30 Years Later: AIDS activism and ACT UP Chicago

From the November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters (corrected)

Darrell Gordon, long-time African-American Gay anarchist activist, was one of the founders of AIDS activism in Chicago. This post contains several of Gordon’s corrections to the article printed in News & Letters.

Chicago–People in Chicago started dying from AIDS a year or two after the first nationally known cases. I started going to forums dealing with AIDS at City College campuses. In 1985 there was a vigil at St. Clement Church. In the 1980s there were “safe sex” parties that taught about AIDS and how to use a condom. These were common at the beginning of the outbreak.

While dealing with the fight against the disease, we also had to confront the Reagan administration, which used it as a weapon against Gay rights. Since it was then mostly Gay and Bi men who were affected, it was easy to stigmatize people.

The first political AIDS demonstration I attended was organized in 1986. A food store called Evergreen, at Belmont and Broadway, put out a newsletter calling for the quarantine of people with AIDS, and for them to be forced to wear AIDS ID bracelets. That was a common sentiment of people on the Right.

I was a member of the Solidarity Committee of the Anti-Imperialist Group, formed by Earl Silbar. I decided to join with others to hold a press conference in front of Evergreen. The guy who ran the store also ran an art festival on Broadway. We decided not to boycott the art fair, but to picket the store.

ACT UP Chicago grew out of an organization that began in 1984 of Dykes and Gay Men Against Racism and Repression. It was started mostly by folks from the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Prairie Fire. It concentrated mostly on anti-racism work, the Pride Parade and U.S. oppression abroad.

Then in 1987, just as the plans for March on Washington were taking shape, there was legislation proposing mandatory HIV testing and quarantine. People were upset about this, but were still thinking in terms of just writing letters.

We decided to do a 24-hour vigil and civil disobedience action the next day at Gov. Thompson’s home in Uptown, which was very successful. Some of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force initially said they would support our demonstration, but then decided not to. I guess they thought it would hurt their relationship with the establishment.

ACCESS TO DRUGS

Other activists in New York had similar experiences. So we became an AIDS activism organization, first called Chicago For Our Rights, then by spring Chicago for AIDS Rights. We pushed for lowering the prices of AIDS drugs, and the release of more of them. By October and the national action in Washington, D.C., we had become ACT UP Chicago.

Right away there were two factions in the group. One was largely a single-issue group of mostly white Gay men. John Brown/Prairie Fire also had its own ideology when it came to dealing with race and class. The group refused the idea of bringing more people of color into membership. Their argument was that Blacks and whites should organize separately in their own communities, and that African Americans could go to the KUPONA Network, which was an African-American organization that tended to undercut mentoring of Queer sexuality, which helped to keep Queers of color in the closet.

Because I argued consistently over race and outreach and class, there was a tension and an attempt to freeze me out. In 1989 I initiated the idea of a People of Color/Poor Working-Class Caucus to do outreach to the other communities. It was geared to both people of color and working class people. It wasn’t an ego thing, but in support of the liberation of all Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans people, not just the somewhat privileged in the Lakeview neighborhood.

An African-American Queer bar in the Lakeview community Gay ghetto called Club LaRay was closed down over alleged drug trafficking by then-Alderman Bernie Hansen with the blessing of middle class Gay men in the neighborhood. ACT UP Chicago organized a demonstration against the closing and along with the unfair and racist carding practices in white Gay bars. It was co-sponsored by Black and White Men Together but they only brought out eight people.

Other organizations that started subsequent to this were the Coalition Against Bashing, the Coalition for Positive Sexuality–a guerrilla-style activist group concerned with getting safe sex and birth control information to high school students–and Queer Nation/Chicago.

ACT UP Chicago ended in 1995. Lots of people in our group died, and others left because of the conflicts. Some just wanted a single-issue movement with a white, Gay, male focus. As AIDS drugs became more available, and Clinton was elected president, the more liberal members of the Queer communities had the idea that a Democrat in the White House would save us, and we could retire from activism. The great message of the 1993 March on Washington seemed to some to be, “We don’t need to do this anymore.”

By 1994, the only active committee was the prison committee. If the group had continued, we would have had to face the question of relating to communities of color as being increasingly the casualties of the epidemic.

FACE OF AIDS CHANGED

It would have had to become a multi-racial group instead of a predominantly white organization. We could have built on the demonstrations against insurance company policies, and public health issues at Cook County Hospital, where we fought to get more beds.

AIDS, a death sentence 30 years ago, has changed. Many people are living longer but we still haven’t got to the root of the real problem with AIDS, which is heterosexism and homophobia. That is connected to the issue of race, class, sexism and the economy as drug program cuts close off access to medicine.

At times Gay men and women did work side by side, but sexism needs to be addressed. Struggling against a misogynist society’s definition of relationships should not be left to women alone.

AIDS is a global issue today. The Treatment Action Coalition in South Africa was influenced by ACT UP. This time around, I’d like to see an AIDS activist movement that’s organized by poor, working-class, mostly people of color.

That’s a legacy for reviving the quest for taking control of our bodies as Gay men, too. That movement got co-opted in the late 1970s, but ACT UP essentially tried to reclaim tactics that were initiated by the Civil Rights Movement. No coincidence that it occurred during a lively climate of racism.

–Darrell Gordon

One thought on “30 Years Later: AIDS activism and ACT UP Chicago

  1. I’m a gay white man living with AIDS for over 30 years. I agree with most of what Mr. Gordon wrote. We were ACT UP Chicago colleagues. I always have and still support people of color and women. I was not one of the single issue Gay white men. I have always recognized the dignity and value of all human life. I believe that we are all in this together. I have always felt that way. And I stood up to other Gay white men who were not as sympathetic to the plight of others. ACT UP Chicago was comprised of different people at different times who came together to fight AIDS. Some were seasoned activists. Others were HIV+ Gay men who were dying and afraid. It was a time of great urgency.

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