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Lesbians in ACT UP Like Ann Northrop Saved Gay Lives

Ann Northrop Act Up

This interview was conducted as part of the interview series LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.

Ann Northrop had been a part of the early feminist and antiwar movements, protesting against inequality and the Vietnam War, so when she walked into her first ACT UP meeting on a Monday night in February of 1988, she felt immediately at home. "Oh my god, these are my people," she remembers thinking. "These are the cranky individualists who are really too weird to be part of normal society and they're here doing civil disobedience and direct action."

While men tend to be the overwhelming face of the AIDS epidemic, women like Northrop served integral roles within ACT UP. "It was one of the only rooms of men that I could walk into where the men were asking the women for instruction and help and asking actively to be taught feminist values." With a background working in national news, Northrop quickly began training members on how to work with members of the media to publicize their message and work. 

Northrop recently sat down for the 150th episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast to talk about her work in ACT UP, how the controversial Stop The Church protest was ultimately a success, and why for the most marginalized members of the community, the crisis is ongoing

Read hights below and click here to listen to the full podcast.

Jeffrey Masters: When we talk about ACT UP or the AIDS crisis, we most often think about men. Did you feel welcome as a woman in ACT UP?

Ann Northrop: There are very few places in the world where I don't feel welcome because it just doesn't occur to me not to. There were plenty of women there. It was a great mix of people and the core were certainly gay men who were personally threatened, many of them living with HIV or afraid of acquiring it, and they were there to save their own lives.

I sometimes say that ACT UP started and was successful because it was gay men who thought they had privilege, were shocked to find out they didn't because suddenly people weren't caring about saving their lives, and were arrogant and angry enough to do something about it. There are a lot of communities under attack who are not empowered in the same way that those men felt empowered. A lot of them came out of good jobs, middle or upper-middle-class lives, and they were the people who felt they could fight back.

JM: How visible were people of color in ACT UP?

AN: There were a lot of people of color and people who came from less privileged backgrounds. But this core leadership, I think, were people who did feel empowered to fight back. 

One thing I like to say about ACT UP when people say, "What were you doing there in a room of predominantly men?" And I say it was one of the only rooms of men that I could walk into where the men were asking the women for instruction and help and asking actively to be taught feminist values — direct action techniques and values. It was really a room full of love and mutual respect for many years. And that was thrilling.

JM: We hear about current movements stealing strategies from ACT UP and I always wondered who ACT UP was stealing from.

AN: From Anti-war movements, from the Civil Rights movement, from Feminist movements. It has been a process of leapfrogging each other along the way and the right-wing is part of that too. They have learned techniques from us. We have learned techniques from them.

JM: You say ACT UP was successful because of the anger coming from this core group who once thought they had power. I always assumed it had to more to do with the fact that their goals were specific and measurable.

AN: That's true. But I think it was the fearlessness about confronting and shaming people in power publicly that forced these issues to be dealt with. The movement needs people coming at people in power from every angle.

We need lobbyists. We need people on the inside working. We need people who are donors. We need people who will write their members of Congress, but we need people out in the streets who will raise issues honestly and directly and shame people in power when they don't do the right thing.

JM: Forever you’ve said that it's not an activist's job to be liked. It’s your job to get something accomplished with a specific issue. Today, I see people overly concerned with being liked.

AN: Well, most of the population historically wants to be liked and there are times when I've been frustrated that more people weren't engaging in direct action.

Then it became clear to me that, in fact, there's only a finite part of the population that's ever going to do that. It’s unrealistic to think that the population as a whole is going to rise up, although why we're not all out in the streets burning down the White House right now is a mystery to me, certainly—without literally arguing for that because I'm not looking for violence.

But what ended the Vietnam War was millions of people getting out into the street and demanding that it end. I don't see millions of people in the street now demanding that the horrors that we face now. And I am hoping that those millions of people are sitting home at the moment are getting themselves revved up to go to the polls in the fall.

But whether it's an unwillingness to be unliked or what, I don't know, but I want to see more action.

