Saturday, October 31, 2020
Uncategorized ACT UP fought back, and the world is better...

ACT UP fought back, and the world is better for it

-

Hundreds of AIDS survivors gathered last weekend to look back on 25 years of protest and change. 

48 Hills: ACT UP
Original ACT UP organizers and protestors marched and commemorated fellow comrades lost to AIDS, Saturday, June 19. Photo by Keiko Lane.

By The Central Committee (Tim Kingston, Rebecca Hensler, Gerard Koskovich, Ingrid Nelson, Michael Lauro, Laura Thomas, Mike Shriver, Lito Sandoval)

June 25, 2015 — We lived, but that’s not the point.

Last weekend we marked the 25th anniversary of the 6th International AIDS Conference, held during the last week of June 1990 in San Francisco at a time when there were no new drugs in the pipeline to treat HIV disease, when the concept of “chronic manageable HIV disease” was not even a sick joke, and at a time when there should been little or no hope of survival let alone a “cure.”

Instead there was ACT UP―the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power―and ACT UP San Francisco, the West Coast locus of a nationwide network of determined, angry and extremely effective AIDS activists. At that time there were over 100,000 dead and infections rates were skyrocketing and the then Bush administration did nothing.

Last weekend June 19-21, 2015 a small group of surviving local ACT UP veterans organized performances, a living-history panel, a reunion party and a memorial to remember and honor the AIDS activists, living and dead, who changed everything about how AIDS was treated, researched and fought at the time of the conference.

48 Hills: ACT UP
A spread in People magazine from July 9, 1990 show activist Dan Fine being taken into custody by police during the protests, at the intersection of Market and Van Ness.

We came together to remember what AIDS was 25 years ago and to remember what we as AIDS activists achieved. And we finally took the time to express the grief we stifled as we ‘moved on’ and survived for the past quarter of a century. Twenty-five year ago there was AZT. That’s it. Other medications such as ddI and ddC were only just getting into trials. And AZT: not the perfect treatment. AIDS was pretty much a death sentence, not as fast as originally, but pretty certain.

But instead of grieving, ACT UP successfully attacked with smart media, cell phones the size of shoeboxes, and highly organized direct action focusing on specific topics. The poor AIDS conference organizers, who unwittingly scheduled the AIDS conference in San Francisco Pride week, really had no idea what hit them. They were desperate to avoid disruptions as had happened at the conference in Montreal in 1989 when AIDS activists invaded the stage. Yet they entered a lion’s den of highly organized AIDS activism. To make matters worse the Bush administration had slammed a ban on people with HIV coming from outside the country while criminalizing undocumented people living with HIV in the US who were probably infected here. Not good timing for organizers of an international conference, but great for ACT UP.

Dozens of ACT UP chapters from around the country and hundred of activists coordinated by ACT UP San Francisco staged five solid days of demonstrations. Each day global headlines were made featuring: the exclusion of women from treatment; the targeting of immigrants; the crumbling overburdened San Francisco AIDS care model; the lack of treatment and research models against AIDS; and, of course, the criminal actions of the Bush Administration and a president who preferred a fundraiser for arch-homophobe, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms over addressing the conference. Bush senior instead sent Louis Sullivan, an ineffectual health secretary, who offered nothing, no science, no apology and was thus drowned out by air horns, boos and shouts from activists who invaded the closing session of the conference. AIDS researchers and activists alike literally turned their backs on Sullivan and walked out.

48magnetgathering
ACT UP activists packed into Magnet in the Castro for a panel discussion on the protests 25 years ago.Photo by Gerard Koskovich.

That unity by researchers and activists is the core of what ACT UP achieved. Last weekend a panel of veteran ACT UP San Francisco activists presented a living history discussion at the LGBT Center in San Francisco about how the protests were organized, how all the different activists coordinated. They recounted how the ‘C’ for coalition in ACT UP was very real. Gay activists showed up in their hundreds to support the women’s action and everybody showed up at the INS demonstration to be attacked by Federal Protective Services cops.

The panel highlighted how ACT UP unified AIDS researchers and activists in a cooperative search for a cure, the development of new ways to test drugs, an increase in access for people with AIDS to those drugs and increased funding. At the same time the headlines, protests and actions raised the profile of AIDS and AIDS activism so much that Bush senior signed the Ryan White CARE act, which guaranteed massive federal funding for the battle against AIDS, a bill that only months before he had opposed. Put simply without the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power HIV research would be at least 10 to 20 years behind where we are now.

In amongst all that action and activism our friends, lovers and colleagues were dropping dead around us. ACT UP was a group united in anger, but it was a group that could never grieve. We didn’t have time to mourn; we were too busy fighting a war that no one else could see while caring for the sick and dying.

