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AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power

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ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, "is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals ... committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis." - from the ACT UP/New York website.

ACT UP was effectively formed on March 10, 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City. Larry Kramer was asked to speak as part of a rotating speaker series, and his well-attended speech focused on action to fight AIDS. Kramer spoke out against the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which he perceived as politically impotent. Kramer had co-founded the GMHC but had resigned from its board of directors in 1983. According to Douglas Crimp, Kramer posed a question to the audience: "Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?" The answer was "a resounding yes." Approximately 300 people met two days later to form ACT UP.[1]


The following chronological accounts of ACT UP actions are drawn from Douglas Crimp's history of ACT UP, the ACT UP Oral History Project, and the online Capsule History of ACT UP, New York.[2]

Wall StreetEdit

On March 24, 1987, 250 ACT UP members demonstrated at Wall Street and Broadway to demand greater access to experimental AIDS drugs and for a coordinated national policy to fight the disease. [3] An Op/Ed article by Larry Kramer published in the New York Times the previous day described some of the issues ACT UP was concerned with. [4] Seventeen ACT UP members were arrested during this civil disobedience. [5]

On March 24, 1988, ACT UP returned to Wall Street for a larger demonstration in which over 100 people were arrested. [6]

On September 14, 1989, seven ACT UP members infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange and chained themselves to the VIP balcony to protest the high price of the only approved AIDS drug, AZT. The group displayed a banner that read, “SELL WELLCOME” referring to the pharmaceutical sponsor of AZT, Burroughs Wellcome, which had set a price of approximately $10,000 per patient per year for the drug, well out of reach of nearly all HIV positive persons. Several days following this demonstration, Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT to $6,400 per patient per year. [7]

General Post OfficeEdit

ACT UP held their next action at the New York City General Post Office on the night of April 15, 1987, to a captive audience of people filing last minute tax returns. This event also marked the beginning of the conflation of ACT UP with the Silence = Death Project, which created the famous poster consisting of a right side up pink triangle (an upside-down pink triangle was used to mark gays in Nazi concentration camps) on a black background with the text "SILENCE = DEATH." Douglas Crimp speaks of the "media savvy" of ACT UP at this demonstration, because the television media "routinely do stories about down-to-the-wire tax return filers." As such, ACT UP was virtually guaranteed media coverage.[1]


In January 1988 Cosmopolitan Magazine published an article by Robert E. Gould, a psychiatrist, entitled "Reassuring News About AIDS: A Doctor Tells Why You May Not Be At Risk."[1] The main contention of the article was that in unprotected vaginal sex between a man and a woman who both had "healthy genitals" the risk of HIV transmission was negligible, even if the male partner was infected. Women from ACT UP who had been having informal "dyke dinners" met with Dr. Gould in person, questioned him about several misleading facts (that penis to vagina transmission is impossible, for example), questionable journalistic methods (no peer review, bibliographic information, failing to disclose that he was a psychiatrist and not a practitioner of internal medicine), and demanded a retraction and apology.[8] When he refused, in the words of Maria Maggenti, they decided that they "had to shut down Cosmo." According to those who were involved in organizing the action, it was significant in that it was the first time the women in ACT UP organized separately from the main body of the group.[9] Additionally, filming the action itself, the preparation and the aftermath were all consciously planned and resulted in a video short titled, "Doctor, Liars, and Women: AIDS Activists Say No To Cosmo." The action consisted of approximately 150 activists protesting in front of the Hearst building (parent company of Cosmopolitan) chanting "Say no to Cosmo!" and holding signs with slogans such as "Yes, the Cosmo Girl CAN get AIDS!"[1] Although the action did not result in any arrests, it brought significant television media attention to the controversy surrounding the article. Phil Donahue, Nightline, and a local talk show called "People Are Talking" all hosted discussions of the article. On the latter, two women, Chris Norwood and Denise Ribble took the stage after the host, Richard Bey, cut Norwood off during an exchange about whether heterosexual women are at risk from AIDS.[10] Footage from all of these media appearances were edited into "Doctors, Liars, and Women." Cosmopolitan eventually issued a partial retraction of the contents of the article.[8]

"Stop the Church"Edit

In December 1989, approximately 4,500 protestors arrived at St. Patrick's Cathedral during Mass in a demonstration directed toward the Roman Catholic Archdiocese's public stand against AIDS education and condom distribution, as well as its opposition to abortion.[11] One-hundred and eleven protesters were arrested.[2] A short documentary about the protest, titled "Stop the Church", was originally scheduled to air on PBS. The documentary was eventually dropped from national broadcast by PBS, but still aired on public television stations in several major cities including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.[12]

NIH demonstrationEdit

In May 1990, ACT UP organized a large choreographed demonstration at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Campus. According to Kramer, this was their best demonstration, but was almost completely ignored by the media because of a large fire in Washington, D.C. on the same day.

