25 years ago, queer activist network ACT UP redefined AIDS, changed politics, and saved lives. Can the rebooted ACT UP/SF mobilize a new generation?
AIDS is so hot right now.
Not so much the disease itself — although the rate of HIV infections has been rising again in young gay men, according to a report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and African Americans continue to be the hardest hit population in the US. And California, especially the Internet of California, has been gripped by another paroxysm of debate about barebacking porn, one that reached all the way to the ballot box in November with the passage of Measure B in Los Angeles, requiring all porn actors to wear condoms when filming in the city.
However, it's the vibrant culture that grew up in resistance to the disease in the 1980s and '90s that's capturing the attention of a new generation, sparking a revival of interest that goes beyond typical retro-cycle nostalgia. For many young queers and allies frustrated by HIV discrimination, evictions, predatory pharmaceutical companies, sex-work criminalization, and immigration policy failures, it's a newfound inspiration.
And now ACT UP is back.
Rowdy AIDS resistance, defined by the loud-mouthed, street-closing, bridge-blocking, cathedral-occupying international AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power activist network, has been thrust back in the cultural spotlight after being overshadowed by more recent, conservative fights for marriage equality and military service rights. Initiated by NYC rabblerouser Larry Kramer in 1987, ACT UP defined queer politics for almost a decade and successfully changed the way government policy and the medical industry approached AIDS. (There would be no life-sustaining HIV drug combination therapy without ACT UP's in-your-face civil disobedience.)
In San Francisco, the homegrown AIDS Action Pledge organization, started in 1985, laid the foundation for nonviolent yet radically confrontational AIDS activism, before partnering with ACT UP/New York and changing its name to ACT UP/San Francisco, helping to create a coast-to-coast juggernaut of information- and strategy-sharing. In its early '90s heyday, thousands of virile ACT UPpers (and participants in related groups like Queer Nation, Gran Fury, and Boy With Arms Akimbo) from Kansas City to Copenhagen took to the streets, scaled walls, pilloried politicians, got arrested, and yes, got laid, too — it was a heady, cruisey time.
During the past two years four documentaries about the period have been released to critical acclaim — How to Survive a Plague, nominated for a 2013 Academy Award, which documents the enormous influence ACT UP and its offshoot Treatment Action Group had on the development of life-saving combination drug therapies by major pharmaceutical companies; United in Anger, director Jim Hubbard's eye-opening ode to the diverse membership, complex infrastructure, and social issue agenda of ACT UP in New York, which draws on the immense ACT UP Oral History Project archives Hubbard started 10 years ago with writer Sarah Schulman; Vito, an HBO documentary about outspoken AIDS activist and Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo; and We Were Here by director David Weissman (currently being Ellis Act evicted from his Castro apartment), which focuses on San Francisco at the very beginning of the epidemic leading up to ACT UP's founding, and the development here of innovative treatments.