In March 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Centre in New York, Larry Kramer asked those gathered: “Do we want to start a new organisation devoted to political action?” He got his answer when two days later almost 300 people turned up for the first ACT UP meeting. ACT UP - the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power - held their first direct action weeks later with a protest on Wall Street demanding national action to address the AIDS epidemic. 17 members were arrested.
In those early times, Algerian-born Frenchman, Didier Lestrade, living with HIV, journeyed to New York from France with his then lover who brought him to his first ACT UP meeting. Inspired by the New York activists’ example, Lestrade co-founded ACT UP Paris with journalists Pascal Loubet and Luc Coulavin in 1989. ACT UP had gone international.
Incidentally Lestrade, Loubet and Coulavin feature as characters in the film 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) directed by another former ACT UP Paris member, Robin Campillo. 120 BPM had a special ACT UP Dublin screening at the Irish Film Institute and after party at Mother in March 2018.
Over time ACT UP chapters sprang up around the globe - Paris, London, Bristol in late 2016, ACT UP Sud-ouest (South West of France), Dublin ACT UP in the early ‘90s, the current ACT UP Dublin since July 2016 and more recent chapters including ACT UP Cork and ACT UP Belfast. Each ACT UP chapter is independent but all share common goals, and from time to time work together on specific issues. A good example of this being ACT UP New York confronting An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, about PrEP access in Ireland during his St Patrick’s Day trip in 2018 — the result of days of planning between the two ACT UP chapters.
Most ACT UP chapters around the world work in the same leaderless, consensus-based way they did from the early days, what founder Larry Kramer ruefully termed “democratic to a fault”. Long-time ACT UP member Gregg Bordowitz described the process, saying: “This is how grassroots, democratic politics work. To a certain extent, this is how democratic politics is supposed to work in general. You convince people of the validity of your ideas.”
Common global goals among ACT UP chapters include fighting HIV stigma, pushing for universal access to HIV treatment and prevention, as well as addressing other health issues and the broader inequalities and injustices that perpetuate the HIV epidemic. All share a common understanding of the HIV epidemic as a fundamentally political issue and most include similar mission statements to ACT UP Dublin - which describes the group as: “a diverse, non partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the HIV crisis”. From the early days ACT UP was involved in protests regarding housing and healthcare as basic rights, opposing anti gay, racist and sexist discrimination, criminal laws that impede efforts to end the epidemic, and corporate greed that places profits over human need.
Among recent successful direct actions, for example, was in 2018 when ACT UP New York crashed the David Wojnarowicz retrospective ‘History Keeps Me Awake at Night’ at the Whitney Museum to point out the lack of mention of contemporary HIV/AIDS issues. It worked. The Whitney added a wall text drawing attention to the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic globally. Wojnarowicz would no doubt have approved, as the artist and activist famously wore a denim jacket in 1988 with “If die of AIDS – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the FDA” written on the back, the ACT UP pink triangle featuring prominently of course.
Along with the commonly used pink triangle there are derivatives of the early Gran Fury AIDS activist artist collective’s SILENCE=DEATH graphic including the French COLÈRE=ACTION (Anger=Action), INFORMATION=POUVOIR (Information=Power), RACISME=MORT (Racism=Death) and so on demonstrating the individual expression of local chapters. At the end of last year, ACT UP Paris put wheat paste posters up with a black triangle and “Discriminations + Répression = Contaminations” (Discrimination + Repression = Infections) highlighting the need for dignified and humane conditions for migrants, sex workers, intravenous drug users, prisoners, and on a wider scale, anyone facing discrimination on a daily basis, at work, in the family environment, in the education and university system, including sexism and anti LGBTQ+ sentiments.
Some ACT UP chapters around the world still continue from the early days, and new ones arise as committed groups of people see the need to put a focus on the HIV crisis locally and globally. Members include both those living with HIV and those not, and come from a wide range of backgrounds. Direct action, educating and shouting out are effective methods to tackle the HIV crisis and related issues no matter where. ACT UP are local, ACT UP are global, and united in anger.