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?
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.
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?
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.
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."
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.)
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."
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.
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.
"Occupy was a blip on the everyday gay person's radar screen — and the police response to it was enormously more brutal and scary than when we protested in the '90s and police usually worked with us," he said. "But honestly, most gay people now are happy to see their president onscreen saying the word 'gay' before the word 'marriage' and that's good enough for them."
Soehnlein also has thoughts about why ACT UP may be resonating again. "There's been talk about AIDS PTSD, and it really was a war. ACT UP felt like the only thing you could do to stay sane. Many people had to shut themselves off from that time in order to move on, and activism may be included in that.
"But 20, 25 years is a long time. It could just be a matter of waking people back up."
ACT UP/SF meets at 7pm every first, third, and fifth Thursday — including Thu/21 at Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., SF. www.facebook.com/ACTUPSF