Act Up at 30

Moira Donegan

Everyone was wearing the same T-shirt: black, with a pink triangle near the neck and white letters underneath, SILENCE = DEATH. The crowd was about three hundred strong, filling a side street in New York’s West Village, and many were carrying the same image on signs. An elderly man in a leather jacket spoke into a microphone. ‘In 1989 we shut down trading on the New York Stock Exchange, the only time trading has ever been stopped by a mass demonstration!’ There were cheers. ‘In 1992 we held the Ashes Action, where we dumped the ashes of Aids victims onto the White House lawn – right in George Bush’s backyard!’

It was the 30th anniversary of Act Up, the militant anti-Aids group founded two blocks from where we were standing, at the New York LGBT Community Center, when Larry Kramer gave an angry speech at a meeting to discuss the HIV/Aids crisis. We were beneath the New York City Aids Memorial, unveiled last year – the Act Up veterans mocked it repeatedly – and across the street from the site of Saint Vincent’s hospital, one of the first in the world to establish an Aids ward. Thousands of people died there during the height of the epidemic. It was demolished in 2012 and replaced by a glassy, non-descript condominium. A white man was pacing back and forth on the penthouse balcony with a glass of wine in his hand.

LGBT activism has become deeply fractured in the years since the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (the 'triple cocktail' treatment) in 1996. Act Up veterans – now in their sixties and seventies, almost all of them male and wearing leather jackets – spoke of how attendance at demonstrations had declined, especially since 11 September. When long-term HIV survival became possible, radicalised queers turned their attention elsewhere. The result, particularly during the Obama years, was a division. White and cis queers turned towards mainstream organisations with polite tactics, such as the Human Rights Campaign, and bargained for entrance to two institutions that Act Up’s radicals had shunned: marriage and the military. Meanwhile, queers of colour felt alienated. There wasn't much appeal in fighting for inclusion in the military if you were, say, a queer refugee who had been forced to leave his boyfriend and family behind in Iraq. But as gay politics became less radical, other radical movements became a lot gayer. Today, the head of the ACLU is a Latino gay man. Two of the three women who founded Black Lives Matter are out queers.

But the Act Up ceremony was different. The crowd was greeted in a mix of languages; the group’s work with minority communities was presented as central to the group’s history. Besides SILENCE = DEATH, the most popular sign was a bright red rectangle with white lettering: END HIV CRIMINALISATION AND RACIST HOMOPHOBIA – a heartening signal when the left is trying to resolve its internal disputes to unite against Trump. A blue-eyed man I’ve seen at other protests had added BLACK LIVES MATTER to his SILENCE = DEATH sign. Two black trans women held signs with giant pictures of red hats: TRUMPCARE: MAKE HIV AIDS AGAIN.

The organisers asked people to come forward to share stories of those they had lost. Most people spoke directly to the dead. ‘We rolled up your futon, because that’s where you chose to die,’ one man said. ‘We poured out your urine in Prospect Park, because your family chose not to share any of your ashes with us.’ Another man addressed a boyfriend who died in 1989. ‘If there’s a heaven,’ he said, ‘when I get there I want you to ride on my handlebars again.’ One man spoke of a friend who, a week before dying, had dragged himself to an Act Up meeting at the LGBT Center. ‘And he read us the riot act. He told us that we’d failed, that we hadn’t saved him. That was what we all knew, but were ashamed to hear.’

For the most part, the crowd was older, but there were a few of us younger people too – who had been very small, or not yet born, during the crisis. A group of twentysomethings with shaved heads stood behind a long pink banner that said: QUEER ANTIFASCISM. At one point a white straight couple wheeled a pushchair into the crowd. They both wore Act Up hoodies; their baby was in an Act Up onesie, gnawing on her rattle. Eventually, the man took the microphone. He said he had been living with HIV for 31 years, since he was born; he’d been diagnosed as a baby, along with his mother. ‘Act Up saved my life,’ he said. ‘To all the Act Up members who died, some of whom were homeless, some of whom were never given headstones, all of you saved my life.’