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“The Boys in the Band”, AIDS: Looking to the Past, Moving Toward the Future

 

My husband Dave and I recently saw the current Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band at the Booth Theatre. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the play’s 1968 original off-Broadway run, it’s considered a ground-breaking piece of theater. First opening approximately a year before the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which itself was a direct precursor to the worldwide Gay Liberation movement that soon followed, it has been described by the Associated Press as “One of the few plays that can honestly claim to have helped spark a social revolution.”

To say that the play is beloved by many people gay and non-gay alike is an understatement. The night Dave and I were there, punch lines were anticipated by much audience laughter and clapping even before they were delivered, and the curtain bows by the cast were greeted by loud applause and a standing ovation. It was also a performance to love as Jim Parsons (playing Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Matt Bomer (Donald), Robin de Jesus (Emory), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Charlie Carver (Cowboy), Brian Hutchinson (Alan), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bernard), and Tuc Watkins (Hank) gave it their all. If the original cast in 1968 ran some risk of ruining their acting careers by playing openly gay characters, I think it can safely be said that the members of this cast have only enhanced their own careers by these performances. As at least one small segment of pre-Stonewall gay life comes spectacularly alive for 110 minutes on stage in all its witty humor, not-so-hidden pain, overt heartbreak, and clear solidarity in the face of all the homophobia these friends confronted in the world around them (and even in themselves), one can only applaud the strength it took to live a gay life in those difficult times.

Director Joe Mantello should also be applauded. He never appears on stage, but his sure hand as a director clearly comes in part from his years as an actor, and is evident in every part of the production.

Boys in the Band

All that being said, it was surprising to me to find that the first thoughts I had when deciding I wanted to write about the play had to do with AIDS.

Did I say AIDS? The Boys in the Band, 1968 version, appeared over a decade before the outbreak of the epidemic, and has no AIDS content. How could it? Yet for me the play carried a certain, albeit somewhat elusive, relationship to AIDS in its wake. At first I thought it had to do with the fact that of the nine original cast members, five of them are known to have been gay—Kenneth Nelson (played Michael), Leonard Frey (Harold), Frederick Combs (Donald), Robert La Tourneau (Cowboy), and Keith Prentice (Larry)—and all five died of AIDS-related causes. But that made no sense. Just because five gay men played unhappy, in some cases even self-destructive, gay men in a play did not mean the characters they played had anything to do with their real-world selves. Indeed, all but La Tourneau went on to distinguished careers in the performing arts as actors, and/or directors, and/or playwrights. Happily, life for most of them did not imitate art.

No, the connection between the play and AIDS was not a direct line, even if some of the actors in the original production later died of the disease. Instead, I’ve come to realize, the affinity I sensed had to do with the social impact of both the play and the disease. The Boys in the Band “helped spark a social revolution” because for once very public venues—in this case theater and film—took on the pain and anguish of a despised minority—gay men—and treated the subject with compassion and insight. The characters in the 1968 play were taken out of the shadows of most people’s conception at the time of what gay men are like and given real-life dimensions. It can also be argued that the play helped gay men to reshape their own feelings and attitudes about themselves by providing them with a mirror that allowed them access to an underlying anger about their social and legal oppression: hence providing one of the sparks that set off a revolution.

The critical reception of the play and movie both were for the most part positive. The reaction of the gay male population was, and to some extent continues to be, ambivalent. But seeing the play now, so many years after Stonewall, it’s clear to me the distance we’ve all traveled in our feelings of self-worth—if we’re gay men—and of respect for the experience of being gay—if we’re not. Gay rights laws, marriage equality, gay adoptions, GLBT characters on television and in the movies, GLBT figures in sports. . . . Homophobes still exist and preach their poisonous doctrines, but in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and other parts of the world their grip over social attitudes has weakened considerably in the decades since The Boys in the Band first premiered, due in large part to the social revolution the play helped to spark.

Likewise AIDS has played its part in that revolution. Ghastly as the epidemic has been—and the death and suffering it has caused has few parallels in the history of health crises—it has promoted two outcomes beneficial for the LGBT community: (1) greater visibility to the world at large of the GLBT population as tens of thousands of gay men living with the disease were forced to come out to family, friends, and work colleagues; and (2) the legacy of AIDS activism, by which I mean not just the activist pressure that led to major advances in treating the disease, but the media visibility activists offered to the public at large of the LGBT populace caring for it own, challenging the governmental, social, and medical establishments to take notice of its needs and respond meaningfully to them, and its success in getting those needs met. As former U.S. House of Representatives member Barney Frank (D-MA) has commented: “That reverberated socially, and I can tell you it reverberated politically too.”

Nothing I’ve written here may be that new to many of those reading it. But in the political climate we’ve recently entered, with a regime in Washington hostile to LGBT rights and at best indifferent to the health needs of the general population, let alone those of special-needs populations like people living with AIDS, reminding ourselves about where we came from and what we’ve accomplished may well help us navigate our way through an uncertain and perhaps perilous future.

 

Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is playing at the Booth Theatre in New York City through August 11, 2018. Highly recommended. Crayton Robey’s 2010 documentary Making the Boys, available through various online sources, is also highly recommended for insights into the history of the play and movie.

Art, Activism, HIV/AIDS

Went recently to the current exhibition by New York City-based artist Carrie Moyer at the DC Moore Gallery in the Chelsea art district of Manhattan. Wow! Titled Pagan’s Rapture, the show’s art is abstract, playful, whimsical, wildly exuberant in its colors, voluptuous in its appeal to the eye—and apparently the opposite of what one might think of as “political art.” An interesting change in style from an artist who, with photographer Sue Schaffner, formed the activist art group Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!) that from 1991 into 2008 plastered parts of Manhattan with posters in their thousands dissecting and critiquing mainstream culture from a lesbian point of view in an effort to raise lesbian cultural visibility.

DAM! poster

Lesbian Americans Don’t Sell out!, Dyke Action Machine! poster, used with permission.

