The Women’s March, ACT UP, and the Life-Saving Power Of Creative Resistance
Pictured: Macky Alston (center) with husband Nick Gottlieb (at left) and daughters Penelope & Alice (center left & right) at the Women’s March.
By Macky Alston
That moment in The Wizard of Oz, after the tornado, when Dorothy walks out of the broken black-and-white home into the land of color “where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true,” that is what it was like to arrive in Washington, DC for the Women’s March.
Here’s the thing: If we haven’t tasted freedom, known it in our bodies first-hand, then it is easy for us to believe that it has never, does not, and cannot exist.
The first time I walked into a room of queer people who were proud of who they were was the third weekly Monday meeting of ACT UP at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in 1987, 30 years ago.
When I walked into that door, I departed the black-and-white world of the closet, that death chamber that I was taught was the only place I could live, and entered the world that chooses living fabulously, even in the face of death.
The gathered largely consisted of people with a terminal diagnosis that, for years to come, our elected officials would not even admit existed. Terror like a tornado was tearing through our closeted lives. The gorgeous choice we made was to not let death have the last word.
Somehow we realized, in the words of the Movement for Black Lives, that we had to love and support one another, that we had nothing to lose but our chains, that it was our duty to fight for our freedom, and we did, with all we had – our creativity, our bodies, our voices, our resources – forging community across generation, class, culture and conviction.
ACT UP was not perfect, but weekly, as we gathered, organized, and acted up, we practiced embodying the world for which we longed, as we struggled over the years to bring it into being.
Successful culture-changing tactics can only emerge from the revelation that we can thrive even in the face of death even as the tornado tears through our lives.
Without embodied knowledge that we can dance in the streets and survive, speak our truths and survive, look and love like we do and survive, then we are left isolated, living in fear that, if the world were to see us as we really are, it would be the end of us.
My colleague Lisa Anderson, in her work teaching women of color that it is their duty to God and country to thrive, recites regularly a passage from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. It describes “the clearing,” a space in the woods and in the hearts of Black slaves where, in the face of death, they gathered and danced and loved themselves and one another.
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you.
The lessons in audacity I learned as a scared young gay man 30 years ago from ACT UP taught me that life is precious. That, in community, we must show up, speak up, ‘fess up, and act up – that is, in fact, what it means to be alive, to be free.
20 years ago this week, I, one who before ACT UP thought I had no right to call myself an artist, premiered my first film at the Sundance Film Festival. It was about the cost of the secrets and lies we keep as a nation that has not reckoned with the legacy of slavery.
15 years ago I organized an illegal church wedding with my man and 250 of our nearest and dearest. The next year we adopted our first child. Three years later, we adopted our second.
When I came out, I was told that I would never be happy, that I would never have family, that if I named who I was publicly, misery, ridicule, and loneliness would be my only fate.
I had reason to believe that to be true, but somehow showing up in that ACT UP meeting that first time gave me the courage to participate in some of the most hopeful movement building of this generation.
Watch this video that my colleague, Esther, made of our bus ride to the DC March. You will meet Lisa Anderson teaching that for all to be free, you must be free, but only in a way that encourages and accommodates all others to be free as well.
In the video, you may notice two young girls sitting together on the bus. Imagine they have lived through an election season when one candidate represents the power of women and girls to lead, and the other represents the power of men to abuse women verbally and physically. Imagine this latter candidate has just been chosen by your neighbors in this nation to be first among us, the one we have been waiting for. And then imagine these girls rolling into Washington, seeing more people in one place than they ever have in their whole entire lives and these people are free.
The Women’s March gave my daughters a taste of this nation’s promise worth keeping, of God’s realm on earth, of how it is supposed to be. Now it is ours to bring that world into being – every chance we get – and for the generations to come.
This land was made for you and me.
Macky Alston is a filmmaker and Senior Vice President of Growth and Strategy at Auburn Seminary.