Wednesday, March 14, 2007



It seems that the New York boys of Leather outing to see 300 wasn't the only thing going down in NYC last night.

Twenty years ago, the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center (as it was then known) had a problem with their Tuesday Night Speakers Series. The scheduled speaker canceled at the last minute. For a replacement, a call was placed to author Larry Kramer, one of the founders of Gay Men's Health Crisis and the author of several articles in the New York Native about the AIDS epidemic.

That night, Kramer issued a call to arms. "Look to your left. Now look to your right. If we don't do something, one of the three of you is going to die." A group of people who heard Kramer's speech decided to do something. They met again, the following Monday night, and ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a "diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in our anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis" was born.

And was incredibly successful.

I've always attributed that success to a phenomenon unique in the annals of political activism. Y'see, you had these gay men, who were stock brokers, media and public relations types, academics, designers, film makers, and the like, who were suddenly politicized because they didn't want to die. In other words, they were highly competent, connnected, and supremely entitled. But joining them from the git-go were lesbians, many of whom were veterans (and that's a poor choice of words) of the women's peace movement, who knew all about community organizing and direct action.

So back in those days, some of the best minds I've ever known were doing detailed analyses of the FDA's cumbersome drug approval process, the economics of new drug development, the inadequacies of the social services bureaucracy that people were forced to rely on. From these analyses would come strategies for changing the way the system worked. How can we get Burroughs-Wellcome to lower the price of AZT, a drug that was developed by the FDA in the 1960s for cancer, that's inexpensive to produce, but from which Burroughs-Wellcome was reaping huge profits for no other reason that they bought the patent for the compound from the FDA for a song? How about we hit them where it will hurt, right in their profit margin. We shut down the New York Stock Exchange, calling Burroughs-Wellcome and AIDS Profiteer, telling the traders to sell Burroughs, and see if we can get their stock price to drop. Okay. So how do we go about doing that?

The alliance was always a delicate one. And because of ACT UP's success, fringe politicos whom I would generously describe as whackos, calling for everything from the overthrow of the government to establishing state-socialism glommed onto the group. Happily, ACT UP operated on the basis of what has been described as "anarcho-syndicalism": there were no leaders. Just about everything had to be taken to "the floor" (whoever showed up at a Monday night meeting) for a vote. And, there were a series of gay men living with AIDS--Bob Rafsky, David Feinberg, Aldyn McKean, George Catravas--who would not hesitate to stand up and say, "What the fuck is the matter with you people? I'm dying, and you're talking about irrelevant bullshit! I don't care about this! This isn't going to save my life!" And the floor would vote down the proposal.


It was an amazing thing to have been a part of. Those were some of the best years of my life. I met my first NYC boyfriend at the controversial and misunderstood Stop the Church action at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The Baron and I forged our friendship organizing busses to take people from Philadelphia down to Maryland to take part in Storm the NIH (National Institutes of Health).

But over the years, and especially with the development of the protease inhibitors in 1993, the urgency became less, people drifted away, much of the work of ACT UP was institutionalized. In NYC, for example, there's this whole cadre of people, mostly working for AIDS service organizations, who do AIDS policy work. And get paid for it. (I was one of them for awhile.)

The group that I worked with the most, the City Issues Working Group, broke away to become City AIDS Actions when we felt that having to deal with the increasingly whacko-ized floor of ACT UP was holding us back. And, we laid the groundwork for instituting a basic level of services for New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS as Local Law 49.

Back in 1999 I guess it was, when I was doing HIV prevention work running a needle exchange program in NYC, I ran into a former comrade of mine from ACT UP, and asked her if she had been to a meeting recently. "No," she answered, "I haven't seen either of those people in a while."

So now, it seems that last night, Larry Kramer spoke at the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Community Center, and called for a new generation of AIDS activists, committed to bringing about change by direct action to come forward. And there's going to be an ACT UP demonstration on March 29th, marching on Wall Street and demanding single-payer universal healthcare.

You can read about it here.

So like... wow.

I interested in taking part. Although I'm a wee bit skeptical. Who is doing this? Is there going to be civil disobedience (the whackos were generally leery of taking a bust)? Is this legit? Or am I going to find myself among a bunch of folks from the Workers World Party or being asked to carry a sign demanding that marijuana be legalized?

And whose gonna be there?


There's a marshal training planned. I think going to that would not be a bad thing.

Heck. I've still got a bunch of ACT UP tshirts in my closet.

And y'know, if there is civil disobedience, I think I'd want to be involved in that. It's been so long since I got arrested.

And I swear, this is not just about being handcuffed.

Okay. Maybe it is a little bit. But mostly not.

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