What can the AIDS generation teach today’s activists?

The last decade has seen an explosion of films and books on the AIDS crisis, marking the end of the Second Silence — the amnesia toward the plague years evinced by many LGBTQ+ organizations in the late ‘90s and aughts. (The First Silence was Reagan’s callousness.) The desire to move on from AIDS was understandable — for more than a decade the community had fought a traumatic and exhausting struggle against a death sentence. 

The emergence of antiretroviral drugs in 1996 marked both a victory for people with AIDS and an opportunity for activists to leave the past behind and move onto civil rights battles, like marriage equality. By hastily moving on from AIDS history, however, we risked forgetting one of the most inspiring movements in the gay rights story that bequeathed, as Larry Kramer has argued, its greatest accomplishment: saving ourselves and others. 

Fortunately, that history is no longer at risk of being forgotten. Journalist David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague” (2012) and subsequent 2016 book has arguably done more than anything else to memorialize that history for generations of queer people too young to remember or born long after the crisis. Harvey Milk confidante and AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones’s memoir “When We Rise” (2016) added a layer of personal history to the AIDS years. Queer scholar Sarah Schulman’s new book “Let the Record Show” (2021) has been called by the New York Times a “Monument to the AIDS Movement” for its extensive survey of ACT UP — the frontline activist New York-based AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power fighting for drug treatment. To this growing list, we can add former ACT UP member Peter Staley’s upcoming memoir “Never Silent.”

A young Wall Street trader with political aspirations, Staley’s life was upended after receiving an HIV diagnosis in the early ‘80s. Staley didn’t panic; instead, he came out to his family, both as gay and HIV+, quit his job and threw himself into full-time AIDS activism. 

He quickly rose to become one of ACT UP’s most prominent members. It was Staley who confronted Pat Buchanan on a now-famous episode of “Crossfire” where the conservative co-host called gay sex Russian roulette. Staley rebuffed the homophobic moralizing and advised young men to use a condom and a lubricant — only to later fret that his anal sex advice might have made half the audience turn off the TV. CNN booked Staley to discuss ACT UP’s demonstration at FDA headquarters that morning demanding the agency stop slow-walking HIV drugs and permit people with AIDS quick access to treatment. Staley famously climbed the building’s awning to unfurl a Silence = Death banner. The FDA eventually fast-tracked the drugs — the first time the agency acted in response to public pressure. 

Staley is the best kind of guide to this history, particularly in relating the science behind AIDS treatment in common terms. Equally charming and even-handed, this is one story on the queer underdogs who roused a country from its indifference that should enter the AIDS canon. 

What makes his story endearing is the personal dimension that Staley feels nostalgic for. ACT UP was more than a movement, it was a family of creative, loving and joyous people. And plenty of sex. ACT UPpers were not into being shamed. They were going to have tons of safe gay sex. It was a badge of honor to be a movement slut — and Staley proudly confesses to being one. The death of friends never abated, but the darkness could be kept at bay by cultivating a supportive space where people could channel rage into constructive action. 

Righteous anger and a noble cause, Staley advances, aren’t enough to sustain a movement. Show me an angry activist, Staley cautions, and I’ll show you a failed activist. In order to keep going, people need a loving and forgiving space otherwise they burn out. 

ACT UP wasn’t all rainbows. Eventually, the movement split up due to an irreconcilable divide over strategy.

Through it all, Staley and his comrades took their work seriously but never themselves too seriously. There’s a lesson here for contemporary left-wing activism, which can be bogged down by smug indignation and righteous one-upmanship, and where incrementalism is mocked as selling out. AIDS activists took every opportunity, no matter how small, to push their agenda. 

And Staley and his comrades never forgot that activism is meant to serve a happy life. Their spirit sustained a movement that saved millions of lives. It’s one for the history books. 

Khelil Bouarrouj is an activist who writes about LGBTQ issues.