The gay ghetto was a tinderbox by March 1987. Ten thousand New Yorkers had already become sick with AIDS; half were dead. Along Christopher Street you could see the dazed look of the doomed, skeletons and their caregivers alike. There was not even a false-hope pill for doctors to prescribe.
Then the posters appeared. A small collective of artists had been working on a striking image they hoped would galvanize the community to act. Overnight, images bearing the radical truism SILENCE = DEATH appeared on walls and scaffolding all over lower Manhattan. The fuse was set—and then the writer and activist Larry Kramer struck a match. He’d been invited to be a last-minute substitute for a lecture series at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center.
“If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in trouble,” he began. “I sometimes think we have a death wish. I think we must want to die. I have never been able to understand why we have sat back and let ourselves literally be knocked off man by man without fighting back. I have heard of denial, but this is more than denial—it is a death wish.” He concluded, “It’s your fault, boys and girls. It’s our fault.”
Just like that, a new, grassroots direct-action movement congealed. Within weeks it would adopt the name ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and a deceptively simple demand: Drugs into bodies.
That was 25 years ago this month, and so much has happened since then, all of it stemming from that one electric moment. ACT UP revolutionized everything from the way drugs are researched to the way doctors interact with patients. Ultimately it played a key role in catalyzing the development of the drugs that since 1996 have helped keep patients alive for a near-normal life span. act up also redrew the blueprint for activism in a media-saturated world, providing inspiration for actions like Occupy Wall Street.
The leaders of ACT UP were shrewd and relentless—and they were also, inevitably, romantic figures. Photographer Bill Bytsura set out to memorialize those individuals, along with the movement’s rank and file, mid-battle. Over a six-year period, he shot 225 ACT UP members from New York, but also from Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Mexico City, and elsewhere. We recently rediscovered these pictures in the archives at NYU’s Fales Library. A small selection is presented here, along with present-day pictures of those, among this grouping, who survived—to live their lives, and to recall their extraordinary days in the trenches.
King can’t remember where he was first arrested, but his last arrest was just last week, inside the Capitol Hill office of Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky, co-author of the current federal ban on clean-needle exchange in the war against AIDS transmission. For King, who is a lawyer and Baptist minister, ACT UP changed his life unexpectedly when he found romance in a committee meeting: For fifteen years, he and Keith Cylar, with whom he co-founded and ran Housing Works, were a storied couple. Cylar died in 2004. “I’ve never felt like I was in the inner circle” of ACT UP, King says. “I always thought I was one of the nerdy people off to the side, because I was religious. Keith didn’t think so.”
When Bailey’s blood test came back positive, he was the menswear designer at Patricia Field, so it made sense that his approach to the illness was wild and vivid. He joined ACT UP early in 1988 and found his activism home in the most notorious of the organization’s affinity groups. The Marys, as they were known, carried out spectacularly bold actions. They simultaneously invaded the on-air newscasts at CBS and PBS, and Bailey, who would die in 1993, even made theater of his own funeral. At first he planned to be burned on a pyre to protest Clinton-administration failures. But he had second thoughts, and asked for an open-air ceremony on Pennsylvania Avenue instead. “Do something formal and aesthetic in front of the White House. I won’t be there anyway. It’ll be for you.” So the remaining Marys drove his corpse to D.C., only to be roughed up by Capitol police and marshaled out of town with a police escort after a three-hour standoff.
Already a veteran of antiwar protests, the feminist skirmishes of the seventies, and some gay-rights work, Northrop joined ACT UP in February 1988. Her experience—and also her years as a writer and producer for CBS Morning News—made her one of ACT UP’s most levelheaded activists. Her specific innovation was the idea that everyone in the group had to be ready to act as its spokesperson; she regularly drilled members in developing three- and five-second sound bites. “There was no hierarchy,” she says. “We each had to take responsibility for making decisions.”
