“Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die,” wrote Larry Kramer in the New York Native in March 1983. Before Kramer’s article “1,112 and Counting,” gay people were doing what they could to care for the sick and mourn their dead with quiet dignity.
After the article appeared in gay papers across the country, gay people grew increasingly unwilling to be quiet about the deaths of gay men and the preternatural silence about the epidemic from elected officials.
In San Francisco, the momentum generated by a July 1984 political march spiraled into support for an independent gay AIDS activist group in San Francisco. Gay community leaders tapped Paul Boneberg, then 31 and president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, to head the new group.
Mobilization Against AIDS came into existence in the fall of 1984 with the express goal of organizing street demonstrations, a goal it accomplished by staging monthly protests. Besides its street demos, Mobilization, beginning in 1985, took on the task of organizing the annual AIDS candlelight vigil that the San Francisco People with AIDS Coalition had started in 1983.
As the 1980s wore on, and tens of thousands of gay men died with still no effective treatment for AIDS, Larry Kramer’s nerves were shot.
In a March 10, 1987, speech Kramer gave at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, today known as the LGBT Center of New York, he laid into the gay community as only Larry Kramer could. “If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble,” he told the group.
By then, 32,000 AIDS cases had been reported across the country—nearly a third of them in New York. President Reagan still hadn’t spoken about AIDS to frightened Americans.
“If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth,” said Kramer. “How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?” The crux of the speech was Kramer’s simple question: “Do we want to start a new organization devoted solely to political action?”
The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Two days later, about 300 people again showed up at the center where they formed ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The group’s first demonstration—a protest on Wall Street against the exorbitant price of just-approved AZT, the most expensive drug ever to that point—introduced what became the group’s distinctive brand of street theater. ACT UP took the camp humor and theatricality of the Gay Liberation Front “zaps” to a whole new level.
As Kramer told me in our interview for “Victory Deferred,” “The fact that everybody responded to ACT UP, I think was more just a question of time, and moment, and frustration. It was the right time for it to happen.”
As in every catastrophe humans have faced throughout history, there were only two options for gay men when the viral cluster bomb erupted in the community: fight or flight.
“AIDS made us choose,” said Paul Boneberg, in our interview in San Francisco for “Stonewall Strong.” “Most chose to stay and fight.” In his characteristically understated manner, Boneberg added, “It is my experience that our community is heroic.”
Larry Kramer put it a little differently in our 1995 interview. We talked in the living room of his Fifth Avenue apartment, the setting for some of gay America’s most historic moments, including the world’s first AIDS fundraiser in 1981 and, in 1982, the formation of GMHC, the world’s first AIDS service organization. Reflecting in particular on ACT UP, Kramer said, “Singlehandedly, we changed the image of gay people from limp-wristed fairies to guerrilla warriors.”
John-Manuel Andriote has reported on HIV-AIDS as a journalist since 1986. His most recent book, which he calls a bookend for acclaimed debut book ‘Victory Deferred’, is ‘Stonewall Strong: Gay Men’s Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community.’ The research materials and recorded interviews for Victory Deferred comprise a special collection curated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.