Workshop explores lessons from ACT UP

  • Wednesday January 4, 2017
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Ingrid Nelson, holding mic, and Rebecca Hensler, left of<br>Nelson, participated in an ACT UP action at the 1990 AIDS conference in San<br>Francisco. Photo: Liz Highleyman
Ingrid Nelson, holding mic, and Rebecca Hensler, left of
Nelson, participated in an ACT UP action at the 1990 AIDS conference in San
Francisco. Photo: Liz Highleyman

A workshop Saturday, January 7, will look back at the history of ACT UP and explore its lessons for organizing and activism in the Donald Trump era. The event, co-sponsored by Godless Perverts and the GLBT Historical Society, will be held at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco.

"A lot of people are reeling from the election and wondering what they can do. The rise of hatred and fascism has to be fought on so many fronts, it can feel overwhelming or even impossible," said author and Godless Perverts co-founder Greta Christina. "ACT UP was one of the most effective resistance movements in recent history and they fought back in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and against overwhelming odds. We think a lot of people can learn from their experience and be inspired by it."

Godless Perverts, a group for sex-positive atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers, has mostly hosted social events and performances in its nearly five years, but the November election "lit a fire under us to do more activism," Christina told the Bay Area Reporter.

Saturday's workshop will feature former ACT UP/SF members Rebecca Hensler, Crystal Mason, and Ingrid Nelson, who will share personal stories about how they got involved in direct action, ACT UP's successes and challenges, and what current resistance movements can learn from their experiences.

"We must use every tool at our disposal to tell the new regime 'No.'" Mason told the B.A.R.


The legacy of ACT UP

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was founded in New York City and held its first major action in March 1987, a "die-in" on Wall Street, to demand access to HIV treatment – then limited to the marginally effective and poorly tolerated AZT – and an end to discrimination against people with AIDS.

The group's stylistic flair, eye-catching graphics, and savvy use of the media garnered widespread attention, and ACT UP chapters soon sprang up across the United States and around the world.

In San Francisco, a group of activists started the AIDS Action Pledge in 1986, which networked with ACT UP chapters and eventually changed its name to ACT UP/San Francisco. ACT UP/SF split in 1990, not long after a week of protests in the city surrounding the sixth International AIDS Conference. One faction was taken over by AIDS denialists and others went on to form ACT UP/Golden Gate, later renamed Survive AIDS.

Made up of both people directly impacted by AIDS and seasoned multi-issue activists, ACT UP always had a dual purpose. It is best known for its insider/outsider strategy that helped speed up the drug approval process and accelerate the development of effective HIV treatment. But it also fought against the homophobia, racism, sexism, poverty, and sex negativity that allowed the epidemic to rage out of control.

"Ever since the presidential election, I've been feeling like it's the Reagan-Bush years all over again," Nelson, now a nurse practitioner who specializes in HIV/AIDS and prison health care, told the B.A.R. "The fear of nuclear war is hanging over our heads, abortion rights are under attack, racists and homophobes are feeling empowered, and none of us feel safe. I want people to know that queers and other marginalized people have fought back before, and that we can do it again."

"Some people are saying it's important to do something rather than nothing, but I think strategy is as important as action," added Hensler, now a middle school counselor and founder of Grief Beyond Belief, a grief support network for non-believers. "Looking at what worked in the past is one step, but it isn't enough because so much has changed in 25 years. Talking about ACT UP and what worked then is about inspiration and insight, not instruction."


"How ACT UP Fought Back: Direct Action and Civil Disobedience" takes place January 7, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission Street. A donation of $5-$20 is requested.