Comparing DAM!’s “agitprop” street art to the paintings Moyer has produced and shown over the last few years—including the pieces shown in the 2017 Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art—it may seem like these days she has abandoned activism in her work. But a talk with her about art and activism showed that not to be true, and provided an insight into how changed circumstances can produce the need for new ways of presenting art with an activist aim.

“This was a big question in the last century,” Moyer said. “Many, many, many artists/activists wondered about the efficacy of political art. Does art have to be political to effect change? Can art of any sort effect change? One kind of change I think it brings about is in the artist who makes it. It becomes a vehicle for a kind of expression of who we are. It also brings messages to others, in the form of posters people see at marches and demonstrations, or like those Sue and I plastered all over parts of Manhattan trying to make lesbians more visible to the world at large.”

She continued: “On the other hand, thinking about the world we actually live in now, I feel one of the challenges for the next generation of artists/activists is cutting through a set of stereotypes as to what activism looks like. We live in a different world today than even a few years ago. Part of this is the Internet, which provides us with so many more ways of presenting art. Part of it is the larger number of people that participate in the art world through the Internet or smart phones or by going to museums. In making art we have a very large and mixed audience from the quite educated and sophisticated to the very ignorant. Our art has to speak to as many kinds of people as possible, not just the elite art collectors, gallery owners, or art critics.”

It occurred to me: How do these comments relate to living with HIV/AIDS today? We find ourselves in a world very different than the one that gave birth to the HIV/AIDS activism of the 1980s-1990s. The introduction of antiretroviral combination drug therapies and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) have profoundly changed the medical landscape for those living with the disease, as well as those living in fear of catching the disease. This means death has retreated in the face of the new meds, at least among those privileged to live in the developed world where they are available. Even the governmental and social landscapes have changed: There is no longer the panic and hysteria surrounding AIDS, and in the developed world government funding and a legal framework are in place to supply the social services and medical care those living with the disease require. So let’s reframe the comments offered by Moyer about the challenges today for artists and activist art in general in terms of what those challenges mean for art related to HIV/AIDS activism.

AIDS has become a manageable chronic disease, and those living with it these days can live longer and with reasonable care on their part can even look forward to full life spans. It isn’t yet curable, but with the use of PreP as prescribed, no one needs to become infected any longer.

Yet the problems remaining are formidable. According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, around 39,573 people in this country were diagnosed with HIV in 2016. Of that number, 67% were accounted for through male-male sexual contact, with lesser numbers through heterosexual sexual contact (around 24%) and through injection drug use (9%) (this percentage includes gay and bisexual men who inject drugs).

Gay and bisexual men, then, are obviously at the highest risk for contracting HIV in the United States—I should amend that to say still at the highest risk, just as they were at the start of the epidemic. And none of this even touches on the statistics from those parts of the world where current treatments are much harder to come by. Truly an ongoing crisis, even if we don’t hear much about it in the press anymore.

An earlier generation of AIDS activists included within their ranks art groups and individuals highly involved in the cause through their art: one thinks of Gran Fury, the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt, and Keith Haring, to name only three of the groups and individuals whose work resounded around the world. All of this was produced before the introduction of the Internet, smart phones, Facebook, Instagram, and other online tools that make the transmission of visual art so easy today, but it nevertheless had a great impact on the course of the epidemic in its early days.

So where are the artists today angry enough to challenge the status quo of a crisis that seems to have no end? Where are the new symbols, images, and messages that could move the world in the direction of conquering the power of HIV once and for all? Has complacency over the progress already made won out over the outrage this virus should still be generating?

Or is there something else going on here? Carrie Moyer’s current exhibition suggested as much to Mia Locks in her catalogue essay “Hot and Sour” that accompanies Pagan’s Rapture when she wrote: “Although they portray landscapes and phenomena from the real world, Moyer’s [current] canvases are far from idyllic. Instead, they delve into latent, unexplored, or unfamiliar places . . . to evoke raw and often conflicting feelings. At a time when the so-called leader of our country is consistently trying to undermine our conception of reality, it feels apt that Moyer’s attention has shifted to interrogating the relationship between surface and depth, artifice and lived sensation.”

Elsewhere in her essay, Locks comments specifically on the painting Afterparty of the Rizosphere: “A ‘rizosphere’ is the area surrounding a plant’s roots that helps nourish and protect them . . . which suggests this party is a celebration of successful germination and impending growth.”

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Afterparty in the Rizosphere, © 2017 Carrie Moyer, courtesy DC Moore Gallery.

Could something be germinating in regard to AIDS that might just grow into a new wave of activism? I for one hope so. When nearly 40,000 people a year are still contracting HIV in the United States alone, something needs to be done, at least on the educational front if not the curative front. People need to be taught that with the medicines out today, no one needs to turn positive. And the tools we now have available for that educational effort on a very big scale are perfectly suited to the task: the Internet, smart phones, social media.

Art by itself may not be able to effect change, but no change has ever been brought about without messages via word art and images. Artists concerned to defeat AIDS should seize the day and start working toward that goal immediately.

 

Note: I profiled Carrie Moyer in the April 2017 issue of A&U magazine. Available on the magazine’s online archives at aumag.org.

Pagan’s Rapture is on view through March 22 at DC Moore Gallery, 536 W. 22 St., New York, NY 10011. Moyer’s show Seismic Shift is also on view at Mary Boone Gallery (745 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10151), in collaboration with DC Moore Gallery, through April 22.

A Lesson Learned via Paul Monette

For this blog entry, I’d like to go personal:

Sometimes life teaches you you’ve learned a lesson without actually having realized you’ve learned it. My turn came recently when I was re-reading Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. This is a harrowing tale of time closing ominously around a gay male couple when one of them is drawing ever closer to the brink healthwise in the early days of the epidemic before the introduction of effective anti-HIV medicines in the mid-1990s.

