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Housing Works' Charles King on ACT UP's 25th Anniversary and the Future of HIV/AIDS Activism

April 24, 2012

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This generation's AIDS activism and the activism from the '80s and '90s look radically different. For example, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's public service announcement campaign "It's Never Just HIV," which launched on television in December 2010, was in my opinion extremely problematic and degrading to gay and bisexual men. Now, people were upset and the community held public forums to air out its grievances, but nothing really happened. Despite the controversy, the campaign was not pulled, and to make matters worse, it was extended with ads placed on buses and subways throughout the city. During this same time, I heard grumblings from other activists who believed that had this incident happened during the ACT UP days, Monica Sweeney, the health department's assistant commissioner of the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, wouldn't have her job. And so my question is: Has the HIV/AIDS movement lost its edge and ability to fight these institutionalized systems?

For the moment, I would say yes. But I would say that the edge can be regained. In their book, Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Piven and Cloward talk about how social movements in the United States have generally been very successful, initially, and they get killed by institutionalization. The same can be said about the HIV/AIDS movement once we saw the creation of the AIDS industry. More and more people who started out as AIDS activists got jobs in AIDS service organizations and, as the Ryan White dollars started flowing, as the CDC prevention dollars started flowing, we started building institutions. Once you have an institution, institutional preservation tends to trump everything.

I can actually mark a clear moment when you saw the shift from AIDS service organizations being willing to be out there in the street with the AIDS activists, fighting for the same thing, and all of a sudden realizing that they had a stake in being acquiescent and coexisting with the powers that be. And that's when Giuliani came into power.

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When Giuliani started menacing and his administration started making threats, they used Housing Works as an example, taking away all of the money that flowed through the city. All of a sudden, everybody wanted to cooperate. Nobody wanted to take on the city's Department of Health, or the Mayor's Office of AIDS Policy, because your institution could get punished for that. And so when you get down to this Monica Sweeney thing, where were the people who were going to rise up and say this is the wrong thing? Well, most of them happened to be working for organizations that have contracts that Monica Sweeney signs off on.

I think if we had had a strong ACT UP that was independent of those AIDS service organizations, you would have seen a much bigger response, and a more effective response. And Monica Sweeney wouldn't have her job. And frankly, she shouldn't, but that's another story.

Yes, that is another story. [Laughs.] But yes, AIDS Inc. has created this dynamic of not biting the hand that feeds it, and in a way that has watered down the movement's ability to respond to injustice.

That's why I think there needs to be a new Occupy Wall Street. But this lost edge isn't just happening in the AIDS community; we see this in the LGBT movement. Queer Nation was only around for a hot second, but it was very effective for the time that it was around. Out of that came a lot of energy that got soaked up by institution building that was not AIDS-focused, but LGBT-focused. And so you saw a tremendous shift in power to the Pride Agenda, to the Human Rights Campaign fund, etc. And you started seeing it playing out in the political halls and campaign donations. Yes, it was effective for what it has achieved, but you no longer had the radical, in-your-face queers who were going to go do a sit-in in the Health Commissioner's office to protest these ads either. Because, those ads were not just a vilification of people with HIV, they were also very homophobic. And that could have been the source of an uprising, but that didn't happen.

That leads me into my next question. Once the epidemic hit, the HIV/AIDS movement and LGBT movement were one in the same. Now, that's not the case. I used to work for an LGBT organization and when I tried to address HIV issues, I was told, "We don't do that here." I was utterly shocked. I understand that heterosexual men and women are living with HIV/AIDS too, but since when did HIV/AIDS stop being an LGBT issue?

Exactly. I have had confrontations with groups who claim to be grassroots and different than the Human Rights Campaign, but at the end of the day they are still championing the same issues and completely ignoring AIDS. If you looked at young black men, whether gay or bisexual, AIDS was clearly the biggest threat facing their lives. And yet you wouldn't see it.

In the end, if you claim to really care about gay people of color, particularly gay men of color, AIDS has got to be on your agenda.

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