Ann Northrop Act Up

JM: One of ACT UP’s most famous and controversial actions where you were arrested and convicted of four misdemeanors was at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Stop The Church action in 1989.

Can you explain why that action made both queer and straight people so upset?

AN: Yes, I can. Thank you for putting it that way.

JM: Why are you laughing?

AN: Well, because it did and it's not always put exactly the way you've put it. So I'm amused and appreciative of that analysis. It's an action that was dear to my heart, so I love talking about it.

We were mad because the Catholic Archdiocese in New York City had a seat on the Public School Curriculum Committee that talked about sex education in the schools and health education. We thought that was completely inappropriate, not to mention everything they were doing on an ongoing basis against women's reproductive rights.

We decided that, as we did with other things, we wanted to confront them publicly. So we planned this Stop The Church demonstration. The idea was to have thousands of people in the street, outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, and for some of us to go inside to do what was supposed to be a very controlled, dignified demonstration. It didn't turn out that way. And mostly, it didn't turn out that way because one of our members, Michael Petrelis, a wonderful activist who is extremely controversial, he decided that was all too stayed and that we should be much more outrageous.

First of all, we debated within ACT UP for months about whether or not we should do this, whether it would make us hated forever, whether it was appropriate to go into the cathedral to stage an action. 

I was part of a group that was going to lie silently in the middle aisle of the cathedral. Then there was another group that was going to stand and read a statement that was very serious and not inflammatory. We talked about when we were going to do all this, not during the most religious parts of the service, but when the Cardinal was giving his sermon and we thought that was more of just a speech part, not a religious part.

JM: This was incredibly well-thought-out.

AN: Oh, yes. We were a smart group that thought a lot about things. And this is the kind of planning that went into everything. We would research an issue, figure out what our opinion was, go to the people in power, ask them to make a change that we thought was needed, and only if they refused would we then do any kind of demonstration. We were not crazies. We were smart people and who, as we often said, knew more than the scientists about the epidemic and certainly the politicians.

We planned all this out for St. Patrick's [Cathedral] and we were very public about it. So when we got there that Sunday morning in December of 1989, the cathedral was closed. They brought in bomb-sniffing dogs, many police both uniform and plainclothes. The mayor showed up, Ed Koch, to defend the Cardinal.

I stood outside, we were all in plain clothes as if dressed for church to go inside. And so we were in a crowd outside waiting to be let in. And I was standing there with Peter Staley. We were pretending to be a couple. It was very scary, very scary. But eventually, we got in, they couldn't ID us because we weren't wearing ACT UP T-shirts and we scattered around the cathedral and when the appointed time came, those of us who were going to lie in the middle aisle got up and moved there.

And Michael Petrelis stood on a Pew and started screaming at the Cardinal, "You're a murderer. You're a murderer."

The entire place erupted in screaming and yelling and people throwing things at us and the parishioners were furious and were trying to get at all of us. I thought I was going to die. I'm lying in the center aisle of the cathedral silently, and I'm sure I'm going to be trampled to death by all these people.

Eventually, the cops came in with orange stretchers and one by one picked us up and carried us out. I happened to be the last person carried out, and by that time, everything had calmed down and was silent. So I started saying, and it was ringing through the cathedral, "We're fighting for your lives, too. We're fighting for your lives, too," which I hoped would be effective. Maybe, maybe not. But they got us all out of there. They took us off to the police precincts.

I like to say I got home to watch the second half of the Giants/Broncos game.

JM: You had multiple priorities.

AN: Life is rich. You have to do different things.

But meanwhile, some had stayed behind, and the thing that happened then was that as the mass resumed and the communion was happening, one of our members went up to take communion, Tom Kean, and as he was handed the wafer, he was just so angry at the church and everything they were doing and killing his friends and all of that, that he just spontaneously crumbled the wafer in his hand and let it drop to the floor.

For many years thereafter, I was asked about that action by people who hated that we had done that and thought it was completely inappropriate. But I knew what had happened and I had complete confidence that we had done the right thing.

