By 1987, almost 10,000 New Yorkers had died of AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The vast majority of them were gay men, already ostracized by society, and despite the agony of the epidemic, ignored by all the power centers of society; the government, big business, and most certainly the Catholic Church. The national response veered between sheer panic and the idea of internment camps for the infected. A schoolyard taunt at the time – I remember hearing it quite well – was that "gay" was an acronym that stood for "got AIDS yet?"
It’s against this background that a group of men and women, gay and straight, in many cases either infected with the disease or already dying of it, decided to try something new. The result was ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, a direct action group that challenged both a conservative society and the norms of a gay community still quite comfortably in the closet. In the process, they developed a model of direct action that in many ways is a direct template for today’s Occupy Wall Street movement. The group is marking its 25th anniversary this week on April 25, fittingly with a march on Wall Street. I would argue that it is likely the single most successful activist group in modern American history: ACT UP changed the self-image of the LGBTQ community, fashioned the nation’s response to a devastating disease, and saved untold lives. How many, I suppose we will never know; except I’m pretty sure that mine is one of them.