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?
One of the less-emphasized aspects of ACT UP was its reverence for procedure and attention to order, its organization into multiple affinity groups and action committees: a trick learned from classical anarchism and the Civil Rights Movement. The young ACT UP/SF members I've met — there are about 25-30 core members — seem to have absorbed these techniques: they speak calmly and deliberately but candidly, seeking out consensus but unafraid to disagree. Their actions, too, seem deliberately organized and calmly executed.
The delicately butch-featured Nova joined me at Church Street Cafe, along with fellow ACT UP/San Francisco revivalists Mayra Lopez, 24, a poised yet vivacious nonprofit worker with striking red lips, and Alan Guttirez, 23, the kind of soft-voiced, sharply intelligent sex worker who somehow survives Dennis Cooper novels.
"I was 18 and taking a summer sociology class at SF State with this flaming faggot professor," Guttirez told me. "Usually queer teachers like to talk about themselves a lot, and at some point he mentioned ACT UP. No one knew what he was talking about, that there was this whole radical movement here that had been almost completely buried. I was immediately curious about the possibilities."
Lopez told me, "I grew up in Sonoma — for half my life, HIV wasn't even on my radar. You never talked about sex in the Latino community I'm from, nevermind queer issues or HIV. Then, in high school, I watched a documentary about HIV and wanted to do a history of the disease for a project. I picked up a book of posters, included ones from ACT UP, that's how I found out about it. From there I went to work for a nonprofit — but nonprofits have a problem with being able to address issues about migrant workers and HIV, which is my focus. They have to be so P.C. I feel like ACT UP is a tool to address those issues openly."
A 2012 ACT UP/SF die-in outside Mission Dolores Basilica, protesting the Catholic Church's homophobic and sexphobic policies. Photo by Liz Highleyman
Is any of the motivation for the ACT UP renewal a matter of trendy nostalgia? "We're too busy for nostalgia," Guttirez says. "We wish the people wearing ACT UP things or looking back at the '90s would dig deeper into the meanings to know what those things stood for, that we're still fighting against the same shit. Categorizing people on hookup sites as 'clean' or 'dirty' according to their HIV status or making fun of poor people is just perpetuating behaviors that were once used against us, and killed us."
A BROADER AGENDA
One of the original ACT UP's main goals was access to life-sustaining drugs. What's the agenda of a new ACT UP? Besides addressing the prohibitively high costs of AIDS meds — something most HIV-positive people with insurance may take for granted, a lack of awareness that drug companies can take advantage of by price gouging or delaying more cost-effective treatments, and leaving uninsured people scrambling and dangerously stressed as public programs are increasingly cut — and the lack of an HIV safety net for many immigrants, the new ACT UP/SF also gives priority to sex worker and housing issues.
ACT UP/SF joined a coalition of local organizations, including Nova's employer St. James Infirmary, to successfully demand that the San Francisco Police Department ban the use of condoms found on someone suspected of prostitution from being used evidence against them. (On January 14, however, Police Chief Greg Suhr announced that the ban would remain "temporary" for 90 days.)