GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12.2 (2006) 303-317
[Access article in PDF]
While post–baby boomer leftists have long idealized the Vietnam protests they missed, I have a similarly nostalgic admiration for ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. As someone who grew up in the age of AIDS but came out during a time of political burnout and, soon thereafter, the introduction of protease inhibitors and the rise of postgay discourses, ACT UP's actions were the domain of a prior generation. But its history has influenced my political and sexual identity formations nonetheless. I know that I romanticize ACT UP—to the extent that this queer political past has informed even my expectations and experiences in the recent wave of anti-Bush activism. In writing this essay, I have attempted to articulate the inspiration I have drawn from recent retrospective projects on AIDS activism and my nostalgia for a previously radical queer community.
With chapters across the United States and, to some extent, around the world, ACT UP took to the streets with resistant, nonviolent tactics, postmodern wit, and fabulous design. Today, ACT UP chapters continue to protest for prison HIV prevention and against America's insufficient role in global medical treatment, but the group is best known for its late 1980s and early 1990s actions in New York City, the Capitol, and the National Institutes of Health.1 Significantly, the crest of AIDS activism coincided with the accessibility and affordability of home video equipment, making a new kind of video activism and community education possible.2 Although there is a long history of social movements making use of media for publicity and records, ACT UP was one of the first activist contingents to rely on home video for educational, documentary, and legal purposes. It comprised several affinity groups of video producers, such as DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), whose initial mission was countersurveillance of the police to prevent and document punitive violence and evidence-planting during protests.3 [End Page 303]
A comprehensive collection of ACT UP and other AIDS videotapes has been preserved as part of the Royal S. Marks special collection at the New York Public Library.4 James Wentzy, a longtime ACT UP/New York member and video artist, worked on the project by remastering the tapes; he subsequently edited a special ACT UP fifteenth-anniversary compilation video titled Fight Back, Fight AIDS: Fifteen Years of ACT UP (2002) for MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival. Wentzy's seventy-five-minute video culled highlights from video recordings of meetings and actions, from 1987 to 2002.5 A history of activism specifically rather than of AIDS more generally, Fight Back, Fight AIDS is composed of powerful moments intended for an audience familiar with the group and its history. Without voice-over narration or text for contextual overviews, the video plays almost like footage direct from the activist front with only occasional titles specifying the events' dates and locations. The documentation suggests the social and personal dimensions of ACT UP by portraying meetings, songs, pep talks, chants, and demonstrations; these moments reflect ACT UP's history of actions and queer community-building. Video footage of AIDS activism, which records not only political events but also the passion and personal connections behind them, allows affective historical access for subsequent generations of queers and activists.
In writing on structures of feeling in found-footage AIDS videos, Roger Hallas described a cinephilic strain of gay media as a "cinema of moments."6 Wentzy's video compilation functions similarly, culling flashes from ACT UP's past and productions. Fight Back, Fight AIDS features documents of ACT UP's most famous actions: civil disobedience and arrests at the group's first action on Wall Street (1987); Vito Russo's speech during the Nine Days of Protest in Albany (1988); spirited chant practices at a packed LGBT Community Center before Target City Hall (1989); Tony Molinari's "Storm the NIH" rap (1989); the Day of Desperation takeover of Grand Central Station (1989); activists...