Bite Your Tongue

Two protests in as many weeks — at the Roxie over the screening of Cruising and a direct action at a Project Inform benefit dinner — pose the question: Are some activists casting a chill on open debate?

Facing on-and-off downpours outside the Roxie last Friday night, a handful of demonstrators from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) distributed leaflets that damned Cruising, William Friedkin's controversial 1980 thriller about a psychokiller at large in the gay playgrounds of New York, as homophobic and exploitative.

Ticketbuyers, many clad in the leather gear featured in the film, accepted the handout and ambled into the theater. GLAAD made good on its promise not to disrupt the screening. But its insistence on a debate with director Friedkin, who was supposed to introduce the movie on the opening night of its weeklong run, induced Roxie programmer Elliot Levine to disinvite the filmmaker.

A week earlier, a half-dozen members of ACT UP San Francisco disrupted a fund-raising dinner for the AIDS-treatment educational group Project Inform. Yanking tablecloths out from under place settings at the Hyatt Regency and overturning trays of dishes, the demonstrators chanted slogans and handed out fliers denouncing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal AIDS research official who, along with ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, had been invited to speak. In the ensuing tussle, one guest sustained cuts that required stitches; two others were thrown to the floor; and many attendees were emotionally shaken. One AIDS doctor cited the protest as another reason he was ending his public participation at Project Inform-sponsored informational meetings.

Dissent is verging on censorship in the gay community, some say, revealing a rift over the open exchange of ideas.

The Roxie's Levine says he revived Friedkin's movie, which protesters originally buried in 1980, because of his admiration for the director's work.

“It failed at the time for reasons that had nothing to do with its merits as a movie,” he says.

Allen Carson, the GLAAD project director who wrote the anti-Cruising pamphlet, counters that many gays consider the film offensive, so his organization contacted the Roxie with its request to debate Friedkin.

Levine declined, he says, because a debate meant “100 people in a shouting match” and “a public lynching of Bill Friedkin.”

Although Carson concedes that the Roxie has long been “a queer-positive theater,” he says the cancellation of the Friedkin appearance means that Levine is “not interested in opposing points of view.”

“It would have been ethically correct for the Roxie to let us respond,” says Carson. “All we were asking for was equal time.”

Absent a debate forum, “we settled for the leaflets,” says Carson. “We don't want to target the Roxie. We want to point out that Cruising is what we're targeting.”

The day after the protest, Levine complimented GLAAD for its restraint but added that many of those in line “did not appreciate being lectured about seeing the film.”

The appreciation of dissent was at the core of the disruption of the Project Inform dinner, maintains Dave Pasquarelli, one of the ACT UPers who turned the Hyatt benefit upside-down.

“We intended to ruin the dinner,” Pasquarelli says. “To us, it was the ultimate insult — an elitist event whose cost excluded many of those who had suffered most in the last 10 years” — his swipe at the “Ten Years of Hope” theme of the Project Inform dinner.

Pasquarelli says that the ideal place to let loose was a dinner populated with government policy-makers and representatives from AIDS-drug manufacturers.

ACT UP's protests have had an effect on Project Inform, says the group's executive director, Annette Brands. She attributes a significant drop-off in attendance at the group's monthly informational meetings to the way ACT UP acts up. A few months ago, ACT UP began attending and openly challenging the information being presented, she says, transforming doctors who lead the sessions and people with AIDS into no-shows. The screamed threats and deprecations of ACT UP are “very stressful” for the people with AIDS who attend, Brands says. “Many who come to our meetings are ill and looking for treatment options,” and don't come back after enduring demonstrations.

Fearful of reprisals, one doctor involved with Project Inform anonymously describes the protests as “fascist tactics. … They say we should be put before a firing squad” — a line ACT UP included in the leaflet against Fauci that was distributed at the Project Inform dinner — “and they try to intimidate people.

“What we're seeing here is a kind of cannibalism within the community itself,” the doctor remarks. “They used to attack the police, but now they're attacking their own community. We're trying to present information on treatments and how to prevent infection, and they are arguing for untested drugs and work for which there is no support, no analysis. This is not a scientific debate. They are simply affecting people's ability to listen to what drugs and treatments are currently available.”

Pasquarelli characterizes the doctors as mouthpieces for the companies that make the AIDS drugs. “Given that,” he wonders, “are we to expect that their information is unbiased? When people stand up and push AZT, I think people have a right to question that loudly.”

Asked if such hectoring nullifies the free exchange of ideas, Pasquarelli declares: “Our community is being more complacent than ever. It's the gay community's complacency that is truly chilling.”

So are gay activists just questioning loudly or are they squelching dissent? One Project Inform member, who asked not to be named, compares ACT UP to another well-known protest group. “How are they any different from the anti-abortionists who threaten people outside clinics?” he asks. “Think about it. It's frightening.

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