AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power Militant resistance during the AIDS crisis

“ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS!”

These words were first uttered in March of 1987, by the organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which was founded that year by the legendary queer activist Larry Kramer. The basis for ACT UP, however, was established in 1983 when Kramer wrote the letter “1,112 and Counting,” that was published in the queer newspaper, the New York Native. It was an impassioned plea to save the lives of gay and bisexual men, directed to them and imploring them to take action around AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

ACT UP in New York City Pride, June 1988. Photo: T.L. Litt

There was an emergency happening that would not wait for things to be done the nice way. Gay men, bisexual men and transgender women, such as Angie Xtravaganza and Consuela Cosmetica. were dying.

Members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community and allies came together at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center (then called the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center). Kramer asked the crowd if they wanted to start a group dedicated to political activism surrounding HIV and AIDS, and he got a resounding “Yes!” This group was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. 

There was already an organization that would eventually join ACT UP, the SILENCE=DEATH Collective, responsible for the famous “Silence = Death” poster with the pink triangle. Gay men and trans women were made to wear the pink triangle in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps.

ACT UP was remarkable in the massive impact it had under the circumstances. Most people in the LGBTQIA2S+ community still wanted to remain in the closet around their sexual or gender identity or HIV+ status, or they wanted to focus on work such as one-on-one peer support for people with AIDS. 

People tended to be afraid of trying to change things or were burnt out by the many deaths from AIDS. Some also believed that, in the time of political reaction — Ronald Reagan was the president when ACT UP was founded and the Moral Majority dominated U.S. politics — it was dangerous to label oneself a queer activist or an AIDS activist. 

Some right-wing political figures called for putting queer people or people living with AIDS (regardless of sexual orientation) into internment camps. There was much to lose if someone came out as LGBTQIA2S+ or as having HIV/AIDS. On March 19, 1987, the very first anti-retroviral medication — Retrovir (also known as azidothymidine, AZT or zidovudine) — was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and released by Burroughs Wellcome (now part of GlaxoSmithKline). 

The price was extremely high: $10,000 a year ($833 a month), the equivalent of over $25,000 a year in 2024 dollars. This kept AZT squarely out of the reach of most people who needed it, which included many queer people of color.

Protests hit Wall Street, FDA, NIH

In 1987, in response to the price-gouging by the medical industry, ACT UP organized a protest on Wall Street. Around 250 people attended. After several more successful protests, Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price to $6,400 per year — still out of reach, but less than before.

ACT UP did much more than protest Wall Street. The group organized protests against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), President George H. W. Bush and the Catholic Church, to name a few targets. The FDA was picketed because it was not approving drugs fast enough to meet the needs of the HIV-positive community. 

At the time, AIDS was killing almost everyone who developed it. Some caution must be taken in approving medications, which could be dangerous – but when people are dying, the rules have to be bent. 

ACT UP targeted the NIH and its branches multiple times because the organization wanted more research, with NIH participation, carried out speedily. The NIH and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), then led by the now-famous Dr. Anthony Fauci, were not progressing on research at a pace that kept up with the epidemic. The anti-NIH protests were among ACT UP’s most well-attended.

President Ronald Reagan was — rightly — accused of not responding to AIDS fast enough. His press staff were asked if they knew about AIDS or were taking action on it. In response, they laughed and made jokes about it. 

Though Reagan eventually did acknowledge AIDS and took some action, it was too little, too late. The disease had made its permanent mark and the chance to stop it was gone. 

George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and subsequent presidents under pressure, took some action around the epidemic. Congress passed and President Bush signed the “Ryan White CARE Act” (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency), named after the late Ryan White, who died at the age of 18.  He was a hemophiliac who contracted HIV from either a blood transfusion or the Factor VIII medication he needed to stay alive. 

