Interview with Steve Gdula, Author of Wearing History: T-Shirts from the Gay Rights Movement

Since October is GLBT History Month, I thought it fitting to talk to my D.C. writer-pal Steve Gdula, whose current book, Wearing History: T-Shirts from the Gay Rights Movementis now out (from Alyson Publishing and available in bookstores nationwide.) Until Steve sent me his book I had completely forgotten that people used to express their rage and sorrow over the AIDS crisis (sometimes with deeply rich black humor) by literally wearing their politics on their sleeves! In these rather politically-anorexic times, Wearing History is a book worth taking a good hard look at. Plus it's often quite funny. Steve is curently on a national book tour reminding folks that the personal is still poltical. He took time out to do a quick email Q&A with me.

Ann Magnuson: You are currently in San Francisco doing book signings. What has the reaction been to Wearing History?
Steve Gudgula: So far so good. It's great to meet people who've actually been involved in making and wearing some of these original shirts, and it's fascinating to see them come face to face with something that was an important part of their past. These shirts are more than just ephemera, they're cultural artifacts. A member of the board of directors at the GLBT Historical Society where I'm speaking on Thursday night said that my book Wearing History added an important new dimension in queer history and, of course, that was extremely flattering and humbling.

AM: How has San Francisco changed over the years?
SG: I know a lot of people are fearful that all gay neighborhoods, whether it's The Castro, Du Pont Circle in DC, or the Village in NYC are turning into Disney-fied Starbucks-dotted suburbs. They are losing their character, to a degree, especially since there seems to be a prescriptive sameness that is often favored over the truly unique. But I consider San Francisco to be like a second hometown, so I am always happy to be here. Not being a resident I don't see it quite the way others do. Who knows, locals might view people like me -- those who visit often but don't move here -- as part of the problem, I don't know!?

AM: Tell me about the book, why you were inspired to collect these T-Shirts and present their history to the world.
SG: I found the shirts in the GLBT Historical Society & Archives in San Francisco in the summer of 2004. I was reading Daniel Harris' book, The Rise And Fall of Gay Culture at the time, and in its pages, he made numerous references to what was then called the Northern California GLBT Historic Society. I looked it up in the San Francisco directory, and sure enough it was there. I made an appointment to drop by and to tour the facility. While in the Archives I noticed stacks and stacks of boxes all simply marked "T-shirts."

I was always interested in the idea of the T-shirt as a delivery system, a means of taking a message into the street, so I was very curious about what was stashed in those boxes. When I asked the research assistant if I could rummage through them he said "Go ahead, you'll be the first."

I dove in and one of the first shirts I found was the image of Reagan, screened in that putrid yellow color, with the charge AIDSGATE! scrawled across the front. For me it was like finding a lost Haring or a forgotten Warhol.

But I was particularly struck by the courage required to make and wear these shirts. The persons doing so were not only making themselves into walking billboards, they were essentially turning themselves into moving targets.

AM: I remember all too well the harrassment some people would get when they dared to wear those messages outside save havens like the West Village or the Castro. I had forgotten how popular 'message' t-shirts were back in the 80s. Boy did we need them what with Reagan doin' his darndest to keep the country in the dark over AIDS.
SG: I think that it's difficult for some people to imagine how alienated and marginalized gays and lesbians were made to feel during that time. In his resistance to speaking out on the issue of AIDS, Reagan reinforced the stigma of the disease. And since the public associated AIDS with gay men, there was heightened hostility and a rise in gay-bashing. People are afraid of the unknown, and the Reagan administration's silence and seeming apathy only increased fears among the public.

But remember the incident with Skid Row and the AIDS: Kills Fags Dead T-shirt in the late '80s? The idea that this was acceptable, even as a joke, spoke a lot about the cultural climate at the time.

This was another reason why it became important for gay groups like ACT UP to live up to their name, to draw attention to the crisis through means of demonstration and through provocative T-shirts.

You can choose to not listen to someone who's speaking or you can choose to turn away from someone who's trying to engage you in conversation but when you're confronted on the street or on the subway by a provocative image on a T-shirt, it's going to impress you in a different way.

AM: Today's young folks seem to be more into design than politics. Why don't you think we see many politial messages on T-shirts today? Or have I missed something?
SG: Well, I think that there's a status quo, an equilibrium that's been established similar to what was taking place in the mid-'70s prior to Harvey Milk's assassination. I think that some people in the GLBTQ community feel that because we have shows on TV with gay characters, because we have people like Ellen DeGeneres winning Emmys, because we have entire channels like LOGO devoted to GLBTQ content, and because we also have lobbying groups like HRC who are petitioning government and lawmakers on our behalf that somehow we don't need to take control of our own situation because someone else is doing it for us. I think we've been somewhat lulled into a complacent state. The push for the Constitutional amendment -- that would have made it unlawful for same-sex marriage -- was seen by most people, even in the GLBTQ community, as something that would fail, and I think that awareness gave people a false sense of security. It made some people think "We have time on our sides, and we have reason on our sides" and I don't think that's the case. You can't ignore this sort of thing because if you're not deciding your own fate then someone else will decide it for you.

