Remember our interview with Alan Klein and Ron Goldberg, two early members of ACT UP? No? Well, get with it and click here.
For those of you who are up-to-date, here’s part two, in which the boys discuss the appropriation of activism by the media, pharmaceutical greed, and the rise – and unfortunate results – of professionalism in the movement.
ACT-UP Part Two:
QT: Also in this issue, we have a piece on a filmmaker named Matt Wolf. He made a film called Smalltown Boys. It’s a kind of a what-if David Wojnarowicz had donated sperm and had this daughter named Sarah? She’s a lesbian and she’s not an activist at all. Her main issue is that she likes My So-Called Life and she wants it to be saved from being cancelled. He has footage of old protests and it’s about the split between generations [with regard to activism]. So I just wanted to talk to you guys about what happened to that fire in the bellyâ€¦.
AK: As Ron said: we were at war. We were in crisis. People we knew, people that we were attracted to, were dying in front of us.
RG: And we didn’t know if we were dying.
AK: We felt really insecure. We felt like our futures were not in our control. We felt that the only we could do was to go with that passion and join like-minded people and try to do something to save them, save ourselves, save people we didn’t even know, save a continent. We did whatever we needed to do to deal with an imminent threat. And that’s what drew us together. What kept us there was, like Ron said, that passion.
RG: We were also doing things. We also managed to change things.
AK: Right. We were getting results.
RG: You would do something and you would actually see the system move. You would actually see a result. The whole paradigm has shifted. We got presidents to talk about AIDS. We yelled at Clinton until he finally met with us one night.
AK: And we saw it all chronicled on the evening news and in the papers the next day. It was present for us.
RG: The joke about ACT UP is that we’d take pictures of ourselves pissing if someone would show it!
QT: Do you feel – now, this may sound callous – that all of the progress that ACT UP helped initiate, do you think that ended up hurting activism for a new generation?
AK: No. The problem happened in that Madison Avenue saw what we were doing as “the cutting edge,” and they started to use those kinds of images and tactics and strategies in advertising.
RG: Yeah, but we did that, too.
AK: Yes. Our posters weren’t done by hand. They were printed up and designed by art directors at ad agencies, so of course it was going to filter into the mainstream. The effect of that was to basically make activists an interesting market. It kind of brought the gay market into the mainstream. When you go from a political movement to a market, weird things happen.
RG: We became a consumer group. I’m curious about your questionâ€¦
QT: Well, in my interview with Matt Wolf, we discussed the fact MTV was putting on concerts to raise money for AIDS research, or that AIDS had become such a popular thing that it’s almost over-saturated and took away from the power of it all.
AK: The over-saturation is not necessarily the problem. When you think about it, we presented the media with interesting and different stories about AIDS, faces of AIDS. The media never really got tired of what we did. It was when it got turned into advertising, when it turned into reaching a market that you could then scoff at it. Before it was kind of a sacred turf. But when it became a market, then, yes, what you’re saying does happen and did happen. But, our creativity kept us from getting to that saturation point.
RG: We were fighting a battle. I think actually that saturation is fine. I think that what’s happened is that it went on the laundry list of intractable problems. We were able to get it into the dialogue. I think the issue for young people is what issues are hitting them. I think AIDS doesn’t affect them, or doesn’t affect them in the same way, or is not perceived as that. There are treatments and people are living.
AK: That was the brick wall of activism that we hit. The women told us early on when we developed a mission statement for ACT UP, one of the stated goals was to end the AIDS crisis, and we were told back then that it wasn’t going to happen because pharmaceutical companies do not spend money on cures: they spend money on chronic manageable diseases. And, indeed, that’s what we have now.
QT: You were saying that even during the early days of ACT UP, and especially now, your peers worked in the system. What do you think about that? Do you think that working in the system is effective? Of course, this is a huge political science debate.
AK: It’s a blessing and a curse. The reason ACT UP was so successful is because a lot of them were in the system to begin withâ€¦
RG: You were both in and out. That was the strategy. You had people screaming outside and then you had people who could actually take a place at the table and go, “Okay, this is what you need to do.”
AK: Part of the problem, particularly in the gay organizations, is that people came in from industry, from corporate America, who had never done any activism, and they thought activism was crass. So, they kind of eschewed that and tried to step away from that, when in fact it’s gay and AIDS activism that gave them the stepladder intoâ€¦
RG: The organizations now – there’s the whole professionalism of what used to be activist organizations.
AK: I was at one, and I actually helped hire a person who came out of one of America’s top TV networks. This person did – this is GLAAD – this person did take their budget through the roof, took their revenue through the roof to something like $5.5 million, which is great, but she was so uneasy with the idea of activism that basically she neutered the organization.
RG: Look, professionalism always happens. You get to a certain amount of money where professionalization has to happen. Going back to your issue about what the story is now, I think people don’t feel like they have a personal stake. I think that’s really it. People don’t see the connection.
AK: People think they’re safe.
RG: Also, the illusion of ACT UP – it was sort of the illusion of the 60s when I was growing up – it was like “Wow, the 60s, that was a time.” I think there’s a romance around ACT UP. “Those people, they knew what they were doing, and what do I know?” The reality is that we didn’t know shit. We improvised. We made it up. If it worked, we took credit for it, and if it didn’t work, we said “That’s what we intended to do, anyway.”
AK: We were crafty motherfuckers.
RG: The point is that if there’s something that really grabs you, go out and do it. Don’t worry if it’s smart. You’ll learn, mistakes are made, and just go with it. Follow your passion.
AK: Part of the issue, too, is that most gay kids in their twenties have no clue about ACT UP or Queer Nation. I think part of the problem is that older gay men are less interested in giving history lessons than other things. And, clearly, our schools are not interested in teaching “gay history.”
QT: What do you think of the gay community today, the young kids?
AK: I’m sorry, there’s a gay community? You know what? I don’t know.
RG: I don’t have a lot of younger friends. I do have some. There aren’t the spaces, I don’t think, for the interaction, or the desire.
AK: [My boyfriend] Lee and I have a lot of younger friends, and some of those relationships are really great, though we’ve run into brick walls where we find that this out gay generation in their 20s right now, they don’t want to put their opinions on the line. They don’t want to say anything that might offend anybody.
RG: That’s not just gay, is it?