‘He Kills Me’: ACT UP and the AIDS crisis

by · December 2, 2012

He Kills Me (1987), Donald Murphy, Poster, offset lithography (also used as a placard)

At this time of World Aids Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate the success and wonder that was ACT UP (in particular the NYC chapter). ACT UP turned 25 in March this year, and has long been a core inspiration in my own activism.

It is worth taking a look at this wonderful news piece from Amy Goodman on their strategy and campaign, from Democracy Now earlier this year. It’s a timely reminder of what long-term political protest can achieve. I’ve not seen ‘How to Survive a Plague’, but in other documentaries I’ve watched two things have always struck me: On the one hand the wonderful activists, but on the other how few survived the 1980s/1990s period. There is such heartbreak in the devastation that AIDS wreaked on the activist GLBTIQ community, but at the same time I find so much inspiration.

The interview by Goodman is with David France, the Director of the documentary, and Peter Staley. Staley was a founding member of ACT UP and was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 1980s, making him one of the longest surviving people living with AIDS. As he says of the contemporary situation:

This was a major victory this movie tells about getting these therapies. But that was only the beginning of the battle. Now we have these treatments that can keep people alive, and there are still two to three million dying every year [around the world]. There are more dying now than when we actually got the therapies to save people. So it’s a huge failure of leadership internationally. And it shows a huge failure of our own healthcare system to be able to deliver these drugs to everybody that needs them in this country.

If, like me, this leaves you wanting to know more about ACT UP I can recommend the book AIDS Demographics, a history of the organisation/movement through its graphic work. It presents the work of the artistic collectives and individuals who made posters and flyers by looking chronologically at ACT UP demonstration from March 24 1987 to December 10 1989.  The book is excellent in its overview of the class, gender and racial dimensions of the AIDS crisis, the failures of government, pharmaceutical companies and churches. While the book might take some effort to find, you won’t regret it.

As the bottom graphic says, the AIDS crisis is not over. Many are left to die in the developing world without access to the drugs that could dramatically extend their lives. Likewise, as Stanley highlights, even in the US — a country responsible for 25 per cent of the world’s GDP — the poor still suffer the failures of their health system and do not have the drugs they need and that ACT UP fought for.

The Aids Crisis Is Not Over (1988), Little Elvis, Crank-and-peel sticker, offset lithography

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Discussion2 Comments

  1. An interesting story from this period is the invention of safe sex by the gay community as a way of combating conservative responses that implied that gays were being punished from their sexuality or that ultimately homosexuality was a risky *lifestyle*, &c. Instead of abstaining from sex, the response was, ‘have as much sex as you want, just do it safe’. There is a book on this, though I read it so long ago I can’t recall the details, though it may be called something as simple as ‘the invention of safe sex’; Jonathan Neale talks about it in his book on the USA.