There’s a small, perverse part of me that wishes we were still at the height of the AIDS crisis. That gaunt young men with sunken faces and dark lesions were still an everyday sight. Maybe then young people could understand the fear, sadness and anger that blanketed the 1980s and ’90s and feel more connected to our struggle.
Maybe then we wouldn’t see HIV rates continue to skyrocket among 25 to 34-year-olds. Maybe then the call to action wouldn’t be met with shrugs of indifference. Maybe then there’d be no Gays for Trump.
Of course, it’s only a passing thought—one quickly replaced by joy that HIV has gone from a death sentence to a manageable condition (as everyone loves to remind me).
But the thought crossed my mind recently, when I saw this month was the 30th anniversary of ACT UP, one of the most powerful activist groups of the 20th century.
It was March 1987 when Larry Kramer was invited to speak at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center. As The Normal Heart recounts, Kramer was dissatisfied with what he saw as the impotency of more middle of the road LGBT groups. So he put forth the idea of a radical response to the crisis, asking “Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?”
A few days later, more than 300 people attended what would be the first meeting of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
They didn’t invent direct action—Vietnam had seen many such groups—but the specter of death gave members a unique desperation and unparalleled boldness.
ACT UP is often viewed as radical, even fringe, but many of the early members were part of the establishment: Journalists, marketing executives, publicists. They used the tools of their trade to break through society’s silence on homosexuality and AIDS—understanding that even condemnation is better than ignorance.
Yes, it was ACT UP that put a giant condom over Jesse Helm’s house, and ACT UP that disrupted Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But it was also ACT UP and its splinter group, TAG, that pressured the FDA to fast-track life-saving HIV medications.
As crucial as the group’s work was in the fight in forcing the nation to address the epidemic, ACT UP is still providing a vital service today—showing that, when done smartly and boldly, resistance can work. You can see the traces of ACT UP’s legacy in the Women’s March, the battle for Standing Rock, and the campaign for trans equality.
“Silence equals death” would have been a hell of a hashtag.
As antiretroviral drugs began to lessen the death toll, the ACT UP generation paused in its activism—to grieve, to recoup, to live. But in the wake of Pulse, HB2 and the election, those who carried the banner have returned with a vengeance. Gays Against Guns, which targets politicians who are NRA puppets, was founded by ACT UP members. The ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague is being turned into a National Geographic miniseries.
A lot of us exhaled after the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, savoring a victory after so many years of fighting. But there will always be a need for ACT UP—for its boldness and tenacity. The price of liberty is still eternal vigilance.
“I wish I could tell you that ACT UP is marking the occasion by disbanding,” wrote founding member Jim Eigo in a “birthday” announcement. “That AIDS is history, good healthcare is universal, and the fear, hatred and ignorance that drove the worst pandemic of modern times have all melted into thin air. But we all know that last sentence is fake news.”
On March 22, ACT UP New York will hold a 30th anniversary celebration, and honor Eigo’s decades of dedication, at the Keith D. Cylar Community Health Center. For details visit the event page.