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Queer reading: ACT UP's Staley is not silent in new book

by Brian Bromberger

Activist and author Peter Staley shares his ACT UP history in a new memoir. Photo: Francesca Pagani for Vice
Activist and author Peter Staley shares his ACT UP history in a new memoir. Photo: Francesca Pagani for Vice  

It was his Damascus Road conversion moment: March 24, 1987. A 26-year-old stockbroker for Morgan Guaranty in New York City, who was closeted about both being gay and having been diagnosed with AIDS-related complex a year and a half earlier, was on his way to work when he was handed a flyer announcing a MASSIVE AIDS DEMONSTRATION that morning in front of Trinity Church in the West Village, a block from his trading floor.

One week later that stockbroker, Peter Staley, would attend his first ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) meeting and a year later "would leave my job on disability and devote what time I had left to the activism I had watched on TV that night," he writes in his new memoir, "Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism" (Chicago Review Press, $26.99).

It gave him a reason to hope during a very dire time. The book tells of his journey from closeted party boy and bond trader to his fight to stay alive with HIV. It is his insider's account of the internal dynamics and squabbles as a self-proclaimed "media whore" for ACT UP to his later battle with substance abuse. He notes that even HIV-negative people are long-term survivors of those horrific years. The book surfaces just in time to commemorate the 35th anniversary of ACT UP's founding.

Of that first meeting, he writes in the book, "While the cruising was fun, what smacked me in the face the hardest at that first, long meeting was a sense of community. Sure, I had been with throngs of gay men on dance floors, where I felt that beautiful bond of sexual freedom, but this was something entirely different. The stakes were enormous, because our fucking survival as a people was on the line. By now it was obvious that no one else would save us. We realized that our only chance to stop the slaughter was in this room."

Staley's appearance in the David France 2012 documentary, "How to Survive a Plague" (nominated for an Oscar) about the early years of ACT UP, inspired renewed interest in the group as well as Staley, who provided archival footage in the form of his own personal VHS tapes. ACT UP garnered much national attention due to its massive street protests and spectacle demonstrations, such as sneaking in and halting the opening of trading by chaining themselves to the New York Stock Exchange balustrade while firing off loud air horns to drown out the opening bell, all in service to unfurl a banner instructing traders to "Sell Wellcome," referring to the pharmaceutical company making huge profits off AZT, the first AIDS drug.

This stunt gained extensive media coverage, all devised by Staley, and remains his favorite, though putting a condom over the house of the late homophobic North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (R) is a close second.

"It had everything — a mission impossible with nail-biting moments; some hilarity; a powerful moment of personal catharsis; and a happy ending when our target lowered the price of AZT a few days later," Staley stated in an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter, referring to the stock exchange action.

While early in his financial career Staley, 61, thought about later running for Congress or the White House, he now sees his path as activism. He remains a "political being" trying to change the world, but not through elected office. His speech at the 1990 San Francisco International AIDS Conference was a turning point in getting the medical establishment to take ACT UP seriously and work together on drug approvals as well as how research could impact and save lives.

Many people were impacted by watching "How to Survive a Plague" and seeing ACT UP as a people-powered, community-based movement that changed the world. Recognizing its importance for queer history as well as possessing some great, untold stories were two of Staley's prime motivations to pen the book.

Yet, Staley hates writing, "like a serious lifetime loathing of it," he wrote in the interview. Still, he felt it was the right time, worrying with a fading memory he might not remember all the events in another decade. Even though it took three years of hard concentrated effort, he wanted to create a historical record that will outlast him.

"It was who inspired me, not what. For close to a decade now, I've been bombarded with messages via social media from millennials saying they were inspired by 'How to Survive a Plague.' I've stayed in touch with about two-dozen of them who went on to become activists or join the medical profession," he stated.

The book's title is a riff on the famous ACT UP slogan, "Silence=Death."

"As every activist knows in their bones, silence in response to an injustice is a form of complicity. Never being silent is what we do," he stated.

The book is filled with humor, which Staley deliberately focuses on because the perception of AIDS was so negative, yet for gay men, they could find absurdity and wit in the darkest situations. One time when ACT UP members were being arrested on Wall Street, they teased the police by saying, "Wow, what a big billy club you have, officer!" Laughter helped the activists cope emotionally with heartbreaking, stressful situations and times, Staley recalled in the email.

Staley, "an openly proud slut my entire life," he stated in the interview, also wanted to counterattack the narrative that gay people deserved to get AIDS because of their "dirty" sex and should be quarantined. Staley knew that safe sex worked. He wanted everyone to be aware that ACT UP members were having lots of safe sex, so they did kiss-ins at straight bars or placed posters throughout the city saying "MEN: Use Condoms Or Beat It," next to a photo of an erect penis.

