13 September 2008

ACT UP Oral History Project

I have posted a couple of times [1] [2] on the importance of ACT UP as a political movement. In terms of concrete demands the organization sought (starting in 1987) to harangue, cajole, shame and ridicule mainstream America - especially our political, scientific and medical institutions - into recognizing and responding to the AIDS epidemic that was decimating not only gay men, but women and racial minorities and the poor. A major task for ACT UP consistently has been rendering the epidemic visible to a society that not only could not, but actively refused to see it. And, importantly, ACT UP chapters continue their work in, for instance, Austin, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and elsewhere.

I recently discovered this web page which is home to the ACT UP Oral History Project. One of its founders, Sarah Shulman, explains why she was moved to initiate the project:
"In June 2001, I was in LA doing a play. One day, driving around in a white rental car, I accidentally tuned in to NPR's commemoration of the 20th anniversary of AIDS.

"At first America had trouble with People With AIDS," the announcer said. "But they then came around."

I had long been disheartened by the false AIDS stories told in the few mainstream representations of the crisis. Gay people are alone—hurting each other and causing our own oppression—until benevolent straight people bravely overcome their predjudices to help us.


But now, that lie was being extended beyond the arts to actual history. We were being told that AIDS Activism never existed. Instead, the dominant culture simply "came around."

That is not what happened. I know, I was there.

As I drove, listening to the radio, I realized that in the years since I had left ACT UP, I had seen no major history of the movement emerge. I had seen no mainstream documentation, and that the knowledge of what we achieved was rapidly fading from public memory.

Actually, what really took place was this: thousands of people, over many years, dedicated their lives to achieving a cultural and scientific transformation. In other words, a nation that had always hated and humiliated and violated gay people, was forced—against their will—to behave differently than they wished to, because activists intervened and took control of a terrible situation, thereby changing it.

I know that people with AIDS, are not just gay. But homophobia was the prototype of the oppression that people with AIDS experienced. Active neglect. Cruel exclusion. Dehumanizing abandonment. From friends, family, class, job, race, neighborhood, religion, and country. Now, add history."

To date, the project has done 100 interviews with individuals who were active early on in ACT UP New York. The aim is to make sure that the history of an organization that has been so crucial to making the AIDS crisis visible as a political crisis does not itself succumb to political invisibility.

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