Final Research Paper- ACT UP


Gianna Beniers

ACT UP- Final Research Paper:

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic hit the LGBTQ+ community. In an effort to deal with the AIDS crisis, ACT UP emerged. ACT UP is a “diverse, non partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDs crisis” (Over 25 Years of Direct Actions). Today, ACT UP is viewed as an activist group that helped the LGBTQ+ community gain many necessary rights for gay people, in which they were previously denied, and it is thought to be “top ten most influential social justice organizations in the past three decades and of ‘the most significant direct-action campaign in the United States since the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s,’ and ‘perhaps the most innovative protest movement ever’” (Rand, An Inflammatory Fag and a Queer Form).

However, ACT UP was not always viewed as a progressive and beneficial group. “ACT UP’s legacy is one of complicated affective intensities—affects that produce individual feelings, but also those that drive cultural histories and are directed towards political ends” (Rand, Gay Pride and Its Queer Discontents). These strong feelings have “decisively shaped the trajectory of lesbian and gay, and eventually queer, political responses to AIDS” (Rand, Gay Pride and Its Queer Discontents).

During March of 1987, ACT UP emerged as a legitimate entity due to “lack of leadership by the Reagan administration in addressing the AIDS crisis, [which] fostered intense anger in gay and lesbian communities, where the perception that federal officials considered gay men’s lives unimportant or even disposable was widespread” (Fetner, 85). However, ACT UP did not always start as a dominant and powerful activist group. This organization started with “self-identified radicals [who] were less interested in engaging in identity politics than in capturing the public’s attention and challenging mainstream perceptions” (Fetner, 84). Many tactics used for this social movement included guerrilla theater, public protests, and media spectacle, and “thus, the late 1980s and early 1990s were marked by a return to street activism after almost a decade of quiet activities and institution building” (Fetner, 84).

ACT UP did not only help AIDS victims, ACT UP also helped to create a foundation towards ending discrimination against homosexuals in the United States. However, ACT UP did not emerge over night. Maxine Wolfe, an ACT UP activist, stated that “everyone sort of thinks that ACT UP came out of the blue and in fact, there’s a certain mythology that Larry Kramer gave this talk one day at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center and everyone went ‘Oh my God’ and then they formed ACT UP and nothing had been there. As usual that’s not true. That’s a discontinuous history” (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP). ACT UP started with many small artists making posters, and when “SILENCE=DEATH appeared on walls and scaffolding all over lower Manhattan…the fuse was set” (New York Magazine). However, after Larry Kramer, writer and activist, made a daunting speech at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center, the gay community gained enough momentum and inspiration to create a defined group. These events led to the creation of the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, formally known as ACT UP. ACT UP began with one “deceptively simple demand: drugs into bodies [of AIDs victims]” (New York Magazine). The anger that stemmed from the AIDS epidemic fueled ACT UP and gave these activists a platform to not only fight to save lives of those suffering from AIDs, but also help to improve the lives of gay and lesbian people throughout the country.

First, members of ACT UP attempted to counter the predominant representations of “people living with AIDS as passive, shameful victims with images of angry, defiant, and proud activists” (Rand, Gay Pride and Its Queer Discontents). Some images and slogans produced include “SILENCE = DEATH” and “Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!” (Rand, Gay Pride and Its Queer Discontents). These powerful slogans and images showed the anger and frustration that ACT UP was built upon. However, a crucial thought that contributes to why ACT UP started so long after the AIDS epidemic broke out was due to the shame that came with having contracted the AIDS virus. In fact, “mainstream discourses shamed gay men for their sexual practices and claimed that HIV/AIDS resulted directly from homosexuality…[which brought up] feelings of guilt and shame about homosexuality and anxiety about social rejection that already were present within the lesbian and gay affective landscape” (Rand, Gay Pride and Its Queer Discontents).

ACT UP was about “organizing the unorganized and mobilizing a community that had not been organized to do this kind of direct action,” as Maxine Wolfe said (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP). A goal of the campaign was also to gain rights for those who were incapable, or too scared, to take a stand for themselves, as they were “trying to save [their] own lives and the lives of the people [that they] knew” (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP).

A major tactic that resulted in ACT UP’s success was the campaign’s ability to use media and visual work (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP). Since people of all different ages were involved in ACT UP, many of the group’s younger members were “media generation people who had grown up with television and multimedia…[and] were well aware, any time [there was a demonstration], that there would be TV cameras present” (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP).

