ACT UP. Fight back. Fight Trump.

I landed in the US on 8 November – the day of the election. A poor flight decision, I know. The atmosphere here is hard to describe. How can we comprehend Trump and Standing Rock happening at the same time? I mean, Trump?! It’s hard to get your head around it.

We can read about Trump as a phenomenon that has been building. We can locate him in a global context too, something that Americans seem often not to realise. We can make good arguments against racism, neoliberalism, autocracy. These are all important things to do right now, and we need to understand all the complexities. But what is harder to describe, though, is the way that people are feeling. And by people, I mean lefties. I’m not gauging the reaction of the rich, white business class right now, though I imagine in many quarters it’s elation.

I decided to go along to a meeting full of people against Trump at the Queer Center in Manhattan. Hundreds of people were there. Being in that room, with queers, I fully felt the gravity of the situation. Many of the older people who took the floor to speak are the reason that I can be an open queer woman today. To these people, I quite literally owe my life. It made me tear up to think of it. Many people there were, and are, members of a group called ACT UP, whose archive I am in NY to research.

During the initial AIDS crisis, sometimes called the ‘plague years’, the Reagan Government refused to address the calamity. At this point AIDS was known as ‘the gay disease’ – a disgusting turn of phrase that still haunts us. Because of the government’s dragging of heels on medical testing, we lost many people. ACT UP was formed as a response to this denial of queer people’s existence. The very name was an incitement. It stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT UP’s logo is part-pink triangle (a reclaimed queer symbol from those persecuted during the Holocaust) and part-text. The white, bold text is an enduring warning: Silence = Death. This claim is depressingly true. It was the same then as it is now.

ACT UP is known for many actions. For me, two of their tactics stand out. The first is their political funerals, during which they carried dead friends, lovers, neighbours and strangers in coffins through the streets while chanting, or sometimes just walking in silence. I watched about fifteen of the political funerals on VHS. Some of them were full of people weeping. At others, people simply walked along, stunned. The idea for these political funerals apparently came from the artist and writer, David Wojnarowicz:

I imagine what it would be like if friends had a demonstration each time a lover, or a friend or a stranger died of AIDS. I imagine what it would be like if each time a lover, friend or stranger, died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbours would take the dead body and drive it with a car 100 miles an hour to Washington DC and blast through the gates of the Whitehouse and come to a screaming halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps. It would be comforting to sees those friends, neighbours, lovers and strangers mark time and place in history in such a public way.

These funerals were a turning point in ACT UP’s activism. (By the way, if you haven’t read Wojnarowicz’s work, I highly recommend it.)

The second action was ‘The Ashes Action’. Around fifteen people carried the ashes of their dead lovers, friends and neighbours to the lawn of the Whitehouse. Behind them thousands of people marched. This was in 1992, in response to then President Bush’s inept response to the crisis. Once they momentarily got past the police they threw the ashes of those they loved on the Whitehouse lawn. And this was while police on horses tried to trample them. As this was happening, the famous AIDS quilt was being laid on the nearby National Mall. ACT UP member Simon Watney said, ‘the quilt has become the acceptable face of AIDS death in the US. It provides a doubtless admirable and moving map of the epidemic across American society. But its focus is that of New Age religiosity rather than social or POLITICAL explication’. ACT UP was doing anything but New Age. This was a ‘fuck you’.

To be honest, watching footage of these actions is unbearable. Most days on my way home, after watching it, I cry on the subway. Every conversation I am having here is about Trump. And every day I watch the funerals of queers who were trying to create a world that would see them as more than diseased gay bodies, unworthy of grief and mourning.  Sometimes I wonder why I couldn’t have chosen a more uplifting topic to research. But we can’t look away from these deaths. We must always remember.

Back to the anti-Trump meeting. One person took the floor and said, ‘It feels like the start of the AIDS crisis’. That moment was a realisation of how marginalised Americans are feeling right now. The speakers’ determination reminded me of the footage of the ACT UP meetings I have watched. They had wanted to convey that the crisis that was in front of us was not a disease in our blood, but one in society. And the only cure is fighting back.

At the end of ACT UP meetings everyone chants, ‘ACT UP. Fight back. Fight AIDS.’ This reflects the gravity that was the crisis when ACT UP started. AIDS is still a major issue in the US and around the world, and right now activists can see that Trump will not only impact their healthcare but so much more. At this meeting, people ended with the chant, ‘ACT UP. Fight back. Fight Trump.’ This is a new rallying cry generated from the ashes of an old cry. It is the cry of a movement that can learn so much from past struggles for the struggles to come.


Image: ACT UP Oral History Project

Jess Ison

Jess Ison is a PhD candidate and casual academic at La Trobe University, researching homonormativity and animal exploitation.

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