On my first encounter with the book, I found myself enthralled from the opening page. This was not just a chronicle of an illness with all its ups and downs (including, eventually, death), but a great love story as Monette and his long-term lover Roger Horwitz contend day by day with Horwitz’s ongoing illness. On the medical side of their relationship, there is the obsessive interest in all things technical about the disease. As Monette notes early on in his account: “An offensive strategy began to emerge. . . . Together Roger and I became postgraduate students of the condition. No explanation was too technical for me to follow. . . . Day by day the hard knowledge and raw data evolved into a language of discourse.”

On the personal front, as Horwitz’s illness became worse, and friends around them died, the bond between the two increased. “Whatever happened to Roger happened to me, and my numb strength was a crutch for all his frailty,” Monette writes. He continues: “In a way, I am only saying that I loved him—better than myself, no question of it—but increasingly every day that love became the only untouched shade in the dawning fireball.” Elsewhere in the book he describes Horwitz as his “heart’s deepest core” and his “life’s best reason.”

It should be noted that Monette also penned a companion book related to Horwitz’s death titled Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. These are angry, defiant poems aimed at people and groups that too often failed to value the love between two men but instead saw AIDS as one more reason to unload homophobic hatred and vitriol in ways that condemned tens of thousands of gay men to terrible physical and mental anguish.

This was heady stuff for a younger me who was also in a long-term relationship with a much-beloved partner whose life seemed to be regularly threatened by his own severe health problems.

Let me be clear: Ted’s problems were not AIDS-related. Amazingly enough, just before the plague started—in the winter of 1978—we’d closed our relationship sexually, for reasons that had nothing to do with the as yet nonexistent threat of AIDS. But at least for the two of us, once AIDS was on the scene there was nothing like the possibility of catching a sexually transmitted disease whose prognosis in the early years of the epidemic was a quick but painful death to enforce that monogamy for many years.

When the first tests came out for HIV, Ted and I made our way to a public health clinic, and within two weeks were both told we were HIV-negative. But that didn’t stop many years of health problems for Ted, whose illness centered on heart disease.

Lester and Ted,1984
Lester and Ted, 1982

Over the two decades starting in 1984, Ted underwent two triple-bypass operations, a heart-valve replacement, and the insertion of a pacemaker, not to speak of regular doctors’ appointments, cardiac rehabilitation classes, and cardiac exercises, along with many dietary restrictions and medicines that ultimately proved to be his undoing.

No wonder Borrowed Time and Love Alone spoke to me, both the loving me and the angry me. I wasn’t the sick one, but I felt threatened by the possible loss of Ted, and angry about several run-ins I had with homophobic doctors and hospital personnel. Monette became my mentor, so to speak, in the realm of how to cope with illness as the loving gay partner of someone who needed regular medical attention.

Then I came across Last Watch of the Night, a collection of Monette’s essays written in the early 1990s, in which I learned that he’d had not just one other partner after the death of Roger Horwitz in 1986, but two before his own death from AIDS in 1995.

My reaction? I remember my exact reaction: Two new partners? How dare he? How could Monette be so callous as to abandon Horwitz, his ”heart’s deepest core,” for new loves?   With Ted still alive and my love for him in full force, I felt betrayed.

So much for inexperience with intensely personal death.

Ted died in 2006 after a collision between two of his medicines, one for his heart and the other for sleeping, which caused a breakdown in his capillary system leading to pneumonia and septic shock that his weakened heart couldn’t handle. Seven days in a hospital intensive care unit, placed in an induced coma, the ICU doctors working around the clock to fight the infection through massive doses of antibiotics, and he was dead.

Thirty years of my life came crashing down, and I do mean crashing. I’d thought the death of my mother ten years earlier and the deaths of friends from AIDS were overwhelming, but the feelings this loss caused were many times beyond that. The closest I could come to describing it was that I didn’t feel dead, but I didn’t feel alive either. For months I woke up each morning unable to concentrate on much of anything. Then the inevitable crying would begin, lasting for two or three hours before shutting down almost as if a spigot had been turned off (but not turned off by my conscious volition). A free-lance writer and editor, I forced myself to work, at least enough to pay the bills, then spent my evenings staring at TV because I couldn’t seem to read and didn’t want to socialize.

After a few months, a friend who had gone through much the same experience several years before got me involved in, of all things, gay square dancing. His words: “I know something that will take your mind off Ted for at least two hours a week.” And so it did. Slowly I began to come out of the fog of misery. Slowly I came alive again, and re-entered the world of other people.

Sometime around four years after Ted’s death, I realized I didn’t like living alone any more. I could run a household by myself all right. I had a nice home, and more space to myself than ever before in my life. I had it all my own way for the first time in a long while. But it wasn’t satisfying.

Then three months after becoming aware that I wanted a change, something wonderful happened: A new man entered my life. Dave and I already knew each other casually through square dancing, when one evening at a square dance event we found ourselves talking intimately as we had never talked before. And in short order, we fell in love.

IMG_1514
Lester and Dave, 2017

Did I feel like I was betraying Ted’s and my love? The question didn’t come up. More at issue was what felt like untangling my brain from a thirty-four-year history of living with Ted or his memory so I didn’t mistake Dave’s behavior for what had been Ted’s behavior. On the other hand, I realized quite soon that I was carrying into this new relationship from the old the know-how of giving and receiving love, giving and receiving companionship, and appreciating the give and take of emotional intimacy. We dated a few years as I sorted all this out, then in March 2014 we married and moved in together.

Returning to Borrowed Time, I picked the book up a few weeks ago for research into an article I was thinking of writing. I remembered my negative reaction to learning of the relationships Monette had been in following the death of Roger Horwitz, but to my surprise found I no longer had the same feelings. On reflection, the reasons for this were clear enough, and offered me an insight into Monette’s life choices from his perspective. To put it simply but bluntly, life makes its own demands, which the dead cannot fulfill. Ted in death could no longer give me what I needed in life. I’d had a full-bodied relationship for thirty years, and to feel fully alive and happy again I needed another such relationship. Moreover, new love didn’t mean I’d abandoned Ted any more than my love for Ted meant I’d abandoned my mother or friends I’d been close to for many years. Indeed, new love enhanced the old, allowing me to appreciate what I had with Ted in ways I’d never fully understood before.