A predominant reason why ACT UP evolved into such a powerful movement stemmed from its influential leaders, as the ACT UP activists “were shrewd and relentless—and they were also, inevitably, romantic figures” (New York Magazine). The ACT UP activists were especially well known for their ability to use media, and for their “tactical choices [that] reflected a reliance on marketing techniques such as branding, that had formerly been associated with the corporate world” (Fetner, 86). Although there were many other individuals that helped to start ACT UP, two important activists were Maxine Wolfe and Larry Kramer. From the beginning, “gay rights activists…have struggled against the invisibility that has been both a curse and a blessing,” yet Wolfe and Kramer were two activists that ended this invisibility and brought power to the movement (Darsey, 316).

Maxine Wolfe, a lesbian activist and crucial member in ACT UP’s success, was a mentor to many people who were just joining the movement (New York Magazine). Maxine Wolfe inspired many people to join a force that was formerly looked upon as shameful, and then turned the movement into something that people were proud to be apart of. A key part of Maxine’s success came from the element of surprise. Maxine “would demand that people pay attention to what [she] had to say and [would take] over spaces where people would not expect [her to] get in” (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP). She focused on “what would stand out, [and] what would show up” (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP). An obstacle that both Maxine and the rest of ACT UP faced was the sheer magnitude of the movement. Never before had there been so large a movement in the LGBTQ+ (Wolfe, After Ten Years).

Another important aspect that Maxine brought to ACT UP was that she did not only fight for gay rights, but also women’s rights. ACT UP had predominately been known as a gay white male group; however, many women and people of color were crucial to ACT UP’s initial success. Indeed, straight men were seen as the only category that was not truly represented (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP). “Part of this was about the difference in status between women and men at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, even though they were both sick,” women were not seen as real victims. (Sommella, The Tactics of Early ACT UP).

Larry Kramer was another activist who was instrumental to the start of ACT UP. Kramer, however, differed from many other activists. Although he was among one of the most important ACT UP activists, “he [was] an extremely harsh critic of his fellow gay men… and his scathing criticisms of gay male sexual behavior and of the gay community’s activist practices have provoked the ire of gay activists and academics alike” (Rand, An Inflammatory Fag and a Queer Form). Kramer was not afraid to criticize the gay community for their mistakes and “failure to give up potentially risky sexual practices” (Rand, An Inflammatory Fag and a Queer Form). While the number of AIDS victims grew exponentially, Kramer was urging gay men to stop sexual activity in order to lessen the amounts of deaths (Rand, An Inflammatory Fag and a Queer Form).

One of Kramer’s strengths was his ability to give “loud and emotional [messages], and his propensity to be shrill and nearly hysterical in both speech and print, [which] has led to his reputation as an angry prophet, a moralist, and a polemicist” (Rand, An Inflammatory Fag and a Queer Form). Kramer’s anger is one of his defining characteristics that came out in his work with ACT UP, which signifies the built up frustration that ACT UP was based upon. Despite his style, Kramer’s relentless work “spurred the formation of ACT UP, [which is] arguably the largest and most effective activist organization devoted to HIV/AIDS” (Rand, An Inflammatory Fag and a Queer Form).

Kramer’s most notable speech at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center was one that many credit for ACT UP’s creation. On March 13th, Kramer’s speech entitled, “We are not crumbs; we must not accept crumbs,” began by emotionally grabbing the audience’s attention by saying, “almost every man I was friendly with died” (Kramer, Queer Justice League). The honesty in Kramer’s speech shocked many, and awakened the LGBTQ+ community into realizing that something needed to be done. Although not to such magnitude, but many members in the arts and music community felt the same way, as many “would check [a monthly newsletter] all the time to see who had died, and if any of them were friends. And to this day, [people] still check it” (Interview with Christine Beniers). Not only did Kramer criticize the gay community for not taking enough action, but also he criticized Ronald Reagan. In particular, Kramer criticized Reagan for waiting seven years to say “AIDS” out loud and making it “clear that he was ‘irrevocably opposed’ to anything to do with homosexuality” (Kramer, Queer Justice League). Kramer left the audience speechless when he said, “Ronald Reagan is responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler” (Kramer, Queer Justice League). Another source said that people would reference AIDS as “‘getting sick,’ [and that] no one would actually say ‘AIDS’—[because] it felt like if you said ‘AIDS’ you would actually get the sickness. So, no one ever said it. You would just know because they would give you that look and say, ‘he got sick’” (Interview with Christine Beniers).