Day of DesperationEdit

On January 22, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, ACT UP activist John Weir and two other activists entered the studio of the CBS Evening News at the beginning of the broadcast. They shouted "Fight AIDS, not Arabs!" and Weir upstaged anchorman Dan Rather before the control room cut to a commercial break. The same night ACT UP demonstrated at the studios of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. The next day activists displayed banners in Grand Central Station that said "Money for AIDS, not for war" and "One AIDS death every 8 minutes." The banners were attached to bundles of balloons that lifted them up to the ceiling of the station's enormous main room. These actions were part of a coordinated protest called "Day of Desperation."[13]

Seattle schoolsEdit

In December 1991, ACT UP's Seattle chapter distributed over 500 safer-sex packets outside Seattle high schools. The packets contained a pamphlet titled "How to Fuck Safely", which was photographically illustrated and included two men performing fellatio. The Washington state legislature subsequently passed a "Harmful to Minors" law making it illegal to distribute sexually explicit material to underage persons.

Boston and New EnglandEdit

In January 1988, ACT UP Boston held its first protest at the Boston offices of the Department of Health and Human Services, regarding delays and red tape surrounding approval of AIDS treatment drugs. ACT UP/Boston's agenda included demands for a compassionate and comprehensive national policy on AIDS; a national emergency AIDS project; intensified drug testing, research, and treatment efforts; and a full-scale national educational program within reach of all. The organization held die-ins and sleep-ins, provided freshman orientation for Harvard Medical School students, negotiated successfully with a major pharmaceutical corporation, affected state and national AIDS polices, pressured health care insurers to provide coverage for people with AIDS, influenced the thinking of some of the nation's most influential researchers, served on the Massachusetts committee that created the nation's first online registry of clinical trials for AIDS treatments, distributed information and condoms to the congregation at Cardinal Bernard Francis Law Confirmation Sunday services at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, and made aerosolized pentamidine an accessible treatment in New England.[14]

Structure of ACT UPEdit

ACT UP was intentionally organized as leaderless and effectively anarcho-democratic. This was intentional on Larry Kramer's part - he describes it as "democratic to a fault."[4] It followed a committee structure with each committee reporting to a coordinating committee meeting once a week. Actions and proposals were generally brought to the coordinating committee and then to the floor for a vote, but this wasn't required - any motion could be brought to a vote at any time.[9] Gregg Bordowitz, an early member, said of the process:

"This is how grassroots, democratic politics work. To a certain extent, this is how democratic politics is supposed to work in general. You convince people of the validity of your ideas. You have to go out there and convince people."[15]

This is not to say was in practice purely anarchic or democratic. Bordowitz and others admit that certain people were able to communicate and defend their ideas more effectively than others. Although Larry Kramer is often labeled the first "leader" of ACT UP, as the group matured, those people that regularly attended meetings and made their voice heard became conduits through which smaller "affinity groups" would present and organize their ideas. Leadership changed hands frequently and suddenly.[15]

  • Some of the Committees were:
    • Action Committee
    • Finance Committee
    • Outreach Committee
    • Treatment and Data Committee
    • Media Committee
    • Graphics Committee
    • Housing Committee

Note: As ACT UP had no formal organizing plan, the titles of these committees are somewhat variable and some members remember them differently than others.

Along with committees, ACT UP New York relied heavily on "affinity groups". These groups often had no formal structure, but were centered on specific advocacy issues and personal connections, often within larger committees. Affinity groups supported overall solidarity in larger, more complex political actions through the mutual support provided to members of the group. Affinity groups often organized to perform smaller actions within the scope of a larger political action, such as the "Day of Desperation", when the Needle Exchange group presented NY City Health Department officials with thousands of used syringes they had collected through their exchange (contained in water cooler bottles).


An acronym for “Damned Interfering Video Activist Television” -- an affinity group within ACT UP that videotaped and documented AIDS activism. One of their early works is “Like a Prayer” (1991), documenting the ACT UP protests at St. Patrick's Cathedral against New York Cardinal O'Connor’s position on AIDS and contraception. Although less as a "collective" after 1990, DIVA TV continued documenting the direct actions of ACT UP and AIDS activists, producing over 160 video programs for public access television channels (as the weekly series "AIDS Community Television" from 1991-1996); film festival screenings; and continuing on-line documentation and streaming internet webcasts. The video activism of DIVA TV ultimately switched media in 1997 with the establishing and continuing development of the ACT UP (New York) website. The most recent DIVA TV-genre video program documenting the history and activism of ACT UP (New York) is the feature-length documentary: "Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 Years of ACT UP" (2002), screened at the Berlin Film Festival and exhibited worldwide. DIVA TV programs and camera-original videotapes are currently re-mastered, archived and preserved, and publicly accessible in the collection of the "AIDS Video Activist Video Preservation Project" at the New York Public Library.

