Title

How ACT UP Changed America: The defiant group of AIDS activists was itself riven by discord. What can the movement’s legacy, of both ferocity and fragility, teach us?

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date

6-7-2021

Abstract

One day in June, 1990, at the height of the aids epidemic, I sat in the auditorium of San Francisco’s Moscone Center and watched as hundreds of activists pelted Louis W. Sullivan, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, with condoms. Sullivan had been attempting to deliver the closing address at the 6th International aids Conference. The protesters, from the aids Coalition to Unleash Power, or act up, were there to stop him. Shouts of “shame, shame, shame” were accompanied by whistles and air horns. Like many people who were in the audience that day—I was there as a Washington Post reporter—I remember everything about the speech except what Sullivan said. Which was exactly what act up wanted. The group had been formed to force a negligent government to take aids seriously. Not every federal official came under attack that day. Just an hour earlier, Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s chief aids scientist, had received a standing ovation after he essentially endorsed the protesters’ agenda, warning his colleagues that they “cannot and should not dismiss activists merely on the basis of the fact that they are not trained scientists.”

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