Sawyer (pictured with Luis Lopez-Detres, left, who has been involved with AIDS issues for the last two decades), a founding member, was symptomatic since 1980. His main concern was to steer the organization toward engaging with the housing crisis that was pushing poor people with AIDS into the streets. He co-founded the housing committee, which later became Housing Works. Today he works on AIDS issues at the U.N. “This treatment is not a cure,” he says. “And for 97 percent of people living with AIDS in the world, they have no access to the drugs at all. For them nothing has changed.”
Kramer spawned, then left, then led, then denounced, then galvanized ACT UP over the years, and he is still doing so—a member to this day, despite its dramatically lowered profile. “I know it’s controversial, but I call myself the founder,” he says. “Because I always felt it would not have been there but for me. Just as GMHC wouldn’t have been there but for me. That’s not ego, that is just overwhelming pride. That this sissy was able to start the two biggest gay fights going.”
Born in France and raised by artistic parents in Mexico and New Mexico, Franke-Ruta left high school after two years, eventually finding purpose in New York. She arrived in 1988 and, with fellow activist Derek Link, co-founded an initiative they called Countdown 18 Months to pressure pharmaceutical companies to test and market drugs for the opportunistic infections that were the actual killers of people with AIDS. “I think the hardest part was that no matter how hard you worked, it didn’t make a difference in keeping people alive, because that was beyond human capacity at the time.”
Goldberg, HIV-negative and a frustrated actor, accidentally wandered into his first meeting at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in 1987 and knew immediately that he’d found the stage he’d been looking for, a place where theater might possibly save lives. From that moment until 1995, he was the prolific author of those pointed chants that came to define the group. A memorable one, used in a City Hall demonstration after Mayor Koch had issued a baffling declaration that he wasn’t gay: “City AIDS care is ineffectual, thanks to Koch the heterosexual.” It earned him a formal coronation as the Chant Queen, which irritated him only slightly. “I wanted to be called the Chant-euse,” he says.
Wolfe was a professor of psychology at CUNY and had extensive experience in leftist organizing going back to the sixties. So she was a mentor to many members who were new to activism. “For a lot of the people who came into ACT UP in the beginning, putting a sticker on the wall was a big anti-authority thing. And after a while, those stickers were everywhere. That was like the first step of saying, ‘We’re not going to just sit back.’ And once you put a sticker on the wall, you can do almost anything. Once you step over that line, you can just take the next step.”
South Bronx native Vazquez-Pacheco’s boyfriend was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1980. “I went through the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic with him, nurses putting his tray of food on the floor outside his hospital room, the whole thing. And he died in 1986 in bed next to me.” That private experience drove him to public activism—he joined ACT UP in 1988 and became a member of the artist-activist collective Gran Fury (named after the car model used by undercover cops). Part of his goal was simply to bear witness. “We lost whole villages of gay men. It’s like what happened in Rwanda or places where people just disappear.”
Staley was a closeted bond trader on Wall Street when he tested positive in 1985. He picked up a flyer for the first ACT UP demonstration on his way to work on March 24, 1987, and signed up for the next meeting. A member of the powerful Treatment and Data Committee, Staley brought the language of money to activism, conducting a relentless campaign against the usurious price of AIDS medications and revolutionizing ACT UP’s fund-raising. Now Staley sees his experience with the epidemic as a kind of privilege: “It was full of deaths, but one of the most beautiful moments the gay community ever experienced.”
Garcia’s beauty and enthusiasm made him an object of desire and veneration among the rank and file. But his irrepressibility belied his worsening condition. He died on May 16, 1993, an activist to the end, as suggested by the note he left to accompany this photograph: “I would whisper to myself as I was marching, shouting, demonstrating, fighting back: ‘Robert, every step you take is a tear you don’t want to cry, every arrest is an act of hope.’ ”
Photographs by Christopher Anderson
Robert Vazquez-Pacheco, Ron Goldberg, Ann Northrop
Peter Staley, Charles King, Larry Kramer
Garance Franke-Ruta, Maxine Wolfe, Eric Sawyer