This is the story my generation has been waiting to see.
I started getting involved in AIDS activism and work in 2002 at the age of 17 – ten years ago, but still long after ACT UP was the force of intensity I later came to obsessively study. When I first became aware of the group, I felt a sense of loss about not having been there, even as I was grateful to not live in an era when the AIDS crisis was decimating my community with that same degree of brutality.
ACT UP: the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power described itself as a “diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” United in Anger illuminates how ACT UP exemplified an era in which queer politics were community driven, inclusive, sexy, unrepentant, and brilliantly dangerous. The energy of the film replicates that of the movement.
United in Anger, produced by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, is composed of footage from a wide range of video artists, activists, and collectives, including DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activists) and Testing the Limits, combined with contemporary interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project.
The film provides a timeline of ACT UP, largely focusing on the New York chapter, where it all began in 1987. ACT UP was not the first AIDS activist group, but it was instrumental in capturing mainstream attention through large-scale dramatic actions such as interrupting the CBS Evening News and political funerals that brought the bodies and ashes of people who died of AIDS to the White House lawn.
The immediate catalyst for ACT UP was a speech by Larry Kramer delivered at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Center, wherein he asked two-thirds of the audience to stand up, then told them they would be dead in five years–so what were they going to do about it?
Where United in Anger most succeeds, however, is in not profiling celebrities. The history of the movement is told through a wide diversity of voices, some more recognizable than others, often transposing their oral history interviews with footage of them speaking out at meetings, shouting at protests, or being arrested.
The film interrupts the common belief that AIDS is a gay white men’s issue, and that ACT UP only focus was on getting drugs into bodies. Robert Vazquez-Pacheco, one of the film’s interviewees says, “What I saw was the opportunity in ACT UP for social change…using AIDS as the nexus of all these problems that happened in society, we could address some of this stuff and work towards changing society that way.”
A long segment of the film focuses on a four-year campaign to force the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change the definition of AIDS to include conditions specific to women and drug users. It is a moment where you see gay men acting in solidarity with women, as women supported gay men throughout the AIDS crisis, which feels so different from the often misogynistic world of gay men today.
United in Anger drives home that difference. It shows a community that saw what oppression looked like and challenged the forces that were killing them, instead of attempting to assimilate into institutions of privilege.
I watched the film with my best friend, holding his hand as we shrieked with joy and cried and plotted how to get back to something like that. The world shown in this movie is something we desperately need.
So, where did ACT UP go? Although the group’s focus was broader than “drugs into bodies,” once protease inhibitors came on the scene in the mid-1990s the wider energy began to dissipate. Some chapters continued, other cities had theirs explode into drama, such as the split in San Francisco between a group of AIDS dissidents and a treatment-focused group. It was also time for people to heal. In all the excitement and the energy of protests shown, there is always the reminder of the real fear and grief driving it.
Today, 25 years after the birth of ACT UP, grassroots activists are beginning to reconverge. AIDS is still a crisis. In the film a man holds a sign that reads “AZT: The Great Pacifier.” It was a particularly striking message. The crisis does look different now. There are antiretroviral drugs that are well tolerated and prolong the lives of many people living with HIV indefinitely, but this, activists say, cannot be enough.
Currently, there is no cure for HIV, and as long as pharmaceutical companies charge thousands of dollars a months for their life saving medications we are unlikely to see one. Women and trans people are still largely underserved, even in San Francisco. HIV is spreading rapidly through communities of color, pushed by the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex. ADAP and HIV prevention programs are under attack. The criminalization of HIV positive folks and sex workers reinforces HIV stigma and that fear fuels the epidemic.
The tide is changing. Resurrected ACT UP chapters have emerged in San Francisco, New York, and Boston, while Philadelphia continues to hold strong. This year the International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington DC, on US territory for the first time since the recently lifted HIV travel ban was imposed in the late 1980s. Now is the time to strategize, organize, and make demands. Communities affected by HIV seek AIDS action that is not only about putting money into the drug company pockets, but is about a complete overhaul of the laws, policies, and social structures that persecute us all. Now is the hour, ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS.