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The Visions of the Activists, Media, and Policy Makers
The AIDS crisis in the United States (and in New York, its epicenter, particularly) was viewed differently by activists, media, and policymakers. The activists’ vision presented in the documentary (How to Survive a Plague) was that the government was not handling the crisis successfully and, in fact, denied the right to health care because many people who had HIV or AIDS could not receive necessary treatment or medications. The roots of this crisis were seen by the activists in prejudice against gay people and hatred of them. One of the activists claims to have heard from his supervisor that “they all [gay men] deserve to die because they took it up the butt” (How to Survive a Plague), and during ACT UP meetings, many people declared that this negative attitude toward gay people is an unacceptable condition that prevents thousands of people from receiving proper health care services.
The vision of the media was that the crisis was a major event in the social life and civil society activity in the United States. Media were interested in the public aspects of the campaigns conducted by ACT UP only; they covered ACT UP protests and meetings with hospitals’ administrators and the mayor of New York. In their coverage, media are supposed to be objective, and in the case of ACT UP activities, both sides were presented: non-violent protests and the position of the government. This position was to deny the fact of the crisis and blame activists for promoting their agenda inadequately. For example, Ed Koch, the mayor of New York, said that ACT UP used fascist tactics. According to the activists (the documentary mostly presents their perspective), the government asked hospitals not to diagnose people with AIDS to avoid declaring a state of emergency. Therefore, it can be said that the policymakers viewed the crisis as a serious threat to their power because it could cause protests and undermine the health care system that was unable to provide necessary services to all the people with AIDS.
ACT UP Strategies: Advantages and Limits
One of the strategies that ACT UP activists used to push their claims was protesting against the position of the government and that of hospitals. The protests were mostly non-violent, and the documentary contains footage of mass gatherings of activists in the streets where they screamed out different chants, such as “Act up! Fight back!” and lied down on the ground when asked to disperse. The advantage of the non-violent strategy is that activists who adopt it manage to promote their agenda without being perceived as aggressive or hostile (Gingrich-Philbrook 83). Such a perception could shape a negative attitude toward ACT UP among the general public, and their agenda could be undermined. It was a strong strategy because the LGBT community, which constituted a remarkable part of the ACT UP movement, was stigmatized during the AIDS crisis, and hostile behavior could stigmatize them even more because they would have been labeled as aggressive and violent; instead, they wanted to peacefully demand the fulfillment of their right to health care. The limit of the strategy is that the government may be unwilling to swiftly respond to protests unless those protests involve violence.
Another strategy was consolidation. The activists came to the meetings with hospital administrators in large groups; when they were asked to leave only three representatives for negotiation and go away, they refused and insisted that the entire group stayed at the hospital until the meeting between the activists’ representatives and the administrators took place. The advantage of the strategy is that it demonstrated that many people were united around one idea, and they were resolute. The limit is that the movement still had its internal conflicts (for example, some people thought it was necessary to act more violently), which is why complete consolidation was unattainable.
One more strategy used by ACT UP was to encourage closeted gay people to come out and support the agenda of the movement. For example, the activists used the slogan “Silence=Death” (Robson and Sumara 27). The advantage of the strategy was that it allowed attracting new supporters and showing that ACT UP was not about AIDS only but equal rights in general; particularly, equal rights for gay people. The limit of the strategy was that it promoted the stigma in a way because it strengthened the perception that AIDS is a “gay disease.”
Activist and Expert Claim Makers
Claims made by the activists are sharp, resolute, emotional, and often politically charged. The purpose of the activists was to attract more supporters and make the government address the AIDS crisis properly, which is why their claims needed to be strong and loud. Expert claims, on the other hand, needed to be calm and reasonable because the role of an expert is to analyze or share knowledge and not to struggle. For example, many scientists, such as chemists and biologists, were part of the ACT UP movement to support it with expert opinions on the way the AIDS crisis should be addressed. It strengthened the movement and brought practical benefits because more people became educated on how to take safety measures to avoid AIDS or how to live with the disease.
France, David, director. How to Survive a Plague. Public Square Films, Ninety Thousand Words, and Ted Snowdon Foundation, 2012.
Gingrich-Philbrook, Craig. “ACT UP as a Structure of Feeling.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 98, no. 1, 2012, pp. 81-88.
Robson, Claire, and Dennis Sumara. “Silence, Death, and D/discourse: Critical Literary Practices with Lesbian Seniors.” Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 2015, pp. 27-34.