Let the record show
A Political History of ACT UP, New York, 1987-1993
by Sarah Schulman
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (New York), 2021
Let The Record Show is a pathbreaking history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) founded to fight the AIDS/HIV crisis in New York in the late 1980s and is a major contribution to the history of LGBT+ struggles. Tempest thanks the comrades of RS21 for permission to re-run this review which was first published on its website, on October 21, 2021.
You cannot understand the explosion of AIDS activism in New York City in the late eighties, its militancy, political debates, organizing strategies, and even its limitations unless you grasp the context in which ACT UP emerged.
Ronald Reagan became President in January 1981, just as AIDS was first diagnosed. He remained silent about HIV/AIDS until the end of his second term. By the time the president broke his silence in 1987, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed and 20,849 were dead from complications due to AIDS, and the disease had spread to 113 countries.
Throughout Reagan’s eight years the US Congress was dominated by liberal Democrats, who were just as bad. In 1986 the Senate voted 96-0 for a Republican amendment for banning anyone who tested positive for HIV from visiting or migrating to the USA, which served to exacerbate the racism against people of color from poor countries. They also voted 96-2 to ban federal funds for any AIDS education or care organizations that ‘promoted or condoned homosexuality’.
In December 1985, a widely reported Los Angeles Times poll found that 51 percent of respondents supported a quarantine of AIDS patients, while majorities supported making it illegal for those at high risk for AIDS to donate blood, and for a person with AIDS to have sex with another person. Cities with vibrant gay communities underwent a ‘sex war’ against gay bathhouses and other queer social spaces under the pretext that it would stop gay sex, which naturally only sent those activities into totally unregulatable spaces in parks and alleyways.
Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) had already infected and killed tens of thousands of people before 1981, some estimate as many as 200,000 in the US alone. Because HIV/AIDS was killing mostly poor intravenous drug users and closeted working class men who have sex with other men, it was not until a critical mass of an identifiable cohort of middle class openly gay men with access to health insurance were diagnosed with “gay cancer” that the disease was first detected.
It took 7 years after AIDS was first diagnosed for a mass mailing about it along with safer sex education to be sent to American homes. By contrast, in the early 1980s, two deadly outbreaks, one of Toxic Shock Syndrome and another of Legionnaires Disease led to immediate resources and public health information. But by 1983, when AIDS had already killed over twice as many people as those diseases combined, funding for AIDS research remained paltry. Even when the National Institutes of Health declared HIV/AIDS to be the nation’s Number 1 health priority, research spending remained less than one-fifth of 1 percent of their $4 billion budget.
In 1985, the Hollywood star Rock Hudson died of complications from AIDS. The idea that a chiseled, classically handsome leading man could die of a gay man’s disease was simply shocking to millions of Americans. Elizabeth Taylor, one of his dearest friends, was so horrified by the government’s refusal to act on AIDS and the hostility to gays that she launched the non-profit organization, amfAR, collecting tens of millions of dollars a year for research. In a world where public services were being privatized, few options appeared open, especially in the face of government indifference and hostility.
Something had to give.
The founding of ACT UP
Playwright Larry Kramer gave a speech at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Centre in March 1987 and told an audience of mostly gay men that ‘In five years, half of you in this room will be dead!’ No one was organizing protests to demand funding and care for people with HIV/AIDS. Gay Men’s Health Crisis, founded by Kramer in 1982, was doing all it could with scant resources to provide services. But it was Kramer’s searing indictment of the systemic neglect that incited people in the audience to launch ACT UP as a direct-action group.
Other groups that provided what we’d call today mutual aid were popping up, like God’s Love We Deliver founded by hospice workers to bring meals to New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS. Other service groups like Housing Works for homeless people grew out of ACT UP around 1990, too. But the main focus of most people in ACT UP was building and taking direct action to address the crisis.
Let the Record Show skillfully weaves together the oral histories of more than a hundred ACT UP NY participants to provide personal perspectives on the broad historical context. Throughout the book, Schulman features the voices of activists who both led and were rank-and-file members of ACT UP NY from 1987 to 1992, whom she and videographer Jim Hubbard interviewed in the early 2000s for their ACT UP Oral History Project.
Schulman aptly describes the one unifying principle of the spectrum of activists who packed into that dimly lit crowded meeting hall every week to sit on metal folding chairs or the floor, “These were people who were unable to sit out a historic cataclysm.” Regardless of background, they refused to be bystanders.
A state of war
Nowhere today, outside of a military war zone or a police state ghetto occupation, do young adults witness and experience that kind of suffering and death.
