ACT-UP: For what reasons did it form? What was its structure and mode of action? How did it succeed or fail? What criticisms were made of it (from outside and from within)? What affects and values does it share with any of the queer theories we have read?

Larry Kramer

NEW YORK – JUNE 6: Larry Kramer at Village Voice AIDS conference on June 6, 1987 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

What reasons did it form?

Act-Up’s birth

The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP) formed in March of 1987 by the gay community of New York City. They were determined to finding a treatment for HIV. At that time, government and politicians were either ignoring the AIDS crisis or were finding ways to isolate AIDS victims, which would then put them even more at risk Right wing officials used the AIDS Crisis to advance their homophobic platforms, using this crisis as proof of the sin and danger of homosexuality and homosexuals themselves. Refusing to be ignored any longer, the ACT-UP group formed to let people know they were there and needed help

The first meeting was on March 12, 1987 after a group of 200 mostly white gay men heard the playwright, Larry Kramer, give a speech at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center two nights prior. They were inspired by his speech and spoke with him afterwards about forming an AIDS activist group.

2 weeks later on March 24, 1987 ACT-UP held its first “demonstration” at the Food and Drug Administration’s drug approval process along with profiteering of pharmaceutical companies

Larry Kramer – Founder of ACT-UP

Beginning as a writer who wrote pieces that scratched the surface of the problem, he saw his pieces on the AIDS issue being made fun of and not taken seriously. He knew he had to speak even louder for people to hear what was happening to the gay community. Kramer formed the group ACT-UP enraged by the lack of action being taken to solve this “plague” and decided to keep shouting no matter how many people told him to shut up.

In 1983, he wrote a very terrifying piece that showed the reality of the plague the world was living in called “1,112 and Counting”. It described in detail the disease, what it did and how many were dying because so many people were trying to ignore this crisis.

Today, Kramer still believes that even though ACT-UP achieved such great goals, we still have very far to go. He believes the gay community needs to stay loud so that they won’t go back into “hiding”

What was its structure/mode of action


ACT-UP is a decentralized network of locally autonomous chapters in US, Canada, Australia, and Europe (OUT in DC, MASS ACT OUT in Boston, GUTS in Dallas). Act-Up is highly inclusive, anyone in battle against HIV/AIDS is welcomed.

Peaked in 1991: 113 chapters worldwide.

Modes of Action

Civil Disobedience

  • Engaged in demonstrations to disrupt certain organizations and to bring attention to HIV/AIDS struggle
  • 24 March 1987, first demonstration targeted FDA’s sluggish drug approval process
    • hundreds of activists stopped traffic on Wall Street, 17 arrested

Street Theater

  • Die-ins: some participants ‘died’ while others outlined bodies in white chalk
  • Dumped coffin fulls of cremated ashes of AIDS victims
  • Kiss-ins meant to grab attention and address homophobia


  • Sex-radical, queer-positive sexual politics
  • Challenged homophobia and stereotypes about AIDS


  • Pressured FDA and others for changes in health care delivery, drug testing and approval
  • Increased awareness of and funds for HIV/AIDS
  • Gained control of and disseminated medical knowledge

What criticisms were made?

Even if ACT-UP played a significant role in the emergence of a LGBT movement by making LGBT people conscient of their power, ACT-UP has been criticized for a lot of reason. One of the most important criticisms that some made against ACT-UP is linked with its modes of action. Was ACT-UP too violent at the expense of its goals?

A problem of strategy?

Radicality sometimes rhymes with minority. Contrary to nowadays, the LGBT community was deeply out of the political discussion. It was not an issue for a large part society to have LGBT people dying of AIDS or being discriminated. Some posterior critics have underlined the fact that ACT-UP, by only acting with subversive spectacular actions that deeply questions the statu quo about LGBT community and AIDS, has no chance to convince people. On the contrary, its radicality—which reflects the urge of the situation—does not speak to the heteronormative society which, at most, tolerates gay people. In his 2009 book Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS, the scholar Deborah B. Gould says that for some ACT-UP mode of action was too confrontational, maybe too subversive.

Even within ACT-UP, certains actions have been criticized. For example, the 1989 “Stop the church” protest in St.Patrick’s Cathedral was seen as too violent, even if this violence could be justified in regard to the homophobic and reckless positions of the Church against LGBT and condoms. Such action has certainly been making the headlines of the media, but was it good for the LGBT community? Maybe in France. Certainly not in America where the critique of religion is a sensitive topic.

Nevertheless, ACT-UP spectacular actions also bring the LGBT community to the media issues. Thus, ACT-UP strategy could be seen as the lesser evil in a society were LGBT issues are not discussed.

Radicality as a principle

In her 2013 essay Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics, the LGBT activist Urvashi Vaid argues for a queer movement that would accept some ideological compromises with the libertarian right-wing in order to make the LGBT agenda move quickly forward. I think that we can say that ACT-UP’s principle of radicality make this kind of strategy. If this radicality can be said relevant because it tries to create another kind of space or democracy where the LGBT community would be included, it could also lead to a kind of inefficiency. As Geoffrey W. Bateman concludes his 2004 article about ACT-UP published in the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, ACT-UP was weak because of “its decentralized authority, chaotic processes, and predominant identification with white gay male culture limited its successes to some degree. Nevertheless, these same critics agree that its political accomplishments were considerable and that it brought innovation and flexibility to AIDS activism. As Nancy Stoller concludes, ‘Despite its limitations . . . ACT UP is the most significant direct-action organization to emerge from the epidemic.’”