The catastrophically simple and utterly impossible political slogan, “All I want is the cure and my friends back!” best expressed the combination of political demand and emotional longing felt by activists at the time. It is impossible to look at that slogan without almost crying. We can’t have our friends back―so many, many of them, are gone.

We have had 25 years of unacknowledged grief, buried deep in our hearts, so deep it was safely inaccessible. For the first time, over a weekend some two hundred survivors of the thousands who perished came together, first to chronicle the battles we fought, and then to remember and honor our fallen comrades and to acknowledge what we have lost. One activist who came from the northwest said he is probably the only one of his ACT UP chapter left alive.

And yet, as the weekend progressed, a sense of both celebration and resilience surfaced, as long-separated comrades reconnected, relived shared memories, and caught up on each other’s current activities. A common thread emerged of political, professional, and personal lives shaped by the epidemic and the struggle to end it.

We grew up and survived. We grew up and (many) died. And we are still here. And we changed the world. Let’s not forget that.

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.

51 COMMENTS

  1. I want to honor my brother Steve Chapot, an early AIDs activists in Los Angeles back in the day. He was a medical illustrator at Santa Nella Hospital in Inglewood and when he was diagnosed in 1984, he turned his life into one, big medical illustration. He wrote essays and editorials, spoke in front of medical students and to the press, went on TV and got death threats. He even pissed off Liz Taylor and APLA for a snarky article about being a poster boy at an AIDs fundraiser (reprinted in Personal Dispatches: writers confront AIDS). I miss him every day.

  2. Thanks to everyone who put together last weekend’s events. It was wonderful to see everyone after all of these years. If we could do what we did 25 years ago, why can’t we do something similar today?

  3. Thanks for this, Marke B.

    – Judy Berkowitz
    Once Upon a Time Librarian, 1993-1997
    Healing Alternatives Foundation (HAF)
    San Francisco AIDS/HIV Buyers’ Club

  4. Bravo! As another longterm survivor I think it’s certainly time we claimed our history of struggle and reached out to help heal the survivors of the worst days of the pandemic and pass our stories on to the current generation.

More by this author

Fall head over heels for Criibaby’s gender-inclusive ‘love songs for everyone’

During LGBT History Month, the local artist releases music for all letters of the rainbow.

Best of the Bay 2020: Food and Drink winners

Best Burger, Best Sushi, Best Burrito, Best Dive Bar, Best BBQ, more in our 2020 Readers' Poll

[UPDATED] Arts festival sues city in push for safe live performances—before rain comes

City revokes SF International Arts Festival permit for weekend program as arts languish amid reopenings

[UPDATED] 48 Hills Variety Gala: Honey Mahogany, Marga Gomez, Rev. Norman Fong, more to appear!

Join us Thursday, October 22 at 7pm for our free online all-star celebration, and find out who won Best of the Bay 2020!

You’re invited! Join us October 22 online for our ALL-STAR VARIETY GALA

Honey Mahogany, Marga Gomez, Peaches Christ, Davey D, Rose Aguilar, and more help us celebrate seven years!

Most read

Letter from Kenosha: A community under seige

A police shooting, a right-wing vigilante, military humvees, and a small town trying to heal

More election sleaze: Fake tenant groups in District 1

Organizations that didn't exist a month ago are suddenly saying that tenants support Marjan Philhour.

The end of Shahid Buttar’s campaign — and the lessons

Shahid Buttar’s campaign against Rep. Nancy Pelosi was always a longshot. He was challenging the person most responsible for challenging Donald Trump, and while...

Frida’s artful life on film—and in the galleries

Mexican icon's dramatic work and life are having a San Francisco moment, with de Young show and two screenings

Scott Wiener goes after homeless people in tents

In what homeless advocates call a “cruel” move, Sup. Scott Wiener is asking city departments to crack down on homeless people who are living...

Screen Grabs: San Francisco’s real royal family, still glittering onward

'50 Years of Fabulous' comes a courtin'. Plus: a record of the 1972 National Black Political Convention, angsty Hungarians, more

For Puerto Rican freedom, MaJo Montijo summons a bomba ‘Huracán’

Oakland musician fights "continuous colonial disaster," including Hurricane María aftermath, with gale-force release.

The biased coverage and real story around Lowell High and school renaming

Attention Chronicle: A lottery for the 'elite' school is neither new nor a radical idea -- and neither is discussing changing the names of schools celebrating racists and colonialists.

Big Money’s racist attacks in D7

Plus: School Board members of color get threatening online messages. Is this really San Francisco in 2020?

GOP-linked big money attacks progressive candidates and taxes in SF

Millions in PAC money from the 1 percent -- and big Mitch McConnell backer -- floods into San Francisco for last-minute hit pieces.

You might also likeRELATED