Long before a colossal red ribbon adorned the White House each December; before billboards appeared in cities and along rural highways reminding us to get tested; before any American president even publicly uttered the word AIDS, a passionate group of activists pushed the world to pay attention to AIDS and care about the people living with what was, at the time, an almost invariably fatal disease.
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty ImagesDemonstration highlighting the number of AIDS related deaths. Central Park, 1983. In 1983, there were 1,112 known cases of people living with AIDS. By 1987, there were 32,000. In March of that year ― four years after scientists discovered the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and seven years after the first AIDS cases were reported in the U.S. ― a group of people met in the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in Manhattan to discuss the illness that was ravaging so many of their friends and lovers.
Catherine McGann/Getty ImagesLarry Kramer at Village Voice AIDS conference, 1987 "If what you're hearing doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action," Larry Kramer famously declared at that historic meeting, "gay men will have no future here on Earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?"
"Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!" quickly became the group's rallying cry.
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, was born.
New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images NYC City Hall Protest, 1992 In the early to mid-1980s, most American politicians largely ignored an epidemic that was almost exclusively affecting a population with little political clout: namely, gay men. The pharmaceutical industry, meanwhile, downplayed the urgency of a crisis that was killing exponentially more people each year.
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty ImagesNYC City Hall Protest, 1989 ACT UP took matters into its own hands. Using non-violent direct action, activists shamed politicians like President Ronald Reagan and healthcare authorities like Anthony Fauci, the head of the NIH's National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, into not merely acknowledging the crisis, but combating it.
GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty ImagesParis, 1993 Whether staging die-ins on the steps of the Federal Drug Administration's offices or draping a giant pink condom over a Parisian obelisk, ACT UP perfected the art of eye-catching political theater. When no one outside of the gay community was paying attention to the AIDS epidemic, ACT UP made sure the world could not look away.
Millrock Productions, Inc./Sygma via Getty ImagesWhite House Protest, 1998 With no one else advocating for their health and their lives, they took on the work themselves ― and they got results. Shortly after ACT UP's first action targeting the FDA, the agency announced it would shorten its drug approval process, allowing needed medication to get into the hands of patients faster.
Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesGeorge H. W. Bush Vacation Home Protest, Kennebunkport, ME, 1998 Not content to rest on its laurels, ACT UP followed up each victory by applying even greater pressure. People were dying by the thousands, and the rate of infection was not slowing down. Each action, each demonstration put a brighter spotlight on the epidemic, until the media and political leaders could no longer safely ignore the issue.
Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty ImagesProtest at Republican National Convention, San Diego, 1996 With a dramatic, confrontational style of civil disobedience, ACT UP showed that speaking out and jamming a wrench in the machinery of complacency could make a difference. People everywhere were reminded that political pressure in the form of public demands for accountability actually worked. Kramer and his fellow ACT UP activists showed the world that when silence equals death, speaking out ― and refusing to be ignored ― literally saves lives.
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty ImagesPride Parade, NYC, 1991