This is the second in a guest-post series about ACT UP and the history AIDS activism. There are some amazing events happening in San Francisco this weekend, commemorating important events in the early AIDS activist movement (specifically, the 25th anniversary of the 6th International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and ACT UP’s week of protests). This is important and fascinating history, well worth knowing and remembering. If you’re interested in queer history or the history of street activism, and you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, I urge you attend at least <a href="http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=70685" target="_blank"some of these events if you can.
There’s a great article in the Bay Area Reporter by Liz Highleyman about ACT UP, 6th International AIDS Conference protests, the history of AIDS activism, and the reasons behind this weekend’s commemorative events. (A full calendar of the weekend’s events is in the article.) She interviewed Tim Kingston, who in 1990 was a reporter for the LGBT community newspaper San Francisco Bay Times. But as is almost always the case with reporting, only a small portion of the interview was quoted. Liz and Tim have given permission to quote the interview here in full.
Liz Highleyman: Why were these events so important at the time?
Tim Kingston: I just found and re-read my article from the AIDS conference in San Francisco, and it was both sobering and informative. It’s hard to put myself back in those times, but a couple of things stand out. First was how universal the condemnation was of the Bush (senior) administration by everyone at the conference; second was the lack of treatment options. There was parallel track drug approval in place (i.e. a faster drug approval process than existed at the time) that AIDS activists had managed to get put in place, but there was only one drug in it. And that was ddI, remember ddI? Everything else was AZT AZT AZT.
The frustration and rage as a result both of those situations was palpable in the air, and floated off the pages of the Bay Times reading it 25 years later.
There were all these little images I was reminded of: when Louis Sullivan was shouted down, how Dr. Paul Volberding just stared at Sullivan, stone faced. He was not staring at the AIDS with anger, he was staring at Sullivan. Sullivan, by the way, missed the start of the conference because he was at a Jesse Helms fundraiser!
What comes across years later is the sense that for the first time, AIDS researchers and activists were on the same page. But it was not a pretty page. They may not have been exactly in agreement, but everyone there was pissed off with a US government whose response to the epidemic was to ban people with HIV from coming to the country instead of working on expediting research. Both inside and outside the conference there was rage, anger, pain, and determination. I remember that well. When you have activists and delegates all trashing the US government, you know something different was happening.
Unlike the Washington AIDS conference where no one had heard of ACT UP, or Montreal where activists were banging on the door to get in, one way or another AIDS activists were a critical part of the conference and a welcomed part. I could not find any delegates inside willing to defend the government. The problem was there were no drugs in the pipeline. Think about that. We had got ourselves inside the circus, finally inside their doors, but there was no show, no main attraction. As I said, it was all AZT.
Having said that, the groundwork had been laid for later success. The foundation for successful testing of drugs and some level of access was there. That was important, very important. And it was also a point where, instead of always being on the outside, AIDS activists were inside and recognized, by Anthony Fauci and other officials, as important allies to get funding and action. Not only did we understand the inside/outside strategies, but our allies on the inside did too.
Why is it important to remember them now 25 years later?
It important to remember and recognize the activists and the work they did and the fact that we did change the world. Just as with any great social movement and what was achieved, it is hard to remember what it was like before that change. It is hard to go back to that period without it hurting inside. But it is critical that we remember our history — that we have had a hand in creating many of the things about AIDS [currently] at work. We attacked and eliminated a large part of the stigma of AIDS; we changed the medical system forever; we changed the doctor/patient relationship from patronizing to equivalent in many other areas of treatment; we changed how drugs are researched, developed and approved. Without ACT UP we would have been at least ten, maybe twenty years behind where we are in treatment options. That is why it is important to remember the Micheal Wrights, the Jesse Dobsons, the Terry Suttons, and many many others — woman and men, black, brown, white, Asian, rich, poor, young and old, who died fighting.
What did the protests accomplish?
It set the stage for a different world. Here, from the end of my original article:
“This year, however, science and politics meshed. Throughout the conference, PWAs [people with AIDS] and activists were an integral part of panels and plenaries, explaining how more attractive clinical trials will enhance recruitment and obtain real-world data, noting that unless health care and treatments are available to all, entire societies are in danger of collapse. Dr. Johnathan Mann, former president of the WHO’s AIDS program, says, ‘The deficiencies of our health care and social system have been so starkly and painfully revealed that the pre-AIDS paradigm of public health… has been found to be desperately inadequate and therefore fatally obsolete.’
“AIDS cannot be stopped by laws, and it cannot be stopped by science, but it can be prevented by behavior change, and to change that people must have the power to alter their lives. Mann says to fight against AIDS it has become necessary to fight for human rights and social justice. Without such rights, the disease goes underground and spreads. ‘The discovery of the inextricable linkage between human rights and AIDS, and more broadly, between human rights and health, will rank among the major discoveries and advances in the history of health and society,’ asserts Mann. ‘The historian of the future will see that we have had the privilege of participating in the creation of new worlds of thought and action — a revolution based on the right to health.'”
Do we still need AIDS activism today and if so why? What issues remain?
I honestly don’t know about AIDS activism at this point. Yes, activism is necessary, but AIDS is no longer a single issue, if it ever was.
Any anecdote or event you found particularly inspiring?
The most inspiring thing from that conferences was being part of the crew of delegates and researchers and activists who streamed out of Moscone Center into the Gay Pride parade. It was a moment of solidarity and joy in the midst of disaster that I will forever remember. Yes, we are united, and yes maybe — just maybe — we will survive this plague if we stick to it together.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.