In 1981, doctors began to identify the disease that would come to be known as HIV/AIDS in young gay men in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco. Because of high rates of infection in gay communities and misconceptions about the disease’s origin and transmission, public perception conceived of AIDS as a “gay plague.” By the end of 1986, 11,932 AIDS-related deaths had been reported in the United States and the disease was spreading rapidly across demographics and through multiple forms of transmission. However, the US government had done little to advance education and prevention.
In March 1987, gay rights advocate Larry Kramer and an initial group of approximately 300 activists formed the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) in meetings at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York. Angered by US government homophobia that led to inaction and mismanagement of the AIDS Crisis, ACT UP sought to improve the quality of medical and social services for persons with HIV/AIDS and raise international awareness about the disease and its devastating impact. Tactics included non-violent protests, targeted demands, and poster campaigns. Major urban areas with large gay and lesbian populations, like New York and San Francisco, became centers of ACT UP work, but active chapters organized in a loose network appeared in cities across the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Working alongside—and sometimes in tension with—other AIDS-awareness projects like the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, ACT UP was known for its radical protest strategies. Targets of these protests included numerous politicians, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
By the early 1990s, the original ACT UP network was splintered by internal political conflict, but its impact was clear. Through its advocacy, the organization had helped to lower of the price of drugs, transform the FDA’s approval process for them, include patients with AIDS in new drug trials, diminish the social stigma of AIDS, and educate people about prevention. This work supported medical advances that, by the mid-1990s, helped reduce the number of AIDS-related deaths for persons infected with HIV. This primary source set uses documents, photographs, posters, and other promotional materials to tell the story of ACT UP during the AIDS Crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Additional resources for research
- ACT UP New York Records, The New York Public Library.
- ACT UP Capsule History, ACT UP.
- The AIDS Epidemic: 1981-1987, The New York Times.
- Claire Gordin, “Act Up’s 25th Anniversary Offers Chance To Reflect On AIDS Activism’ Evolution,” Huffington Post.