ACT UP was formed on this date, thirty-four years ago, at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York. The writer Vito Russo wrote at the time that “living with AIDS in this country is like living through a war that’s happening only for those people in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes you look around to discover that you’ve lost more of your friends. But nobody else notices, it isn’t happening to them.” Larry Kramer had been asked to speak at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center 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 actually 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.
They became confrontational about the government’s complete lack of urgency towards the plight of the thousands of Gay men dying of AIDS. That was the face of AIDS at the time and no one seemed to care that so many were dying. And many were actively blocking (as many still do) the use of condoms for AIDS prevention. They called out Ronald Reagan and Cardinal O’Connor and Pope John Paul for their responsibility in the deaths of millions while they prevented treatment and prevention. Because of ACT UP, political leaders and the media were forced to pay attention to what was happening. Because of ACT UP things moved for the care and treatment of people living and dying with AIDS.
Anthony Fauci was one of the main targets. On the passing of Larry Kramer last year, Fauci wrote an appreciation of his friend, “Back then, I was the scientist leading the AIDS effort at the National Institutes of Health. To him, I was the face of the federal government. He decided the best way to bring attention to all of this was to come out and attack me — which he did publicly and in a somewhat vicious manner. He wrote an article I laugh about now, but it was on the front page of the magazine section of the San Francisco Examiner: an open letter to an incompetent idiot Dr. Anthony Fauci. He called me a murderer for being negligent about HIV. That shocked me a bit, but it got me to think that I needed to know a little more about this guy. So I reached out — and over the years we went from acquaintances who were adversarial to acquaintances who were less adversarial to friends to very, very dear friends.”
The work is not finished and the ACT-UP model is one that has been replicated by many dealing with entrenched hostility and animus.