Parallel Lives: AIDS Activist Chad Goller-Sojourner’s Marching in Gucci

by Lola E Peters

Mass deportations, children separated from families, government denials, religion as a tool of hate and justification for murder. None of these things sounds new to Chad Goller-Sojourner. As a young, Black, gay man in Seattle during the 1980s and a member of the activist gay rights organization ACT-UP in New York City in the 1990s, he’s seen and heard it all before.

In Marching in Gucci: Memoirs of a Well-Dressed Black AIDS Activist, Goller-Sojourner wants his audience to remember that the AIDS epidemic was a national crisis that exposed the same fears, prejudices, and evil that we see in today’s society. He wants to bear witness to a generation of queer people who risked their lives to save others, and share the lessons and wisdom he gained with today’s activists.

Goller-Sojourner, probably a griot in another life, is a natural storyteller. He sees the irony and humor in the direst situations. I met with him at Café Avole in South Seattle’s Brighton neighborhood and asked him about his upcoming performance.

LP: Why are you doing this show now? Isn’t the AIDS crisis contained? Why is this part of your life story relevant now?

CGS: There are so many parallels between things happening now and what happened then. Back then, we weren’t talking about AIDS in the media. People were dying in silence. Remember there was a ban on Haitians and people from African countries coming into the US, much like the current administration’s ban on people from Muslim countries. Doctors refused to treat people with signs of AIDS. Families shunned them. Children were separated from their parents. Today, we have a new director of the CDC who believes people with AIDS are cursed.

In 1985, the LA Times published a nationwide poll. 51% believed it was okay to quarantine people with AIDS; 48% wanted them to carry ID cards; 14% felt it was okay to have them tattooed.

LEP: What should compel me to see this performance?

CGS: I’m 47 and was one of the younger people to survive during that era. If I don’t tell the stories, who will? We believe this is the first theatrical production about this era that’s written by a gay, Black man. I want to ensure the story is told. It’s historical.

People who were there want confirmation of their history. Then there are the people who just don’t know, who have heard about The AIDS Crisis, but have no idea about the oppression or the activist struggle it took to overcome it.

For example, most people don’t know that in the entire Vietnam War there were 58,000 US soldiers killed. In 1995 alone, 50,000 people died of AIDS in the US. It’s one of the largest plagues in our country in decades.

So many people see red ribbons and hear about AIDS, but they don’t really know. The artists who died during that era… people from the current generations will never know who they never got to meet. They have no idea the level of art that would be happening right now if those people had lived. Art shapes politics, so there are so many things that would be different if AIDS had not happened.

Also, it’s a personal story, of my personal journey. Many are touched by the concept of activists often fighting to save others’ lives while still struggling with their own. I have found this thread to be very common among people in the helping fields. I was struggling with an eating disorder, depression, suicide attempt, and identity issues. At the same time, we’re in a world that doesn’t care about Black people or queer people, why can you expect us to care about ourselves?

A lot about religiosity comes into my work and I talk about how religion both saved my life and took it. Some of the best people and most compassionate around AIDS were church folks, some of the least compassionate were church folks. Kids were being kicked out of their homes and moving to NYC to make it big, and some of them did make it big, only to then get sick. You had to de facto find your own family. It was just people wanting to live. Anytime people are telling stories about when damage was done to an inconvenient population, you might want to listen for self-preservation because they might not be coming for you this time, but what about next time?

A lot of non-gay people died because the government didn’t want to deal with what was happening to gay people. My story began in the 90s when there was a lot of silence and indifference, letting AIDS go on. We see that now. People want to talk about crystal meth today, but when drugs were killing Black people nobody cared. If it had been treated as a crisis then, it wouldn’t be affecting white people so badly now. What does it say about us as a people when we have to wait until something explodes into the mainstream before dealing with it? What does it say about how we gather and hold each other? It speaks volumes about us as a society and our leadership and the myths that we tell ourselves.

