The Queer Truth: Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble

For years, when I would tell stories of my time in 1980s San Francisco to friends or students, some of my listeners would say, “It sounds kind of like Rent.” “No,” I would say, “It’s more like Sarah Schulman’s novel People in Trouble, but San Francisco rather than New York.”1

The friends and students to whom I said this hadn’t read People in Trouble and when I suggested to them that Jonathan Larson, the force behind Rent, had ripped off Schulman’s story and tamed it, making it far less queer and putting straight men at the center of a world in which straight men were largely absent, some of these people got mad at me. Most of them had not lived in the midst of the devastation of AIDS. If they were old enough to be aware of AIDS in the 1980s, it had existed at the margins of their lives. They love Rent, a stage show that shows some of the horror of the AIDS epidemic but softens it. “Look!” Rent says, “Faggots and lezzies and dykes and straight men all came together in the midst of the epidemic and built community!”2 In Rent, the marginal characters are all equally lacking in privilege whether they are lesbian, gay, or straight, whether they are male or female, and whether they are black, Latinx, or white. Viewers could even love Angel. Angel is the queerest character in Rent, a Latino street drummer with HIV who is open, kind, and flamboyant and often presents as female. Angel is also the one who dies.

In Schulman’s novel, there are no Angels. No one dies with grace. They die ravaged and angry, raging at the world around them. The survivors also rage. People in Trouble does not soften or ask anyone to make peace with the epidemic.

Book cover for People in Trouble. Is a collage of a cityscape with book title written in magazine cut-out looking letters.
People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman. (Amazon)

There are very few feel-good moments in People in Trouble but there is a lot of real life. Because there is real life — real life that AIDS activists from the 1980s can recognize — the novel is a good primary source. I have wanted to assign it in the history section of my interdisciplinary Introduction to LGBTQ Studies course but it has been out of print. Affordable used copies are hard to find and library copies are few and far between. Luckily, Vintage has acquired the rights to the novel and will be publishing it with a new afterword by Schulman. Excited by this news and with the added bonus of multiple hours sitting in airports, I took the opportunity to reread it.

In People in Trouble, Schulman creates three main characters. On the first page, she introduces us to Kate in a lingerie store, buying sexy underwear for Molly, her lover, a young lesbian making ends meet. Soon we meet Peter who is married to Kate. Both Kate and Peter are older than Molly and are artists. At some point after Kate and Molly get involved, Kate tells Peter about the affair. He kind of swims along with it but finds any evidence of gay people in the world as a personal affront. With these intertwined relationships as one backdrop, the story spins out in 1980s New York City as AIDS begins its deadly path and new forms of activism arise.

In People in Trouble, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) becomes an organization called Justice. Molly and Kate both get involved in Justice. For Molly, it is a necessity because the men who are sick and dying are people she knows and loves. Kate remembers her earlier antiwar activism and, through her connection to Molly, begins to participate in the protests. Peter finds the very existence of Justice an affront. When he stops in a diner for a post-run meal, there are young gay men getting ready for a protest. “Ever since Kate had begun her gay affair,” Schulman writes, “Peter had been slapped in the face by homosexuals practically every day.”3 Each of these reactions reflects three of the many ways Americans reacted to AIDS in the urban landscapes of the 1980s.

“Silence = Death” poster by Gran Fury, published by ACT UP in 1986. (Silence = Death Project/New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Schulman fictionalized the real protests of that era, but they are easily recognizable to AIDS activists. For example, when the real estate tycoon Ronald Horne (a fictionalized Donald Trump) begins to evict people with AIDS from property he buys up, Justice occupies Horne’s Castle just like ACT UP and other AIDS activist groups occupied or blocked access to any institution, organization, or seat of power that stood in the way of care and treatment of those living with or dying from AIDS. At the Horne’s Castle protest, the police are afraid to approach the protesters, convinced they can contract AIDS from simple contact. When the police finally appear wearing Playtex Living Gloves, the protestors chant, “Your gloves don’t match your shoes.” Those of us who were activists in the 1980s and 1990s called this out at every protest starting with the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Lives. That chant, resounding in urban areas throughout the United States, was camp in the midst of death and despair, comedy in the midst of tragedy.

