Survivor’s Fatigue

How do we negotiate the space between memory & hope?

by Keiko Lane, MFT

Photo by Keiko Lane
Photo by Keiko Lane

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat’s Your Damage?” was the name of the arts panel that kicked off the opening night of ACT UP/San Francisco’s reunion gathering commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the International AIDS Conference and corresponding week of demonstrations. As I prepared to participate in the panel, I walked nervously around the gay men’s health center in the Castro district that had been turned into a gallery space and was housing the event. When one of the ACT UP/ SF organizers started talking about the ACT UP diaspora, I felt a little more at ease. San Francisco had not been my home during the action that the weekend was remembering. But the commonalities of the fight, as well as the coalitions built through statewide and national actions, give us a shared vocabulary and a familiar emotional history. We connected with each other by frame of reference, and we connected the dots of a collective history that led us into the room and the weekend.

Saturday brought together a living history panel of activists who were part of the central organizing committee for the actions at the International AIDS Conference. The week of demonstrations had served to re-center people living with HIV/AIDS in the agenda setting for treatment and research, demanded the inclusion of and attention to the specific ways in which HIV manifests and progresses in women, and highlight outrage about what was known as the “HIV travel ban” which had grave implications for HIV-positive immigrants by creating life-threatening disincentives for seeking testing and treatment.

Within ACT UP the questions of whether the demonstrations would be successful at the level of changes in treatment, research, and public policy, were flanked by the questions of alliances and coalition building. Would the white people show up for the immigration actions? Would the men show up for the women’s actions? The success of ACT UP as a political force and as a community was that every targeted group did show up for the others.

Marriage equality was not a political priority back then. The main times we longed for it were during fights over hospital visitations and power of attorney
for dying lovers and friends, or struggling for ways to work around immigration restrictions.

I hadn’t been at the week of actions, but I had come into ACT UP/Los Angeles soon after, and recognized the community struggles that were talked about. The hopes of solidarity, the elation and love when connections were made, and the disappointments and heartbreak when people failed each other. “What’s your damage?” we asked each other. Over drinks, after the panel, we told the less public, more intimate stories of hope, connection, and grief. I recognized all of them, the emotional ephemera, from my own ACT UP years.

The weekend ended with a public memorial on Sunday called “When Comrades Fell.” The names that had been gathered for weeks were read into a filled room. People stood and told stories about friends and lovers who had died. A photo slideshow brought most of us to tears.

Survivor’s fatigue, I thought, looking around the room at us: the condition of not being able to save those we love. And once gone, haunted by our failure to bring them back.

The following week the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

The story has always been that we have to choose—the home life of paired domesticity, or the life of the community. Working with poly and nonmonogamous clients as a psychotherapist has reminded me over and over that the dominant paradigm of pairs as the only option for family is a myth, just as marriage’s mutually exclusive relationship to community fidelity is also a myth.

Many of us at the ACT UP Reunion brought our queer spouses, most of whom had not been a part of our ACT UP lives. They witnessed our stories and the community expanded to include them.

Certain kinds of queerness will always exist in a condition of mourning, which is an uneasy bedfellow with hope. In the dominant narrative of life trajectory, marriage and hope are portrayed as twin forces of futurity.

Queer life has always held the complexity of multiple pulls at our attention, multiple alliances and struggles, the simultaneity of grief and celebration. This new legality and social construction (and victory) will be no different. During the ACT UP reunion we were reminded of all the ways we showed up for each other, and all the ways we still need to. I will celebrate my marriage. And I will mourn the deaths of young queers lost to bullying, suicide, poverty, and HIV, and the assassinations and criminalization of trans people of color. And I will celebrate my community, my comrades, with whom there is still so much work to be done.

“‘Til death do us part” used to come quickly. It used to mean an urgent and horrible death from AIDS. It used to be a specifically queer promise made among friends and chosen family as well as between lovers. What will it come to mean as the narrative of queer relationships changes, and as the narrative of AIDS changes? The changes aren’t all bad. In fact they are mostly lovely, and hard won, and hopeful. But hope, by definition, is forward looking, and memory is fixed and nostalgic. “What’s your damage?” we asked each other during the ACT UP reunion. Memory is our damage. And it just may also be our hope.


Keiko Lane, MFT, is a Japanese American writer and psychotherapist. She writes about the intersections of queer culture, oppression resistance, racial justice, and liberation psychology. She has a psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, California, specializing in work with queers of all genders, artists, activists, academics, people affected by HIV/AIDS, asylum seekers and other clients self-identified as post-colonial. Keiko also teaches graduate and post-graduate psychotherapy courses on queer and multicultural psychotherapies, the psychodynamics of social justice, and the embodied literature of exile. She is a long-term survivor of ACT UP/Los Angeles. Visit: