Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

Gay activists founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP, a radical and confrontational street-action group demanding public and governmental attention to the HIV-AIDS epidemic. ACT UP’s actions helped change social views and awareness about HIV-AIDS, helped change drug policy and reduce drug costs for those with HIV-AIDS, and promoted the care and well-being of those with the disease.

Summary of Event

In early March, 1987, Larry Kramer presented the best speech of his career as a gay activist at a meeting at New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Kramer had called upon gays to demand that the U.S. government increase its attention to the HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) crisis, which had begun to devastate America’s gay population, and to take concrete steps to stem the tide. On this day, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was born. [kw]Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded (Mar., 1987)
[kw]AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded, Radical (Mar., 1987)
[kw]ACT UP Is Founded, Radical AIDS Activist Group (Mar., 1987)
ACT UP;founding of
HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];and founding of ACT UP[ACT UP]
Radicalism;ACT UP
Political activism;ACT UP
Drugs and medications;and ACT UP[ACT UP]
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[c]HIV-AIDS;Mar., 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded[1750]
[c]Civil rights;Mar., 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded[1750]
[c]Government and politics;Mar., 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded[1750]
[c]Health and medicine;Mar., 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded[1750]
[c]Marches, protests, and riots;Mar., 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded[1750]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar., 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded[1750]
Kramer, Larry

Kramer spoke of the difficulties physicians encountered in obtaining new drugs for treating the disease. He urged his audience to demand that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accelerate the testing procedures for HIV-AIDS medications and to pressure the pharmaceutical industry to speed up its research to find drugs for treating and even eradicating the disease. He urged governmental controls that would make such drugs affordable for the average person with AIDS, because such drugs would have required substantial government subsidies because of the high cost of medical and pharmaceutical research.

Kramer was outraged that both the general public AIDS awareness and the government dragged its feet in dealing with the rapidly developing crisis. In the late 1980’s, even after actor Rock Hudson announced in 1985 he had AIDS, the public considered HIV-AIDS a gay disease unworthy of much public support or governmental attention. Indeed, politicians realized that supporting HIV-AIDS research AIDS research;politics of could become a political liability for them given the homophobia and otherwise negative attitudes and views about GLBT people.

Kramer was adamant in his attempts to arouse a lethargic public and a White House avoiding the epidemic. Throughout the United States, Kramer’s two fundamental slogans—“Knowledge = Power” “Knowledge = Power”[knowledge power] and “Silence = Death” “Silence = Death”[silence death] —became rallying cries for LGBT and AIDS activists.

In 1981, when the epidemic was in its earliest, and misunderstood, stages, Kramer had cofounded Gay Men’s Health Crisis Gay Men’s Health Crisis[Gay Mens Health Crisis] (GMHC), based in New York City, and was actively involved in its day-to-day operations until 1983, when he came under fire from the organization. His article, “1,112 and Counting,” “1,112 and Counting” (Kramer)[1112 and Counting] appeared in the March 14-17, 1983, issue of New York Native
New York Native, early AIDS coverage and was widely disseminated in gay publications throughout the country. In this article, Kramer verified 1,112 cases of HIV-AIDS and 418 deaths.

Some members of the gay community, still apathetic regarding the disease, accused Kramer of overstating its dangers and of running the risk of creating a national panic and intensified homophobia. Such criticism did not deter Kramer. Because of the firestorm his article generated and because of concerns about his reportedly abrasive personality and inflammatory language, he was, in 1983, ousted from his leadership role in the GMHC.

Kramer’s abrasiveness and intemperate language helped spark the ACT UP movement. He did not shrink from confrontation or from extremism, contending that a crisis like the HIV-AIDS pandemic often calls for extreme measures; the louder and more forceful he was in making his case, the more uncomfortable and, he hoped, conciliatory the government would become. He made little effort himself to be conciliatory, convinced that the more his opponents feared him, the more he could accomplish.

These tactics, which attracted attention to Kramer and ACT UP’s cause, in time alienated the people who initially were on his side. Communication theorists point out that when diction fraught with unpleasant implications is used in such situations, the expectations that the listener has of the speaker and of the occasion may become lopsided, as they did in this case.

After 1983, relieved of his responsibilities with the GMHC, Kramer was able to devote more time to his writing. He focused his attention on turning out one of the earliest plays about AIDS, The Normal Heart (1985), Normal Heart, The (Kramer)
Drama and theater;and AIDS epidemic[AIDS epidemic] which was well received by audiences and critics. It ran for more than one year on Broadway and helped those who saw the play begin to appreciate problems faced by gay people in the United States at that time.

It was not until Kramer’s speech at New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center in the spring of 1987 that his activism became most radical. Kramer convinced his audience to join him in establishing ACT UP. This organization, which used unconventional and sometimes ethically questionable tactics, including the outing Outing;ACT UP and of public officials who were not open about their homosexuality, proved threatening to not only many people in the mainstream but also many moderate gay activists. In some cases, however, these tactics proved effective.

ACT UP spread rapidly from its beginnings in New York City. Soon, chapters were established throughout the United States, mostly centered in urban areas such as Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. The AIDS crisis was growing and was beginning also to affect heterosexuals. Nevertheless, many people blamed the disease on gay sex and had little sympathy for gays, feeling threatened by them because of public misconceptions about how AIDS was transmitted.

