Moving Politics: Emotions and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS

Deborah B. Gould

524 pages, University of Chicago Press, 2009

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Groups promoting social change face a dilemma. Should they play by the rules, using legal means to promote their cause? Or should they shake things up, by disrupting traffic, production, or politics as usual? The first strategy will win them friends among authorities; the latter will get attention. But which will get them what they want? Should they be naughty or nice?

ACT UP was born in early 1987 when gay and lesbian activists in the United States decided that their efforts to portray themselves as normal, respectable, and no different from straights had simply not worked. They had been stunned the year before, when the Supreme Court had decided, in Bowers v. Hardwick, that American states had the right to outlaw sodomy between partners of the same sex, even in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The message: Gays and lesbians were not full citizens.

The background to gays and lesbians’ understandable indignation was that, for several years, they had watched accelerating numbers of their friends die of AIDS and related maladies. Energetic partygoers had turned into patient nurses, as they helped lovers, friends, and acquaintances endure the indignities of the final months and days of wretched symptoms, and then commemorated them with beautiful patches on the moving AIDS Memorial Quilt. Many of the activists were themselves HIV-positive, facing what at the time seemed certain death. They had formed an exemplary, caring community, only to be ignored or even dismissed by the Reagan administration. What did they have to lose by turning from nice to naughty tactics?

As the result of this intense fear, anger and frustration, ACT UP devoted itself to disrupting business as usual through direct action. First in New York, and eventually around the world, activists shouted down scientists and public health officials, blocked streets, and held kiss-ins in jails. They interfered with rituals like opening night at the San Francisco Opera and mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

Disruption worked. ACT UP forced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to speed up its processes for approving new drugs and to include people with HIV and AIDS in advisory bodies. It pushed corporations to lower the prices of AIDS drugs, and the U.S. government to fund more research. It promoted needle-exchange programs and condoms in schools. It brought sympathetic attention to this new disease, and more generally to lesbians and gays, who within a few years were portrayed sympathetically on network television series.

In Moving Politics, Deborah Gould tells this story in a lively biography of the American ACT UP movement, following its rapid rise and then implosion around 1993 (although several tiny chapters continue today). A participant herself in ACT UP/Chicago, she has the analytic clarity to describe the movement’s eventual fissioning, especially over the amount of attention to give to the different health challenges of gay white men or of women and people of color among AIDS victims.

This is not simply a chronicle. Gould pays special attention to the emotions that led ACT UP to be formed, to expand, and then to contract. She tells us what the shock of Bowers v. Hardwick felt like, leading activists from nice to naughty. The most stirring part of the book describes the erotic excitement of meetings and the pro-sex atmosphere of the organization, giving the reader a good sense of the pleasures of participation in protest.

Another of the book’s innovations is to give equal attention to ACT UP’s fission and decline. Gould traces the exhaustion and despair in the early 1990s as one drug after another failed to slow the epidemic. Bill Clinton’s election as president offered hope for improvements in federal policy—which lasted just long enough to further demobilize activists.

This book engaged me so much that I felt as I read it, the thrill of the expanding movement and the sad anguish of its decline. I can understand why few scholars write about the decline of protest movements that they care about. It’s a heartbreaking task.

Scholars who write about movements in which they participated rarely avoid the failing of trying to settle old scores. Gould (who is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz) evades this trap. She also resists the temptation to tell us what the movement should have done differently. Movements face dozens of dilemmas. If there were easy answers, or even unassailably right answers, they would hardly be dilemmas. In writing books about social change, perhaps the best we can do is to detail the costs, the benefits, and the risks of the available choices. The activists are the ones who still have to make them.