I went to university in the mid-80s and joined ACT UP NY in the fall of 1988 as soon as I returned home to New York, less than a year after the group’s founding. Reading Let the Record Show reminded me of how common my own experience was with the other 500 or so people crammed into those Monday night meetings in the old, pre-gentrified Lesbian and Gay Community Center in the West Village.
Many of my gay male friends from high school and college were already sick and dying and my oldest and dearest pal got infected the first time he’d ever had sex with a man because he was too ashamed to ask him to use a condom—or even acknowledge his own sexuality. I was 23 years old and going to hospitals and funerals and watching beautiful young men become disfigured and desperately ill, often suffering alone and in shame. It was shocking, but also enraging.
While reading Let the Record Show, I occasionally had to stop and cry because I’d suddenly be reminded of an old friend or comrade who died. We were at war—against systemic indifference and social hostility to our very existence. I suspect few of my generation of US gays came away from the experience unchanged.
Strength or weakness
Schulman captures a central aspect of the group’s organizing practice when she explains her motivation for writing the book, ‘It’s almost impossible to find out what a movement like ACT UP did, what the strategies and the tactics were, because ACT UP didn’t even theorize itself. People thought that what they and their friends did was ACT UP, so nobody had an organizational overview.’
Her description is accurate, but also demonstrates a serious weakness in the way that ACT UP was structured. Most weekly meetings were filled with brief reports from affinity groups that operated independently of each other as separate—at times secret—cells. While the affinity group structure sometimes allowed for a great range of creativity and community, it also created a lack of accountability to the wider group and could lead to cliquishness.
For example, the media committee led by professional journalists functioned without any consultation with the wider group, such as when it met secretly with New York Times editors while activists protested outside chanting against ‘The New York Crimes’ for its error-ridden and homophobic coverage of AIDS.
Similarly, as Schulman documents, Women’s Caucus participants were outraged to discover that members of the Treatment Action Group were having dinner inside with Dr. Anthony Fauci, then and now the chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, while women were protesting outside to expand the definition of AIDS to include them.
This decentralized structure allowed for undemocratic gatekeeping by some and prioritized small ‘zap actions’ over larger mobilizations that would have necessitated the collective decision-making that ACT UP’s unelected leadership saw as an obstacle to getting things done. The internal battles over strategy, tactics, and respect for women and people of color that ended the most dynamic phase of ACT UP in 1992 (and which Schulman documents in detail) exposed the limitations of this method of organizing.
How did ACT UP win so much?
Schulman’s admiration for this approach means Let the Record Show never really addresses a question that veteran organizers are compelled to ask: How is it that a group that never organized a protest of more than 7,000 or so people in a city of more than eight million, the Stop the Church action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989, made such huge gains comparatively quickly to most social movements?
Treatment Action Group member, Garance Franke-Ruta, is on-point when she cites the class and social position of a significant core of ACT UP: ‘And if AIDS had not hit a group of reasonably empowered, well educated, extremely talented gay men, in the center of the media universe, in New York City, it would have been a very different national experience.’ Few if any direct-action movements that organize over years share that demographic composition, which limits the degree to which some practices of ACT UP can serve as a model.
What other grassroots movement in its infancy includes famous artists and textile designers able to secure the Prada store on lower Broadway for an art auction that brought in $650,000? ACT UP was the only group I’ve known that had access to a TV network news producer to provide a floorplan for their studio that allowed activists to enter and interrupt their broadcast on national television in an era when most Americans got their news that way.
And yet despite all their advantages, such people were dying along with working people, women and people of color at a time when no effective treatments were available. But still, the class composition of this group did profoundly shape ACT UP’s strategy and tactics.
Direct action works
However, there’s no question that ACT UP played a critical role in shifting both consciousness and public policy. The earliest key demand was for getting ‘drugs into bodies’ and even ACT UP’s longtime target Anthony Fauci credits ACT UP’s militancy for forcing the federal government to approve drugs in less than three years when it once took eight. People with AIDS, almost all of whom were dying within five years of diagnosis and many within two, demanded to be included in parallel drug trials.
Their argument was: ‘I’m going to die anyway, give me the trial drugs now and this way if I don’t survive, at least you’ll learn something to save the lives of my friends and lovers.’ What’s more, the very people afflicted by the disease effectively took over the research and development and ultimately entered the institutions themselves. As Schulman puts it, ACT UP smashed through ‘the cult of the expert’.