People in Trouble is a story of the marginalized people who had the courage to stand up against those with political and economic power. It is a story of one relatively brief time when different factions came together to fight against the colossal greed and indifference of the world around us. Among others, there were poor lesbians (some of whom had AIDS), there were gay men from all economic strata including “distinguished homosexuals who had forgotten that they were queer until AIDS came along and everyone else reminded them.”4 And, as Schulman notes, “No straight men showed up at all.”5 Peter is one of those absent straight men. He only half notices the epidemic all around him. At a bar one night, when a news story about AIDS aired, Peter groans, “Oooh, I’m so sick of AIDS,” and meant only that he was sick of hearing about it.6

The world we see through Molly’s eyes is a world of radical activism where people steal credit cards to feed their friends and calling card numbers to allow them to remain connected to others. Activists take to the streets often without permits. Although there is love, sometimes joy, and often humor, activists live in a devastating world of death and corporate/political cruelty and indifference. At the end of the novel, Molly and her friends are worn out and worn down, tired and discouraged but also keeping at it because there is nothing else to do. People in Trouble is fiction. People in Trouble is also true.

As I reread the novel with an eye toward teaching it in the future, my students were a constant presence in my head. They told me, “No matter how hard you work to historicize the novel, we will have a hard time with it.” These voices in my head are not just a reflection of my own insecurities about teaching something so close to the bone. I also know those imagined voices speak a truth. For the most part my students are not radicals; radicalism makes them uncomfortable. The LGBTQ students tend toward assimilationist values. The straight students are sweet and caring and make me think that the future can be better than the present, but they also are invested in believing their experiences aren’t that different from those of their LGBTQ counterparts. They might understand that they have some privilege others don’t enjoy, but in the end they believe in a relatively universal human experience.

People in Trouble is something different. It tells not of a universal human experience but of a particularly LGBTQ one. It is not Rent’s “La Vie Bohème” with the straight and LGBTQ characters singing together that their community includes, “Anyone out of the mainstream,” and wonders, “Is anyone in the mainstream?”7 Schulman’s characters, and particularly Molly and her friends, live far outside of the bohemian world proposed by Rent. Theirs is a world articulated by Molly’s friend James, who reminds his tired and discouraged listeners that “The only way to overcome the machinery is to become bigger than it is. So that, one day, more people will be participating in the event than watching it on television. That is called a revolution.”8

Original Broadway cast of Rent, 1996. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even if almost all of my students hate the novel, I want them to read it because it tells an important story. I believe that if they do read it they will see the ways some of the people who came before them imagined a world that wasn’t about consumerism or about fitting into the world as it already existed. Instead Molly and her friends, my friends and I, and others like us wanted to create a new and different world if we could only find a way to survive into the future. The snapshot of 1980s New York that breathes throughout the novel shows a past queerer and less conformist than many students can imagine. It’s a past that contains a lot of anger that had the power to compel people to direct action. For some of us, that anger still burns in a place very much at our core. We will not forget the ways that our society ignored an epidemic because the epidemic hit those they considered beneath contempt. We have harbored that anger knowing that it is and will be useful.

My students are uncomfortable with the anger of marginalized people. When I ask them to role play, they choose education and access to information rather than protest as means to the ends they wish to achieve. I work hard to temper my own anger at the world around me when teaching so as not to scare them off. People in Trouble will unsettle them; however, when combined with other sources, I hope it can also show them that people in trouble can come together to respond to injustice and work to create change.

Notes

  1. Sarah Schulman, People in Trouble (New York: Dalton, 1990). Return to text.
  2. “Faggots, and lezzies, and dykes” are some of the lyrics in “La Vie Bohème,” Rent. Return to text.
  3. Schulman, People in Trouble, 31. Return to text.
  4. Schulman, 158. Return to text.
  5. Schulman, 159. Return to text.
  6. Schulman, 123 Return to text.
  7. “La Vie Bohème,” Rent. Return to text.
  8. Schulman, People in Trouble, 209. Return to text.

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