March 11, 2019 marks the 32nd anniversary of the unofficial founding of ACT UP, one of the most important queer advocacy groups in history.
Without it, the worst days of the HIV epidemic might have stretched out far further, and queer liberation might have stalled indefinitely in the ’80s. Thanks to this org, queer advocacy became stronger than ever, providing a model to this day for resistance. Here’s a celebration of its work with a look at ACT UP history.
The climate in which ACT UP was founded was bleak. In the mid-’80s, thousands of Americans — largely gay men — had been killed not only by HIV but by Republican-led indifference to their suffering. What’s more, disorganization, ignorance, stigma and fear were all contributing to slow progress to combat the virus.
Larry Kramer saw what was desperately needed: an aggressive campaign to confront leaders whose timidity was costing lives. At the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, he gave a rousing speech on March 10, 1987, telling the assembled crowd, “At the rate we are going, you could be dead in less than five years.” He proposed a new organization that would take a far more assertive stance than groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. There was overwhelming community support.
From the start, ACT UP — which stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — was bold in its ambition. Just a few days after Larry’s speech, over 200 people marched on Wall Street. They wanted more access to experimental AIDS medication and a national policy on AIDS. At the time, experimental drugs were so hard to come by that doctors were forced to choose which of their patients might receive a life-saving treatment, and which ones were out of luck. In addition, the Reagan administration had turned an almost complete blind eye to the epidemic, devoting few resources to research or prevention.
Arrests were swift, with over a dozen ACT UP members carried away by police. After that, they marched on the New York Post Office on tax day, knowing there would be media coverage of last-minute filers. The organization was able to capture media attention and effectively spread their message much further than they could have with the usual protests and rallies.
A year later, the organization shut down the FDA for a day, marching on the headquarters to block entrances. Over a thousand people participated in that demonstration, and shortly afterwards the FDA changed its process for making experimental drugs available and formed partnerships with advocacy groups.
Into the 1990s, ACT UP continued its savvy pursuit of media attention, commandeering a CBS news broadcast and distributing explicit safe-sex pamphlets at high schools. ACT UP became known for staging “die-ins,” during which protesters would lie in the street in a graphic representation of the human cost of inaction on HIV.
After Democrats were able to gain more power in Washington, progress hastened on HIV research, and soon better treatments and prevention programs became available. ACT UP’s work seemed to have concluded — but in fact, there remains lots of work to this day. There’s still no vaccine or practical cure (despite this great piece of news from earlier this week), infection rates are likely to rise under Republican leadership, and stigma remains even within the gay community.
But after 32 years of ACT UP history, the organization has honed its organizing prowess and developed a toolkit for attracting media attention. Thanks to the organizational skills that leaders have evolved over the intervening three decades, the queer community continues to boast fierce advocacy among its most disruptive minds.