Benita Roth explores the rise of the ACT UP/LA during the ’80s and ’90s in new book

By : Scottie Campbell
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Benita Roth is a professor of sociology, history and women’s studies at Binghamton University so it is unsurprising that The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA is academic and will primarily have a life as assigned reading in college courses. Dense and meticulously annotated, it makes for a cumbersome, though essential, read.

ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was born in New York City in 1987 when Larry Kramer, disillusioned with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis he co-founded, challenged an audience to create a more effective organization. ACT UP/LA was formed in December of the same year and, unlike ACT UP/NY which is still in existence (albeit decidedly more quiet these days), lasted a decade until its remaining three members voted it out of existence.

Roth makes a strong argument for focusing on ACT UP/LA noting that with “social movements” like ACT UP “scholars have usefully referred to local contexts as social movement fields.” Los Angeles is a diverse city with a population long consisting of more than one population and a historically marginalized gay community. Roth touches on other chapters of ACT UP only when there were national collaborations, which were rare. Local actions like protesting hospitals and insurance companies appear more successful in getting direct action.

ACT UP’s model is similar to those of the feminist movement, anti-nuke protests and anti-Vietnam War protests with face-to-face confrontation toward “systems of power through ‘misuse’ of spaces.” During our last recession we saw an example of similar action with Occupy Wall Street and tangential movements it hatched. Inherent in the model is the concept of being leaderless, as Roth’s chronicling of ACT UP/LA illustrates, that concept is the thing of myths.

Looking at the movement through a feminist lens, Roth seems to argue that ACT UP wouldn’t have happened without the feminist movement and its fight for women’s health. While that assertion is debatable, what is clear is women had their own unique struggle within ACT UP/LA and the anti-AIDS movement. Imagine protesting alongside your brothers to get a ward in a hospital dedicated to AIDS victims, then having to turn around and fight that the ward include women. Internally the organization struggled with gay and lesbian relations of the time and its undercurrent of misandry and misogyny. A Women’s Caucus was formed and met with opposition despite the fact that the model of the organization was a “General Body” with several working committees, and when male “leaders” would give statements of support, they smacked of placation.

It is interesting to see the formation of activist groups from a sociologist’s perspective and you’ll find yourself, as I did, hoping an author will one day take a look at your community’s LGBTQ history with an objective eye like Roth has here. Her study shows how such groups work and don’t work, the striking similarities among these rebellious groups, and their stubbornness to ignore the lessons of history. Over the organization’s decade-long history, there were differing opinions about the degree to which the group should be pursuing gay rights which gave rise to Queer Nation. QN, as it was referred to, attempted to be so anti-establishment they eschewed traditional banking and instead the treasurer kept their funds in a box under his bed.

Some actions by ACT UP/LA, like disrupting the Oscars and an attempt to disrupt the Rose Parade, were intended to create awareness of the AIDS crisis. While participants saw the actions as a success — invariably someone among them found each of their actions a success — they probably created as much confusion as they did awareness. Shrine Auditorium security asked one protester what grudge he had against Chevy Chase after he interrupted an off-air Oscars presentation by exclaiming, “102,000 dead!” Chaos does seem to be an essential ingredient in the social movement recipe.

A mixture of anarchists and pacifists is also characteristic of these movements. Perhaps the most striking part of the book is learning how often members of ACT UP/LA were scared and frightened to participate in actions but still did. This echoes the confessions of other activists – filmmaker Michael Moore comes to mind – and it shows enviable courage. In Roth’s field notes, ACT UP/LA members describe being in actions where they were certain they would die.

Many people (myself included) would not be here today, and others would not have lived so long, if it wasn’t for the vital crusade waged by the ACT UP/LA and groups like it; that alone is reason to give Roth’s well researched account your attention.

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