Institutional independenceEdit

ACT UP had an early debate about whether to register the organization as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in order to allow contributors tax exemptions. Eventually they decided against it, because as Maria Maggenti said, "they didn't want to have anything to do with the government."[8] This kind of uncompromising ethos characterized the group in its early stages; eventually it led to a split between those in the group who wanted to remain wholly independent and those who saw opportunities for compromise and progress by "going inside [the institutions and systems they were fighting against]."[16]

Later yearsEdit

ACT UP, while extremely prolific and certainly effective in its heyday, suffered from extreme internal pressures over the direction of the group and of the AIDS crisis. After the action at NIH, these tensions resulted in an effective severing of the Action Committee and the Treatment and Data Committee, which reformed itself as the Treatment Action Group (TAG). [16][17] Several members describe this as a "severing of the dual nature of ACT UP."

In recent years, with the changing nature of the AIDS crisis, ACT UP's membership has dwindled, though many chapters continue to meet.


In the early 1990s, activists from ACT UP founded two other direct action gay rights groups, Queer Nation and Lesbian Avengers.

Factionalism in San FranciscoEdit

In 2000, ACT UP/Golden Gate changed its name to Survive AIDS, to avoid confusion with ACT UP/San Francisco (ACT UP/SF). The two had previously split apart in 1990, but continued to share the same essential philosophy. In 1994, ACT UP/SF diverged from the established point of view regarding the cause of AIDS and the connection to HIV, and the two groups became openly hostile to each other, with mainstream gay and AIDS organizations also condemning ACT UP/SF. ["The fact is that there is no plague of contagious AIDS,"– as quoted from the ACT UP/SF website] and animal rights activism. [1]

Criticism and controversyEdit

The organization, or offshoots of it, have at times faced criticism for being too militant. Their disagreements with Cardinal John O'Connor on issues related to sex education in New York City Public Schools, as well as the Cardinal's public views on homosexuality, led to the first Stop the Church protest on December 10 1989 at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York,[18] in which it's estimated 4500 ACT-UP and WHAM! members gathered outside St. Patrick's Cathedral to protest the Church's perceived homophobia, and their opposition to safe sex education and abortion. 111 activists were arrested. [19] Some activists entered the Cathedral, and interrupted Mass (a sin in Catholicism), threw used condoms at the altar (an excommunicable religious sacrilege), chained themselves to the pews, chanted slogans during the mass or lay down in the aisles. As a result of the St. Patrick's Cathedral action, ACT-UP was publicly condemned by Mayor Edward Koch and some media for what they viewed as militancy and disrespect. ACT-UP's account of the event notes that "The news media choose to focus on, and distort, a single Catholic demonstrator's personal protest involving a communion wafer," (in Catholic terms, that act was a desecration of Jesus Christ's body).

As is the case with many grass-roots protest groups, internal issues sometimes led to schisms and splintering.

See also Edit

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Crimp, Douglas. AIDS Demographics. Bay Press, 1990. (Comprehensive early history of ACT UP, discussion of the various signs and symbols used by ACT UP).
  2. 2.0 2.1 ACT UP New York: Capsule History <>.
  3. ACT UP New York: First Demonstration Flyer <>.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kramer, Larry. Interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard. ACTUP Oral History Project. 16 February 2005. MIX: The New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. 11 December 2005 <>.
  5. ACT UP New York: Capsule History - 1987 <>.
  6. ACT UP New York: Capsule History - 1988 <>.
  7. ACT UP New York: Capsule History - 1989 <>.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Maggenti, Maria. Interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard. ACTUP Oral History Project. 16 February 2005. MIX: The New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. 11 December 2005 <>.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Carlomusto, Jean. Interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard. ACTUP Oral History Project. 16 February 2005. MIX: The New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. 11 December 2005 <>.
  10. Treichler, Paula. How To Have Theory In An Epidemic. Duke University Press, 1999. (Discussion of the Cosmopolitan controversy and media representation)
  11. ACT UP. 10 Year Anniversary of "Stop the Church" Accessed 4 July 2007.
  12. Steinfels, Peter. (September 13, 1991) Channel 13 to Show Film on AIDS Protest New York Times. Accessed 4 July 2007.
  13. Day of Desperation Synopsis. ACT UP New York.
  14. Summary courtesy of the Northeastern University Libraries Archives, ACT/UP Boston historical records <>
  15. 15.0 15.1 Bordowitz, Gregg. Interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard. ACTUP Oral History Project. 16 February 2005. MIX: The New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. 11 December 2005 <>.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Harrington, Mark. Interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard. ACTUP Oral History Project. 16 February 2005. MIX: The New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. 11 December 2005 <>.
  17. Wolfe, Maxine. Interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard. ACTUP Oral History Project. 16 February 2005. MIX: The New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival. 11 December 2005 <>.
  18. Crouch, Stanley. Obit at Salon <>
  19. ACTUP Capsule History 1989

External links Edit

External References Edit

"The Making of an AIDS Activist: Larry Kramer" and "ACT UP", pp. 162-166, Johansson, Warren and Percy, William A. Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. New York and London: Haworth Press, 1994.

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