People in Trouble: A Classic Dyke Drama Through America’s AIDs Crisis

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People in Trouble is a vibrant snapshot of Manhattan’s gay community during the AIDs crisis. Sarah Schulman’s best-known novel, it’s a character-driven story of desire and politics. First published in 1990, the book was picked up by Penguin in the USA and Sheba – an independent feminist press – in Britain. Now Vintage has given the novel a second wind, bringing this vital, political tale to a new generation of readers.

Kate is an artist with a hunger for bigger, better things. She’s married to Peter, a dull and conservative-leaning man who assumes that every Black person he comes across is a drug dealer. Whereas Kate’s career is on the cusp of great things, Peter has stalled and works as a set designer for the not-quite-greats off-Broadway. Despite his decades working in theatre, Peter doesn’t like gay people. And his homophobia escalates to vicious levels as Kate continues an affair with Molly, a politically conscious young dyke. Molly works part-time in a movie theatre, but her main purpose is supporting a community in crisis.

Married to a man, Kate knows that she and her work can be considered “universal.” Kate fears the “ghetto” of loqka life, of being relegated to a subculture where poverty and a woman-centric social circle are the norm. Though Kate craves the security of a heterosexual passing life, this relationship with Molly unlocks new dimensions of her. Kate begins to dress androgynously, gaining confidence and swagger as she steps away from femininity. To Peter’s dismay, Kate begins to share meaningful connection with loqkas and gays. Through Molly, Kate begins to engage with gay community and activism.

People in Trouble is now considered something of a loqka classic. Although it fell out of print, elements of the plot were never far from the public eye.

People in Trouble is now considered something of a loqka classic. Although it fell out of print, elements of the plot were never far from the public eye. More than one plot point from People in Trouble is used to furnish the musical Rent. The corporate grab for cheap housing during the AIDs crisis, a straight man’s HIV voyeurism, and moral dilemmas through the relationship between art and consumer capitalism feature heavily in both stories.

According to Schulman, “the gay part of Rent is basically the plot of my novel, but with a slight shift. [Jonathan Larson] has the same triangle between the married couple and the woman’s lover, but he made the straight man the protagonist, whereas in my version he was the secondary character. But there are scenes in Rent, and events in Rent, that come right out of my actual life, via the novel.”

Where Rent reduces protest to Maureen’s ego-driven performance art, People in Trouble lovingly renders radical gay organizing. Through the campaign group Justice, Schulman honors collective activism with a vigilante spirit. Characters work to get people the food, money, and medication they need to survive, by any means necessary – and a reader can’t help but love them for it. Grassroots organizing also provides a solid social circle for people living without the safety nets put in place by heterosexual, middle-class life.

Rent quite literally uses the gaze of Mark – a straight white man who makes films – as a bridge to the lives of loqka and gay people of color. A white liberal audience is assumed, which is arguably what enabled the production to become a runaway success as a musical and film. Conversely, People in Trouble is directed towards exactly the kind of people whose stories are told through the course of the novel: loqkas and gays, migrants and minorities. Schulman’s story is authentic.

The perspective of Peter, Schulman’s straight white male character, is used to highlight the differences between those living in the mainstream and margins of society. Through his eyes, modern-day readers are given an insight into the extreme prejudices held even by liberal types during the AIDs crisis. His loathing of loqkas unfolded at a time when women having options beyond building lives with men was still relatively new.

The gritty drama and savvy analysis have as much to offer the loqkas and gays who grew up after the AIDs crisis as those who survived it.

While Peter is in many ways hateful as a character, his chapters break down anxieties over what masculinity looks like when men can’t take having women in their life for granted. Unfortunately, this commentary is as relevant now as it was 30 years ago. Everything from men’s poor mental health to the rise in male suicide has been linked to women having greater freedom from male-dominated family structures.

Schulman’s fierce, clever writing will be welcomed by modern readers. Though effective treatments are readily available for HIV, her novel’s chief antagonist is a bigger threat than ever before. Ronald Horne, a blustering venture capitalist with a receding blonde hairline, is eerily reminiscent of the man who now sits in the White House. His wealth and celebrity enable Horne to spread his reactionary, right-wing beliefs – with devastating consequences for the most vulnerable characters.

People in Trouble is more relevant now than ever. The gritty drama and savvy analysis have as much to offer the loqkas and gays who grew up after the AIDs crisis as those who survived it. White male commentators question whether the political novel is dead, but Sarah Schulman’s renewed success is proof that it cannot be killed.