From its outset, quite in keeping with Kramer’s mandates, the ACT UP movement was to focus on nonviolent civil disobedience. Kramer was willing to use attention-getting tactics, but he did not sanction violence in achieving this end.

On March 28, 1989, under Kramer’s leadership, ACT UP rallied more than three thousand people in front of New York’s City Hall, which had been ACT UP’s largest rally. In September of 1989, ACT UP demonstrators had chained themselves to the balcony railing of the New York Stock Exchange, New York Stock Exchange, ACT UP protest an institution considered symbolic of poor, uncaring values and greed. The demonstrators blew loud horns and unfurled a banner that called for the sale of the pharmaceutical company Burroughs-Wellcome Burroughs-Wellcome[Burroughs Wellcome];ACT UP protest against (now GlaxoSmithKline) for charging outrageous prices for the drug AZT, AZT;and ACT UP[ACT UP] which it manufactured. The company lowered its price for the drug to $6,400 per year four days after the protest.

In December, 1989, ACT UP members chained themselves to the pews in St. Patrick’s Cathedral St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York[Saint Patricks Cathedral];ACT UP protest on New York’s Fifth Avenue and almost drowned out the sermon being preached by Cardinal O’Connor, with shouts of “bigot,” “murderer,” and “defiler of the Eucharist.” The protest group WHAM!, WHAM! protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral[WHAM protest] Women’s Health Action and Mobilization, cosponsored the “Stop the Church” protest, which also included 4,500 protesters outside the church.

Ironically, ACT UP members eventually found Kramer’s tactics difficult to justify and found him impossible to work with on a long-term basis. Just as members of GMHC had turned on Kramer and ousted him from the organization, members of ACT UP rallied against him and made his future with the group tenuous.

By 1990, Kramer was convinced that the battle to fight AIDS had been lost. He stepped down from the ACT UP leadership, and the group continued to function without him. Branches sprang up throughout the country, each with its own unique agenda, often quite different from Kramer’s original intent. The organization believed it had lost its significance in the 1990’s because the AIDS pandemic was coming under greater control, even though no cure had been found. Safer sex, bywords in the gay community, substantially reduced the number of AIDS cases during the last decade of the twentieth century.


The Treatment Action Group Treatment Action Group (TAG), a nonprofit organization founded in January, 1992, is an outgrowth of ACT UP. TAG encourages AIDS research and ensures that those with AIDS are cared for and that they receive effective treatment. TAG meets regularly with public health officials and with pharmaceutical companies to determine the most efficient ways of coping with HIV-AIDS. TAG has lobbied successfully to get the Food and Drug Administration to permit the compassionate use of unapproved drugs for patients who have no realistic hope of recovery. Because time is of the essence for those who have AIDS, the organization also encouraged the FDA to accelerate drastically the process of testing and approving new drugs.

Because many who had AIDS have died and many more continue to manage the disease successfully with medications, the initial work of ACT UP has been minimized somewhat and the functions of the organization and its branches have changed to meet current needs. AIDS, however, is a global HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];as a global epidemic[global epidemic] problem, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Russia. The ACT UP model has been adapted around the world, to local conditions, and applied with a small amount of success.

Some nations, notably South Africa and Brazil, have waived the patent protection of some drugs crucial to the successful management of AIDS. This has become a highly controversial issue, but while the legalities are being worked out, many people suffering from AIDS have received medications they could not otherwise afford.

It was not until 2004 that the U.S. government awakened to the reality that HIV-AIDS represents a global emergency that will affect everyone alive today if it is not controlled. AIDS is now considered a global human-welfare and health issue. The message of Larry Kramer from the 1980’s has been heard, making him perhaps the most prominent figure in the fight against HIV-AIDS during the last two decades of the twentieth century. ACT UP;founding of
HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];and founding of ACT UP[ACT UP]
Radicalism;ACT UP
Political activism;ACT UP
Drugs and medications;and ACT UP[ACT UP]
AIDS activism

Further Reading

  • ACT UP/NY Women and AIDS Book Group. Women, AIDS, and Activism. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
  • Bayer, Ronald, and David L. Kirp, eds. AIDS in the Industrialized Democracies: Passion, Politics, and Policies. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
  • Cohen, Peter. Love and Anger: Essays on AIDS, Activism, and Politics. New York: Haworth Press, 1998.
  • Cvetkovich, Ann. “AIDS Activism and Public Feelings: Documenting ACT UP’s Lesbians.” In An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, by Ann Cvetkovich Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Grmek, Mirko D. The History of AIDS: Emergence and Origin of a Modern Pandemic. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Retroactivism.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12, no. 2 (2006): 303-317.
  • Kramer, Larry. Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
  • Mass, Lawrence D. We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
  • Shepard, Benjamin, and Ronald Hayduk, eds. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization. New York: Verso, 2002.
  • Stockdill, Brett. Activism Against AIDS: At the Intersections of Sexuality, Race, Gender, and Class. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2003.

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic

July, 1982: Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Is Renamed AIDS

Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered

October 9, 1984: San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

September, 1986: AZT Treats People with AIDS

November, 1986: Californians Reject LaRouche’s Quarantine Initiative

1987: Shilts Publishes And the Band Played On

June 27, 1988: Report of the Presidential AIDS Commission

December 1, 1988: First World AIDS Day

1989: Act Up Paris Is Founded

December 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

March 20, 1990: Queer Nation Is Founded

June 25, 1993: Clinton Appoints First AIDS Czar