49: Sarah Schulman - writer and activist

photos by Emma Noelle

Sarah and I talk about Jewish girlhood, midcentury lesbianism, corporatization, political accountability, and the theatre of #MeToo.

Sarah Schulman was born in New York City in 1958 and attended (High College) Hunter High School.  She is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, nonfiction writer, AIDS historian,  journalist, and active participant citizen. She is the Co-Founder of MIX: NY LGBT Experimental Film and Video Festival, Co-Director of ACT UP Oral History Project, and the US Coodinator of the first LGBT Delegation to Palestine. Professor Schulman was also the Coordinator of the HOMONATIONALISM and PINKWASHING CONFERENCE at the City University of New York Graduate Center, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (April, 2013). Sarah Schulman is also on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and is  a fellow at the NY Institute for the Humanities at NYU. 

Emma Noelle Buhain lives and works in New York City. She is currently pursuing a degree in Art History and the Visual Arts at Barnard College. At the age of 15, she began her art practice by photographing the streets of Manila where she grew up. In Manila, Buhain uses photography to navigate her place within her family and the Filipino Catholic tradition. In New York, Buhain photographs people in their personal spaces as a visual exploration of intimacy, temporality, and vulnerability. Alongside photography, Buhain works with creative nonfiction, poetry, personal documentary filmmaking, and mixed media collage. Through her art, she seeks to reconcile the parts of her identity that are informed and transformed by Manila, Manhattan, and elsewhere.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on January 17, 2019, in an office space on Broadway. Emma Noelle photographed the conversation.

SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.

SARAH: There’s a famous Yiddish story by Isaac [Bashevis] Singer’s sister. Do you know who Isaac Singer was?


SARAH: He won the Nobel prize. He's a very famous writer. He also had a sister [Esther Kreitman] who was a writer. She wrote this very famous story [“Di Naye Velt,” or “The New World”] about a baby who is about to be born and is very excited about coming into the world. It can’t wait, and it knows that all these people are waiting for it. The baby is born, and everyone’s disappointed because it’s a girl. That’s like the experience of Jewish girlhood. I came from a family where women had to serve men, and my father didn’t know where the fork went. He didn’t know how to set a table. So that was the message from the beginning.

SOPHIA: I know that you started to become familiar with activism when your mom was protesting Vietnam—

SARAH: —It starts earlier than that because I come from a Holocaust family. My grandmother lived with us from the time I was eleven months old. She was like a primary parent because both of my parents worked. And she had two brothers and two sisters who had been exterminated in the Holocaust. That was my mother’s mother. My mother’s father’s sister was also murdered in the Holocaust. In those days, this concept of protecting children from information did not really exist. So I knew about the Holocaust from the beginning. I can’t remember ever not knowing. And the way that my family understood it was that people stood by and did nothing. Their neighbors, people that they had grown up with, stood by and did nothing. So that was really the first value that I was exposed to.

My mother was a social worker and my father was a doctor. He worked in a city hospital, Elmhurst Hospital, in Jackson Heights, Queens. And my mother worked at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s services. So both of my parents worked in this kind of public sector service provision, which is really what I do. I’m a professor at a city university. The family job was serving the people of the city of New York. So those two influences, I think, loomed large. My mother did oppose the war in Vietnam, and she did take us to demonstrations in 1967 and 1968. I was born in ‘58. We took the National Association of Social Worker buses to Washington. But I think [my political consciousness] was established before that.


SOPHIA: Could you talk about realizing that you were a lesbian and how that affected your life?

SARAH: That’s also a huge thing that you would have to be more specific about. But let’s just say that when I was four years old in 1962, my nursery school teacher was getting married. She was obsessed with marriage. 

SOPHIA: [laughs]

SARAH: She organized the class into a mass-wedding, and everyone had to line up in boy/girl couples and march down the aisle. But I refused. I said that I would be the photographer, and took pictures with this camera made out of my hands. So that was probably my first refusal. 

I come from an era in which homosexuality was never discussed. It was never in the major media or anything like that. My father had a patient who was an actor. The actor was heterosexual, but he was in a play where he played a gay character, and I remember my parents discussing that. That was my only exposure. Also, you have to understand that in Judaism— What religion are you?

SOPHIA: I was raised Evangelical. I’m not Evangelical now. But I come from a Christian background.

SARAH: Then you know that in Catholicism, there’s a role for single people, which is that they go into the church. In Judaism, there is no role for single people. Especially in that post-Holocaust generation, there was this idea was that you were supposed to reproduce the race in order to replace the people who had been murdered. So single people had no role. It’s common now for people to have a “bachelor uncle,” or something like that, but I had no one. Also people were married by arranged marriage in the generations before me, so there was no possibility of being single. 

SOPHIA: I know in [your book] Conflict is Not Abuse, you mentioned going to your high school guidance counselor, who told you not to discuss your lesbianism with people because you would be ostracized. That suggests that it was a problem you were trying to find support for—

SARAH: —There was no support. There were no organizations. There were no social services. There was no one you could go to. There were no counselors. There was just a big void of nothing.

SOPHIA: Was there anything that comforted you? Was there any sort of media or any person?

