Making Space for Other Voices: An ACT UP Veteran Looks Back

n honor of World AIDS Day, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with Crystal Mason, an AIDS activist who worked with the direct-action group ACT UP/ San Francisco in the early 1990s. Mason, whose current project is an art, care and community-expanding network called Queering Dreams that they recently cofounded with Jason Wyman, also worked with the San Francisco AIDS Project as a case worker in the 1990s.

Mason was one of 23 ACT UP veterans who sat for an oral history as part of the GLBT Historical Society’s ACT UP Oral History Project, which was completed last year and is available here. In their oral history, Mason offered their thoughts on the importance of intersectional identity and why ACT UP had limited success integrating those perspectives as an activist organization. We invited Mason to discuss some of the issues they raised in their oral history and reflect on what they learned as an activist of color thirty years ago.

In your oral history, you mention that even from attending your first ACT UP protests, you were living in Washington D.C., before you came to San Francisco, you were interested in how AIDS was affecting poor people, marginalized people and people of color.  

CM: Yes, and in fact shortly after I moved to San Francisco I accidentally wandered into the Castro Sweep [a brutal police crackdown on AIDS activists in the Castro in October 1989] on my way home from work! I was taken by how physical it was. People were really willing to put their bodies, their physical selves, on the line, against police brutality. So right there, you’ve got the intersection of AIDS with policing and incarceration. That interested me, and I started attending ACT UP meetings. And I feel like part of my role during my work with ACT UP was to keep bringing up the fact that HIV was affecting other populations beyond what was commonly seen in the media and understood by the American public, which was largely gay white men.

I remember being in a meeting, trying to reach consensus, and I can’t remember what we were discussing—perhaps homelessness, and one guy got impatient and snapped, “While we’re sitting here discussing this, dozens of people have died.” And I said, “In my community people have been dying all this time—and for a hell of a lot longer.” So there was always that tension. It is true that there were some activists from earlier political movements who had been involved with larger social issues. There were also people who began their ACT UP work with a pretty narrow focus. And there were those who did eventually came to appreciate and align themselves with a larger worldview. But it was always a bit of a struggle.

In your oral history, you really insist on the fact that intersectionality informs priorities and that over time, ACT UP/SF deemphasized these. You mention specifically women and people of color.

CM: I did spend a lot of time on women’s issues, which many of the men were receptive to. AIDS did not affect women the same way, and for a long time that just wasn’t accounted for. Women who clearly had the disease couldn’t get a diagnosis, which meant they couldn’t access Medical, social security, treatment studies, and so on. But ACT UP was not successful in terms of issues that affected people of color and the most marginalized. There was a time, for example, when we focused on universal access to healthcare and health insurance, which would have made treatment more available to marginalized people, such as the homeless, people with mental-health problems, or low-income people. Ultimately when the focus became centered narrowly around “let’s get drugs into bodies,” these larger issues were deprioritized, and it turns out that they weren’t necessarily talking about poor bodies, brown bodies, Black bodies, homeless bodies…

And I really wonder how different things might be if we had centered intersectionality and been more strident about equity issues. Today many white gay people see HIV as a manageable disease, but it is still booming in the Black community. And it’s not just people of color; when I was a case worker at the SF AIDS Foundation, it was poor people and people with drug problems. Having mental-health problems or being homeless would automatically disqualify you from access to treatment and coverage. I’ve realized that over and over—in the women’s suffrage movement or the labor movement and today with voting rights—the notion of “urgency” has ended up deprioritizing marginalized communities. And this is going to keep happening until we create movements where the goal is really to create a better life for the most marginalized, including Black people, transgender folks, incarcerated people and sex workers.

What advice would you have for students, historians and members of the public who are interested in learning about ACT UP and AIDS activism today?

CM: I think that ACT UP in some ways was very successful and remains worth emulating. We were strident, even when we didn’t have social support. We were just one in a long line of movements that were more vilified than celebrated at the time. There’s such a thing as “respectability politics,” and a lot of LGBTQ people were not happy when we were out there protesting during Pride parades. But I’d also say to folks, be willing to look at what fell by the wayside. Yes there is a moral arc of history, and yes, it does bend. But that arc doesn’t bend without us. And when I say “us,” I mean all of us, we have to stop creating movements for change with this addiction to centering whiteness.

Black people and poor people and trans people are still fighting for a place at the table. Those who are at the table can’t speak for those who aren’t. What we can do is make space for other voices. And hand the microphone over from time to time. When we get in certain rooms, we have to demand that other people also get into that room. Not to see ourselves as singular, but realize our connections to the whole.

Photo by William Beverly

 Crystal Mason (they/them) is an activist who recently cofounded “Queering Dreams,” an art, care, and community-expanding network that uses the power of art to envision liberation from capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression.