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?
A lively conversation careened among several milestones of queer radical AIDS activist history. The major early, roof-climbing takeover of pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome's Burlingame office in 1987. The packed week of successful demonstrations around the sixth International AIDS Conference in 1990. Protesting a 1989 episode of NBC program "Midnight Caller," which featured a murderous bisexual HIV-positive character. The 1989 day that Stop AIDS Now or Else blockaded the Golden Gate Bridge, two weeks after members of ACT UP/SF chained themselves to the Pacific Stock Exchange.
Juicy tidbits dropped: owner Marty Blecman of Megatone Records, Sylvester's label, bankrolled ACT UP until he died in 1991; a fresh-faced Rachel Maddow, member of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel in 1994, stole some other cute dyke's look. We tried to pin down a timeline of everything, but memories were fuzzy, exact dates had faded.
"I'm pleased to be a part of what's happening, and I'm glad that it's so intergenerational," said Palmer (all three are active in the new ACT UP/SF) "but we need to maintain a momentum, and the motivation is different than when people were dying around you every day. Back then, the movement had members from every walk of life — yuppies, deadheads, people I never would have dreamed of associating with as a punk — united by this life-threatening illness."
Highleyman agreed. "HIV has been taken over by the medical industry, we're narcotized. A lot of ACT UP was based on exchanging information on these bewildering scientific things. Now people just ask their doctor what medicine to take. But who's monitoring the doctors or watching the drug companies?"
"And the economics of the city have changed so much," she continued. "I wonder if there are the resources anymore to support a protest movement. It's just so expensive to live here, who has time to organize and follow through? The fact that these kids are taking it on is incredible and rare."
"Back then we all worked three jobs, too" Palmer said. "But our rent was only $300 dollars — and if you had to leave one job to go to a protest, something else would pop up. I'm not sure if that can happen now."
What happened to ACT UP? Leafing through the mesmerizing ACT UP Golden Gate files in the GLBT Historical Society archives in SoMa (especially those of its young star activist, Edward Zold, who succumbed to AIDS in 2009 at 38), a blizzard of drug names zips past: liposomal, foscarnet, fluconzole, sp-pg, TNP470, D4t, clarithromycin, AZT, Deovythymidine, xylocaine.
Every week it seemed, a new hope rose with a new drug name, only to be quashed when that drug failed. As several of the recent AIDS movies posit, the overwhelming amount of death just became too much, people couldn't handle it anymore. Activists began turning on each other, the movement faded, and activist queer culture sank into despair. Until 1997, that is, when everyone began to realize the new anti-retroviral drug therapies would actually work. They were going to live, and then it was the best Folsom Street Fair ever.
Maybe more importantly, whatever happened to radical queer activism in general? I met with writer K.M. Soehnlein, who's working on a novel based on his experiences of the ACT UP period — he was there from the very beginning in New York. He's featured in United in Anger, and Queer Nation, an ACT UP offshoot formed to combat gay-bashing and promote queer visibility through renegade tactics, began in his living room in 1990.
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