Thursday, May 7, 2009

Surviving CHM

Tonight was the last time that I will go to an event at the Chicago History Museum. It was about the fourth time in the past year and a half Stephen and I had gone to the museum for an after museum hours event. The others we had attended while members last year. Each event was dull and unexciting in its own way, from Catholics in Chicago to a couple Out at CHM programs to a Black Sox lecture. Each was so dull that Chicago History Museum event set a new standard for our own inside jokes when something we are at is unbearably stuffy and self-important and sleep-inducing.

But tonight would be different! This one was all about "Surviving Reagan." It was about gays in the 1980s and how they dealt with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the "Reagan Revolution" and his ignoring the AIDS crisis and how all these conditions all together made activists out of people who would have never dreamt of it and how living through the Reagan years was and what it was like and how terrifying yet at the same time exciting it was! This program was going to be different! This would show the under-30 attendees ($10 for members, $12 for non-members) what real activism and civil disobedience was like and what it was for and we would hear from people (those who were still alive) who had been on the frontlines and who were still working and fighting in many other ways now.

An hour and a half later, after we got our bags from the bag/coat check, I picked up one of the flyers for the event, and Stephen looked at it and said, "Surviving Reagan -- looks interesting. We'll have to come back for that."

Such was the nature of the even...actually, it wasn't an evening, it was a barely 90-minute program, cut short because there was another event happening elsewhere in the city that the organizers of this event were concerned that some in this crowd might miss if this event went too long. In short, the program got off to a very promising start, with a brief video of Joan Jett Black, a Black drag queen who ran for president in the 1980s. From that point on, it sunk like a rock. Instead of telling us who paid to be there what it was like to live through a supposedly oppressive era and how people who were not marching in lock-step with the Republicans did so, what we got was three people on stage talking about the problems of being part of lefty organizations and how contentious things sometimes got and how some segments of the population were underrepresented and how white males ran everything (no one dared mention that the white males likely paid for everything around that time, as well), and how "when I was living in Berlin, I was a Marxist and my boyfriend was a Maoist and .." blah blah blah.

You know, one of Ronald Reagan's great sins was that it took him seven years -- after hundreds of thousands of Americans had died of AIDS -- before he dared mention the word publicly. Ironically, at a program about surviving Reagan in the 80s, I think Reagan was mentioned once by the panelists. The most interesting part of the evening came near the end, when the moderator, who was obviously taking cues to wrap things up from someone offstage, mentioned the time she has spent recently at the Reagan Library, reading previously classified documents and memos to and from Reagan's staffers.

It was incredible, as well, that Danny Sotomayor, who was as close to the epitome of the 1980s AIDS activist that he had in Chicago was mentioned only in passing, briefly, and that was only to make a point about some of the infighting and bickering that went on in groups like Act Up and Queer Nation. That, as well as the mere wave from the stage that a saint like Lori Cannon got, were sinful omissions and demonstrated just how useless the event was.

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