committees, sharing their stories and those of the deceased. Protease inhibitors were rolled out in 1995, and AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. slowly plateaued.
Today, the West Village feels like a gentrified museum to ’80s-style queerness, with rainbow flags hanging from brunch restaurants and expensive gyms. Across the street from the former St. Vincent’s footprint, in a small, triangular park formed by the intersection of Seventh Avenue, 12th Street, and Greenwich Avenue, there rests a new memorial to victims of AIDS. Bright white, the NYC AIDS Memorial, which opened in February, glows in winter sunlight among surrounding traffic. It forms an open-air canopy: three inverted triangles, forged in slatted white steel, rise a story and a half into the air, supporting a fourth triangular roof. Each plane is made up of a series of smaller tetrahedrons, crisscrossing bars of steel whose stripes and vertices let slashes of light fall onto the benches and fountain below. Designed by the Brooklyn-based firm Studio ai, the memorial’s triangular shape echoes the slice of land in which it sits, conjuring a series of Vs: V for virus, V for Vincent, V for victim.
Anyone who was around during the height of the epidemic, or who’s seen documentaries about the era, could tell you where the triangles are lifted from. In 1987, a group of artists who would later become Gran Fury designed an image in response to Reagan’s ambivalence. Designed to be as publicly confrontational as possible, the image they created was soon adopted by ACT UP as a logo: the now-famous equation “SILENCE=DEATH,” printed in striking capital letters under a pink triangle. The triangle—like the former slurs with which people living in the shadow of AIDS were beginning to identify (“fag,” “dyke,” “queer”)—was a reclamation: in concentration camps during the Holocaust, known homosexuals were forced to wear inverted triangles on their sleeves.
Beneath the triangular steel canopy on its triangular slice of land, granite pavers form a series of concentric rings, spiraling outward from the fountain at the memorial’s center. Carved into the granite are passages from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The centerpiece of Leaves of Grass, singing in praise of a boundless continuity between living and dead, at first seems an appropriate commemorative text for a cultural crisis whose losses are still deeply felt:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
The carvings were conceived by the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, known for her public text-based installations. More subdued than many of her other works, the Whitman selections, in their circles on the ground, are nonetheless arresting. “It is astounding to see the words of the great bard of New York’s streets carved on the street itself,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in a December 2016 article about the memorial for the New Yorker. “You want to kiss the ground.”
But the choice of Walt Whitman as the memorial’s sole text is a complicated one. Born in 1819, Whitman wrote in an era preceding the formation of a "gay" identity, but his poems hint at an erotic desire for the male body. Another section of Leaves of Grass, “Calamus,” is a celebration of “manly attachment” whose biblically intoned, free-verse accounts of love between men come across now as overtly queer:
An athlete is enamored of me, and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me
eligible to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs.
Reincarnations of the Calamus poems and their utopic visions of cruising, of “the attraction of friend to friend,” surface throughout 20th-century poetry. As queerness became more permissible to explicitly articulate, many gay poets positioned themselves as part of a queer poetic genealogy for which Whitman, and “Calamus” in particular, serve as a triumphant homoerotic origin. From Langston Hughes’ short lyric “Old Walt” to Ginsberg’s elegy “A Supermarket in California,” Whitman’s name is recalled again and again, an address across the gulch of his death.
In the 1950s, the gay poet Jack Spicer attempted to sever the Whitmanian genealogy in which he felt trapped. In the prose poem “Some Notes on Walt Whitman for Allen Joyce,” he writes: “Forgive me Walt Whitman, you whose fine mouth has sucked the cock of the heart of the country for 50 years. You did not ever understand cruelty…. Calamus cannot exist in the presence of cruelty.” Spicer’s text, anticipating the critiques we might level against Whitman’s role in the NYC AIDS Memorial, denounces Whitman’s optimistic, masculinist, and nationalistic vision. For Spicer, these ideals could no longer account for a queer experience in pre-Stonewall America, which was marked by homophobic cruelty and state-sanctioned anti-gay violence. In the mid-1980s, Spicer’s pessimism would erupt on an unprecedented scale; by 1986, 25,000 people had died of AIDS-related illnesses, and Ronald Reagan had still never publicly uttered the epidemic’s name.
Why, then, has the icon of all of this loss become Walt Whitman—the bard of Calamus, champion of a “manly attachment” that reads by turns as sexist and imperialistic, and that preceded the AIDS epidemic by a good 90 years?
Perhaps a partial justification can be found somewhere in the lineage in which Spicer participated, even as he repudiated Whitman. As we witness in his continual resurfacing, Whitman’s poems concern themselves with cyclicality, interconnectedness, a human unity between epochs and across death. Leaves of Grass exhibits this in its shifting narrators and habitation of multiple and capacious selves (“I am large; I contain multitudes,” its most famous line asserts). Whitman positions himself as a vehicle for all who have died and have yet to live, channeling the past and longing to be remembered in the future:
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean…
With these lines inscribed under our boot-soles, I wonder how we might embody them at the AIDS Memorial. Despite his seeming irrelevance to the AIDS crisis, what might Whitman have to tell us about remembering and mourning AIDS not as a relic of a dead past, but as something ongoing?
