Social Activism and ACT UP


    ACT UP : by Wendy Coombs

 Pictured above is a pin from the activist group ACT UP during the late 1980s. With a simple statement, the group aimed to fight the U.S government (including the FDA, etc.) in providing human rights for those affected by AIDS, as well as pushing for hasty research development (such as drug trials) to present those that were sick, a hope for a better quality of life.

 Several years following the start of the epidemic in the U.S; those who had AIDS and those who were affected by it felt a growing need to take the issue to a more political level. Due to the fatal nature of the disease itself and increasing deaths across the nation, the severity and importance of taking a stand was that much greater. With no proven cure, many were more than willing to take a chance in trying a new treatment; even if there was no promise of success, there was a possibility for a better quality of life. However, with discrimination in hospitals (anti-homosexual sentiments,etc) leading to rejection of the treatment of patients, limited drug trials,and high costs of medicinal treatments  only allowed a small number of people to have some sort of proper medical care.Another group, the PWA (people with AIDS),constructed a distribution service to those who could not (either financially or other reasons) obtain AIDS related drugs due to such a high demand. However, this system in reality was entirely underground and had its own issues of being considered a “black market” for pharmaceuticals. Without creating a change to the real medical market, the distribution group would not last. Arranging their first demonstration in 1987, ACT UP took to Wall Street in protest of the high cost of the drug AZT used to treat those with AIDS ($10,000 USD per year). This particular drug at the time was considered a promising option in prolonging the life of someone with AIDS. Following the demonstration, group meetings were organized around better understanding the science behind the disease (inevitably leading to the creation of the sub department of the group, the Treatment and Data section) as well as constructing ways to influence legal changes in arguing related social issues (hospital discrimination, housing evictions, etc.).

  The group encountered various successes throughout the years following the Wall Street protest. For example, the limited drugs that were available to some, would cause extremely harsh side effects. A major cause for the drug limitation was due to the FDA, and lack of a quick overturn for approving newer drugs to treat AIDS (to put it in perspective, it would take several years for a drug to be researched, put through trials, then approved to be distributed to the public). Also, it is significant to note that women, and people of color, were rarely (if any at all) included within these human trials. Time was the quintessential factor in constituting life and death; therefore, it is needless to say that activists pushed relentlessly for the accessibility for medical care. A number of such pharmaceutical  treatments that were being deliberated over by the FDA, had already gained approval and distribution in foreign countries (combating the FDA’s defensive claim of ensuring the safety of those particular drugs). With the ACT UP efforts, in 1988, the Bristol-Myers drug distribution lends out DDI without FDA testing. In addition, in the year of 1989, the NIH was accused of holding meetings discussing the overall research related to the AIDS epidemic. Over time, representatives would be allowed to attend and witness the meetings in order to maintain a positive relationship with the public and the political; to ensure a sense of transparency.

 Opposing forces to ACT UP created social obstacles for activists. In 1989, the Catholic church deemed contraception (specifically referring to male condoms) immoral. Factoring in the anti-homosexual stigma of AIDS at this time, this occurrence only procured the existing discrimination. This also posed as a threat to the “fight on AIDS”, in the sense that the use of condoms would prevent the spread of the disease, especially when deaths were already ranking in the thousands (within the U.S). Sharing similar anti-homosexual ideas, politicians such as Jesse Helms explicitly stated publicly that “they keep their private matters to themselves, and get their mentality out of their crotches” (How to Survive a Plague, 2012). Such targeting was unfortunately shared by more than just a few people, and even more so importantly, by some in office. George Bush’s administration was criticized by ACT UP for neglecting to fully address the AIDS epidemic; in regards towards funding and the overall needs of those who were suffering from it. The upcoming political election would fuel ACT UP to increase its presence in the political realm.

  Components of race, gender, and class, were inter sectionalized within the time period of AIDS/HIV activism. Despite the fact that the disease affected people of color, and women; mainstream activist groups, along with the stereotypes associated with AIDS primarily centered on middle-class white men. Although all efforts were significant, minorities and women (especially women of color) were unfortunately overlooked (McClane, 55). Women who were diagnosed with AIDS had the tendency to have different medical conditions than men diagnosed with AIDS. The definition of AIDS however by the CDC, pertained to men, and therefore women would not receive the same benefits (social security, etc.) in a legal stance (United in Anger, 2012).

 In 1991, ACT UP began to see a divide within the activist group. Some believed that AIDS treatment and research for a plausible cure served a higher priority. On the other hand, others viewed the diagnosis of AIDS as a mere indicator of social justice issues (focusing on racial discrimination), and with no visible cure in sight, saw the group as a vehicle to improve human rights. This increasing separation between the desires of activists, and the activist events to be created, undoubtedly tested ACT UP as a whole. Larry Kramer, an AIDS activist since the early 1980s and the start of ACT UP, delivers a short speech during an ACT UP meeting regarding the crumbling state that it had become. Here is a link to the video of that footage.

 In 1990s, the group that deviated from ACT UP, TAG (the treatment action group), centered around the scientific research put into development of drugs for AIDS. It wasn’t until the mid-90’s that the DIH recognized the potential in utilizing three type of medication to treat AIDS, and with trials, found an overwhelming success rate (How to Survive a Plague, 2012).

Works Cited

  Mclane-Davison, D. “Lifting: Black Feminist Leadership in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS.” Affilia 31.1 (2015): 55-69. Web.

“How to Survive A Plague” (2012) Director, David France.

“United in Anger” (2012) Director, Jim Hubbard.