Saturday night at the West Village's 49 Grove, the venerable AIDS activist group ACT UP NY, which pulled off spectacularly bold demonstrations in the late eighties and early nineties to force the government to speed up development of lifesaving HIV medications, held a reunion of sorts for its first wave of surviving members. (The group still exists, but in this age of effective HIV meds, its membership has been a modest few dozen folks for several years.) Organizers billed the party as a "don't-call-it-a-reunion reunion." Says one of them, Andrew Miler, "The idea of a reunion seemed a bit too varsity club for us. We were never known for our sentimentality."
But when one of the veterans, Jim Eigo, took the mike and started the old chant, "Act up, fight back, fight AIDS!" there were more than a few less-than-dry eyes in the house. Eigo is among the first-wavers who've started going back to the classic Monday night ACT UP meetings at the LGBT Community Center to address scary stats showing that HIV continues to rise at high rates among young gay men. Even ACT UP godfather Larry Kramer was there, despite frail health. The night's new joke slogan? "Act up, fight back, fight age!" Take a look at the ACT UP warriors as they reminisce about old times and clue us in to what they've been up to since.
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SCOTT WALD, 54, Organizing for America activist. Came to ACT UP in 1988 at age 28.
I knew I was HIV-positive when I came to ACT UP. My first boyfriend had died of AIDS in 1985. ACT UP became my home, my safe harbor. I felt enormous community and power there. Hundreds of people, men, women, all different ages, committed to saving our lives. Prior to that, we were weak, waiting for ourselves or our friends to die.
What was your proudest ACT UP moment?
When we stormed the FDA in Bethesda in 1988, shut it down, and got a huge amount of media attention about how we wanted to get drugs into bodies. Also the night before the 1992 election, we marched with the body of our colleague Mark Fisher, who had died, to Bush election headquarters. We'd reached the point of emotional exhaustion by that point. Many of us were having personal crises. It was the last time I remember seeing everyone in one place before I left ACT UP.
What about your life since then?
That was the peak of my life. For many years I couldn't do anything else. It was like a drug for me. We went our separate ways after with a lot of our pain that we never healed from. That's why it's so amazing that we're doing this tonight. We're finally trying to heal together.
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(Left to right) Luis Carle, 50, photographer; Carlos Valentin, 48, TV director/producer; Wilmer Vélez, 57, graphic designer
Luis: I came to ACT UP at age 20 in 1987. Mostly I was a head in the crowd. I was in a group of Puerto Rican artists, and we'd march together in demonstrations. We'd make the banners.
Carlos: I'd been in the military when some friends invited me to ACT UP. I went to liberate myself. I was scared, like every gay man in New York in the eighties. So I went to a rally here in New York, and the police show up and I didn't know where to run. So I ran right into them, holding a poster. Thankfully I talked myself out of it and they let me go. I came tonight wondering if this group is going to reunite because I hear we might have HIV/AIDS budget cuts because of the sequestration. I'll absolutely be involved. I miss making my posters and going screaming. It's very liberating.
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Joan Gibbs, 60, civil-rights lawyer
I represented ACT UP at their first demonstration on Wall Street in 1987, and many thereafter. I'm a lesbian, and I had a lot of friends who had died or were infected with the virus, so I thought it was important to do something about it. I was running around at that demonstration focusing on who was getting arrested and coordinating the legal aspects. We were young, and it was very inspiring to see young people come together in anger, but also focused on strategic targets. The FDA takeover was amazing. People were all over the place, on the roof.
What was it like being an African-American woman in ACT UP?
ACT UP was mostly gay white men, but not all. There were a lot of people of color, a lot of women. There were tensions between men, women, black people. But in retrospect it was one of the most important groups of the twentieth century, and I say that as someone involved in movements since the sixties. The slogan "ACT UP, Fight Back" still applies to a lot of stuff. But I don't know if in this age of the war on terrorism we can take over government buildings again.
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Blane Charles, 50, fashion design consultant
When I joined ACT UP, I was a fashion activist. I would wear Patricia Fields at the demonstrations to show that people in the fashion world were aware of AIDS, too. The craziest thing I wore was a Gaultier pullover minidress with thigh-high suede pilgrim boots and a shaved head with a pink triangle on it. I wore that at a big AIDS conference in Montreal.
I was excommunicated from my family of Jehovah's Witnesses for being gay. Then in New York, my first two lovers died of AIDS. So it was either attempt suicide or do something to empower myself. That's why I joined ACT UP. I was a chalk queen in ACT UP. I wrote everything that was said or done on a big chalkboard, wearing Daisy Duke shorts, a halter top, an Afro wig, and platform shoes. At demonstrations, we'd chain ourselves together around buildings so nobody could get in or out.
What was the hardest thing about ACT UP?
Agreeing on something. Everything was very opinionated and passionate back then. Fortunately we had a structure so that things got done.
Will you be involved if this group relaunches?
Absolutely. I don't know if I'll be lying in the street at 50, but if I have to, I will.
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Gilbert Baker, 62, creator of the gay rainbow flag
Are you proud the rainbow flag has held up all these year?
