1987: ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) is founded in New York City. The group's tactics rejuvenate lesbian and gay activism.


The Reagan and Bush administrations' failure to address the AIDS epidemic galvanized gay men and lesbians as a political force and pushed certain sectors of the community into a militancy not seen since the earliest days of gay liberation. In March of 1987, AIDS activism entered a new phase. Giving a speech in New York City, Larry Kramer began by asking everyone on one side of the audience to stand up. "At the rate we are going, you could be dead in less than five years," he said. Kramer argued that gays would die in large numbers unless they became much more visible and increased pressure on the FDA to expedite the testing and approval of AIDS drugs. Two days later, 300 people established the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Its motto: "United in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis."

ACT UP adopted the confrontational tactics of earlier organizations like the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists' Alliance. When the manufacturers of AZT - the only drug then licensed to treat AIDS - announced that it would cost $10,000 for one year's supply, 250 people marched on Wall Street, hung FDA Commissioner Frank Young in effigy and tied up lower Manhattan by sitting down in traffic during rush hour.

In October of 1988 ACT UP targeted FDA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, staging a "die-in" in the street, complete with tombstones bearing epitaphs like "I died for the sins of the FDA." More than 1,000 people participated in the nine-hour protest; 176 were arrested. After several years of such actions, ACT-UP succeeded in changing the FDA's approach to experimental drugs, speeding up the regulation process and making medication more readily available to AIDS patients. Even beyond its impact on the response to the epidemic, however, ACT UP has had an enduring effect on the language and style of contemporary gay and lesbian activism, searing such slogans as "Silence = Death" into the popular consciousness.

Source: Miller