SARAH: There was a guy named Leonard Matlovich who was a soldier in Vietnam who came out as gay, and was dishonorably discharged. And he died of AIDS, ultimately. His photo was on Time magazine’s cover. That was the first time that I’d ever seen an openly gay person in any kind of media. That was in the ‘70s. 

I was ten in 1968, so the ‘60s were exploding around me in New York City, but…everything was kind of in an underground subcultural mode. So when I did come out, I came out into that kind of underground community that there’s only remnants of now. Being seen by corporate culture kind of destroyed the credibility of that authentic community.


SOPHIA: What do you feel is still alive?

SARAH: Most queer people and most straight people get all their information about queerness from corporate media. So it’s very very filtered. It’s extremely watered-down. It's not really accurate. But it informs everyone's sense of self, right?

SOPHIA: So there’s corporatized queerness?

SARAH: And straightness. It’s all created by corporate media. When [corporatization] is absent, there are also disadvantages. But without corporatization, you can produce a grassroots community expressing itself in an honest way. It’s not filtered. 

SOPHIA: Do you think that that kind of thing is capable of being recovered?

SARAH: Well the thing is, the information presented by the mainstream is so distorted and narrow that people still want to say what their lives are really like. So the sector of books and events and things like that that address real life still exist, but they’re much harder to find. It’s harder to be discerning about which is which.

SOPHIA: That reminds me of the comments that you’ve made about the dismal state of lesbian fiction. Like, publishers will only pick up that kind of watered-down—

SARAH: —It’s not just fiction. I mean, look at the movies. It’s been very interesting, because there has been a lot of lesbian representation in the movies this year. The Favourite, which I thought was horrible.

SOPHIA: Oh, really? I liked it!

SARAH: I really really hated it. And it represents the kind of lesbian content that’s extremely acceptable, because it’s highly rewarded and funded, right? I’m a person who has written scripts for independent directors. Two films I’ve written for Cheryl Dunye were at the Berlin Film Festival. There’s a sector of self-produced micro-budget lesbian cinema that’s accurate, but it’s shrinking because people want to work in the mainstream. Everyone does. I do. And when you make that leap, you leave your content behind. So this kind of counterbalanced voice basically get assimilated.

SOPHIA: Across your work, you discuss the idea of oppressed people becoming dominant—meaning that they become increasingly capable of identifying with and appropriating the power of the state—

SARAH: —That traumatized people can be very dangerous.

SOPHIA: Yes. And I agree with your push towards using the term “in conflict” rather than “oppressors” and “oppressed” or “victims” and “abusers”—

SARAH: —When it’s conflict. I’m fine with those terms when it’s abuse. 

SOPHIA: Then I’m wondering what your thoughts are about our broader cultural ability to think about power in such nuanced ways.

SARAH: Well, America is a Puritan country. We were founded by white supremacists. The Tea Party people are like the people who settled this country. We have to remember that. They were slaveholders. They murdered Native Americans. That’s our origin. We have a very punitive cultural origin that’s rooted in all kinds of concepts of supremacy. So we’re constantly battling against that. But that is who we are. It has been mitigated by immigration and things like that, but…[trails off]

SOPHIA: As a kind of secondary question to that, how do you understand how to negotiate being in conflict and being in solidarity? I feel like this question is particularly important to the Left right now.

SARAH: You can’t expect agreement on everything. Like, right now I’m writing a book about ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power] that’s going to be almost 800 pages. And one of the things that’s being revealed is that ACT UP never theorized itself, and that turns out to be one of its biggest strengths. For example, if you wanted to interrupt mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and I thought that was a terrible idea, I just wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t try to stop you from doing it. If I wanted to go hand out illegal clean needles on the Lower East Side in order to get arrested to have a test case and you didn’t want to, you just wouldn’t go. That’s what made that movement successful.

In this current environment, so much pressure is applied to who people’s friends are, what words people use, what their full and complete analysis is of everything… That doesn’t work. It’s extremely destructive. Like what’s happening with the Women’s March. Who cares if somebody’s a supporter of [Louis] Farrakhan? It doesn’t matter. You’re in a coalition with people. People have different loyalties. That’s the way it is. It’s absurd to try to make everybody homogenous—especially now, when basically every kind of person is being hurt by Trump. To ask people to agree is sabotage because people are too different. You just have to have basic areas of unity. Just a few places where you cohere so that you can do things that will resonate together. That seems to be historically the only thing that has ever worked, especially with the diversity of America.

There’s a choice about what we train women to expect, and I think the choice is between being resilient and being protected.

SOPHIA: What do you think about the common reaction of shunning those implicated in the #MeToo movement?

SARAH: You have to give me a really concrete example.

SOPHIA: Ok. Well, like there were the Louis C.K. allegations, and then the man who owns the Comedy Cellar [Noam Dworman] “let” him perform there a few months ago, and people got mad about it.

SARAH: That’s all phony, that stuff. That’s not actual. When an actor—which is basically what he is—is fired by a corporate entity, the people behind the scenes who fired that person are continuing to engage in that same behavior. It’s all theater. If a person wants to perform and you don’t want them to perform, don’t go. That’s my view. I’m an artist, so I don’t believe in silencing people. This is all a corporate chess game. It’s not relevant. 

