‘The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination’ by Sarah Schulman

“Gay people are so fucking boring right now,” writer, professor and activist Sarah Schulman remarked in a recent interview, and after reading The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (University of California Press), you’ll be hard-pressed to argue such remarks. Compared to the specific and daring activism of ACT UP, the unbridled queer performance artists who made art without censor, or the reality of what queer human rights could and should look like (read: it’s not about marriage), our world today is lacking, and Schulman makes sure readers know where failure has occurred: the marginalization of queer voices, gentrification as a physical urban phenomenon, and the gentrification of artists, collective memory, the AIDS crisis, queer politics, queer literature, and our own expectations. Schulman is certainly witness to a lost imagination, and her witness is one of the most important contributions to queer literature in recent years.

In the very first pages of the introduction, Sarah Schulman writes about her experience of driving a rental car in LA while listening to NPR, when a segment on the twentieth anniversary of AIDS comes on:

At first America had trouble with people with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.”

I almost crashed the car.

What happens next is the kind of action that is frighteningly absent today. Schulman immediately calls her friend and collaborator Jim Hubbard, and tells him, “We have to do something, right now.” And they do: for the next nine years they co-direct the ACT UP Oral History Project, the only attempt to preserve and communicate the truth of the AIDS crisis, and whose companion documentary United In Anger recently premiered at the MoMA. This wasn’t just an outraged Facebook status update, or a petition on Change.org. It wasn’t a one-off letter to the editor, or a blog post, or an article in an academic journal. This was real, concrete change: to do the work to voice what public media was not including.

Years into this project, though, Schulman and Hubbard sat down to re-evaluate their efforts. “All these years of conducting interviews,” she writes, “we had been focused on conveying the heroism of ACT UP. But we had not succeeded at conveying the suffering. We had not conveyed how profoundly oppressed we had been, and how we were able to see clearly and act effectively despite that. And we certainly had not addressed the consequences of AIDS on the living. No one had.”

Schulman is brilliant at conveying how devastating and surreal it was to live during the AIDS crisis, and in examining its impact on the living, she draws connections between the gentrification of cities like New York and the coincidental timing of the AIDS crisis; when a leaseholder in the East Village died of AIDS, their lover had no legal rights to the apartment, and thus the space became available with higher rents for the privileged people moving in. Schulman expresses gentrification’s clear dangers, pointing out how the new privileged residents “unlearn that those earlier communities ever existed.”

The numbers, where apparent in these essays, knock her ideas home: “81,542 people have died of AIDS in New York City as of August, 16, 2008.” Think about this: if between , say, 2000 and 2027, more than 80,000 of our community—our friends, writers, artists, roommates, exes, lovers, teachers, neighbors, poets, activists, co-workers—died, it would be unbearable. “These people,” Schulman declares, “our friends, are rarely mentioned. Their absence is not computed and the meaning of their loss is not considered.”

This may be the haunting backbone of the entire book—the long-term effect of this loss, and the horror of how it’s been “pretended” away. In a searing comparison, Schulman points out that 2,752 people died in New York as victims of the 9/11 attacks, and they are remembered. “These human beings have been highly individuated. The recognition of their loss and suffering is a national ritual, and the consequences of their aborted potential are assessed annually in public.” It illustrates how deep this country’s hatred of LGBT people is that the death of AIDS victims are not similarly remembered or valued. “Not the AIDS quilt,” Schulman writes, “now locked up storage somewhere…Where is our permanent memorial?”

While not possible here, I’d rather do a review of each essay in this slim book—each one teeming with ideas, necessary commentary, refreshing connections and examination of the status quo. In “Realizing that they’re Gone,” Schulman individualizes just a few of these thousands of victims, and writes about the experience of seeing younger queers who resemble those before they passed. “Do they know their own history?” she wonders. “Do they wonder why there so few sixty-year-old versions of themselves passing by on the sidewalk?”

In “The Gentrification of Creation,” she asserts what gentrification means to artists and queers: “In order for radical queer culture to thrive, there must be diverse, dynamic cities in which we can hide/flaunt/learn/influence”—not to mention affordable housing, studio space, performance opportunities, and education without debt. In “The Gentrification of Gay Politics,” she shows how the media purposefully chose safe gay spokespeople such as Andrew Sullivan, and how we settled for the false ideal of gay marriage. And in “The Gentrification of Our Literature” (a must-read for all Lambda Literary writers, readers and allies), she nails how our literature has been marginalized, punished, and disregarded, over and over again. The numbers once more: Schulman reproduces a study the Astraea Foundation did on how private funding ignores lesbian writers, which shows that between 1990 and 1999, six grants and fellowships (think MacArthur, Whiting, etc.) gave two lesbian writers awards. Two! Crunching my own numbers, I figured that these six fellowships over ten years had 370 awards for women writers. Two lesbians out of three hundred seventy women writers! (Gay men, for the record, got 18 out of their respective 370 awards for male writers).

In a word, it’s despicable. But Schulman doesn’t leave the reader outraged and helpless. She carries optimism and innovation throughout the collection, especially in her conclusion, “Degentrification: The Pleasure of Being Uncomfortable.” “We live with an idea of happiness that is based in other people’s diminishment,” she explains. “But we do not address this because we hold an idea of happiness that precludes being uncomfortable.” This discomfort—of self-awareness, accountability, humility—is the key to changing the current fucked up state of affairs. “If we want to transform the way we live, we will have to reposition being uncomfortable as a part of life, as part of life, as part of the process of being a full human being, and as a personal responsibility.” Transformation of this sort is not only possible, but absolutely necessary in today’s world. To begin, anyone seeking transformation should read this book.


The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
By Sarah Schulman
University of California Press
Hardcover,9780520264779, 192pp.
February 2012