All the rage

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?

An ACT UP/San Francisco banner drop at last years Pink Saturday party on Pride weekend

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.


After the ACTUP GG/SF split in 1991, ACTUP SF disintegrated while GG kept up its very narrow focus activism. What happened then follows a pattern of disruptive infiltration where folks who came into the open movement for the VI AIDS conference. The number of folks in ACTUP SF quadrupled after that activism. A small number of very charasmatic and well off gay white men with no apparent means of economic support took the lead in exploiting divisions between the 'AIDS as a social justice pandemic' and 'get drugs in the arms of white gay men with health insurance as soon as possible' camps. As if there as any contradiction or incompatibility between the two.

The reason why ACTUP SF was successful 25 years ago is for the same reason that Occupy showed signs of life 2 years ago, because the community had skin in the movement and the movement reflected broad consensus of the community.

In the intervening two decades, post Seattle 99, the government has changed its posture towards protest, ignoring it all.

Without an organic base of support from the community and without reflecting the needs of the entire community, not just those with nonprofit coverage, it is going to be impossible to test what new forms of activism, adaptations to increasing state intransigence and violence, can be successful.

But that would involve old school activism, putting the community and its needs first, rather than the domesticated catch and release advocacy for "the most vulnerable" of the nonprofits. 25 years ago, everyone was the most vulnerable.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 20, 2013 @ 8:02 am

I can tell you that now.


When was the last time threatening someone with violence ended well for you?

Or Dan White? Or Mark Chapman? Or Lee Harvey Oswald? Or John Hinkley? Or Sirhan Sirhan?

Posted by anon on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

Please consider a reading comprehension test as a requirement to post comments onto this website. Nothing too hard, maybe elementary school level.

Otherwise, illiterate commenters will misunderstand or misrepresent your articles and reader comments.

For a glaring example, look no further than the above comment posted on Feb. 25 at 4:21 pm, which completely distorts the earlier comment posted on Feb. 20 at 8:02 am.


Posted by San Francisco Anti-Stupidity Campaign on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

putative strategy, and you got called out on it.

Owned. Deal with it.

Posted by anon on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

"For a glaring example, look no further than the above comment posted on Feb. 25 at 4:21 pm, which completely distorts the earlier comment posted on Feb. 20 at 8:02 am."

Hello. That's a resident troll at 4:21. Their intention was to completely distort. They excreted some bait. Best to ignore.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

defend your own indefensible posts.

Posted by anon on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

I am not a pacifist.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

Your earlier point made that quite clear.

Funny thing is, you're a skinny older guy who wouldn't last 2 minutes in a real fight

Posted by anon on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

Green and being violent.

You won't eat meat because it involves killig animals but you are perfectly happen to be violent to other beings if it suits you?

Portland will love you, marcos.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

The United States is a very violent place, Americans are amongst the most violent people in the global north.

If you oppose violence, then you are anti-American and should consider relocating to a country where there is less violence, like, say France?

The market demands violence and just who do you think you are to stand in the way of what the market commands?

Posted by marcos on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

support violence? That's good to know because, in your anon incanrations on this thread, you were trying to deflect that suggestion.

Can you describe a time when being violent achieved a political objective for you? Be sure to include a list of the injuries the other party suffered.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

I support the Second Amendment requirement that a well regulated militia bear arms. I look forward to millions of armed, organized citizens!

Posted by marcos on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

will provide an analysis showing the distorting nature of the illiterate commenter's statement.

Marcos' original comment read, " is going to be impossible to test what new forms of activism, adaptations to increasing state intransigence and violence, can be successful."

The illiterate commenter, anon, began his reply by misquoting the original comment: "Impossible to test what forms of violence can be successful"?

Note how anon deleted the words "of activism, adaptations to increasing state intransigence and" in order to claim that marcos' original statement about responses to state violence is actually advocating activist violence.

At best, anon's actions display a lack of reading comprehension. More likely, he deliberately misquoted marcos' statement for his own nefarious reasons.

This example is why the SFASC is reluctantly advocating the passing of a reading comprehension test as a prerequisite for posting onto this website.

For a long period of time, the SFASC has been closely monitoring this and other San Francisco websites for examples of stupidity as part of its campaign to combat stupidity and its ill effects on internet communication.

From its copious analysis, the SFASC believes unequivocally that anon is the most stupid commenter on any San Francisco website.

Posted by San Francisco Anti-Stupidity Campaign on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

There was no lack reading comprehension going on here. You empower the trolls by acknowledging them. Either ignore them or drown them out, there is no middle ground here.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

But at least you gave up that dumb "posting anon" idea. You have to be a lot smarter than you are to get away with that.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

I actually think that sort of comment is to be encouraged for the much-needed levity it brings to this forum -- and it fits in with my favored theory with regard to how to best deal with trolls; i.e. ridicule.

Anyhow, I also noticed that marcos took the poster to task, but then was minorly victimized by typography trollery. It would have been more productive use of marcos' effort if he'd put it towards expounding on monetary or housing policy or some such.

The funny thing is that the SFASC commenter was actually defending marcos from misattribution. I honestly wonder why in response marcos would not be appreciative instead of needlessly stern.

Posted by lillipublicans on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

Pearls, swine, you know.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

... exactly that way...

Posted by lillipublicans on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

Pearls/swine applied to pontificating on policy, not on thanks to SFASC, apologies for the ambiguity.

I was businesslike with SFASC, maybe I should have gotten down on my knees more demonstrably?

Thanks, SFASC!

Posted by marcos on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

clearly you advocate violence as a viable stratgey.

Denying you said that is bad enough. Going anon to pretend to be somebody else agreeing you is even worse.

Posted by anon on Feb. 25, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

of this website's comments, the SFASC notes that commenter anon uncritically supports the most violent aspects of American society; that is, aggressive warfare and unbridled police power.

Anon's attempt to deflect his own prediliction for violence by misrepresenting someone else's comments reinforces the SFASC's finding that anon is the most stupid commenter on any San Francisco website.

Down with stupidity!!!

Power to the thoughtful!!!

Posted by San Francisco Anti-Stupidity Campaign on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 12:57 am

Don't I get a "+1" for making the trolls roll in their own filth?

Posted by marcos on Feb. 26, 2013 @ 7:47 am

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