Last February the members of ACT UP Golden Gate voted to change its name to "Survive AIDS!" They changed their name to put an end to growing confusion in the community between ACT UP Golden Gate and a group of people using the name "ACT UP San Francisco." A little background history is needed to set the context for this decision. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) began in 1987 in New York City, and was the foundation of the AIDS direct action movement and a catalyst for changing the way the public, the medical establishment, and the government responded to the AIDS crisis. Using direct action and civil disobedience, ACT UP chapters throughout the country made enormous strides for patients rights.
In San Francisco, ACT UP Golden Gate split from the original ACT UP San Francisco in 1990. ACT UP Golden Gate concentrated on issues involving treatment and treatment access, while ACT UP San Francisco focused on broader social issues involving public policy and politics. Over the next several years the two ACT UP chapters worked separately or together on local and national AIDS issues.
By the late '90s, ACT UP San Francisco developed a very different philosophy concerning AIDS treatment and began to align itself with groups that believe HIV does not cause AIDS and that it is the use of anti-HIV medications which make people get sick and die. ACT UP San Francisco members are now called "AIDS dissidents" because of views like these: antiretroviral drugs are harmful; safer sex is unnecessary; animal testing of medical therapies is unethical; HIV is not the cause of AIDS.
As you might guess, ACT UP San Francisco's views have led to frequent and sometimes violent conflicts with other activists, AIDS service organizations and medical researchers. ACT UP San Francisco's targets have included national ACT UP founder Larry Kramer and the Bay Area's other ACT UP group, ACT UP Golden Gate, which accepts the theory that HIV causes AIDS. ACT UP SF has outraged lots of people in the gay and AIDS communities. Like when ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk dumped used cat litter onto the head of San Francisco AIDS Foundation Executive Director Pat Christen at a public forum in 1996.
Not surprisingly, ACT UP SF's tactics have mostly undermined their credibility, but they continue to spread their message by posting flyers, spray-painting sidewalks, placing newspaper advertisements urging people to "challenge the HIV myth," and holding community forums with titles like "Rethinking AIDS: From Tragedy to Triumph," that sometimes draw as many as 90 people and typically consist of a panel of so-called experts (discredited scientists, researchers or doctors who share the common belief that "the collection of illnesses grouped together and called AIDS is not caused by a virus.")
Although ACT UP SF is the most visible group of dissidents, other groups (some with overlapping memberships) also question the authenticity of AIDS. These groups include ACT UP Hollywood, HEAL San Francisco, and Alive and Well, formerly known as HEAL Los Angeles. Members of these groups have claimed that the AIDS epidemic is over -- if indeed it ever existed -- and that the world would be better off if people stopped using protease inhibitors and other HIV medications. Disagree with them and run the risk of being shouted down, intimidated and driven out of the group. With the original ACT UP mission destroyed and abandoned, long-term members have been forced to move along, regroup or mutate into other organizations like ACT UP Golden Gate's "Survive AIDS!"
So often, it's easy for us to say, "Oh, those crazy California folks!" After all, isn't this the same state that gave us the Manson Family, the Unabomber, the O.J. trial and the Heaven's Gate cult (whose 39 members committed mass suicide in March 1997, believing their spirits would join a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet)? Well, AIDS dissidents aren't just a bizarre quirk of California activism anymore.
On the opposite coast, the latest incarnation of ACT UP Atlanta has begun its very own public gutting of that chapter's original mission. Looking for examples between the "old" ACT UP Atlanta and the "new" one? ACT UP Atlanta was formed in 1988, organized dozens of protests and highly publicized actions at institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and the state capital in an effort to raise awareness about AIDS and the need for funding, education and faster research. The "new" ACT UP Atlanta has aligned itself with the AIDS dissident groups in San Francisco and Hollywood (who explicitly state they believe HIV does not cause AIDS and is not a health emergency) and signed onto an ad placed in the Congressional Record in June calling on Congress to cut all funding for AIDS programs.
It saddens me to observe the decline and utter bastardization of ACT UP Atlanta. Several of its original members are friends and acquaintances of mine and have publicly denounced this current manifestation. This new ACT UP Atlanta is not improved, not progressive and certainly not worthy of its predecessor's deserved reputation for aggressive advocacy. In fact, the new ACT UP could do us all a favor and simply SHUT UP. All these dissident chapters of ACT UP are about as effective at convincing us that HIV does not cause AIDS as the National Rifle Association is at persuading us that we don't have a gun problem in this country. This really isn't about dissension at all; it's about denial. These people are in rabid, certifiable denial. They are, in fact, rebels without a clue.
Some basic research, like reading, provides ample evidence that AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Check out: www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/evidhiv.htm or hivinsite.ucsf.edu/social/spotlight/2098.3cce.html. It's there.
Now take a look at dissident claims that "the use of anti-HIV medications make people get sick and die." I can respond to this bit of absurdist nonsense from my own personal history. I was infected with HIV in 1993. I took no drugs whatsoever (not AZT, not a single prophylaxis) from the time I seroconverted, until August 4, 1997, when I was hospitalized with 81 T-cells and a kick-ass case of pneumocystis pneumonia. At that time I was given Bactrim, a common antibiotic. I did not begin HIV drug therapy until almost two months later. I developed AIDS and almost died before I ever put an HIV-related drug in my body. I sit here now in front of a computer keyboard, with lots of HIV medications and various prophylactic treatments coursing through my veins, living proof that the dissident theory is a loopy pile of "X-Files" conspiracy crap.
All social movements evolve over time, and the AIDS movement has been through some dramatic transformations. ACT UP used to have a simple mission: help people survive with HIV until there is a cure. The tragedy here is that AIDS dissidents have such problems grasping the basics. HIV is an ugly fact of life, yet they appear to believe they can shout or intimidate it out of existence by denying its presence in mankind. I'm embarrassed for these half-baked loudmouths, because they are the AIDS community's equivalent of all those pathetic, public irritants who end up as guests on the "Jerry Springer" show.