It’s time to say it loud and proud: the kick-ass activists of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), who 25 years ago this month staged their first demonstration on Wall Street in New York City, are true American heroes.
They’re heroes because they challenged a hateful society that allowed gay men with AIDS to die without compassion or caring. Most Americans did not question the bigotry that people with AIDS confronted around every corner, even from their own families. In fact, they seemed fine with gay men dying, because they thought of us as lowly faggots and sinners.
I remember friends who lay sick in hospital beds unattended because nurses were afraid to go into their rooms to give them medicine or check their vitals.
I remember a police district in a heavily African/American area of West Philadelphia that kept a list of the addresses of known people with HIV so that if officers received a call from one of those houses, they wouldn’t respond. I also remember Philly cops beating ACT UP demonstrators outside a fancy hotel one night when some dignitary (I think it was the president) was visiting. They left my friend Scott Tucker lying on the cold street with a bloodied head.
I remember so many people blaming gay men for AIDS, even those who should have known better, as if we concocted the disease in a laboratory one day and then injected it into ourselves and our sex partners and lovers.
I remember churches of every denomination (with the exception of the Friends and maybe the Unitarians), who were quick to judge and condemn. The Catholic Church was especially heinous in its statements and its utter contempt for gay lives. An ACT UP protester returned that contempt by walking into St.Patrick’s Cathedral one Sunday morning as his brothers and sisters protested outside and tossed a Communion wafer onto the floor. Some folks may have condemned him for his action, but I didn’t.
I remember a president, Ronald Reagan, who refused to utter the word “AIDS” in public (or to appropriate funding to fight it), and when he did finally mention the disease after so many had died, he said it was a punishment from the spiteful old deity he worshipped. This despicable man may still be remembered fondly by most Americans, but as far as I am concerned, he died with a whole lot of blood on his hands, some of it the blood of my friends.
I remember feeling so much rage for so many years as so many friends died without the love and support of their families. I expressed that rage in my writing (some of it at the Philadelphia Gay News where I worked for the entire decade of the 80s) and on stage with Avalanche, a multi-racial queer theatre troupe that I founded. We sometimes flashed images of ACT UP protests (in slides, that was before computer technology) on the stage wall as part of our performance pieces to never let anyone forget that we were activists as much as we were performers.
There was so much rage in my work that I was dubbed by a national arts magazine “an angry artist.”
It was a title I wore proudly.
The 25th anniversary of ACT UP’s first demo is being commemorated here in San Francisco with two upcoming events: a March 24 forum at the Women’s Building, 18th Street between Guerrero and Valencia, at 5pm, and an April 6 march, starting at 16th & Mission at 4pm. There's also a photo exhibit, "Life and Death in Black and White: AIDS Direct Action in SF, 1985-1990," at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th. It runs through July 1. www.glbthistory.org/museum