Books

The One Lesson Today’s Activists Need to Learn From ACT UP

A value many groups hold dear may be getting in their way.

The ACT UP group protests with signs in front of the White House.
ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) demonstrators march in front of the White House on Sept. 30, 1991. Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In almost any Pride-season montage of queer history made today, there will be a section, marking the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s, that depicts the protests of ACT UP. It was during that period, from 1987 to 1993 specifically, that the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power fought against profound governmental and societal hostility toward queers and others living under the shadow of AIDS through its now-iconic protest actions: storming the FDA headquarters; unfurling a giant condom over Sen. Jesse Helms’ house; scattering the ashes of deceased loved ones on the White House lawn. But these powerful images were not always part of the mainstream queer historical narrative, and the special mix of individuals, values, circumstances, and organizing that produced them—thereby saving lives and changing the world—is only just beginning to be properly understood.

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In this month’s episode of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast, the crew learns what made ACT UP so special—and so effective—with Sarah Schulman, the prolific queer writer, activist, filmmaker, and historian whose most recent book, Let the Record Show, is both a much-needed account of queer history and an essential guide for activists today. A portion of the discussion is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bryan Lowder: The book is very explicitly writing against a vision of HIV/AIDS activism and ACT UP specifically that you feel is wrong, that’s been misrepresented. Tell us what that wrong vision is and what you’re trying to correct.

Sarah Schulman: The number one point here is not nostalgia. The point is that you have an activist movement of profoundly oppressed people from a variety of margins who were able, in a sense, to create a paradigm shift in the culture. And how they did that is very important information, because people today really want change. That is clear. And it’s very hard to access activist history to actually find out what movements did, what worked and what didn’t work; it’s almost impossible. So the idea was to cohere this. And one of the most important pieces of information is that, contrary to John Wayne movies, individuals do not create paradigm shifts. It’s coalitions and communities that create change. So that was the starting point. And because I had conducted all but two of the interviews [in the ACT UP Oral History Project], I really knew what was in them. And it wasn’t that hard for me to go back and start to cohere some tropes.

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Rumaan Alam: Do you then conceive of this as simultaneously a history and a blueprint? Is the aim to teach something to future generations of activists?

Schulman: It is a political history because there are going to be many other histories written of this movement. And there already have been. There have been books about the history of graphics in ACT UP. There are memoirs coming out from Peter Staley and Ron Goldberg and some other people. So I’m not making any claim to a definitive history. But no political movement is discrete. No political movement just comes out of the air. They’re all influenced by previous movements.

And one of the things about ACT UP is that many people came from previous movements where they had to be in the closet, but they were there. And also, there was the foundational influence of the Black cvil eights movement and the Black Power movement of the 1960s. And for queer kids growing up in that period who had no kind of gay movement to identify with, there was a real identification with Black resistance. We ended up using a lot of those strategies, although not consciously. It was only when I looked at the specifics of what, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” about what direct action is, that it was exactly what ACT UP did, although we never studied that text and we certainly didn’t discuss it.

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Christina Cauterucci: The fact that there are conflicting viewpoints in your book, and even in some cases conflicting memories of how things went down, reflects the fact that ACT UP had this very dispersed decision-making structure. There was no need and maybe no time to really come to consensus as a group before taking an action. Different affinity groups were doing different things. I wonder if you see room for that in current activist movements where it seems to me like there’s a lot more emphasis on keeping everyone on message, keeping everyone in line with a particular strategy, and a little bit less emphasis on, I think you call it a “simultaneity of approach” or “simultaneity of action.”

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Schulman: One of the most important lessons to learn from ACT UP is that ACT UP did not use consensus at all. We had a one-sentence principle of unity, direct action to end the AIDS crisis. And “direct action” as opposed to social service provision. So if you were doing direct action to end the AIDS crisis, you could do it. And if you wanted to get arrested on the Lower East Side doing illegal needle exchange and do a test case, and I thought that was a terrible idea, I wouldn’t try to stop you from doing it, I just wouldn’t do it. I might then create another action like disrupting mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral because that’s what I wanted to do. This idea of trying to stop people was not operative in ACT UP at all. That’s radical democracy. And I think historically, movements that try to force homogeneity of analysis or strategy or even language have all failed. I don’t think there’s any example in the past where that has succeeded.

Listen to the full conversation with Sarah Schulman below, and subscribe to Outward on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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