Over the weekend I had the chance to listen to Sean Strub’s memoir Body Counts on audio, which reminded me a lot of one of my favorite memoirs from earlier in the year, Cleve Jones’s When We Rise.
The two memoirs both place coming-of-age journeys against the backdrop of gay liberation and AIDS activism over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. The authors were heavily involved in their time’s mainstream politics as well as its grassroots movements, and they played pivotal roles in the trajectory of LGBT history at the close of the twentieth century. In their work, they make an effort to lucidly tell their stories: their language is as accessible as it is engaging.
Both memoirs are expansive and full of emotion, though When We Rise happens to be the more famous of the two, since it not only won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography in 2017 but also was adapted into an ABC mini-series.
Set in San Francisco during the 1970s and 1980s, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement tracks the rise of progressive politics, sexual freedom, and gay activism in the Castro district. Cleve Jones spends much of his memoir’s first third detailing his youthful travels abroad and aimless wandering; the many descriptions of his lovers, friends, and drug use start off as interesting but quickly become exhausting. Once Jones settles in San Francisco, though, the memoir and his life become much more focused, as he immerses himself in the city’s politics. Jones forcefully conveys the exhilaration and meaning he found in contributing to the area’s flourishing gay subculture, before he reflects on the devastating losses the community suffered after the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The memoir brilliantly captures an era long since past, and is well worth checking out.
A memoir of AIDS activism from the founder of POZ magazine, Body Counts: A Memoir of Activism, Sex, and Survival reflects on the state of gay male life in New York City during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Sean Strub begins by overviewing the cultural and sexual effects of gay liberation during the seventies, before he shifts to discussing the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic and detailing activists’ responses to it during the eighties and nineties. All the while, he charts his personal transformation from straight-edged politico to impassioned advocate for people with AIDS. The author peppers his account of the time with vivid portraits of celebrities and politicians, and he carefully examines the anger, confusion, and fear that dominated the era.