The fact that I am here isn’t lost on me. I believe it’s important that we bear witness, not only individually, but to put it into the public record. Unfortunately, what few narratives are out there about AIDS have been created by cis-gay white men. Their stories are important, but their stories are very unique. For most of them, this is the first thing that didn’t go their way. A lot of gay white men in ACT-UP weren’t activists. They initially showed because a friend was dying, and a system that was supposed to help didn’t. So they believed the system just needed tweaking. Gay Black men and lesbians were like, “oh, no, the system never worked, it needs dismantling.” Often when you hear about gay history you hear about Stonewall and then about gay marriage, and nothing in between. What people don’t realize is that there hadn’t been a social movement like ACT-UP.

ACT-UP took on the pharmaceuticals. Before ACT-UP there were no women in clinical trials of HIV/AIDS-related drugs. Even marriage equality started during this time because gay men were losing their property because even though parents didn’t want anything to do with them, as I say in the play, “Ain’t nobody hate their gay kid enough to turn down an NYC apartment.” So marriage equality was really about helping people protect their stuff. There was housing discrimination, denial of public access to services, airlines banned people with HIV/AIDS from travel, people were banned from coming into the country. Everything you can think of. ACT-UP and other organizations challenged that.

When I see movements like #BlackLivesMatter I’m reminded that ACT-UP showed a lot of people different ways of activism. ACT-UP went and talked to the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control). When AIDS started, the CDC defined it as a gay disease, so women weren’t getting paid attention to at all and couldn’t get any benefits. ACT-UP identified the problem, came with some solutions, involved the media (this was way before social media), and got a couple of hundred people to show up. Essentially, they shamed institutions into action.

Also, this performance is a love letter to us… the survivors. And it’s an opportunity to educate. For example, there are many who don’t know that there was a time when medical professionals refused to treat people with HIV/AIDS. They were afraid to touch them because they thought they might get the disease. Some wouldn’t even go into the room to give them food or change the TV station. These were people in health care, many of them are still around today. 

It’s interesting to me that people don’t remember these things. Ask about 80s music, and people remember specifics right away, but ask about HIV/AIDS and people don’t remember what happened. People’s homes were being firebombed, and no one remembers. Even in San Francisco or New York there was a lot of homophobia.

When the first five patients were identified they were gay, white men. What nobody talked about then, or now really, was that the next two patients were gay, Black men. This created the narrative that the disease was only impacting gay, white men, so it created a false sense of security for Black men and for women, as a result, Black people were being disproportionately impacted. 25% of people with HIV/AIDS were actually Black men.

Since my parents were white (I was adopted into a white family), I had great health care. I had no idea about people sitting in waiting rooms for hours. While I was going off to get private care, my friends were waiting for hours in a public hospital just to get admitted, and getting admitted just meant getting the bracelet. They could then be sitting in a hallway, waiting to actually get treatment, for sometimes up to seven days. Nobody would think, today, that it would be possible.

My friend Fred was a florist, and like most people with HIV/AIDS he was in his 20s. He had no health care. No insurance, no financial options, no 401(k), nothing, and so he was at the mercy of the state. Literally. The state, of course, was trying to protect itself. Initially, it was people’s social groups, their friends, that took care of them. So if your social group was rich and white, you still had AIDS and you still died, but at least you got taken care of along the way. If your social group didn’t have the resources, they could love you as much as anyone, but could they provide for you? When the drug AZT came out, it was $10,000 a year. And the people conducting clinical trials were looking for patients who had the best chance of completing the trial, so they would eliminate anyone they didn’t think would survive however long the trial was supposed to last. The racism within the gay community made it even worse.