It’s not everyday you have the chance to look back and understand you’ve made a change that deserves a pat on the back. But in this instance I can truly say: Lesson learned.

 

 

 

AIDS and the Course of Gay Rights

Here’s an invite: Is anyone interested in learning more about the views and achievements of former House of Representatives member Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), the openly gay Congressman who did so much to push legislation relating to AIDS and gay rights before his retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013? If so, read my cover article in this month’s (October 2017) issue of A&U magazine, titled “Let’s Be Frank.” No access to the magazine’s print version? Then visit its website at aumag.org.

You’ll find an amazing story there, as well as insightful suggestions about how to succeed in influencing a current regime in the nation’s capitol so clearly hostile to meeting the legitimate needs of the population it is supposed to be serving.

However, there were a few insights Frank offered in the interview I carried out earlier this year on which the article was based that didn’t make it into the piece, partly to meet a word count limit and partly because they were tangential to the article as a whole. One of those had to do with the effect AIDS had on the course of the gay rights struggle in this country.

Conventional wisdom has it that AIDS, as well as being a health disaster for the gay male community, was political disaster for the LGBT movement as a whole. Certainly the right-wing rhetoric at the time made it seem like a political debacle. There were the calls by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helm to quarantine those living with HIV because, in his own words, “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” There was the comment by Jerry Falwell: “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” Many such quotations by right-wing political and religious bigots could be added to these, but suffice it to say that the negative attitudes toward LGBT people they were intended to foster seemed to be mighty damaging at the time, and certainly in relation to the possibility of gay rights legislation.

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But listen to Barney Frank: “AIDS was a terrible curse,” he said during the interview. “None of us wish it had happened. But, counterintuitively, gay rights benefited from AIDS. It was one of the few positive side effects to come out of that terrible disease. Let me explain.

“When I first began lobbying for gay rights [as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives] in 1972, I couldn’t get even liberal members who weren’t themselves prejudiced against gay men and lesbians to vote for the bill I was sponsoring because to do so was perceived as too great a political risk. I think that’s because they didn’t know any gay people, or at any rate didn’t think they knew any gay people. All they had were the negative stereotypes: gay people as troubled psychologically, as child molesters, and so forth. They didn’t realize that many of the people they knew, respected, admired, and did business with were gay.

“Coming out is a crucial part of dispelling the negative stereotypes. That process had started well before the 1980s, following the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in the summer of 1969 and the blossoming of the gay liberation movement in the years after. But AIDS really forced a lot of people to come out—to their families, to their work colleagues, to their communities, to the world at large. Just think of Rock Hudson. If it weren’t for AIDS, no one would have known he was gay.

“But that was only one aspect of how the AIDS crisis helped us politically. A second was how the broader LGBT community behaved so responsibly in the face of the epidemic. Studies showed that there were very few cases in American history where people exhibited more bravery and compassion toward others than the gay and lesbian community did toward those stricken with AIDS—and at a time when no one knew how contagious the disease was or how it was transmitted. Many lesbians especially were even willing to put aside their own legislative agenda to help minister physically to their gay male friends who had the disease, to join anti-AIDS pressure groups, to help raise money when needed. That reverberated socially, and I can tell you it reverberated politically too.

“A third aspect to note is that the first votes we won in Congress on gay issues came through antidiscrimination laws that were passed relating to AIDS. The AIDS phobia in the country was so great that those of us dealing in Congress with the effects of the epidemic were able to convince many of our colleagues to add AIDS to the medical conditions that one could not be discriminated against in housing, public accommodations, and so forth. Ironically, then, there was a period in American history during the 1980s where gay people couldn’t be discriminated against if they had AIDS, but had no such protections if they were gay or lesbian but didn’t have AIDS. There was also what we called the ‘No Promo Homo’ strategy of the anti-gay bigots in Congress, where amendments were added to AIDS funding bills specifying that none of the money in them could be used to ‘promote’ homosexuality. That is, they were aimed at frightening doctors, nurses, or social workers away from showing any friendly attitudes toward their gay patients. We managed to find ways to defang those rules, And you know what? Our Congressional colleagues who voted to protect AIDS patients from discrimination and helped us defang the No Promo Homo amendments went home, ran for re-election, and actually were re-elected. Those politicians then felt free to vote with us on other issues.”

As Barney Frank noted, “AIDS was a terrible curse.” No one—certainly not Barney Frank—wanted it to happen, no matter what the positive side effects it may have generated. But it seems to me there is a lesson to be learned here: Even under dire circumstances, there just may be ways to seize the moment to achieve important goals. So, in terms of AIDS and other healthcare needs, this begs the question: In these dark days, with a Republican majority in Congress and a sitting President squarely aimed at gutting the current healthcare system that serves the medical needs of so many millions of Americans, where is the person who can devise a successful strategy to defeat that threat? This is a discussion we should all be having. Our lives may very well depend on the implementation of such a strategy.

Photo of Barney Frank ©2017 Sean Black. All rights reserved.

A Musical Return to a Medical Apocalypse

Went last Saturday evening (June 10) to the New York premier of Péter Eötvös’s opera Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s play of the same name, by the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The orchestra was conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti, and the singers included baritone Andrew Garland as Prior Walter, soprano Kirsten Chambers as the Angel, tenor Aaron Blake as Prior Walter’s boyfriend Louis Ironson, countertenor Matthew Reese as Belize, baritone Michael Weyandt as Joe Pitt, soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner as Harper Pitt, mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle as Joe Pitt’s mother Hannah Pitt, and bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Roy Cohn, with an added vocal trio comprised of soprano Cree Carrico, mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel, and baritone Peter Kendall, whose voices were used to repeat and emphasize the characters’ words at important points.

To say that the music and singing were magnificent doesn’t quite give full credit to their combined effect, which approached apocalyptic in creating an atmosphere both tense and menacing, and wholly appropriate to the early years of the AIDS crisis when skin lesions, weight loss, and night sweats for gay men were but the early symptoms of more devastating illnesses to come caused by an unknown agent and leading to a quick death.