For me as the creator, it's got its bitter edges. There's no patent; flags belong to everybody. People are courageous to wave it in places around the world where you can be killed for being gay.
Does the rainbow flag hold up today style-wise?
Oh my God, no! It's so garish. People will put it on their dogs. I hardly ever see a good rainbow outfit. I think Alexander McQueen did a really beautiful dress once, and Mizrahi did a good sweater, but it's hard to interpret it where it doesn't look like it came right out of play school.
Do you still make flags?
Yes. I'm still a vexillographer. That's a good word for Scrabble.
What's your most vivid ACT UP memory?
We were marching over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to protest Giuliani. There were 10,000 of us and 20,000 police. I thought that was really fucked up.
If this group reboots, will you join?
The days of marching in the streets doesn't mean anything anymore. Protest only has an effect in the media now if it has confrontation and violence.
What about Occupy?
They went away. They're over. Poof. Good-bye. People are not willing to get arrested these days. We were desperate back then. We were dying.
Nina: When GMHC first formed, I was among the first group of volunteers. But they got a bit bureaucratic, so I went to ACT UP. I spent my summers in the Pines (on Fire Island), so I was right in the heart of the AIDS crisis.
What's your proudest ACT UP memory?
We got up at 3 a.m. and drove down to D.C. when the FDA was meeting. We thought we should have citizen activists in those secretive meetings. We started to pound on their closed doors. And the next day they agreed to have ACT UP reps in the meetings.
What was it like being a straight woman in ACT UP?
The fact that I was a straight woman never entered into the equation, for myself or any other ACT-UP member. But this is where I feel at home. A lot of us were involved in the anti-war stuff in the Bush years, but there's never been as clever a group as ACT UP.
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Larry Kramer, 78, author/playwright, ACT UP co-founder
What got you here tonight, Mr. Kramer?
I had to be here. These are all my children.
How are you feeling?
It's been a hard year, but I feel okay right now.
Should this gang here reunite and relaunch?
Yes. It's too bad we broke up. We still desperately need ACT UP. But this group of people tonight have already paid their dues. It's time for the young people to get off their asses.
What do you want to say to everyone here tonight?
I love you.
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Jim Eigo, 61, former editor of
You played a very important role in ACT UP.
I was the first person to address committees in Congress about HIV/AIDS treatment issues.
Could ACT UP do today what it did then in our age of high security?
We only did what we did under the pressure of the epidemic. If we did not have the number of sick and dying who needed those drugs quick, we couldn't have done it.
How do you make HIV urgent again when there is effective treatment today?
If we don't work on this, more than half of today's young gay men are going to be HIV-positive by the time they hit middle age. A researcher named Ron Stall calculated that in 2009. Now we have data from the CDC showing a recent 22 percent spike in HIV among young gay men. They go on the Grindr today and they say "I'm clean" and think they don't need condoms. Unless they start having smarter sex, they're going to face a bigger epidemic. The good thing is there are tools today we didn't have. People can take HIV drugs now as prevention, both positive and negative people.
You started going back to ACT UP's Monday night meetings. Can you get this gang to go back with you?
I've gotten a handful to come back already. If I can just get them to march under the ACT UP banner in the Gay Pride march this weekend, I'll be happy.
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Alice Eisenberg, 33, staffing recruiter
I joined ACT UP in 1991, the summer before my 15th birthday. My parents inspired me to fight injustice in the world. The lack of AIDS education in New York City then was shocking. There was controversies over giving out condoms and saying the word sex in sex ed, talking about queer people — things we consider normal now. Even in high school, I saw gay men, family friends, dying in their early twenties. ACT UP was one of the most important things I've ever done in my life. It taught me to speak up and not be silenced.
What's your wildest ACT UP memory?
Climbing across one of the support beams of the Brooklyn Bridge, dropping a banner. That was definitely pre-9/11 New York.
Did you pick up gay slang in ACT UP?
I still make barebacking jokes. I learned lots of slang. Bug-chaser, bug-seeker, service bottom.
Service bottom? What's that?
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James Krellenstein, 22, physics student, City College of New York
You are in the current ACT UP. What's it like these days?
Honestly? It's regaining momentum, but we're lacking a critical mass. It's an amazing team of about fifteen to twenty, and it still meets on Mondays at the LGBT Center on 13th Street. I'm usually the youngest person in the room, which is disturbing. I've started a campaign to address the epidemic in young gay men. There are other campaigns on HIV criminalization and stigma.
In 2012, the CDC said that HIV rates in gay men have been going up every year since 1993.
How do you create urgency about this these days?
HIV is not the same thing it was. We have to acknowledge that. It's a manageable chronic disease. But we still shouldn't say that 50 percent of the young population should become positive. We have to realize many gay guys are not using condoms now. There's data on that. We have to use every tool we have now — PreP, PEP, condoms, sex education, getting people who are HIV-positive tested and linked to care, getting them on treatment, because that reduces infectiousness.
What do you think of this gang here tonight?
They're heroic. They were facing an existential threat to gay life, and they stood up and not only fought back but became scientists and experts who could sit on FDA and NIH panels. They are a treasure trove of resources we have to tap into.
Have you been getting hit on tonight?
I have been. It's flattering.