As I say in the show, when I first became part of ACT-UP, I would show up early and set up the chairs for meetings. Since people are creatures of habit, most people would sit in the same seats at each meeting. I started noticing more and more empty seats. That’s when it really hit me. Before this, I had never been to a funeral, so to be thrust right into this space where Death sat right there, present at every meeting, either in you, near you, or next to you, it was like being in war. Unlike real war, there’s nobody coming: there’s no infantry, there’s no help. People were just vanishing. When you’re among the healthy, who are you to complain when you see what’s happening to everybody else? For example, you could be in a meeting with someone on a Monday, carry out an action with them on Thursday, and the next Monday they’d be dead. Still, they would be there. People weren’t participating in activism in order to save their own lives. I mean, everyone hoped for that, but most knew that wasn’t going to happen. People were sick and still going out to participate in actions. They were literally stealing from their own time to give others a chance. They were basically saying, “I’m going to die a week, a month, a day early so that you can live.” I don’t know that this has happened in any other social movements on such a large scale.

So many of these people were young and had escaped the oppression of their hometowns for places like San Francisco and New York, so they knew what it was to be marginalized. They were willing to sacrifice because they wanted to spare others.

One year I went to 16 funerals in a month. To this day, death smells like crocuses. And as you sat at the funeral, you wondered who would be next. I saw more tragedy and death in my first few months at ACT-UP then I’d seen in all of my 22 years.

This was when ACT-UP started doing the mock funerals to show the country what real death looked like. I participated in the first one in Washington DC. It was unreal to have all of these young people in their 20s and early 30s, depicting death. It just seemed so wrong. For me, it was one of the moments when I felt something break inside me that could never be made right again. A kind of loss of some type of innocence.

I came from a white, liberal, Christian home, so I didn’t understand some of these other religions. I was sometimes given the responsibility of contacting someone’s family to let them know they were sick. I remember making a call and telling a parent, “Bryce is sick and he doesn’t have long, you need to come right away,” only to have them say, “Don’t call here again,” and hang up the phone. It turned out that happened a lot, but in my naiveté, I was unprepared for it. Sometimes I would call and the people would have moved or changed phone numbers, but not told their children. Even when the families did come, when you read the obituaries from back in their hometowns they died of cancer or pneumonia or some other disease.

My parents were really supportive, but it wasn’t something I really wanted to talk with them about. Like all good parents of a gay child during that period, they worried that I might get AIDS, but it wasn’t something we discussed except in general terms, because they knew the work I was doing with ACT-UP.

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Chad Goller-Sojourner (photo courtesy of the artist)

LEP: What about the women and children related to Black men who were not out as gay?

CGS: Many Black parents had just finished raising their grandchildren from the crack epidemic, and now they were faced with losing another generation of parents to AIDS and raising their great-grandchildren. So much about death and crisis in the Black community is expressed through food. Someone’s sick, you bring them food. Someone in the family dies, you feed the family. This was true relative to AIDS as well. One of the things I learned early on was that for every Black family that wouldn’t bring food to their dying child, there were 100 other bakers who would feed and care for that child. And this was true of Jewish women and Jamaican women and others who understood that connection between comfort and food. So that became one of my things, and I discovered that there were a lot of people in the community who were willing to stand in for those who weren’t there. It might not be your mother who stepped up to care for you, but it would be someone who would stand in that place.

The church slowly began to come around. These were the choir directors and other members of the church who were getting sick, people who already had relationships with the church community. So you had a multi-generational response from Black and Latino families. More mothers, or aunts, or cousins would come around than fathers.

This was also during some very anti-Black times, after the 80s, so the community already was gathering together to fight crack and other problems. AIDS was another layer on top of everything else. This was just an added level. The Black church did do some damage, because they knew what was happening but chose to look the other way. Down-low culture allowed Black men to continue to have sex with other men then return to their wives as if nothing had changed. The myth that “women couldn’t get AIDS from gay men” was one of the reasons it spread. If the men who were having sex with other men weren’t labeled as gay, and AIDS was a gay disease, then the myth was that women couldn’t get AIDS.

LEP: How did this experience change the trajectory of your life?

CGS: I saw that there was much more evil in people. I was raised to be polite and kind. I realized that when people are trying to kill you there’s no need to be polite. The trajectory of my social justice life really changed. It anchored my self-preservation. I realized that I wanted to live, so it forced me to deal with other issues, like the eating disorder and my suicide attempt. It also allowed me to believe in other people even when they don’t believe in themselves.