"Sex-positivity was huge for our mission and it was a stroke of political genius. Gay men were one of the most despised minorities in America even before the first cases of AIDS, and the first six years of the crisis made things exponentially worse," he stated. "Fears of an even greater backlash kept the community in a cautious posture of not wanting to rock the boat. ACT UP said, 'fuck that shit,' and went all in on a full-frontal posture, chanting, 'we're here, we're queer, get used to it!' And getting Americans used to it didn't mean lying about who we were. We had science on our side that condoms worked — safe sex worked — so we loudly promoted safe sex.

"But what I really highlight in the book is how we refused to abandon our youth during otherwise very dark times," added Staley. "We doubled down on our youth, living life to the fullest. It was the only way to get through those years. Most AIDS narratives only focus on the dark side of the plague years coin, but there was a flip side, at least within ACT UP, that was glorious, and I hope I captured it for the reader."

Criticisms
Critics charged that Staley's involvement was an ego trip amid a continual mad quest for publicity. But Staley believes ego was the driving force behind ACT UP.

"That's the beauty of true people power," he stated. "ACT UP was a collective that was never reliant on any one individual. Its power was the collective. I call myself an activist, but my activism was forged within ACT UP. That's what's so powerful about my story. I started from scratch, a closeted bond trader on Wall Street, never having heard of Larry Kramer before joining the movement, and within a year I was thriving as a badass leader within the group. We had dozens of leaders, and hundreds of fearless members willing to put their bodies on the line. Our movement was packed with huge egos, and those egos only made us stronger."

Another criticism is that his book looks at ACT UP from a gay white male perspective.

"By acknowledging the critique, I'm a privileged white male who wrote a memoir. In the context of AIDS, I hope the playing field has finally improved for more diverse narratives," Staley stated. "During the three years it took me to write mine, I witnessed beautiful AIDS-related narratives by Abdi Nazemian, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Rebecca Makkai, Darnell L. Moore, Donja R. Love, and Michael R. Jackson. It was just announced that Jackson's musical, 'A Strange Loop,' is coming to Broadway! A week after my book came out, Billy Porter's gorgeous HIV-related memoir hit the shelves. The great thing about books is that as long as you're not in school, you're never forced to read one. It's not like a movie, where you might get sucked into seeing a shitty film your date wants to see. If you want to be inspired by activist narratives, please seek out diverse sources. I know I do."

A few months before Staley's memoir was published, lesbian Sarah Schulman's book "Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993" appeared, which showcased lesser-known, non-white and female and trans activists, that the saviors weren't only gay white men. She also highlights the decentralized and democratic nature of the organization as essential to the way the group was run. Schulman wanted a fundamental transformation of the health care system so that all people would have equal access and is heartbroken ACT UP didn't accomplish that goal. Staley sees the two books as divergent but complementary.

"First and foremost, their formats are different. Sarah offers often brilliant theories on how ACT UP stood out as a movement, using hundreds of pages of hugely inspiring stories from the ACT UP Oral History Project, which she and [filmmaker] Jim Hubbard captured over the last two decades," stated Staley. "'Never Silent' is a memoir, which hopefully allows the reader to feel what it was like to be swept up by that movement, and molded into an activist by a glorious moment of communal determination and love. I finished my book before reading hers, but was unsurprised that we differed on some specifics."

In an email, Schulman simply wrote, "I think I will stay out of this one."

Staley does credit lesbians for being caregivers for their gay brothers when almost everyone else was abandoning them. They took the experience they had protesting for the Equal Rights Amendment and battling for reproductive rights, not to mention other forms of civil disobedience, and applied it to ACT UP. Thus, the movement didn't have to reinvent the wheel.

Defending AZT
Probably the most controversial section of the book is Staley's defense of AZT.

"AZT's history has been overly skewed by its first years on the market, before the dosing was cut in half. It failed to save lives because it was the only drug available," Staley stated. "All AIDS drugs fail when used alone, including the protease inhibitors. The early toxicities were brutal, but they weren't deadly. Patients rightly waited until they were quite sick before trying it. That created a false perception that those who tried it died quicker than those who didn't, even those who didn't were often healthier to begin with.

"So the phrase 'AZT killed all my friends' has become part of our AIDS history, and you'll find it in Hollywood narratives like 'Dallas Buyers Club,'" he added. "But here's the kicker. The lower dose of AZT became the number one selling AIDS drug for an entire decade after the protease inhibitors came out. They combined it with another drug, called Combivir, and it helped save millions of lives. I flesh out in my book how you just can't square 'AZT killed all my friends' with AZT saved millions of lives."

