Happy Birthday, ACT UP, Wherever You Are

It's difficult to be grateful when the AIDS plague is worse than ever all over the world and the two organizations I helped found to stop it are, if not no more, then in such pathetic shape as to almost be no more.
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I'm an ungrateful sonofabitch. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which helped save my life, is 25 years old, and I am going to be 77 years old come June, and I should be grateful, right?

It's difficult to be grateful when the AIDS plague is worse than ever all over the world and the two organizations I helped found to stop it are, if not no more, then in such pathetic shape as to almost be no more.

It's hard to blame these remnants of former greatness when the gay population of this country continues to be so passive, so apathetic, so shut-the-fuck-up-with-all-your-message-queen-shit.

Every treatment for HIV/AIDS exists because gay activists, almost all from ACT UP, fought like tigers to get them. This should stand as one of the great examples of what the gay population can achieve when they want something badly enough.

With what have we followed this great triumph? A return to the never-ending complacency on the part of almost all gay people. You think we're making real progress? I don't. Not really. I know you think so, but you're wrong. In the big scheme of things, we still have few rights. We still have no equality. We are not protected sufficiently from discrimination and the world's hate. That's correct: HATE. You only have to arrive at campaign and election time to know how much hate of gay people is out there. And we're back to allowing the straight world to treat us like shit, allowing candidates for the President of the United States -- the highest office in our country -- to say one revolting thing about us after another. Candidates don't dare say anything anti-Semitic out loud. But anyone can say any awful anti-gay thing that they want to. Doesn't this depress you enough to want to stuff their un-Christian words back down their poisonous throats?

Particularly after being given drugs to keep us alive, I find this gay complacency astounding and profoundly depressing.

We know what we have to do.

Why don't we once-and-for-all do it?

And by "we," I mean all of us.

It is downright pathetic how so many of us are prepared to live in such a second-class and marginalized way.

During World War II, when Jews were being gassed to death by the trainload, the great Jewish scholar of political theory Hannah Arendt told her people they should form an army to fight back, and that they only had themselves to blame if they didn't. We had that army for a while. It was called ACT UP. What happened to it?

At the height of the AIDS plague, from 1990 to 1995, when we were dying so fast we couldn't keep up with the count, of all the gays in the United States -- be it 10 million or 20 million (will we ever find out?) -- no more than 5,000 of us at the most fought in ACT UP's 100 or so chapters to save the lives of our brothers and sisters. All the rest of the 10? 20? million gays would not fight to save their own lives. I never could figure that one out. Still can't.

To those still alive, just know that there's no one out there fighting for you now. For anything. Not really fighting. Not the kind of fighting I mean. The kind of fighting the ACT UP army utilized to get all the treatments to save us.

You think any of these candidates is ever going to give us the equality we deserve and are entitled to? If you do, you are very dumb and naïve. And they know it. That's why they can get away with saying about us what they do. They know gays don't really fight back consistently against those who hate them. Can you believe Rick Santorum? The Gill Foundation spent a fortune getting him defeated in Pennsylvania, and now he's back stronger than ever.

People often ask me what happened to ACT UP. It's never been talked about out loud. There are two documentaries (each flawed, both worth seeing) coming out that show some of the history of how we got all those drugs. United in Anger, from Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, and How to Survive a Plague, from David France. As the first focuses entirely on ACT UP, you can get a pretty good sense of how we worked to achieve what we did.

What neither documentary really tells you is the true climax of this chapter in our history. ACT UP self-destructed. For a variety of reasons, men and women who had worked so lovingly and courageously hand in hand in the kind of cooperation I have never ever seen before turned upon each other and effectively put paid to the organization's usefulness. We succumbed to the very hateful tactics that we were pledged to eliminate. I've never been able to figure that one out either. I'm trying to write about it in my forthcoming novel, The American People. I'm sure there were reasons, like going nuts from all that death around us. But the overriding result is that just as spreading the HIV virus can murder an unprotected partner, so we activists murdered this organization we'd come to love so much. It broke my heart then, and it does again now as I write this. How could so many loving, decent, and committed people have destroyed so much? Oh, there are a few of us still mucking about in our ashes, but like the rights you think we have, it doesn't amount to enough.

Why can't we, once and for all, bond together to fight for our mutual needs? Where are the leaders who can lead us on this journey to our equality? Where's our army? I don't see either. We face this coming election naked and unprepared and as always exceptionally vulnerable.

What does that say about how much the gay population wants to fight for these rights that I speak of? I think we help to kill each other by not fighting together to get these rights, by fighting each other instead, and not fighting against all the hate that's always out there coming non-stop from our enemies.

And just like all the Jews in the world couldn't form Hannah Arendt's army to save all their brothers and sisters, the gays of today once again do the same. You'd think one day we'd learn. You don't get anything unless you fight for it, united and with visible numbers. If ACT UP taught us anything, it taught us that. We had greatness in our hands, but we couldn't quite carry the ball over the goal line.

I'm not certain I see where that necessary anger and firepower is going to come from as we approach another election, where our rights are going to be on the table for fighting over by one and all, the haters and the non-haters and the ones being hated.

At this moment in time, I am not very sanguine. In fact on certain days I get downright depressed.

All the more reason then to celebrate ACT UP's 25th birthday, at least as a touchstone on our never-ending journey to find our equality and with the hope that one day we can get -- and keep -- our act together.

So happy birthday, ACT UP, to all my dead brothers and sisters we couldn't save in time. I'm sorry we're no longer doing much that is productive to celebrate that you lived, that you were here, and that some lucky ones -- all the rest of us -- still are.

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