AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP or ACT-UP) is an LGBTQ activist group that promoted direct action (dramatic performance of public confrontation) to get its message spread through news media outlets on behalf of people with AIDS. ACT UP arose in response to the silence of the American government and religious leaders concerning the growing AIDS crisis. The group was founded in 1987 in New York City and quickly spread to other cities, such as Paris, Sydney, Chicago, Oberlin (Ohio), Salt Lake City, and Asbury Park (New Jersey).
Performance of the Transgressive
ACT UP is primarily known for its protests. Many of their early actions had a direct impact on AIDS policy and changed the way in which drugs receive Food and Drug Administration’s approval. The group also held direct action events in the New York Stock Market, The NYC General Post Office, and in front of the NYC offices for Cosmopolitan magazine for publishing an article assuring women they could not get AIDS from men while having unprotected sex.
One event in particular caught the attention of people across the USA: ACT UP’s direct action at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 as part of their Stop the Church protest. ACT UP protested during Sunday mass. Members chanted and lay in the aisles of the cathedral, and a disgruntled Catholic protester threw a consecrated host (wafer transubstantiated into the body of Christ, sacred to Roman Catholics) to the floor. Over a hundred activists were arrested.
For a more humorous and campy street theater performance, the freedom bed was developed in Chicago. A bed would be brought to the site of a protest, and various skits involving same-sex erotic behavior on the bed surrounded by stereotypical villains such as Bible-wielding ministers, local politicians, and a pope.
ACT UP Folkways
Most meetings would begin with the facilitator (if a woman, this person was also sometimes called facilitrix) announcing “ACT UP is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” The meetings themselves were designed to be anarchic in nature, and most chapters do not have leadership in any permanent sense. To outsiders, they might seem chaotic, with agendas set as the meetings progress, and people yelling “Focus!” when the group gets off-subject or too many people start talking at once.
Slogans figure prominently in any description of ACT UP folkways. Here are some examples:
ACT UP, fight back, fight AIDS
One billion dollars
Big deal (used in reference to the release of only one drug, AZT, to treat AIDS in the early years of the epidemic)
Fuck, fuck, fuck with us
We’re going to fuck, fuck, fuck with you
Hippa, hippa, hypocrite
Full of, full of, full of shit (usually directed at a specific person)
Other chants were less confrontational and even campy, demonstrating the performance of humor as well as anger:
We’re not going shopping
Your gloves don’t match your shoes
They’ll see it on the news
Direct action strategies included an established activist folkway known as the zap, a protest event quickly put together to aggravate a chosen target, in contrast with an ordinary protest in which preparations may take place many months in advance.
One favorite zap was the die-in, a variation of the sit-in (takeover of buildings by protestors who sit down and refuse to leave). On cue, activists would silently collapse and lie prone as other activists outlined the bodies with chalk. The kiss-in was a more blatantly Queer variant, with same-sex couples kissing en masse. Kiss-ins would be used by other LGBTQ activist groups to protest organizations such as the Promise Keepers (a Christian men’s group) in 2001, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 2009, after two men were arrested on the grounds of the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City for kissing each other in public.
Zaps include phone zaps and fax zaps. Phone zaps are designed to tie up the phone lines with callers making demands on the targeted person or group. Some fax zaps are modeled on the phone zap (tying up the system without damaging it) but others were more destructive. It was possible, for example, to send a fax of a black sheet of paper, loop it in such a way as to continuously jam the receiving fax machine, and use up the recipient’s ink.
Probably the way most recognized symbol of ACT UP was the black t-shirt that read “silence=death” in white below a pink triangle. The design was created before ACT UP was founded, and was offered by its creators to the group. In contrast to the “silence=death” motto, another popular motto was “action=life.”
Most groups had their own artists who created t-shirts and posters. Some of these posters were printed, while others were handwritten. The art cooperative Gran Fury during the late 1980s to mid-1990s was a visible public face of ACT UP and AIDS protest graphics even though it was a separate entity. Gran Fury’s works include its “Read My Lips” poster, featuring two people of the same-sex (with male and female versions) kissing, and the poster “Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed and Indifference Do” showing three couples kissing of different races: one all-male, one all-female, and one male and female. It was a deliberate visual pun on a popular 1980s Benetton clothing line ad campaign.
Other direct action LGTBQ organizations trace their origins back to ACT UP, including the Lesbian Avengers, Bash Back!, and Queer Nation.
Bright, Deborah. The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Crimp, Douglas and Adam Rolston. AIDS Demo Graphics. Seattle: Bay, 1990.
Gould, Deborah Bejosa. Sex, Death, and the Politics of Anger: Emotion and Reason in ACT-UP’s Fight Against AIDS. Diss. University of Chicago, 2000.
Lestrade, Didier. Act-Up: une histoire. Paris: Denoël, 2000.
Willett, Graham. Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2000.