Those early years of AIDS are long over, as is the panic the disease created in the gay and non-gay populations alike and the homophobic backlash it unleashed among bigoted antigay American politicians and right-wing religious figures. All the more remarkable, then, that Eötvös, Hungarian-born in 1944 and a resident of Europe for most of his life, was able to capture the nightmare mood of an era long past these days even for those of us who lived through it in the New York City of the 1980s (the setting of both the opera and Kushner’s play).

Angels in America 2

According to The New York Times reviewer Zachary Woolfe, the two-hour Eötvös opera, necessarily slimmed down from the seven-hour Kushner play, is “like a skeleton: elegant, chilly, a bit otherworldly, ultimately unnourishing.” And yet that last word seems to me to miss the whole point of the story. No apocalypse ever nourishes. Apocalypses always devastate. No one in the early years of the AIDS crisis had any knowledge of the medical breakthroughs to come that would eventually save so many lives, and everything—everything—from a gay point of view, an AIDS point of view, seemed hopeless, and very, very scary. The opera’s Stage Director Sam Helfrich gets it exactly right in a program note included in the Playbill when he writes that the opera calls forth “a world of uncertainty . . . wherein characters faced with some of life’s most difficult questions have no clear answers and no idea what’s coming next.”

The time is short to see this opera in this incarnation, there being only four scheduled performances, on June 10, June 12, June 14, and June 16. But for those who have seen it, or will see it, it is an uncanny recreation in modernist music and bare bone stage settings of a time none of us loved living through and no one in his or her right mind would care to see again.

Note: This is the first production of an ongoing series of LGBT-focused work by the New York City Opera scheduled for Gay Pride Month in June of each year aimed at celebrating LGBT contributions to opera. June 2018 will see a production of Charles Wuorinen’s opera Brokeback Mountain.

 

Photo of the Angel (Kirsten Chambers) revealing herself to Prior Walter (Andrew Garland) at end of First Act of Angels in America. © Sarah Shatz; used with permission.

blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts

 

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A blue moon makes itself known astronomically when a second full moon appears in the sky during a single calendar month.

A blue sun makes itself known mentally when one wants to shed a different kind of light on a particular topic.

blu sunne will reflect on topics from a different angle in a different light.

How does one start a new blog? Perhaps by introducing oneself.

My name is Lester Strong. I’m a writer and visual artist, with extensive writing credits in the journalism, essay, and scholarly fields and art credits in a number of genres including watercolor, acrylic, pastel, collage, and assemblage. I’ve been published all over the United States, been translated into French, Portuguese, and Czech, and consider myself primarily a writer. I’ve been in a number of art exhibitions, but have always viewed my visual art as more than a hobby but less than a vocation. This blog will, over time, include examples of nearly all the types of writing and art I’ve engaged in over the years, including fiction. I’ve published one short story, and completed a novel (alas no publisher yet) along with a novella (no publisher for this either). Doubtless the problems locating publishers for fiction will be thrashed out in more than a few of my blog entries.

Professionally in my journalism and scholarly writing I’ve been fortunate to interview many individuals who have done very interesting work. A sampling of the bigger names: Edward Albee, Reba McEntire, Dennis Haysbert, John Rechy, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, David Hockney, Ross Bleckner, Linda Stein, Judy Chicago, Duane Michals, Quentin Crisp, Mondo Guerra, Cyndi Lauper, Harvey Fierstein, Lea DeLaria. With more to come. References to these and other individuals I’ve written about will crop up from time to time in these blog entries.

I’ve written about novels, visual art, fashion, movies, history, and for many years now about AIDS and AIDS activism. Aspects of the AIDS crisis will be a recurring theme in this blog.

So there we are: writing, art, people I’ve interviewed, AIDS. My pop-up life in the arts has been and continues to be quite a journey, raising many questions and providing some thought-provoking insights. Welcome to the world of blu sunne.

 

Fierce Heroes

Ten Heroes 859

Went recently to see New York City-based artist Linda Stein’s current exhibition “Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females,” at Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. What a show! The tapestries and sculpture honor ten female exemplars of resistance to the World War II holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis against Europe’s Jewish population. The art itself is fierce, as demanding for viewers to look at as it must have been for Stein to create. Yet make no mistake, it may be demanding, but it’s equally powerful

The women honored include three well-known individuals: Anne Frank, whose diary published after the war by her father (the only member of the family to survive) was not only a world-wide best seller, but led to a Broadway play and an award-winning movie and TV miniseries; Ruth Gruber, an American-born journalist and photographer who in 1944 escorted 1000 refugee children from Europe to the United States and after the war devoted her life to rescue work; and Hannah Szenes (her last name is often Anglicized to “Senesh”), a poet and playwright who was parachuted into Yugoslavia by the British to help rescue Jews, but was caught and killed by the Nazis.

The eight remaining women, lesser known from an American perspective, but all of them deserving wider recognition, include Vitka Kempner, a resistance fighter in the Vilna ghetto (survived the war); Noor Inayat Khan, British spy and secret operative behind Nazi lines in occupied Europe (killed by the Nazis); Zivia Lubetkin, a leader of the Jewish underground in occupied Warsaw (survived the war); Gertrud Luckner, a German Catholic who smuggled Jews over the border into Switzerland (survived the war); Nadezhda Popova, a Russian bomber pilot during the war whose heroism helped defeat the Nazi war machine that killed millions of her fellow country people (survived the war); Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, who as a medical assistant in the Auschwitz-Birkenau infirmary helped save hundreds of Jewish inmates from the gas chambers and who after the war helped thousands of critically ill inmates survive; and Nancy Wake, British Special Operations and French maquis resistance fighter who was a courier for several escape networks in occupied France (survived the war).

Linda is an old friend of mine, and I’ve watched her art morph over the years from figurative to abstract then back to (largely) figurative. Her loft then and now is located in the Tribeca section of Manhattan, and she was evacuated after witnessing the fall of the twin towers on 9/11. Since then she has spent much of her time and energy seeking ways to empower the powerless through her art in a world that can be threatening to people in so many different ways and from so many different sources.