Historic action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

The most well-known and most controversial of ACT UP’s protest targets was the Catholic Church. On Dec. 10, 1989, ACT UP demonstrated against Cardinal John O’Connor, whose comments on HIV and AIDS were extremely homophobic. He opposed the use of condoms — which, if used, can prevent the spread of HIV, a fact O’Connor knew. The Cardinal also said that “good morality is good medicine,” essentially saying that queer people are immoral, and that’s why they were getting HIV and developing AIDS. 

On that December day, over 7,000 people were outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City while several hundred activists entered the church to block the eucharist (communion) and the mass itself.  This bold action sent a clear message: Heterosexual religious people must not look down on queer people and individuals with HIV or AIDS. 

This righteous demonstration was portrayed as anti-Catholic, but the Catholic Church continually degraded people with AIDS and queer people. The church taught anti-safe sex positions because of its reactionary view that those who have sex outside of a heterosexual marriage, especially queer sex, along with trans people, are sinners. 

The reaction to the protest was swift and ignorant. Rather than address what ACT UP was raising, New York Gov, Mario Cuomo and New York City Mayor Ed Koch, both Democrats, denounced the militant action. Cuomo said he “deplored” the protest, and Koch said it was disrespectful. 

Women with AIDS fight for recognition

The Women’s Caucus of ACT UP held multiple demonstrations demanding acknowledgment of women with AIDS. The caucus rightly identified that the recognition of AIDS — when HIV infection progresses to full-blown AIDS — was somewhat limited to gay men and transgender women. It was harder for people assigned female at birth to get an accurate diagnosis. For that to happen, the minimum AIDS T-cell count had to be changed to 200 or lower. 

Diagnosis needed to include conditions that only people assigned female at birth could get, such as cervical cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease. They didn’t get Kaposi’s Sarcoma — a type of cancer then commonly observed in men with AIDS — as often as people assigned male at birth did. 

These differences demanded a better, gender-neutral definition of AIDS — something ACT UP won through militant action.

ACT UP wasn’t just fighting for people with AIDS; they struggled for all LGBTQ1A2S+ people. In March 1990, a year where intense queerphobic physical and verbal attacks were ramping up, queer members of ACT UP formed the organization Queer Nation. 

They were very “in your face” and very proud of being who they were. Queer Nation issued manifestos, fought assimilationism and reclaimed the terms “dyke” and “fag.” One protest responded to a right-wing bombing at a queer nightclub; it attracted 1,000 people, claiming they would bash back. 

Queer Nation taught sexual education that was inclusive of queer people and their bodies. One essay about queer identity, “Queers Read This!” was first distributed in New York City in 1990. It explained the purposes of Queer Nation and ACT UP. It identified the oppression that queer people and people living with HIV and AIDS experienced every day. It argued that queer people were living on borrowed time, because of the oppression they experienced. The essay went on to delineate how straight allies and straight people who come into queer spaces should act. 

On the work of ACT UP, “Queers Read This!” talks about how Reagan oppressed queer people and worsened the AIDS crisis. It says: “I hate Ronald Reagan, too, because he mass-murdered my people for eight years. But to be honest, I hate him even more for eulogizing Ryan White without first admitting his guilt, without begging forgiveness for Ryan’s death and for the deaths of tens of thousands of other PWAs [people with AIDS] — most of them queer. I hate him for making a mockery of our grief.” (qrd.org)

HIV and AIDS were the worst modern tragedies that queer people faced. We must study the radical revolutionaries in order to avoid repeating that devastating epidemic again. ACT UP and its subsidiary Queer Nation serve as examples to LGBTQIA2S+ people of how to respond to unbearable loss and oppression — Fight back! 

Workers World Party proudly supported ACT UP and participated in its protests. 

Sources:

“1,112 and Counting” by Larry Kramer

“Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist” by Larry Kramer

“Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993” by Sarah Schulman

“Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism” by Peter Staley

“The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle” by Lillian Faderman

“ACT UP: Women, AIDS, and Activism” by ACT UP

“ACT UP!: The War Against HIV in the LGBTQ+ Community” by Rita Santos

“Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS” by Deborah Gould

“QUEERS READ THIS!” By anonymous members of Queer Nation

Princess Harmony

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