As Geoffrey W. Bateman summarizes the structure of ACT-UP is not really efficient to a national level. As we saw in the US or in France, ACT-UP was almost only active in the urban areas. Craig Rimmerman remarks in his 2001 book From identity to Politics that the weekly meetings that the kind of direct democracy ACT-UP tries to built in its inside forced people to be as professional activists. Who can be a professional activist? Not everyone and most definitely not LGBT of the working class. This problem is a significant one. Let us remember that LGBT people are already a minority in the large population. If you ask this already discriminated minority to be always active, you will surely form a non-representative organization where only white gay men living in the big city can be active.

There is also another problem: ACT-UP is “united in anger” “for life.” But is anger something sufficient to unite the LGBT community? Another moto of ACT-UP is “act up for life.” Is it enough to bring people together? Today, ACT-UP suffers from a de-politization of the LGBT community. For example, in 2009, ACT-UP Paris only has 127 members and 5 employees. Isn’t it caused by a problem of communication in the LGBT community, especially today where a large part of the LGBT community thinks that the AIDS crisis is ended?

Furthermore, I want to straight a difficulty of being radical. If you maintains radical ideas, you should live as a radical. Firstly: who can be perfect? Secondly: the way of criticizing and subverting the world can also be seen as an attack. As Oliver Davis says in his 2015 article called Leading by example, ACT-UP Paris campaign against unsafe sex has been interpreted inside the gay community as an attack. Indeed, ACT-UP Paris decided to lead an operation against two writers, Guillaume Dustan and Erik Rémès, of semi-autobiographical fiction closely associated with unsafe sex in France at the turn of the 21st century. The personalization of the attack and the kind of “pointing the finger” attitude were deeply criticized and even qualified by some members of the LGBT community as a kind of “latent ‘fascism’.”

Too white, too gay, too urban?

One of the key critique of ACT-UP was its homogeneity. In 2001, French sociologists Olivier Fillieule et Christophe Broqua studied Act-Up Paris composition. Amongst them, two thirds were young men, 88 % of these men were bisexual or gay.  Amongst the third of women activists, one third was bisexual or lesbian. Finally, 20 % of the activists were infected by AIDS. In other words, the large majority of the association was gay and urbanized. Another interesting fact is that more than two thirds of the activists were administrative workers, technicians, associate professionals, managers or intellectuals. In other words, the ACT-UP activists were neither representative of the whole population nor of the LGBT community. If we add the fact that, according to Fillieule and Broqua, the large part of these activists belong to the radical left, we can presumably assert that the ACT-UP composition was not representative. I don’t have the numbers of the racial composition because such a kind of study is forbidden in France, but I can assume, as ACT-UP Paris photographs show, that the large body of ACT UP Paris was composed by white men. The composition of ACT UP groups in the United States is apparently comparable.

Sometimes, the criticisms are stronger. The gay activist Alan Robinson is quoted in 1993 Michael Hunter’s Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. Alan Robinson says that he thinks he experienced racism in ACT-UP. Deborah Gould qualifies the argument by saying that it can be said that ACT-UP was racist because it was majority composed by white gay men and that the voice of activist of color was not taking in consideration.

Let me add something before moving to last part of our presentation. Even if ACT UP is an international organization, its groups are almost only present in cities of the Western world. Almost no groups in Africa, in Eastern Europe, in South America or in Asia.

Despite all these criticisms, I thing that we can say, as Deborah B. Gould says, that “[ACT-UP] was a place to elaborate critiques of the status quo, to imagine alternative worlds, to express anger, to defy authority, to form sexual and other intimacies, to practice non-hierarchical governance and self-determination, to argue with one another, to refashion identities, to experience new feelings, to be changed” That leads us to speak about ACT-UP connection to queer theories

Connection to queer theories?

ACT-UP connection to queer theories is not really direct. I mean: there is no theory of queer that ACT-UP decided to developed. But some ACT-UP activists became queer theorists in their life. ACT-UP was definitively important for spreading and popularizing the word “queer” amongst the LGBT community. In 1990, ACT-UP organized the first “Queer Night Out.” By “queer,” ACT-UP means all people who do not identified as the majority of the population. In other words, the word “queer” became an identity label that denounces and also asserts a new inclusive identity. So we can draw a connection between this urge of explaining why non-heteronormative people were discriminated and this new identification of being different, that is being queer. So queer becomes a positive term. In her article “Life During Wartime,” Deborah B. Gould asserts that: “ACT UP not only inaugurated a new era in lesbian and gay politics and in AIDS activism, it also was the site from which a new, queer sensibility emerged and took hold, a sensibility that was embraced by lesbians, gay men, and other sexual and gender outlaws across the country. Queer wove together the new emotional habitus and the movement’s oppositional politics and sex-radicalism, creating a collectivity that set queer-identified folks apart from the more establishment-oriented gay leadership and institutions. Rather than an identity, or even an anti-identity, in the way that queer theory posits, queer, in its moment of rebirth circa 1990, might best be understood as an emotive, an expression of…fury and pride about gay difference and about confrontational activism, antipathy toward heteronormative society, and aspirations to live in a transformed world. It validated those who held radical politics, who refused assimilation, and who celebrated sexual difference. Eliciting and fortifying a fierce pride in bucking political, emotional, and sexual norms, queer exerted a strong affective pull that enticed thousands to adopt the label and to support the movement out of which it emerged.”

We can also draw another connection to queer theories. ACT-UP activists experienced a certain relationship to bodies, illness, powerlessness, death, anger and losses. It seems, then, natural that people developed theories about these significant feelings or facts.

Download the powerpoint

I think that this presentation was good. I would be more accurate, though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s