I profiled her art in the June 2015 issue of A&U magazine (story available in the archives of the magazine’s website, www.aumag.org), where she talks about empowering women and men threatened by the AIDS specter that hangs over us all these days.

Looking at her show “Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Women,” it occurred to me: Why not honor in some strikingly public way the “fierce women” who have been involved in the AIDS movement for so many years? Of course I’m thinking about prominent individuals like actress Elizabeth Taylor, who did so much to raise public awareness of the disease and funds for research efforts. I’m also thinking of Dr. Matthilde Krim, founding chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). The solidarity of both these women with the AIDS community over the decades is legendary the world over. But I’m also thinking of those whose contributions are lesser known or celebrated, but still important in the history of the disease and deserve attention.

One of these is well known in her own right, but seldom mentioned in an AIDS context: Doris Day. Commentators have noted a positive turning point in the social perception of this disease with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS-related causes in 1985. But what about Doris Day’s very public embrace of her friend and movie co-star on her television show Doris Day’s Best Friends (1985-1986) when he was already near death? The show aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network and her message of love and compassion reached millions who might well have needed some enlightenment on the human tragedy caused by AIDS.

Then there are women associated with AIDS activism over the decades: for example, novelist Sarah Schulman (profiled by me in the August 2000 issue of A&U), writer and filmmaker Amber Hollibaugh (profiled in the November 2000 issue of A&U), and artist Mary Fisher (cover story for the February 2001 issue of A&U), among Americans. In Africa, Princess Kasune Zulu (“Princess” is her given first name; profiled in the August 2010 issue of A&U) became a force to be reckoned with in Zambia and (through her radio program) large swaths of southern Africa.

And let us not forget medical researchers such as Martine Peters and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (both French) or Dr. Grace Aldrovandi and Dr. Deborah Persaud (both American and both winners of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation Scientist award) who have contributed immensely to our knowledge of the disease.

There are more. No doubt many more.

We have the AIDS quilt, commemorating publicly those who have died of AIDS. Why not a public monument to those whose lives are testimony to the “fierce women” who have taken on the demon of AIDS and done so much to help tame it?

 

Note: The image shown with this post is titled Ten Heroes 259 (© 2016 by Linda Stein). For more information on Linda Stein’s art, visit her website http://www.lindastein.com; Flomenhaft Gallery is located at 547 W. 27 St., Suite 200, New York, NY 10001, in the Chelsea art district of Manhattan; website: www.flomenhaftgallery.com. Linda’s exhibition runs there through July 14, 2016, then moves on to Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (August 24 through October 1, 2016); the Museum of Biblical Art in collaboration with University of North Texas in Dallas (October 26 through December 16, 20016), and the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland (September 14 through November 12, 2017).

Revisiting Activism, Part 2

aids_quilt

January 2017 saw the installation of a new regime in Washington, DC, that to all appearances is hostile not just to gay rights, not just to abortion rights, but to public education and the social safety net so laboriously constructed for all Americans in the last few decades. Large-scale protests are already underway to protect the gains now under threat, and the need for large-scale and long-term social and political activism is very much on the horizon.

Last year saw the publication of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, a memoir by Cleve Jones about his many years as an activist. In my previous blog entry, “Revisiting Activism, Part 1,” I delved into the history of Jones’ activism up to the 1978 death by assassination of his mentor, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk. That history included anti-war protests, activities related to the nascent gay liberation movement, and a boycott of Coors beer at San Francisco gay bars in support of labor rights at the Coors brewery in Colorado.

In Part 1, I pointed out some lessons about activism to be drawn from those experiences. In Part 2, I delve into Jones’ experiences as an activist in relation to AIDS and marriage equality. As we shall see, there are additional lessons to be learned that will be helpful to anyone involved in an activist cause.

Jones opens Chapter 32 of his memoir with the following words: “AIDS changed everything about our lives.” Living as he did in San Francisco, one of the early epicenters of the medical maelstrom that was about to engulf the nation in the early 1980s, his own life certainly changed. From the initial terror of an unknown virulent agent that looked like it might kill off the entire gay male population, to the onslaught of homophobic rants during the Reagan years that “sodomites” deserved to die, to the mass protests and die-ins that were held demanding an adequate governmental and research effort to find a cure or at least an alleviation of the ravages of HIV on the immune system, Jones found himself at the front lines of what for several years seemed an unwinnable battle against a very scary viral predator and a government indifferent—if not outright hostile—to all the suffering caused by the disease.

But Jones went a step further: In 1985, he conceived the idea for what was to become the central symbol of the AIDS epidemic. Like his friend Gilbert Baker and the rainbow flag, he created the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I personally think it’s hard to overestimate the importance this great piece of folk art had on the epidemic. One had to be on the mall in DC during the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987—as I was—where it was first publicly displayed to feel the visceral hold it had over those attending the march as in almost complete silence people walked among the panels in tears, overcome by this visible tribute to those dead of the plague.

The AIDS Quilt arguably provided the focus for a sense of grief and sadness that reached not just to those who had lost lovers, friends, and family members, but to a nation that needed to come to terms with the physical and emotional devastation this disease was causing. And it was all the more important as AIDS spread into groups and communities that initially had felt safely distanced from it. The Quilt may have been started by a gay man, but it was as familiar and comfortable a symbol as a quilting bee. Anyone could relate to it.

Jones himself had AIDS, and by October 1994 he was very sick indeed. Then his doctor called him in and put him on some medicines undergoing a clinical trial that used in combination improved his health very quickly. Of course this was the introduction of a new way of treating AIDS that provided not just hope but results. The antiretrovirals and drug cocktails that would save so many lives were at last at hand.

