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?
And ACT UP/SF is also agitating around a provision in the $15 billion, George W. Bush-initiated PEPFAR international AIDS relief program, which forces organizations to pledge to oppose prostitution in order to receive funds. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case against the provision this year.
A more local, immediate concern, however, one that ACT UP/SF places at the top of its list, is the skyrocketing cost of rent in San Francisco and the increasing numbers of evictions and stressful threat of evictions that many people living with HIV/AIDS face today.
"Evictions are killing us, they're murder," Lopez said, as Guttirez and Nova voiced their agreement. "People think medication is the number one priority for people with HIV — but it's not, it's housing. SROs are being pushed out, affordable housing stock is shrinking, people are being forced to leave. Without stability, it's very hard to comply with your drug regimen, which is already complicated enough.
"I hear people all the time say, well if you can't afford it here, then just move. They don't understand that San Francisco is still one of the few places where queer people feel safe, that there's a network of services here with proven results that you can't find anywhere else, especially places many people living with HIV can afford to live. And there are support networks here, too, that aren't available anywhere else."
In fact, one of the most valuable things ACT UP/SF may be doing right now is offering a community for people, especially young people, with HIV to connect beyond the isolation of computer screens, to share information, enter into a positive dialogue, and receive support in a sympathetic environment geared toward changing the status quo.
Guttirez sums it up: "We're for people who realize an angry Facebook post isn't enough."
BACK IN THE DAY
Have any old-guard feathers been ruffled by the ACT UP revival?
"The only real resistance we've had is to the name ACT UP/San Francisco — our intention is to reclaim the name from the mess that happened in the past," Cyd told me. He's referring to perhaps the most acrimonious legacy of local queer history. In 1990, after a phenomenally successful year of protest and media attention, several people left ACT UP/San Francisco to form ACT UP Golden Gate, intending to focus specifically on advocating for drug development and treatment, rather than address broader social issues like economic justice and gay equality.
The split was amenable at first, until things got really weird. Two men, David Pasquarelli and Michael Bellefountaine, moved here from Florida in 1993 and took over Act Up San Francisco. They quickly went from questioning the wisdom of poisoning one's body with chemicals from the medical industry to flat out denying that HIV was the cause of AIDS, telling HIV-positive followers to forego medications altogether, saying that's what was really killing them. Many panicked young people were swept into the new ACT UP/SF's cultlike atmosphere, and to their doom.
"They were whackadoos!" old school ACT UP member Waiyde Palmer exclaimed when I brought up Pasquarelli and Bellefountiane. "They killed hundreds of people — and now they're dead. Of AIDS. But the bitterness still lingers."
I met the svelte and sassy Palmer, contributing editor of the Castro Biscuit news website and longtime survivor of AIDS, at Church Street Cafe, along with other ACT UP veterans Dean Ouellette, bushy-bearded gardener and musician, and respected journalist and activist Liz Highleyman. The three formed an uncanny, silver-haired mirror image of their younger counterparts I'd met with earlier.