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HIV in the Classroom: Making AIDS Activist History a Part of U.S. History

A Conversation With Jim Hubbard, Co-Director of the ACT UP Oral History Project

March 29, 2013

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HIV in the Classroom

HIV in the Classroom: A Spotlight Series

Do you think the general U.S. population just "got used to AIDS?" No, of course not. "It wasn't a passive process, and they weren't nice about it," recalls filmmaker Jim Hubbard; "This country had to be forced to deal with the crisis." And activist groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) were at the forefront of America's earliest education about AIDS.

Fast forward a few decades, and Hubbard -- director of the gripping 2012 documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP -- along with renowned author and academic Sarah Schulman, are the two people behind the ACT UP Oral History Project. Since 2001, Schulman and Hubbard have been preserving the history of the influential AIDS activist group, and working to push this rich chronicle into its rightful place in mainstream U.S. history -- as a justice movement as significant, and vital to explore, as the feminist movement, the African-American civil rights movement and the LGBT rights movement. The creators of a series of over 150 interviews with original ACT UP activists, they've put ACT UP in the halls of the New York and San Francisco Public Libraries, inspired Palestinian activists, and ignited a new generation of students who didn't know you can fight the system.

Read other articles in this spotlight series.

Jim Hubbard

Jim Hubbard

Can you give us a quick "oral history" of the ACT UP Oral History Project?

Actually, the ACTUP Oral History Project is my day job. It took me 25 years to figure out how to do it, but I'm paid to be a filmmaker. Not getting rich, but it pays the mortgage and buys food.

The ACT UP Oral History Project began in June of 2001. It was the 20th anniversary of AIDS. I got a frantic phone call from Sarah. She was in L.A., she was driving in a car and listening to the radio and heard this radio broadcast that was in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of AIDS. Essentially, it said, "At first, Americans were upset by AIDS, and then they got used to it."

Sarah said, "We have to do something about this incredible erasure of the entire history of AIDS activism, and the work of those thousands of people who forced the U.S. government to deal with the AIDS epidemic, and changed the way the mainstream media portrayed people with AIDS and the epidemic, and got AIDS into the consciousness of Americans." It wasn't a passive process, and they weren't nice about it. This country had to be forced to deal with the crisis.


We started talking about it and decided that the best way to preserve and to tell the history of AIDS activism and ACT UP -- I think we decided to focus on ACT UP because we were involved and it was the most effective of the AIDS activist groups -- was to let the people involved tell their own stories and their own history.

One of the most important tenets of the AIDS activist movement is that people with AIDS and people in the trenches fighting the epidemic with them were the true experts on AIDS. So, we created this mechanism for them to tell their own stories. We've done 154 interviews now. They range in length from an hour to four hours long. There are complete transcripts and short video clips from 108 of the interviews on the website,, and ultimately all the interviews will be up there. In fact, all the video of the interviews in their entirety will be on the Internet for anyone to view.

Whose interview was four hours? Whose was the longest?

There is kind of a tie for longest interviews. Richard Elovich, Maxine Wolfe, Tom Kalin, and Avram Finkelstein, and Zoe Leonard is kind of a close second. There are a number of people who just have so much to say. That's the amazing thing about these interviews, is that they are continually fascinating. There's always new information, and they're not padded. It's just filled with information, with stories, with analyses of what happened. It's just an incredible intellectual process.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
Coverage of the 30th Anniversary of AIDS
20 Years of Magic: How One Man's HIV Disclosure Inspired Others
More on the History of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

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