In an earlier installment of The Narcissist Issue, we relayed the story of Narcissus: the gorgeous lad whose self-love led to eternal incarceration in his own reflection. Pretty scary, but we must remember that not all reflections bring such nasty consequences.
As the future rises up at horrifying speeds, and the past seems to disintegrate in the blink of an eye, many people forget to take the time to look back. In our opinion, it’s impossible to forge a viable gay equality without first reflecting on the people and organizations that came paved the way.
To this end, we sat down with Alan Klein and Ron Goldberg, two of the earliest members of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). Through mass demonstrations and seemingly-spontaneous zaps, ACT UP successfully brought AIDS to national attention, thus clearing a path for understanding, progress and a future as scary as it is hopeful.
In part one of a two piece interview, Klein and Goldberg talk about their early days as activists, using the media to get their message out, and how fighting the system takes its toll.
Learn a little somethin’ somethin’, after the jump…
Queerty: How did you guys get involved with ACT UP?
Ron Goldberg: I think our first meeting was together.
Alan Klein: It was the same meeting, yeah.
QT: Where on the timeline?
RG: May of ’87?
AK: Yeah, it was either the end of April or early May. We got in for different reasons. I was with my then boyfriend, Karl. We had seen Larry Kramer speak at a Columbia student health conference.
QT: You were attending Columbia at the time?
AK: No, noâ€¦
RG: He was cruising.
AK: [Laughs] No, but there was a sexy part of ACT UP that made it what it was, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I had just graduated from Ithaca. We were all in our teens or early twenties; AIDS was just coming out of our periphery and into our full vision. [Larry Kramer] made all of us stand up and he looked at half of the room and said, “Okay, this half sit down,” then he looked at the part that was still standing, and said, “You’re all gonna die in two years!”
He then proceeded to tell us about HIV and AIDS, tell us what was happening at GMHC, what was not going on, what the government was not doing at the time, what Reagan was not doing at the time, how many people were dying, and scared the living shit out of us. I was like, “Who is this guy telling me I’m gonna die? Fuck him!” But, it got me to an ACT UP meeting. It was just this amazing, eye-opening experience.
[There’s] a misconception these days, particularly among young people, that ACT UP was a political organization. The reason that ACT UP was so captivating to those of us who went to these meetings is that the people that were involved in ACT UP at the time were not politicos. They were pissed off regular people that had organized something really interesting. This meeting was right at the beginning and already it was forming into something so cohesive, so fast, that you almost had to be a part of it.
RG: I had been in the city a bit longer, because I’m a bit older. I had always supported GMHC, I had done the AIDS walk, all that stuff, but I was sort of intimidated by the whole “buddy” thing. I thought it was going to be too much and I’d just drown. I had read in The New YorkNative about this demonstration they had just done in Washington. The cops had shown up in those yellow rubber gloves because no one knew how AIDS was transmitted, and they didn’t want to catch it from the queers they’d be arresting.
ACT UP’s response was angry, of course, but then they came up with the chant: “Your gloves don’t match your shoes, you’ll see it on the news!” I read that and went, “Ah, I could do that.”
And then I went to this meeting and [there] was this tremendous energy, this real passion, actually. Passion is very sexy, whether it’s channeled toward politics, whether it’s channeled toward an individual, passion’s hot. It was like, “Wow, I have to do this.”
AK: And be a part of it.
RG: You need to understand: this was a time when Reagan had just said AIDS for the first time probably two months earlier. The Bill Buckley [idea of] tattooing people with AIDS was still relatively recent. There was finally a test for HIV. But people weren’t taking it, because there was nothing you could do. If you were HIV positive, there was nothing you could do about it.
AK: But die. Slowly.
RG: You just had to assume you were sick. So, this was a very different place. Suddenly, after years and years of people dying, here was something like, “We have to do something.” For me, it started with the silence = death posters, which just one day showed up all over time: the pink triangle with silence = death.
QT: Can we talk about hitting rush hour and getting into the news? You’ve said you were keenly aware of being on the news.
AK: Yes. Nothing in ACT UP happened by accident.
RG: Oh, bullshit! Half our successes were completely by accident. [But] where we were or the timing of it wasn’t by accident. We had media professionals involved in the group…
QT: What was the demographic?
RG: It was pretty white.
AK: At first it was pretty white, yeah.
RG: Part of the anger of ACT UP was that it was predominately white gay men of privilege: privilege of being white, privilege of job, college educated. So, when suddenly we were being told, “The system doesn’t care. We don’t care if you die, faggot.” We were like, “What do you mean? I’m a professional.” It was a real shock.
AK: I want to add to this, particularly for the readers of Queerty: this was pre-Ellen. Coming out was still an issue. It was not okay to be gay. People had to deal with their self-loathing, number one. Coming out, number two, because you’re on TV at these demonstrationsâ€¦
RG: And [it was] a disease that was “tied to your sexuality.” I used to do pride all the time. It was my favorite day: you’d march down the middle of the street and say, “I’m queer.” But it’s different to then go down to Wall Street and go, “Yes, I’m a faggot and I deserve health care! I’m a citizen, I’m a faggot, and this is happening to me. I demand these rights!” You really had to stand up. Wearing a “Silence = Death” button, people assumed you had AIDS, which was stigmatized. People would back away from you. [Taking] on a stigma and shoving it in people’s face was very powerful and sexy.
QT: Looking at this time-line: of course there’s still chapters [of ACT UP] around, but it was pretty short-lived. Let’s talk about the heyday and what happened to it.
AK: Like Ron said, there was a lot of passion. It was neat. [Author of The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo] described the situation that we were confronting as our own personal Vietnam War, but no one else could hear the screams. â€¦And people felt as though not only could they not hear the screams, but [also that] they were being pushed down and they were drowning.
RG: It actually wasn’t a short time. For a group of that type, it was actually quite an extended period. The heyday probably was from ’87 to 92. There were still things going on after that – and very worthwhile things – but that was really its prime. Part of it was that you could only act like it’s a crisis for so long. We were doing demonstrations two or three times a week. And people were dying. So you’d go from the hospital to the meeting to after the meeting. It was an incredibly intense time.
AK: People burned out.
RG: People burned out. People died. My thought of what ACT UP was trying to do wasâ€¦there was silence around AIDS politically, and what we wanted to do was get it heard so it became a major issue. People were dying, but it wasn’t an issue, because they didn’t care. So, we succeeded. Clinton became president and it was an issue. It was the first thing he mentioned in his acceptance speech. Great. So now it joined the list [of things] that no one knew what to do about. Also, our people moved into the process. We wound up being on FDA committees. We wound up advising drug companies. A lot of what happened was that people moved into the AIDS “industry”. I don’t mean that in a negative way, because there was a lot of important stuff that was done. You had people dying; you can’t act like there’s a crisis for five years. You just burn out.
[Queerty’s interview with Alan Klein and Ron Goldberg continues on Monday. Ha! Now you have to come back!]