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?
Kramer's own polemical, overwhelming 1985 play about the dawn of the disease in New York, The Normal Heart, was revived on Broadway in 2011 (it played here at A.C.T. last year), snagged three top Tony Awards, and is being made into a movie with Mark Ruffalo, Alec Baldwin, and possibly Julia Roberts. The artwork of hyperkinetic grafitti artist Keith Haring, who designed some of the most recognizable anti-AIDS iconography before succumbing to the disease in 1990, was everywhere in 2012, from Google Doodles and iPhone cases to collectible sex toys and a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Dangly pink triangle earrings and "Silence = Death" t-shirts and buttons, emblems of ACT UP, are popping up on hipsters all over.
And, um, Justin Bieber wore an ACT UP T-shirt to the 2012 CMT Country Music Awards?
FANNING THE FLAMES
Last year, a 28-year-old sex worker and activist named Cyd Nova, along with others who had been involved with the Occupy movement, started contacting ACT UP veterans about the upcoming 25th anniversary of ACT UP that March.
"My friend Kentaro and I had developed a common obsession with ACT UP because we saw it as reflection of what is missing in our community," he told me. Nova had discovered ACT UP when he was 17, as he made an attempt to "understand who I was in the world I was living in." When he began researching the ACT UP Oral History Project online and watching New Queer Cinema classics like the 1993 HIV-themed musical Zero Patience he "found it all incredible."
"The emergence of ACT UP represented to us this time when queers stood together when faced with a genocide of indifference, devoting their lives to fighting for the those of their friends, lovers, family and themselves. This stands in contrast to gay and lesbian culture of the 2000s — the focus on marriage and class climbing. For people of color, sex workers, drug users, and transgender people HIV still exists. I wanted to get involved in some deeper way."
Kentaro updated ACT UP graphics with a new "Act the Fuck Up" design, and there was enough traction about the anniversary idea among curious young people and elders to plan a "NOT OVER: 25 Years of ACT UP" panel at the Women's Building in March, followed by a march in April through the Castro and Mission protesting the evictions of people living with HIV/AIDS, condoms being used as evidence to prosecute sex workers, and the Catholic Church's homophobic and sex-phobic policies.
Both the panel and the march were well-attended, and another panel — this time featuring ACT UP veteran Sarah Schulman reading from The Gentrification of the Mind, her impassioned memoir of how queer rebellion to the AIDS crisis vanished into conservatism and consumerism, — overflowed its Luggage Gallery setting. Several of the attendees decided to start holding regular meetings and full-on reactivate the movement, reviving the name ACT UP/San Francisco.
The new ACT UP/SF joining with OccuPride at the 2012 Pride Parade. Photo by Liz Highleyman
These events were followed by more old school-style ACT UP actions: slogan-bearing banner drops at Pink Saturday in the Castro, guerilla street art bombs, a "Cumdumpsters of the GOP" condom toss at Folsom Street Fair. A nexus of affiliation emerged among fellow radical queer groups like OccuPride, Homonomixxx, and active ACT UP chapters in other cities. In December, a small group managed to enter Bay Area-based pharmaceutical giant Gilead's headquarters to protest the exorbitant pricing — $28,500 per year — of its new, more convenient HIV drug Stribild. An action is planned for February 25 to deliver letters protesting Stribild's price to Gilead, and another for ACT UP's 26th anniversary in March.