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A decade of rage.

A FAMILIAR ANXIETY CREEPS INTO MY BODY AS I WRITE THIS column on ACT UP's tenth anniversary. It's a tension I often felt when dealing with ACT UP--whether as a participant in an action, a co-organizer, or a sometime target of the group's anger. ACT UP left me on edge, excited, proud, enraged, and uncomfortable. It is that discomfort that remains the source of ACT UP's power and the hallmark of its legacy.

I'm surprised by my ambivalence. ACT UP embodied the passion, communal spirit, creativity, and courage that attracts people to political activism. To this day ACT UP chapters reflect the work of many brilliant AIDS activists devising media campaigns, grassroots protests, and educational actions. For ten years these activists made ACT UP a force to be feared and forced a broad cultural response to the epidemic.

Some of my anxiety comes from painful memories of being caught in the cross fire, where I had placed myself. Anyone who participates in direct action knows the emotions: exhilaration, pride for defending yourself with your own body in the street, empowerment from acting against hostile institutions. And anyone who is targeted by protest knows another set of emotions: shame, feeling like a failure, anger at being singled out, sadness that one's own people are angry, and--hardest of all--pain from the truths often resonant in ACT UP's critiques of gay and lesbian leaders.

But my unease also comes from an awareness that the contradictions that drove ACT UP forward and eventually splintered it still rend our movement today. What made ACT UP successful and attractive--its theatrical roots; its self-righteousness; its urban militancy; its access to media and the arts through well-connected, upper-middle-class people; its sexy energy from the impassioned and gorgeous men and women radicalized by loss and fear: its macho swagger; its overwhelmingly white and male membership--was in some ways what tore it apart.

ACT UP was driven by the pressure of survival to adopt an ends-justify-the-means mentality. At the same time, it was pushed from inside by women, people of color, and feminist men to be conscious of the means and the ends, to become more responsive to its diverse constituencies. It was not just an issue of representation or a power struggle among personalities--although that is how it often played itself out. It was a serious disagreement about goals.

Was ACT UP going to press only for drugs and treatment, or was it also going to fight for broader access to health care? Why did it have to choose? Would it commit to challenging the racism of AIDS organizations or fighting the sexism of the National Institutes of Health? Eventually such disagreements split ACT UP chapters into two, as was the case in San Francisco, or resulted in spin-off organizations with a specific focus, like the Treatment Action Group in New York.

ACT UP also revived some long-standing arguments among gay activists on means themselves. The direct-action strategy has proponents and detractors. Its utility changes with the cultural and political context. Detractors often cite the negative impact of demonstrations--the way they alienate mainstream observers, the way they oversimplify complex questions of right and wrong. But these critics in turn downplay the potency of the direct-action strategy. Without street actions, pickets, sit-ins, or the swift, specifically targeted "zap" actions that helped make ACT UP famous, there is no muscle to a political movement. Confrontation is often the most effective way to make visible the immorality of unjust government policies. Street demonstrations require a level of personal involvement that moves people far more personally than other forms of democratic political participation (such as voting). And the empowerment that comes from standing up to those who want to ignore, silence, or oppress you fuels all social change.

ACT UP was certainly not the first--nor will it be the last--queer direct-action movement. From the Mattachine Society pickets of the early '60s to the Gay Activists Alliance zaps of the early '70s to the heavily lesbian-led antinuke and peace movements of the early '80s, ACT UP continued a proud tradition. But what made ACT UP so potent was the life and-death urgency that drove its members and the telegenic power of its stylized clashes with government, scientific, and other social institutions. In an age of media, ACT UP generated an excitement and tension unmatched since by any gay or lesbian or AIDS organization.

No group is more responsible for making us as uncomfortable about AIDS as ACT UP did and still does. And for that disquiet, I am grateful.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:gay organization ACT UP
Author:Vaid, Urvashi
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 18, 1997
Words:755
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