The queer theorist Heather Love, in her 2007 book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, advocates for a theoretical project of “approaching the past as something living,” of encountering its losses and failures head-on and excavating within them lessons for the present and future. In resisting the urge to forget, Love writes, “it is the damaging aspects of the past that tend to stay with us, and the desire to forget may itself be a symptom of haunting...the dead can bury the dead all day long and still not be done.” Love’s text raises the question of how we might assume a similar stance in memorializing AIDS—and of how the AIDS Memorial might, indeed, impel us to feel backward.
Since the presidential election, many have invoked the similarities between the Reagan administration’s treatment of the AIDS epidemic and Trump’s widespread attacks on basic social services. A few weeks after the election, Slate published a profile of several former ACT UP members titled “How the AIDS Movement Has Given Birth to the Trump Resistance.” An editorial appearing in the Boston Globe last month suggests: “To counter Trump, act like ACT UP.” In a widely circulated article published on Medium, writer Pippi Kessler offers “plans for fighting Trump” using lessons learned from AIDS activism.
Despite its triangular gestures to ACT UP, the NYC AIDS Memorial seems to leave little room for this kind of learning, this kind of “feeling backward.” Aside from its location, the memorial offers no evidence of the activism that, since the beginnings of the AIDS crisis, helped combat the epidemic and effectively slowed its damage.
In a collection of essays about AIDS-era activist art in New York called Rebels Rebel, Loring McAlpin, a founding member of Gran Fury, writes: “If Gran Fury and ACT UP could lay claim to anything, it would be that we drove a wedge into the public discourse to open space for a response to AIDS that came from those who were unwilling to die silently.” The essay's title, “The Social Body Electric,” is also a nod to Whitman, whose poem “I Sing the Body Electric” anticipates the sense of collectivity embodied by something like a protest:
I sing the body electric,
the armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
they will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them…
McAlpin (a board member of an LGBTQ-focused philanthropic organization called the Calamus Foundation; the Whitman allusions run deep) pivots on Whitman’s famous phrase to highlight the importance of bodily presence in moments of action and mourning: “Recent events in Taksim Gezi Park and Tahrir Square remind us that the physical presence of citizens facing down the apparatus of state control does matter, and that the outcomes of those confrontations are never certain.”
It’s the foreclosure of this kind of confrontation, reflected in the apolitical privileging of Whitman over any other voice, that arguably constitutes the memorial’s largest failure: how are we to “face down the apparatus of state control” when legacies of such encounters have been scrubbed from our most prominent AIDS monument?
But perhaps the new memorial could still incorporate some of the dynamism and participation of the AIDS-era activism and artworks once witnessed, even if it hasn’t yet. The memorial’s open, inviting infrastructure could be mutable, subject to additions or interventions. In contrast to the sacred, polished quality of memorials like the one at the World Trade Center site two miles south, one might imagine the triangle-studded canopy becoming a scaffolding for further political actions. You could drape the memorial with a banner; you could, Jenny Holzer-style, project a message onto its surface in light. In the spirit of Gran Fury, you could engineer a public disruption of a sort that’s never been seen before, with the memorial as a center. Trump-era activism, of course, will not mandate the physical and ideological centralization that the AIDS crisis fomented, but, as Love argues, looking backward might still suggest our next moves forward. In her New Yorker piece about the memorial, Schwartz writes: “Memory is often passive, but it can be active, too, and there are promising early signs that the AIDS memorial will encourage the latter. Its tent-like shape, for one thing, complete with benches and fountain, seems primed for meetings of both the personal and political varieties.”
The strength of AIDS activists was their powerful negotiation of these two poles, the personal and the political. To publicly mourn the dead and to successfully organize on behalf of the living, simultaneously: this is the great achievement of ACT UP, and the enduring legacy that should be memorialized at the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital. For despite the finality implied by a memorial, the global AIDS crisis is not over. Today, the typical person living with HIV or AIDS no longer looks like the largely white, gay, male artists and activists who are featured in accounts of the ACT UP years. Indeed, to periodize AIDS as a “gay disease” that has come and gone—as I worry the memorial, along with some of the recent media produced recently about the crisis, might be doing—would be to willfully ignore enormous structural realities; today, AIDS continues to be an international public health issue, with an estimated 37 million people living with HIV/AIDS around the world.
What the new memorial offers, then, is less a site at which to memorialize AIDS as such than a possibility for remembering—and reinscribing—the actions, protests, and public art interventions that accompanied the epidemic at its worst. As Trump’s wide-reaching assaults on civil liberties continue to mirror the governmental violences of the AIDS era, the demand grows for a similar activist base, one broad enough to straddle militancy, creativity, and care.
Part of a memorial’s power to move is its power to render its viewer speechless, silent. But if we turn to the past and take seriously its directive that silence can quite literally equal death, then perhaps we should interrogate the kinds of silences we inhabit, even at a space for mourning. Perhaps at the AIDS memorial, we might take a cue from McAlpin, who recalls the power of a Gran Fury action in his essay for Rebels Rebel: “We were there to correct injustice, to scream for those who were absent or could no longer speak,” he writes. “There are peak moments in history where all layers of experience coincide.”
LISA BORST B’17.5 suggests reading Michael Moon’s 1989 essay “Memorial Rags” for a definitive take on Walt Whitman and AIDS-era mourning practices.