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City Tech Professor’s New Book Mixes Politics with Play

Photo by: Caroline Shepard

Benjamin Shepard might have written the line, “Hit 'em in the funnybone, that’s where they expect it least,” if Bruce Springsteen hadn’t beaten him to it.

In his newly published book, Queer Political Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure, and Social Movement (Routledge), Shepard, an assistant professor of human services at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), explores the role of fun, creativity, pleasure and play in social movements, especially the theatrical approach to protest and community building taken by the gay liberation movement and “queer activism.”

“This wonderful book tells the remarkable story of the rise of the theatrical and audacious queer movement in the United States,” says Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor, CUNY Graduate Center. “A fascinating read that is theoretically illuminating as well.”

What Shepard terms “the theatre of possibility” is not a new concept. “Theatrical models of protest have always been around. That’s the power of the jester, the Wise Fool,” he acknowledges. “But now we’re a media-centered culture with more media access than ever before. Social activists increasingly have to come up with savvy ways of engaging people, using multiple forms of technology to communicate with both each other and the public.” 

As an example, he cites a demonstration at New York’s City Hall aimed at preventing developers from demolishing the city’s resident-created community gardens. People dressed as vegetables, sunflowers, fruit and garden creatures shouted at [then-Governor] Elliot Spitzer to save the gardens. “Later, when he was interviewed about why he helped preserve them, Spitzer said, ‘Because a big red tomato told me to.’ Social activists have learned that you have to communicate with people theatrically or they won’t pay attention to your issue,” Shepard notes.

The book examines the intersections between the global justice movement and queer activism, post-war cabaret culture and its links to politics, the rise of gay liberation, AIDS activism, links between direct action groups and service providers, and current movements. But according to Shepard, no movement has had a larger influence on the emergence of a playful model of organizing and activism than the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP).  

Shepard — who holds a PhD in social welfare from the CUNY Graduate Center and was trained at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology and the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration — has observed and participated in that movement since the early 1990s.

As a San Francisco social worker he began collecting oral histories from people with AIDS who had arrived there in the 1960s and 1970s. “Their history was the history of an entire movement,” he says. “I became interested in community organizing by listening to the compelling stories of people who did it well. They made you want to get involved.” 

He went on to do organizing work with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), SexPanic!, Reclaim the Streets New York, Times UP, the Clandestine Rebel Clown Army, the Absurd Response Team, CitiWide Harm Reduction, Housing Works, the More Gardens Coalition and the Times UP Bike Lane Liberation Front.

Shepard began writing about the AIDS crisis and published his first book, White Nights and Ascending Shadows, in 1997. Since then, he has stimulated public discussion with articles bearing provocative titles such as “The New Model Army of Clowns,” “Queers and Gay Assimilationists: the Suits and the Sluts” and the book he co-edited with Ron Hayduk — From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization.

As a history major at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, Shepard was inspired by contemporary populist movements achieving monumental change. “With the fall of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, I saw that history was an active thing, not just the past,” he explains.  

But most college social activists, he says, were “guilt-propelled,” spending their time debating social theory. He preferred the stance of ACT UP — more pragmatic and action-oriented, not only in the streets, but also in the halls of government and the medical establishment. His motivation was also personal; his godfather died of HIV/AIDS-related complications.  

Of his first demonstrations, an ACT UP action in Sacramento at the State Capitol, he recalls, “On the bus ride there, I was impressed with the esprit de corps of those along for the ride — the camaraderie, the kindness. This was a different dynamic, a caring ethos than I saw in college.”  

There was also frivolity — an element that can draw in the public, says Shepard, and make them hear a serious message. “The campy quality of the activism overlaps with the tragedy,” he says, describing as an example a man weeping as his lover’s ashes were scattered over the steps of the California capitol, while a man in a rhinestone-sequined, one-piece-suit stood holding a sign referring to the then governor that said: “Looks don’t kill; Pete Wilson’s vetoes do.” 

Shepard believes that ordinary people can make history and influence public debate. “It’s exciting to see the general public participating in change through social activism. He also maintains that participation in political action has to be intriguing, citing a prominent example from the Vietnam War era. “Abbie Hoffman said that you have to have TV take a picture of you.  We understand social action via a media filter which projects our messages to multiple targets.”  

Currently, Shepard, now a Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, resident, is preparing three more books for publication, all dealing with the line between innovation in organizing practices, service provision, social change, creativity and community building. He incorporates these elements into his academic courses, co-sponsorship of the college’s Human Services Club and internship courses, which take students into the field to learn by integrating theory and practice.

Says Shepard, “It’s exciting for me to watch my students learning a new spirit of engaged citizenship and reflective practice: rather than using the Alinsky model of identifying an opponent to target, you come up with smarter alternative solutions to a problem. Students learn to try things out and reflect on the give and take of the real world laboratory of New York City; they gain knowledge on the ground.”


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