12 People on Joining ACT UP: ‘I Went to That First Meeting and Never Left’

I had a crazy year where I was a closeted bond trader by day and a radical AIDS activist by night. It ended when my CD4 count [the number of T cells in the body that fight infection and are the primary target of the virus] crashed in early ’88. I walked into my boss’s office the next morning, told him everything and dedicated myself to AIDS activism from that point on. I felt like I had entered the movement for very selfish reasons — I was desperate to buy myself some time — but within months of being part of this extraordinary response from a community that was filled with love and passion and determination and anger, I realized I was a part of something far larger than myself, something that could change the lives of millions of people. I got totally swept up in that. ACT UP became my church, my social life, what I did every moment of the day — it’s where I found all my boyfriends! And it’s where I became an activist, which has been my title ever since.

I got involved with ACT UP mainly because I knew that there were a lot of homeless people with AIDS and I wanted to try to develop housing for them. In 1987, I called Larry Kramer, who had been a friend of mine since 1980 — he helped me find doctors when I got sick, and helped my partner, who died in ’86, with access to medical care — and he told me about this speech he was going to give at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, in which he was going to call for a group to be civilly disobedient. He asked me if I would be a plant in the audience and bring some attractive friends to encourage other people to come. So my initial attendance was driven by a request from Larry to come and help form a group. But the experience of organizing that first demonstration at the center was empowering: It allowed me to turn my feelings of anger at the loss of my partner into some type of action. I became hooked after that.

In September 1980, my boyfriend at the time, Jeff, whom I was living with, was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma. So, my relationship with the epidemic started early on. After his death in February 1986, I started to figure out what I would do with my life. I became a facilitator in my gay male consciousness-raising group, which met on Mondays in one of the rooms at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. When my friend, the activist David Kirschenbaum, and I left each week, we would walk downstairs and through the ACT UP meeting. We entered the meeting one day, and the room was filled with mainly white gay men. I’m a person of color, and I have to get my bearings when I walk into an overwhelmingly white space. David asked me, “Well, where do we stand?” I looked around and found that, in that old ACT UP room, the power brokers were in the right-hand corner at the back. So I said to David, “That’s where we stand.”

I think the group had done its first Wall Street protest by then, and we were trying to figure out whether we wanted to get involved. Of course, I did. After having dealt with what Jeff went through, I was certainly pissed off enough. I thought, “This is a good way for me to deal with what I’m feeling now.” Recently, I’ve been trying to write an account, in my own words, of the racial politics of ACT UP — and about the whitewashing that’s going on. A lot of academics of color are actually now starting to write about this. It’s very important, because there were so many people of color who were part of ACT UP, even at the beginning — who were there and then died.

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