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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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The LGBT movement is playing some serious respectability politics in order to gain rights for the community as a whole. Part of its strategy is to convince straight people (i.e., voters) that LGBT folks are just like them. And so, with that, you cannot talk about sex, because gay sex freaks a lot of straight people out. You cannot take on HIV/AIDS as a core issue, because HIV embodies what makes straight America uncomfortable -- raw anal sex, drugs, etc. And so HIV/AIDS is ignored by these national organizations that have the most power and the most money. This really bothers me.

It should bother you. But I don't think it's just the large national organizations.

Six or seven years ago, I was invited to speak on behalf of the Campaign to End AIDS at a statewide LGBT conference in Alabama. I was asked to speak at a workshop that was put up against the gay marriage workshop. I had six people, and the other had 300 people. It was an overwhelmingly white audience for the whole conference. And I'm assuming that the membership is predominantly white. Marriage was their agenda, when I know that in Alabama, again, for black gay men, the agenda has got to be HIV and AIDS.

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The same thing happens here in New York: statewide organizations that don't address AIDS. There really is this segregation.

Do you believe that this split between the LGBT movement and the HIV/AIDS movement has meant less power for the HIV movement?

No question it has, but there's something else that has happened, too. Look at the demographics of the LGBT movement and the demographics of the AIDS movement today. If you were to go to an LGBT rights event, it would be largely white. Not to say that there wouldn't be a fair representation of people of color; there would be. But it would be largely white, and it would be largely people with money. So when the Prop 8 spontaneous demonstrations happened here in New York, they were overwhelmingly white and they were overwhelmingly middle class. And for some people, it was the first time in 15 or 20 years, or the first time ever, that they'd come out to a demonstration.

Now, if you go to an AIDS demonstration today, what you're going to see is overwhelmingly people of color, overwhelmingly people with low incomes, and probably a majority of them are straight. The LGBT community has disowned AIDS, because so many white people like myself who are living with HIV, we know we're never going to die from AIDS. It's the last thing I'm worried about, in terms of my health, as long as I have my health insurance in place. And I have no reason to think I won't have it in place.

For those who have money and access, AIDS is a chronic manageable condition, as opposed to a condition that is not so manageable and is killing people when they have a lower income and don't have access to the same resources.

When I look at activism now and look at who this epidemic disproportionately impacts, I don't see that same visceral reaction that ACT UP had during its heyday -- and despite the racial and gender diversity of ACT UP, racial privilege did have something to do with the group's ability to achieve what it did.

And yes, there was a civil rights movement, so in no way am I saying that people of color cannot achieve social justice if they lead the way. But in terms of HIV/AIDS, we don't see brown and black people shutting down Wall Street or dropping a giant rubber over Bill O'Reilly or Newt Gingrich's house. [Laughs.] And while we talked earlier about how AIDS Inc. and other factors have diminished the current AIDS response, is there something about a long history of being disenfranchised due to race, class, gender and sexual orientation that impacts people of color's ability to respond? Or is something else also at play here? Because I hate to say it, but communities of color are dying, and yet the collective response seems rather muted in comparison.

I'm sure that that's a part of it. But it's also important to note that those same white activists who were used to their privilege also had resources to bring to bear. It wasn't cheap to drop a condom over Jesse Helms' house. And they had connections with powerful people. Peter Staley had the ability to get into the stock exchange when we wanted to shut it down, because he'd worked there. He had connections. He had pull.

ACT UP was able to raise a tremendous amount of money. Again, it was because it had people who knew people who had money. And that was important to fuel it.

But I also think we have to look at what it takes to get up the gumption to take on oppressive systems. Are you going to make that your priority among all the other things that you need to do to make your life happen well? It takes a lot of energy to maintain the anger and rage and be willing to confront the police and go to jail, and all the rest of that stuff. So it's not just about how often you are told no, but how many things you have to juggle on your plate. Ask yourself, "You know what? This is worth dropping everything for."

Can you give an example of this?

Sure. We're organizing a direct action on behalf of transgender rights. One of the things that we've been very clear about is that if this is going to involve civil disobedience, it has to be led by transgender folk. That's not to say that non-trans folk can't be a part of it. But if the point is to bring attention to this issue, transgender people have to take the lead.

Well, it's a little different question, asking me if I'm willing to go to jail than asking a trans person, especially if it's a low-income trans person who has already had negative encounters with the police. To do something that's going to risk arrest, and risk all of the humiliation that comes around being arrested when the police are confused about your gender identity, this is a huge challenge.

An employee of Housing Works called me the other day and said she wanted to participate in the civil disobedience action in Washington around syringe exchange. She's recently separated, and it was a bad separation. There's a custody battle, and right now she's got their 5-year-old child. I told her, "No. You shouldn't risk arrest. You don't want to give your ex any ammunition to fuel the battle. If he found out you went and got arrested, he would, I'm sure, try to use that to say you're a bad mother. So, as much as you want to be down with the cause, you shouldn't participate in this action until that's taken care of."

When you think about the things that plague the lives of particularly lower-income people, you start coming up with: What are my priorities today? And then there's also a matter of prioritizing which injustice am I going to fight today. Is it stop-and-frisk, or is it the complete neglect of people with HIV until they develop AIDS?

Final question: When you think about the future of AIDS activism, what comes to mind?

Now, that's a tough question. [Laughs.] First of all, I could be very depressed, because I do very strongly feel that we have the tools to end AIDS in the United States and around the globe right now. It goes back to the same thing we've been saying for years: It's not a lack of resources; it's a lack of political will. So that's the more depressing note.

The more optimistic note is that I do feel that there has been, over the last year, a yearning to revitalize the AIDS movement. Some of that comes from the International AIDS Conference being held here. Some of that springs from people's realization that we really do have the tools and aren't using them. Some of that comes from Occupy Wall Street. And so I'm actually optimistic that more and more people are saying, "It's a sin that we haven't done this. We've got to do it. I'm willing to take this to the streets to make it happen."

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.


Copyright © 2012 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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