In conclusion, my thoughts on my paper topic have changed immensely from my initial reflection. Originally, I thought that I would compare and contrast ACT UP activists, Larry Kramer and Maxine Wolfe, to conservatives, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. However, as my research developed, I found myself more interested in how ACT UP started, and why these LGBTQ activists were so influential. My paper steered towards discussing tactics of ACT UP and how Larry Kramer and Maxine Wolfe helped to develop ACT UP. Initially, I was also interested in researching how ACT UP changed the current atmosphere regarding the LGBTQ+ community; however, the data was limited. Fortunately, my interview gave me a first hand idea of the atmosphere from the 80’s to current times.

ACT UP and its activists affected the course of my life decades later because of their dedication in the fight against AIDS, as well as their commitment to fight for equality for the LGBT+ community. Although equality for gays in our current times is far from satisfactory, the LGBTQ+ community is closer to gaining complete equality because of ACT UP. ACT UP also changed the way people protest and fight for what they believe in. Mobilizing an underrepresented class and taking steps to solve the problem when government fails to act paved the way for future movements to follow. Almost 30 years later, the gay community was able to help redefine the definition of marriage so that it included both heterosexual and homosexual couples, showing that powerful protests and messages can change the path of our government and its officials’ decisions.

Just as Ronald Reagan did not address the AIDS epidemic, there are many issues that our government does not address, such as the current problems of police brutality. I see a parallel between the anger of the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s and the anger of black Americans in current times. Unfortunately, there will always be a minority, and some type of person will always be excluded. An interesting study, which examined attitudes related towards AIDS by race, showed that white and black people view AIDS in different ways. For white people, “AIDS is a disease of the “Other,” [and] strongly identified with gay men and homosexuality. Blacks, in contrast, may perceive AIDS as a problem of the African-American community” (Hereck and Glunt). I thought this was very noteworthy and relevant to current times. The results from this experiment are thought to stem from the fact historical racism and because “many Blacks probably distrust the government’s role in the AIDS epidemic and their responses to the epidemic instead are shaped by community institutions” (Hereck and Glunt). This continual pattern of distrust in the government and how it affects the perceptions of the people is something that I think ACT UP also helped change. ACT UP is an excellent example of how frustration, anger, and sadness fueled an entire campaign.





Beniers, Christine. 2015. Interview: How AIDS and ACT UP Affected the Community. On phone.

Darsey, James. “From “Gay Is Good” to the Scourge of AIDS: The Evolution of Gay Liberation Rhetoric 1977-1990.” In Critical Touchstones. Taylor and Francis Group, 1991.

Fetner, Tina. How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

France, David. “Pictures From a Battlefield.” March 25, 2012. Accessed December 14, 2015.

Herek, Gregory M., and Eric K. Glunt. 1991. “Aids-related Attitudes in the United States: A Preliminary Conceptualization”. The Journal of Sex Research 28 (1). Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: 99–123.

Kramer, Larry. “Queer Justice League: Full Text of Larry Kramer’s March 13 Speech.” Queer Justice League: Full Text of Larry Kramer’s March 13 Speech. Accessed December 14, 2015.

“OVER 25 YEARS OF DIRECT ACTIONS.” ACT UP New York. Accessed December 11, 2015.

Rand, Erin J. 2012. “Gay Pride and Its Queer Discontents: ACT UP and the Political Deployment of Affect.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 98:1. Ltd: 75-80.

Rand, Erin J. 2012. “An Inflammatory Fag and a Queer Form: Larry Kramer, Polemics, and Rhetorical Agency.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94:3. Ltd: 297-319.

Sommella, Laraine. “The Tactics of Early ACT UP (interviews of Maxine Wolfe).” The Tactics of Early ACT UP (interviews of Maxine Wolfe). 1997. Accessed December 12, 2015.

Wolfe, Maxine. “AFTER TEN YEARS: Maxine Wolfe.” AFTER TEN YEARS: Maxine Wolfe. March 22, 1997. Accessed December 14, 2015. 10thanniversary/wolfespeech.html.

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