One of our members was a guy named Gabriel Rotello, who's now a producer in Hollywood. His mother lived in Danbury, Connecticut and shortly after the demonstration when it was just a firestorm of negative publicity around the world, he talked to her on the phone and she said to him, "My friends and I in Danbury had been talking about this and we've reached a conclusion. And that is that before this, we thought gay men were weak and wimpy, but now we know that gay men are strong and angry."

And I thought, "Bingo, that's exactly what we would have wanted to accomplish."

JM: That's a massive change in the public perception of gay men. Did that also encompass queer women?

AN: Well, I think we've all ridden this train together and at various speeds, at various times, whether you want to look at Ellen or whatever you think of Pete Buttigieg and I have mixed feelings. His success in running for president and being seen as a viable candidate is astonishing. For this to happen in my lifetime is something I could never have predicted and six months ago would not have believed could happen.

act up

JM: Was there pride or competition amongst ACT UP members at how many times you were arrested?

AN: There was some of that and there was some sort of jovial contempt for those who haven't been arrested, but never in a way that was a serious problem.

JM: Before ACT UP, you worked for Good Morning America and CBS Morning News and you used those skills to help ACT UP manipulate the media. Was it apparent right away that you’d be useful in that way?

AN: Instantly, because I had worked in mainstream news and when I came into ACT UP, I could see that the issue was to publicize this stuff. I had become disgusted with the mainstream news media and knew how ignorant they were and I would say to the activists, "All right, I'm going to train you. The first two words you have to know are ignorant and arrogant. They know nothing. They think they know everything."

JM: If a journalist doesn’t know anything, does that help or hurt you?

AN: Both, is the real answer. It gives you a great opportunity to educate them and to control the conversation, but you have to be on your game to know how to do that.

You have to know that when you go to a demonstration, they only know one question to ask, which is, "Why are you here?" But they don't know the issue. And so I taught activists how to flatter journalists, how to interview them before they interview you to find out who else they're talking to, to try to guide them to different sources. I taught them not to worry about their own soundbites, but to worry about the story as a whole. Really what you should be doing is helping the reporter understand the story in the way you want them to, rather than worrying about whether or not you're going to be quoted.

JM: How helpful were queer journalists working at news outlets?

AN: Oh, not at all. Because if they're working at those organizations, their priority is to maintain their jobs at those organizations. Now that's a vast overgeneralization and not entirely fair. Often the queer journalists in the mainstream organizations didn't want to be accused by their bosses of being on your side. So they were more standoffish, less available. 

JM: We’ve been talking about the 80s and 90s, but HIV has not gone away. One of the latest stats show that one in two black men will get HIV in their lifetime. 

AN:  And they used to say that about all gay men. There have certainly been improvements but not across the board. There are particular populations that are still very much at risk and not being effectively taken care of.

It is shocking to me that anyone gets infected these days, how desperately have we failed to do the necessary education to provide the tools. All of that has been so lacking and we're still letting people get infected and die because we're still uncomfortable with these issues.

JM: In 2003, you said that you believed the majority of people with HIV don't know they had HIV. Do you still think that's the case?

AN: To me the real answer is, I don't know. And I don't know how we think we know.

If we're not testing everybody...how do we think we know the people who don't know they have it? If they don't know they have it, how do we know they have it or don't have it? I just think it's a made-up statistic that every time I hear things like, "Well, two-thirds of the people who have it know they have it, but a third don't know." I ask, how did you come to that statistic? It's a mystery to me.

I think we have documented some real advances and more and more are on PrEP. More and more are untransmittable. I think it is a mistake to think we know everything and I think until we get to really universal routine testing, we will not know the full dimensions of the epidemic.

[Click here to listen to the full podcast with Ann Northrop.]

Ann Northrop and Andy Humm co-host the show, GAY USA, which has aired weekly since 1985.

New episodes of the LGBTQ&A podcast come out every Tuesday on the Luminary app. 

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