The San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project at the GLBT Historical Society collects and documents the unique and diverse history of Bay Area direct-action movements that protested social and governmental inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 1990s. ACT UP/San Francisco, ACT/UP Golden Gate, Stop AIDS Now Or Else, AIDS Action Pledge, Citizens for Medical Justice, Enola Gay and related groups were part of a nationwide ACT UP movement that would go on to change the very practice of medicine and speed up the transformation of cultural attitudes about gender and sexuality.
After four years of efforts, I am pleased to share that the San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project has been completed in time for World AIDS Day this December 1. Composed of interviews with 23 Bay Area activists, this new collection in the society’s Oral History Collection is among the most extensive histories of local AIDS activism in the United States. The interviews, available here, paint a communal portrait of the unique challenges, debates and triumphs of this remarkable movement.
Historian Joey Plaster launched the San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project to document the determination and kinds of activism that had defined queer politics during the AIDS crisis. While the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP/New York had already been documented in films such as How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, the history of the Bay Area’s response to the epidemic had received relatively little attention until the publication of Emily Hobson’s Lavender and Red. In her monograph, Hobson argues that Bay Area activists were the first to confront the epidemic using direct-action tactics — even before Larry Kramer gave the speech that is often regarded as the catalyst for ACT UP in New York.
The San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project provides new information and context to ACT UP’s work in the Bay Area. Plaster’s conversation with Jack Davis is a prime example. Davis planned the “Blood and Money” ritual protest that Enola Gay performed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1984, during which protestors poured blood on the road at the entrance to the nuclear-weapons laboratory to decry government research priorities emphasizing weaponry over AIDS research. Most accounts suggest that the blood was fake, but Jack clarifies — the blood was real. It was his own. “This was also the period when we didn’t know — we knew that AIDS was transmitted by body fluids, so this blood was dangerous,” Davis explains. “And most of the people watching us knew that as well.” It has been an honor to play a part in bringing these interviews to the public. I want to thank Joey for getting the project off the ground, the volunteers who supported this work over the years, and the interviewees. But the lion’s share of my thanks must go to all those activists who have fought and continue to fight the battle against AIDS.