My Covid Chronicles
Circling back to the future through HIV/AIDS, queer politics, reproductive justice and global organizing......
CPQ has been on hiatus. I succumbed to covid-19, after two years of warding it off with vaccinations and two boosters, careful mask wearing and hideous lonely isolation. I tested postive just two weeks after the second booster, when I should have been at max immunity. But the newest subvariant in NYC is hyper contagious, so I got it. My symptoms started off mild—upper respiratory the first day, flu-like the second day. Then they got worse—chest pain, hacking cough, labored breathing. Because I have cardiomyopathy caused by chemo for breast cancer a decade ago, I got scared. But I was lucky to be living somewhere that has a ready supply of Paxlovid, the antiviral treatment that reduces hospitatlization among the high risk (like me) by 90%. I got the drug delivered to my door and within 24 hours I was much better. I’m still a little worried about persistent fatigue and possible heart symptoms—off to the cardiologist! But I don’t seem to have long covid, so far. So I’m lucky, lucky, lucky…… well, privileged really, to have good medical care. As the virus surges again and again as subvariants and possible new variants appear, don’t let down your guard! There are more reinfections now, and not everyone’s symptoms are mild. It’s not time to stop wearing a mask indoors, even if you’re double boosted or had covid already. To state what should be screamingly obvious: Public health is our collective responsibility. Universal, single payer medical care is the only real solution to what ails us. Individualism and for-profit medicine will kill us.
Old Sex Radicals Reunion
I finally tested negative in time to travel up to Ithaca, NY, for an exhibition, lecture and panel on the pioneering dyke sex magazine, On Our Backs—organized by Brenda Marston and others at the Human Sexuality Collection in the Cornell University Library. It was glorious, and bracing. I reunited with a bevy of friends and comrades I used to hang out with in the 1980s—the founders, photographers, photo editors, and thinkers behind the magazine. I saw and heard Gayle Rubin, Susie Bright, Nan Kinney, Debi Sundahl, Jill Posener, Morgan Grenwald, Jessica Tanzer, Phyllis Christopher, Karen Williams, and more. The exhibition, Radical Desire: Making On Our Backs Magazine, is up in the Cornell Library until September 30, 2022.
This event was happening, just as the right wing ideologues of the 1980s sex and culture wars are revving back up—with attacks on queer and trans people, anti-racist organizing and pedagogy, and reproductive freedom. All the thinking and organizing we did then has to be updated for this new configuration of political, economic, social and cultural power arrayed against workers, poor people and people of color, immigrants, and queer/trans folks—all in an environment of impending climate catastrophe and rising authoritarianism.
What seems clear, looping around the calendar from the 1980s to the present, is that organizing must grasp the global context for activism and understanding Too much of what many of us in the U.S. did in the 80s was so parochial, within a national or metropolitan frame—though there were plenty of transnational thinkers and organizers then, that we can build on now. We are facing global political and economic trends that are shaping national/regional/local cultural contexts.
The U.S. does have a history of broad-based multi-issue organizing for reproductive justice, from the Reproductive Rights National Network (founded in 1978 to expand feminist reproductive rights organizing beyond abortion—to include opposition to sterilization abuse, support for lesbian and gay adoption, advocacy for economic supports to make childbearing a real choice) to the many currently active reproductive justice groups like the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. This broad advocacy for reproductive justice embedded in calls for economic, racial and social transformation is now part of vital global uprisings.
One of the most incisive accounts of this phenomenon is outlined in Verónica Gago’s powerful book, The Feminist International: Appropriating and Overflowing the Strike (Verso, 2020). This book treats the recent International Women’s Strikes as a revolutionary process, an organizational horizon generated from below, that has revitalized a broad movement, inclusive of women, trans people and queers. The form of the strike invokes working class history, and allows for the revolutionizing of this tool itself, opening up new questions while interpellating other movements, other practices and other experiences.
But this brings us back to the start of this post—the covid pandemic, which has altered the ground for mass organizing. This massive problemmatic led me to return to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in my Queer Histories class this spring. My students read Sarah Schulman’s impressive and detailed record of ACT-UP New York, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 and watched documentaries about global organizing like the wonderful Pills, Profits, Protest. Of course, this is a very different kind of pandemic, and a different historical conjuncture—as one of my students noted in her presentation, “Sex Work—from Six Feet Away.” It was upsetting for these undergraduates to note that most collective, grass roots organizing around covid is happening on the right, and hard for them to imagine the ground for mass activism from the left under current conditions. But the current rise in union organizing is one inspiration…..and the challenge of the Supreme Court’s erasing Roe vs. Wade presents another kind of urgency. As Nan D. Hunter explains in the Nation,
Political grief can resemble personal grief, and what apparently is the close-to-final draft of the opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has produced that sense of a cataclysmic plunge. What has died, however, is not only or even primarily a principle of law. We did not win Roe and keep it alive for 50 years because one side wrote better briefs than the other. Nor is that why we lost it. Roe was the product of one powerful political movement, and its impending death will be the product of another.
And now the challenge for us all is to foment yet another, on a global scale. Luckily, Verónica Gago has some advice……
[T]he green tide has became an internationalist impulse mapping out struggles and legislation, bringing together a feminist agenda that goes well beyond a demand for an individual right. Understanding the relationship between unpaid and/or badly paid labour and expensive and unsafe abortions enabled a broader analysis of the forms of precarisation of our lives, modes of control in the name of the democracy of the labour market, and ecclesiastic tutelage over desire and autonomous decision-making. Furthermore, abortion has become the banner for rekindled regressive forces that articulated a true conservative counter-offensive. An internationalist perspective allows us to both map the global dimension of those reactionary forces and take inspiration and learn from struggles that have successfully linked the right to abortion to other feminist demands and attacks on collective autonomy.