We have to confront the problem of male offenders because there are so many of them in every single sector of society. As I talked about a little bit in the end of Conflict is Not Abuse, I feel like elite private universities are the best places experiment with how to deal with them. Like, in regard to the Columbia University mattress performance [Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry that Weight”], her desire to expel the perpetrator is just a desire to kick him out of the country club. But all that does is send this guy out into the world of other women who don’t have the protection of Columbia University. So what have you accomplished? Nothing. It’s a class-protection action. That, I think, is something that’s more real [than #MeToo shunning].

SOPHIA: Another problem that people point out about these situations is that people who attend these private universities—and public universities, too—expect the university to act as the state without being the state—

SARAH: —The public university students don’t expect that. It’s a class entitlement. 

SOPHIA: Is that true? The students at [UC] Berkeley, for example—

SARAH: —“Public university.” I’m talking about [institutions like] where I teach. [CUNY College of Staten Island]

SOPHIA: You’re right. Then I guess I’m wondering how you would expect these elite institutions that don’t simulate the world to inspire conflict-resolution practices that can be translated to the real world.

SARAH: Very few people are real predators. A predator is a person who enjoys breaking people's will. And that’s a very tiny percent. Most of these conflicts are in gray zone areas, where one person thinks one thing is happening and the other person thinks something else is happening. But if you have an environment where a person can acknowledge that something happened that was hurtful without being punished, they’re more likely to acknowledge it. If people know that if they tell the truth, that they’re not going to be expelled, they’re not going to be harassed, they’re not going to be shunned, but that the university’s infrastructure of behavior- and emotion-oriented professionals are going to work with them, that’s a lot more productive. 

I’ve surveyed my colleagues to see if anyone had ever been asked for a trigger warning, and only one person had. A student wanted to be warned if the teacher was going to say that the Bible was not the word of God, so it was like a right-wing trigger warning. This idea that people are so fragile that they can’t be exposed to certain ideas is class-based.

In terms of the women students, there’s a choice about what we train women to expect, and I think the choice is between being resilient and being protected. And it’s better for women to be resilient than to depend on being protected. People do need to have some level of protection. But people who are over-protected, that carries out into the larger society. That’s something Sara Ahmed writes about: the idea of never being uncomfortable. The idea that if you’re uncomfortable it means you’re being abused. She writes that the only way a person can go through life completely comfortably is if other people are suppressed and oppressed. So setting up that expectation doesn’t help women, either. 

SOPHIA: In your interview with LARB about [your new novel] Maggie Terry, you said: “It’s like when I wrote my novel Shimmer, which is set during McCarthyism, and you’re in this period where the government is so corrupt, and they’re punishing people, and scapegoating people, for no legitimate reason. And you’re asking people to make moral decisions about how they treat their friends in that context, and it’s impossible, because there’s a trickle-down of corruption. Our period now, that Maggie Terry is set in, when we have a president who’s insane, and everyone is living in fear, has to affect how we make decisions about responsibility and accountability.” Can you expand on how those decisions are complicated in this moment?

SARAH: Well the whole reason that Trump can have power is because other people are enabling him. They know that it’s wrong. They know that he’s crazy. But they’re doing it because they identify with a certain kind of power structure. He has harnessed anti-Latino racism to such a level of hysteria that thirty percent of Americans agree with the government shutdown because they’re so afraid of anyone south of the border that they don’t care what happens to their own healthcare or anything about their own lives. That's what I mean. Also it's interesting to me— Do you know who Sackler is? Does the name sound familiar?

SOPHIA: Aren’t they in the pharmaceutical...? 

SARAH: That family basically invented the opioid crisis. They hold the patent to opioids. They pretended that they weren’t addictive. [Trump's] whole thing is “Mexicans.” It’s actually this rich white family. That’s the moral confusion I’m talking about. That’s how you get this pervasive corruption.

SOPHIA: You said in an interview [with WAGS], “If I wasn’t going to work with poor or immigrant kids everyday I would have no clue what their lives are like, ‘cause none of my friends do.”   

SARAH: [laughs]

SOPHIA: Because feminism has been corporatized...what kinds of things do you see that you feel are not visible?

SARAH: Oh my god, everything. My students all live with their parents. They make a lot of decisions based on family loyalty. Decisions about how to live and what they believe. On the first day of class, I ask people to describe the room that they sleep in, and then I find out everything. They sleep in the living room, or with their own child. They have poverty. There’s no privacy. Do they have a place to even do their homework? I get this information right away. 

SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?

SARAH: Because I’m white, I have the question: “Why did fifty two percent of white women vote for Trump?” And that’s something that all white women have to be asking themselves. These women voted against their own interests, and they tend to be voting with their husbands. White women are the bridge group. And if they could think for themselves… African American women, for example, voted ninety eight percent for Hillary Clinton, while twenty percent of African American men voted for Trump. African American women have taken responsibility for the culture. The Latino woman vote was not what it should have been at all. So Latin women and white women have a lot of questions to ask themselves about the role that they’re playing in our cultural decline.

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