It also gave me the sense that it was possible to actually accomplish something. I mean, AIDS didn’t go away, people are still dying, but there is more hope now, and there are treatment options. It’s not an automatic death sentence. People did not think we’d be here today.

I’ve realized that, at times, things have saved me in spite of myself. Some parts of my body, mind, and soul would be at war with other parts of my body, mind, and soul for survival, for life. And life won out, therefore it is my life’s work to bear witness. You know, sometimes these things just come to you. I didn’t start out in the arts. This is a second or third dance for me. So when I’m able to bear witness, I also get to reflect, to look at things from a distance.

We were talking earlier about how this time is like the AIDS crisis. It sort of feels prophetic to me. I know what people are going to say, what they’re going to do, because of that earlier experience. Before I went to New York, I came to Seattle and POCAAN had just started. Kenny Joe, some other people, and I started Brother to Brother. That is one of the changes in my life. Before that, my gay life was all white and my Black life was all Black. That’s when I met a group of gay Black men who were not only the first gay Black men I’d met, but were also the first Black men I really got to know. That, for me, was one of those things that would help me years later when I left Seattle.

Remember, I was struggling with my racial identity, too. I had just left the white world of my childhood and gone into an even whiter world at Western Washington University in Bellingham, then to Seattle. My friend Michael transferred from Seattle Pacific University and to Western and we became ‘the two gay Black guys’ on campus. Everybody was like, “Have you two met each other.” It was constantly like that.

I’ve benefited a lot from my adoptive parents, from my environment. I knew that no matter what happened, if I could get to a phone booth, I could get home. I never had to struggle with a lot of things. For example, when I was living in Jersey City and wanted to go to rehab, the people at the intake center said I’d have to wait three weeks to get in. Once I told them I had insurance, they suddenly found a bed for me right away, but it was in Del Ray Beach, Florida and I had to be there the next day. When I told them I needed an extra day (thinking to myself “I don’t have anything to wear in Florida”), they said okay.

This is what I like about my story. It’s important to see the funny parts of life, otherwise, you would break.

LEP: What about the impact of religion or faith communities?

CGS: it was a double-edged sword. There were some religious people that were there, but many that weren’t. So many of the people who were dying had walked away from their faith communities when they left their homes because most felt that their faith had abandoned them. But when they were dying, they wanted the comfort of the rituals of death, and often no one was there for them. For people who grew up in the Black church, there was an inherent promise that you would never die alone, that someone would be there for you. But so often this wasn’t the case, regardless of their relationship with the church.

Often clergy and other people of faith would step in and stand in the gap. It’s something that’s missing in today’s society. Bailey Boushay House was founded as an AIDS hospice during that time and they were first among those who organized to bring comfort to the many who felt abandoned by their families, faiths, and society. People don’t often step up and just take care of each other like they did back then. There are photographs we use in the show of people being present for one another in the crisis moments. They are beautiful. Sometimes they’re painful to see because of the circumstances, but they’re beautiful.

I think that’s what this story is really about. What happens when we reach major social crossroads like AIDS, or 9/11, or our current situation? How do we act and react as individuals, as a society, and as different parts of society? How do we create whatever comes next by the choices we make? What choices are we making now and what will they mean for our future? How do we survive and thrive? These are the things I want people to think about as they watch me tell my story.

Chad Goller-Sojourner’s performance of Marching in Gucci: Memoirs of a Well-Dressed Black AIDS Activist is this coming weekend, June 21-23rd, at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets.

*This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Lola E. Peters is a poet and essayist living in West Seattle. She is an active member of Seattle’s African American Writers’ Alliance. Her two books of poetry, Taboos and The Book of David: A Coming of Age Tale, and her book of essays, The Truth About White People, are available major, local, independent bookstores as well as online. Check her website for more information.

 

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