Early on there were mass actions to stop drug companies profiteering. By 1988, Burroughs Wellcome were producing the only drug treatment approved by the government – AZT, which never worked, btw – which became the most expensive drug ever. On September 14, 1989, seven members entered the New York Stock Exchange using faked credentials (provided by brokers who were ACT UP members). Five of them entered the VIP balcony overlooking the trading floor, chained themselves to it and unfurled a banner that said “SELL WELLCOME.”
As the stock exchange opened, the protestors sounded foghorns that drowned out the traders, leading to a five-minute pause in trading. About an hour after they were removed and arrested, 1,500 protestors arrived to cause pandemonium at the Stock Exchange (I was part of that brigade). As we sounded our foghorns, protestors handed out pamphlets explaining Burroughs-Wellcome’s monopoly on AZT, and implored traders to sell the stock. Several days later, the company announced a 20% reduction in price, to just over $6,000 per year.
Also, under the slogan ‘Women don’t get AIDS, they only die from it’, ACT UP demanded that the National Institutes of Health change the definition of AIDS to include women and their symptoms, and include women in drug trials and Medicaid payment. In January 1993, soon after Katrina Haslett, one of the leading voices of the fight died of AIDS, they finally changed the definition to include women’s symptoms.
Schulman also takes pains to highlight the much-ignored organizing by the small number of Black, Asian and Latinx people—who cleverly called themselves the Majority Action Committee. Their crucial outreach efforts into poor, working class, and Black and Brown communities, and initiatives such as free needle exchange for intravenous drug users, saved lives.
Two sometimes contradictory elements dominated the politics of ACT UP in this era: tactical militancy and political separatism. People were dying and desperate in a society where all the institutions of power expressed either open hostility or indifference, which drove militant direct-action tactics.
At the same time, the organized left was miniscule, labor unions were being gutted and thoroughly tamed inside the Democratic Party, which was complicit in the neoliberal project. Identity-based separatism in which each oppressed group would pursue its own survival dominated in this environment, which led to splits and sometimes irreconcilable differences over taking up larger fights against racism, sexism and war, and whether gay cops should be allowed in meetings.
ACT UP was what I would call a militant reformist organization. Radical in action, but not anti-capitalist. Black Columbia Law professor and founding member of ACT UP’s Majority Action Committee, Kendall Thomas, challenged the perspective of many of the upper middle-class white professionals in the group who opposed an intersectional approach and their ‘willful refusal to recognize their investment in the system that was killing them’.
ACT UP leaders mostly mirrored the political liberalism—and occasional red-baiting—of the day. But socialist activists were able to raise the demand for universal health care, which became ACT UP policy in the early 90s, and pushed for the organization to support 46,000 mostly lower-wage Black and Latinx healthcare workers who went on strike in 1989. And socialists also played active roles in organizing many of the actions Schulman writes glowingly about, including ACT UP’s participation in mass abortion clinic defenses in the early 90s.
Lessons for fighting Covid
The US government’s approach to the cascading crises of COVID, climate catastrophe, racism and the rise of the Far Right in the US certainly echo the past. HIV/AIDS was ignored when it first hit those capitalism designates as unimportant or even disposable, just as COVID was dismissed here when it initially infected mostly low-wage US workers with the least power. When US cities locked down in March 2020, it was poor and working-class people, disproportionately Black and Brown and women who were designated ‘essential workers’, but not essential humans, who were left to fight for their own survival.
Tens of millions of Americans today have concluded—as thousands of gays and lesbians did then—that faced with a deadly pandemic, our government would abandon us. This has been a traumatizing eighteen months, but it’s also been explosive and unpredictable. Workers were forced to take matters into their own hands with strikes and walkouts that shut down schools and businesses and forced minimal federal relief, some wage increases and pandemic protections. The killing of George Floyd in the midst of all this last summer not only led to 26 million people participating in protests, but it shifted mass consciousness around race and the role of the police.
Today, however, there are some key differences. The accumulated experiences of recent struggles from ACT UP to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, meant the need to act against this pandemic broke through to a wider public much faster. And, of course, the internet has enabled global communication and coordination in ways unimaginable 30 years ago. The ongoing decline of most Americans’ standard of living, and the incessant battering we are taking from major climate events makes this a far more volatile and polarised period than at any point in most of our lives.
Once again, something has to give.
Featured Image modified by Tempest.
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Sherry Wolf, the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), who was a member of ACT UP NY from 1988 to 1992 and the International Socialist Organization from 1983 to 2019. Today, Wolf is a trade union organizer and socialist living in Brooklyn and is a member of the Tempest Collective.