October 24 2002 12:00 AM ET
New Yorker Maer Roshan writes about the early days of the
group that redefined street activism
Advocate, November 12, 2002
Had Nora Ephron
not fallen ill on March 10, 1987, it’s safe to say
that the course of gay rights may have been set back
by at least 10 years. But as it turns out, hours
before she was to address an overflow crowd at New
York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center, Ephron, the
author of When Harry Met Sally…, came down with
the flu. Larry Kramer, the author of Faggots, was
recruited to speak in her place.
depressed about AIDS, Kramer used the occasion to issue his
now-famous jihad, exhorting the city’s gay community
to rise out of its apathy to fight a plague that had
already snuffed out 5,500 New Yorkers. Electrified by
Kramer’s performance, a group of activists formed the
AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power that night, and within
months its Tuesday night meetings at the center became
the hottest ticket in town. Hundreds of young men and
women packed the room each week in crisp white T-shirts
and inescapable "silence = death" pins, the new uniform of
the radically chic. Kramer paced the floor like a
cornered general, railing against enemies from Ronald
Reagan to the pope. Sweating under the harsh
fluorescent lights, he worked the crowd to a fever pitch
before falling limply to his seat.
we going to do?” he concluded one week in a hoarse
whisper. Suddenly, a slight woman in back stood up and
shrieked, “Act up! Fight Back! Fight
AIDS!” The entire crowd was on its feet. Next to me,
a hollow-cheeked acquaintance struggled up from his
wheelchair and joined the chorus, pumping a fist
joyfully in the air. He was just 30, and two months
later he was dead. ACT UP, however, lived on.
By the end of the
decade the group had spawned 100 chapters worldwide,
shrewdly melding politics with performance art to court a
steady stream of press. Among its successes, ACT UP
forced companies to speed up the process that put
drugs into the hands of desperate patients, led the
charge against drug-company price gouging, and demanded
reform from an arrogant medical establishment. By
exporting the group’s message from gay ghettos
to hetero bastions such as Shea Stadium and the New York
Stock Exchange, it forced straight Americans to
confront not only AIDS but also homosexuality.
Roshan is the former deputy editor of New York
magazine and editorial director of Talk.
He is now launching a new magazine called
Tongues Untied and Paris Is Burning
Film historian and producer Jenni Olson remembers two
landmark documentaries on the black gay experience
Advocate, November 12, 2002
theatrically in August of 1991, Jennie Livingston’s
groundbreaking exploration of the Harlem House Ball circuit,
Paris Is Burning, made visible a gay black
and Latino subculture that was swiftly appropriated by
the mainstream. More important, Paris Is
Burning made gay men of color visible to themselves on
the big screen, and the film served as a vitally
important conduit of culture.
Stepping into the
limelight at roughly the same time was Marlon Riggs’s
powerful personal documentary on black gay identity,
Tongues Untied. Vito Russo, writing in
The Advocate, celebrated the video as
“a brilliant, innovative work of art that delivers a
knockout political punch.” Tongues
Untied is an unparalleled example of personal,
experimental documentary filmmaking and is as inspiring
today as it was then.
Olson is a director, producer, and the editor of the
Ultimate Guide to Lesbian & Gay Film and Video.
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