AM: Which T-shirts are your favorites?

SG: I like the ones that use humor to shock but also diffuse the tension surrounding issues that were not easily discussed, like the Diseased Pariah News shirt. People were suffering and dying and there was not enough action being taken by the government, so this shirt turned the marketing slogan from Palmolive into an accusation. The "blood" of Americans dead from AIDS that the presidential hand was 'soaking in' was extremely effective. It was darkly comic, and I like the way it called out the Reagan and Bush administrations for their avoidance of the crisis.

AM: Where is AIDS (or any poltical) activism now? Do you think people have become blase about both AIDS awareness and "gay rights"?
SG: Good question. We see less turn out each year for things like AIDS Walk, and we see facilities that reach out to individuals suffering from AIDS having to cut back on services that they provide, like their food pantries or meal deliveries. In some ways the drug treatments for HIV infection, while they've been a blessing in that they have prolonged lives, they've also given the younger generation a feeling that the disease isn't fatal, that it's one that can be managed by long-term care. So on one hand it's great that we've made progress in terms of sustaining life, but at the same time, here we are, over twenty five years into the epidemic and we still do not have a cure.

As for gay rights, I'll be interested to see what happens with this recent vote split for the ENDA -- the bill to add orientation to national laws regarding discrimination -- and the removal of protection for "transgender" individuals from the bill's original language. The thinking is that the bill wouldn't pass with the original inclusion, so the passing of the bill without it would allow for future dialogue that would eventually get "transgender" inclusion in the language of the law.

Parts of the GLBTQ community are promising rancorous debates over the topic, and I think it will be fascinating.

I also think with so much corporate endorsement, with so many advertisers coming after the gay dollar, there has been a sense that being homosexual, especially in gay urban circles, was a lifestyle to buy into. I'm afraid we've become focused on status rather than on rights.

AM: That's for damn sure. You live in DC with your partner Lon. What is it like to be in the belly of the beast? Does everyone talk politics there? And how are the 2008 campaigns heating up? Can we expect Hillary in the White House? Or the country's first Morman?

SG: Yep, Lon and I have been together ten years, all of them spent in DC. There was a palpable pall that fell over the city when the Clintons left the White House the first time. You could feel it in the grocery stores, the dog parks, the neighborhood. People seemed dispirited, defeated. I remember I was interviewing several people during that time and we ended up crying over the phone to each other.

Talk of politics is unavoidable in DC! It's everywhere. My brother-in-law in Alabama always reminds us "You know there's life outside the Beltway, right?"

It would be nice to have the Clintons right down the street again. We don't live far from the White House, and we'd love to have them back. I'm also not ruling out Obama. I think he's a bright guy. I also applaud Edwards' program for feeding the poor. I just don't think he's the man for the job. We'll see what happens.

AM: Where can people get the book?
SG: Wearing History: T-Shirts from the Gay Rights Movement is everywhere. Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, but I'm trying to encourage people, when possible, to buy from bookstores like Lambda Rising, A Different Light or Giovanni's Room.

AM: Or they can also click here! Steve, what are your future plans?
SG: I've got a social history of the American Kitchen in the 20th century coming out in January called The Warmest Room in the House. Bloomsbury USA is the publisher, and we'll be doing signings to benefit local food pantries and soup kitchens in the early part of 2008. Out of necessity and after much needling from friends I began a MySpace page last month so people can be aware of what I'm up to.

Thanks for your time and interest Ann. This was fun. You know I've always been a huge fan of yours, ever since the days of The Hunger and Pulsallama so this was an honor!

AM: Well, thank you. I'm honored someone even remembers that stuff! Seems like a millenia ago!
SG: I said to some kid in the hotel lobby earlier today that I liked "Eno," and he said, "You mean 'emo.'" I was like, "No... I mean Eno. As in Brian Eno." He simply stared at me blankly. ARGH!

AM: Kids! What's the matter with kids today? Cue Paul Lynde... except they probably won't even know who Paul Lynde is either. If not, click here, all you young upstarts. And thank you Steve! Best of luck with your book tour!

Steve Gdula's writing has appeared in publications such as Details, RAYGUN, The Advocate, and on websites like His His next book, The Warmest Room in the House is a social history of the American Kitchen of the 20th century and is being released by Bloomsbury USA in January of 2008. He and his partner Lon have been together for ten years. They live in Washington, DC.

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