Unlike many other members of ACT UP, Staley survived. For him, the key was preventing his T-cells from dropping below 200. He did everything he could to keep his T-cells above that threshold, seeking every drug and treatment. He does feel some survivor guilt.

"I dedicated a chapter to examining that question," he stated. "It haunts me still. I did a lot of things I could point to as possibly increasing my chances of survival, but I know lots of folks who did those same things yet they still died. In the end, surviving depended on having certain privileges, like consistent housing and health care, but only when combined with a ruthless roll of some cosmic dice coming up with a lucky seven.

"I'm still processing some shame I feel about shortcuts I took to protect myself back then, like avoiding the bedside vigil for a dying friend," he wrote in the email. "And there's the rub — none of us were saints back then. There was too much darkness year after year after year to come out of it clean as a whistle. Part of being human means acknowledging and slowly forgiving what was inevitable — our own faults. Writing this book was part of that process."

Addiction
Staley also talks about his addiction to crystal meth, which for him was the most difficult chapter to write. It occurred after the protease inhibitors saved his life. He used meth as a coping mechanism to deal with the stresses related to being a long-term HIV survivor and figuring out what to do with his life post-ACT UP. His recovery pushed him to a new type of activism, again to break silence in the face of suffering. Rising meth use among gay men was fueling an increase in HIV infections. It led him to develop ads and posters with screaming headlines: "HUGE SALE! BUY CRYSTAL, GET HIV FREE! And BONUS SPECIAL: BUY THIS HANDY ACCESSORY PIPE, GET A LIFETIME ADDICTION FREE!" They publicized the meth/HIV connection, establishing it was not a harmless party drug.

Staley was attacked for airing the gay community's dirty laundry in public and using sensational shaming, fear-based tactics to demonize users. However, Staley's defense was, "as long as we get gay guys talking to other gay guys about meth, that's where the harm reduction really happens," he stated. "On that front, I do think we made a difference. After four years, there were huge drops in San Francisco, L.A., and New York relating to meth usage. Those numbers represented saved lives. The activism we did was painful and far from perfect, but for a time, it mattered. The ads scared people, but also made them think. It's those discussions that might change behavior."

Staley remains an activist today, being the lead plaintiff against several pharmaceutical companies for anti-competitive practices, in Staley v. Gilead. Staley explained the case's significance.

"PrEP activist James Krellenstein uncovered a pay-for-delay deal between Gilead and Teva keeping generic Truvada off the market after the FDA's approval in 2017," he stated, referring to the federal Food and Drug Administration. "We took that to a deep-pocketed progressive law firm to see if they'd help us file charges in federal court. But while we were preparing our case, we discovered a far larger scheme of Big Pharma shenanigans. Gilead had conspired with other pharma companies to keep generics out of the one pill, once a day, antiviral market for treating HIV. So the case turned into something far bigger: the delay in generic PrEP. Staley v. Gilead, if successful, will rock the entire HIV marketplace, bringing lower prices to single tablet treatments. The resulting price competition should lead to greater innovations going forward."

Staley doesn't think there could be an ACT UP movement today similar to its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"Sadly, I think ACT UP would fail today. We were able to quickly guilt-trip the entire country, convincing 80% of Americans to support spending more on AIDS research. There was no Fox News back then. Forty percent of the country wasn't anti-factual and anti-science at that time," he stated. "We've had a complete breakdown of basic epistemic knowledge in the United States, with one party going completely off the rails. If ACT UP happened today, Fox News would brand us immediately as their liberal threat du jour. We'd never convince enough Americans to do the right thing. Just look at COVID. All social movements are dealing with a much harder playing field these days. There's no way around it. These are frightening times."

Staley does believe that AIDS activism did lead the way to marriage equality and the end of the anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy.

"Before AIDS, we were a largely closeted, cautious community, always worried about causing an even worse backlash against us if we made too much of a stink," he writes in the book. "After the first decade of AIDS, we were a community that had found our voice, and fully realized our collective power. Anger and indignation became our calling cards, and we've been playing them ever since. And we stopped caring about the backlash, adopting an in-your-face style that showed the world our beautiful humanity, warts and all."

Today, Staley speaks on grassroots activism to audiences worldwide.

There are some lessons, he said, the country can draw from AIDS during COVID.

"When new pandemics start, 90% of what a political leader needs to do is all upfront — squash the initial outbreak as much as possible, which makes controlling things after that a thousand times easier," stated Staley. "Sadly, both AIDS and COVID started under anti-science presidents, [Ronald] Reagan and [Donald] Trump. Reagan was further hamstrung by his own base, which didn't care if a new epidemic killed thousands of gay men. Trump was even worse, creating a death cult just because Democrats were pro-science."


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