Jones in Chapter 32 of his memoir links AIDS directly to the last of his activist causes that I’ll explore here when he writes: “AIDS also changed the way we viewed marriage. Long seen as unattainable and ‘just a piece of paper,’ marriage was now seen as a vital, even life-saving right. We looked around us. . . . We saw the loving partners caring . . . for their dying lovers. . . . We saw their devotion and said, What do you mean this isn’t a real marriage? . . . This is exactly what a real marriage looks like.” So the LGBTQ community and their allies in California were ready to enter the fray once more after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in a statewide referendum banning gay marriage.

The legal issues involved in overturning the ban are too complicated to go into here. What is more important in terms of lessons related to activism is who some of the prominent non-LGBT allies turned out to be—not just Hollywood liberals like Rob Reiner, Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand, and Steven Spielberg, but conservative lawyer Ted Olson and (conservative on most issues) Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Kennedy, who wrote the Supreme Court majority opinion that legalized gay marriage nationwide, was perhaps not such a surprise since in 2003 he also wrote the majority opinion legalizing same-sex sexual activity nation-wide, citing sodomy laws as a violation of the right to privacy and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. But Olson came as a complete shock to everyone involved in the marriage equality case, whether pro or con. A high-ranking official in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and Solicitor General under George W. Bush, his conservative credentials were such that he had been called a “branded right-winger.” Yet he, along with his more liberal lawyer friend David Boies, successfully led the charge against the Proposition 8 gay marriage ban so that in June 2015 Justice Kennedy could again write a majority opinion favoring the LGBTQ population in a case of national importance.

So what lessons can be drawn in relation to activism from the two examples cited in this blog entry?

  1. Causes can make good use of potent symbols to help spur their success. As with the AIDS Memorial Quilt, they focus energy among the activists themselves, and can help explain and promote the cause to others not yet involved.
  2. Activists should keep an open mind about who and what can help them achieve their goals. You don’t necessarily know where your allies may be found.

Note: This blog entry, like the one preceding it, “Activism Revisited, Part 1,” runs longer than I would have liked. But as Cleve Jones’ life and memoir show, uneasy times can call forth the need for actions that are out of the ordinary. Both Parts 1 and 2 aim at providing insights into a way of participating in the world that can be adventurous, but also unfamiliar to most people and very demanding.

Activism. It may be just around the corner for many of us.

When We Rise is available as a hardback and paperback in bookstores nationwide, and also as a Nook or Kindle e-book.

The illustration accompanying this blog entry is a photo of the AIDS Memorial Quilt taken from the National Institutes of Health; the image is in the public domain.

Revisiting Activism, Part 1

when-we-rise

Cleve Jones’ recent memoir When We Rise: My Life in the Movement comes at an opportune moment. January 2017 has seen the installation of not merely a new regime in Washington, but a regime with a disturbing approach to dealing with many of the needs of the citizens it will be governing. It’s not just a new President who’s a bully by temperament and who seems to divide people into friends and enemies according to how they stroke his ego or not, but also a Congress the majority of whose members are clearly bent on destroying public education and the social safety net so laboriously constructed over the last few decades in this country and hostile to government spending for any purpose that doesn’t fit with an agenda that denies climate change, eliminates a woman’s right to choose, and sees supporting medical care and the arts as a waste of money. In other words, it could be goodbye to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare as we have known it, the EPA, Roe v. Wade, and the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, among other government programs designed to improve all our lives. Which means a goodly number of Americans may soon find themselves in the activist trenches, forced to re-fight battles everyone thought already won over the last fifty years or so.

Enter When We Rise, a moving history of Jones’ own long activist involvement with a variety of causes over the decades. Those causes ranged from the anti-Vietnam-war movement in the 1960s-1970s to the election of Harvey Milk as San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor in the mid-1970s to AIDS in the 1980s (and beyond) to the marriage equality fight of the 2000s to struggles over workers’ rights throughout his adult life.

For anyone involved in an activist cause, there are lessons to be learned here: how you go about it and how you can maintain the momentum over what may be many years, the kinds of problems you can expect to encounter, the rewards you can expect to see along the way. So let’s visit what Cleve Jones has to say about his own activist experiences.

After dropping out of college in Phoenix, where his family lived, Jones arrived to live in San Francisco in 1973. In the memoir he calls himself a “rocker kid,” and during his early years in the city he certainly danced, drank, drugged, and partied heavily in the gay sexual liberation lanes. He was also a street kid for a time since without a college degree he was qualified only for low-paying jobs.

However, in the San Francisco of the 1970s, Jones was also surrounded by an ongoing and vibrant culture of political protest. Even as the anti-war protests died down with the collapse of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, the city was a West Coast center of the nascent gay liberation movement. Harvey Milk was gearing up for his runs to be elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, and political alliances were being forged between gay activists, labor activists, and democratic politicians.

It took a few years, but disposed to activism by his anti-war feelings and experience with a gay commune back in Phoenix, Jones eventually found himself participating in protests, especially when Anita Bryant ran her ugly but successful 1977 campaign to repeal a recently enacted gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.

It was after the Bryant victory that Jones began to grow close to Harvey Milk. He describes Milk as his mentor, and working with his new friend he began to learn the methods and intricacies of activism: organizing and running marches and protests; putting up posters around a campus, a neighborhood, an entire city; speaking at rallies and to people individually door to door; forming alliances with groups whose focus might be different but where there were common aims; dealing with government officials and the police. After Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors, he even hired Jones as an intern in his office.

Three notable issues where Jones worked with Milk (among others): a boycott of Coors beer in gay bars to support labor rights at the Coors brewery in Colorado (1977), Milk’s own election (1977), and defeat of the state-wide Briggs initiative, which would have barred lesbian and gay educators from teaching in California public schools (1978)—all successful. Add one other event he witnessed in 1978, not directly related to Harvey Milk, but presaging a very important development in his own life nearly a decade later: the creation of the rainbow flag by his friend Gilbert Baker, which quickly spread not just nationwide but worldwide as a symbol of the LGBTQ community.

Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978, and so did not live to see the calamity that overtook the gay world a few years later and would define a central part of Cleve Jones’ activism for the rest of his life: the advent of AIDS. But that is a tale for an upcoming second blog entry on revisiting activism. For now, I want to point out that there are already lessons to be learned from Cleve Jones’ memoir. Stated succinctly, they are:

  1. There will be much grunt work—for example, plastering a neighborhood with posters or talking to strangers about your cause. These activities can be tiring and sometimes confrontational. To sustain them over the long term, you should have a deep emotional stake in your cause, or even, as was the case with AIDS, feel like your life depends on its success.
  2. You should work at building coalitions with like-minded people and other groups with similar aims but different focuses. Allies provide support and new ideas about strategies that can help you achieve your aim.
  3. Be prepared to come across interesting people whose knowledge and enthusiasm can boost your own. Harvey Milk was clearly one such person who was crucial to Cleve Jones’ development as an activist.
  4. Know your opponents’ weaknesses and learn how to exploit them. The boycott of Coors beer in the gay bars of San Francisco and other places around the country affected the company right where it hurt: the pocket book. Another way of stating this is to learn what your own levers of power are so you can use them effectively.

Part 2 of this blog will discuss Clive Jones’ involvement with AIDS activism and marriage equality. As we’ll see, the lessons to be learned there are quite different.

When We Rise is available as a hardback and paperback in bookstores nationwide, and also as a Nook or Kindle e-book.

Notes on “Art AIDS America,” Part 2: Art + AIDS in Color

When Art AIDS America, an ambitious exhibition aimed at demonstrating the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis on the making of art and its presentation to the world at large, opened in October 2015 at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), little did its curators (Jonathan David Katz, Director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, Tacoma Art Museum) or TAM itself anticipate the controversy that erupted two months later when a group called the Tacoma Action Collective (TAC) launched protests over the fact that only four of the 107 artists included in the show were black. As recounted in Larry Buhl’s article “Art AIDS America & Institutionalized Racism in Art” [A&U, June 2016], TAC saw this as a “lopsided representation of the racial demographics of the HIV/AIDS crisis when Black Americans now represent forty percent of the death toll from AIDS and Black Americans under twenty-four now constitute fifty-seven percent of new HIV diagnoses.” Buhl also quoted a TAC press release charging that Art AIDS America “largely displays HIV as a white gay crisis from the 80’s.”

In the talks that followed between TAC, the curators of the show, and the Tacoma Art Museum, agreement was reached in several areas. (1) Work related to AIDS by additional black artists would be added to later legs of the exhibition in Kennesaw, Georgia, the Bronx, and Chicago. (2) The Tacoma Art Museum commissioned a piece by black artist, writer, and archivist Sur Rodney Sur on the participation of African-Americans in the visual arts. Titled “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost,” it traces out efforts from 1969 through the TAC protests in 2015 aimed at securing a greater black presence in both American and international art exhibitions and greater support for black visual art production. (3) TAM’s senior management agreed to complete a workshop on how racism and structural racism in society oppress African- American communities.

However, not everyone was satisfied with these results. Perhaps the most notable dissenter was photographer Kia Labeija [A&U, April 2015], one of the four black artists originally included in Art AIDS America. Labeija told Buhl she was proud to be part of the show, but felt that “her inclusion was a placeholder to represent people like her,” explaining: “If I weren’t in the show there would be no representation of African-American women with HIV who were born positive. And that’s sad. I’m also the only female artist living with HIV who’s part of the show. I play all these roles. But I’m not the only one out there. I couldn’t believe that in ten years they spent [curating the show] they could only find me.”

Clearly here we see the worlds of art and politics in collision. We also see a critique of the white art establishment by black artists who feel marginalized not just as artists but in a critical part of their lives—their health—that at least for those living with HIV/AIDS has often been at the heart of much of their art. As Sur Rodney Sur’s “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost” demonstrates, this is not the first black critique of the white art establishment, and it probably won’t be the last. Yet what TAC was calling for is hardly unreasonable: a fair representation of how visual artists of color have interacted with a health crisis that has impacted their lives and the lives of their communities over several decades now and that has emerged in recent years as a heavily minority crisis in the United States.

 

Make no mistake: Art AIDS America is a magnificent exhibition in scope and intention. Kia Labeija is quite right to feel proud of her participation in a show demonstrating the profound impact a once despised and vilified illness has had on the contemporary art world. But a situation that leaves her feeling her inclusion serves as a “placeholder” to represent people like herself hardly does justice to her art. AIDS is one disease that forces people to confront their mortality on a daily basis and in an extremely personal way, and art about AIDS should convey those feelings to viewers in extremely powerful images. In a piece like Mourning Sickness, Labeija’s art does precisely that, and should represent no one but herself and nothing other than the vision she has chosen to communicate to the world.

I personally think the TAC protests point to a crying need for a couple of exhibitions with somewhat different slants. How about one devoted exclusively to the response by minority artists to the AIDS crisis? We could title that one Art + AIDS in Color. And how about a show conceived as a dialogue between the responses of minority and non-minority artists to this health crisis? Perhaps that one could be titled Face to Face: Art Confronts AIDS from Different Angles.

Titles aside, I think Art AIDS America should be welcomed for what it demonstrates about the impact of AIDS on the contemporary art world. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room to explore art related to AIDS in other ways.

Hey curators, museums, art galleries: Anyone out there interested in taking up this suggestion?

Note: The image shown with this post, Mourning Sickness (© 2014 Kia Labeija), is used with permission of the artist, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Art AIDS America remains at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (www.bronxmuseum.org) through October 23, 2016, then moves on to its final venue at the Alphawood Gallery (www.alphawoodfoundation.org; info@artaidsamericachicago.org) in Chicago from December 1, 2016, through April 2, 2017.

To reach Sur Rodney Sur’s “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost” online, type the words “Tacoma Art Museum Sur Rodney Sur” into your web browser; this should bring you to a result reading “Art AIDS America,Tacoma Art Museum,” under which Sur Rodney Sur’s name starts the first line of text; press on that result, and scroll down under the heading “On the Protest of Art and the Art of Protest” to the phrase “(download PDF),” which is the document you want.