Lack of 'activist' spirit doesn't bode well for organizing local groups like ACT UP
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Over the weekend, the GayCharlotte Film Festival screened “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP.” The 2012 documentary recounts the story of ACT UP, a national activist group at the forefront of HIV/AIDS and LGBT awareness in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Launched in 1987 in New York City, the direct action group and its model spread across the nation and the world. Demonstrators and picketers took to the streets to demand federal, state and local government action to end the burgeoning AIDS epidemic ravaging the gay community. The activists forced their agenda into the spotlight, demanding that their lives and stories be told and represented fairly and equally. “Silence = Death” and an inverted pink triangle became their ubiquitous calls to action.
In Charlotte, such efforts were met with an astounding thud, according to one local who’s been kind enough to share what he remembers about Charlotte’s short-lived ACT UP chapter.
“Charlotte’s gay community was not an activist community then and it is not one to this day,” says the local, who has asked us not to use his name publicly.
Read the local’s commentary below:
In the late ’80s early ’90s, an effort was undertaken in Charlotte to form a chapter of ACT UP, an activist organization bringing the AIDS crisis to the attention of the public and its elected officials. At the time, very little encouragement was being received to find a cure and promote prevention measures. Part of the problem sat in the White House. President Ronald Reagan appeared to be doing everything in his power to discredit the need for any more effort on the AIDS front because, to him, the epidemic was a gay disease. And that perception was another part of the problem.
In Charlotte, the gay disease concept was compounded. Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP) was founded by gay men to address the needs of those in our community infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. And a large amount of MAP’s funding also came from the gay community. Therefore, the perception of AIDS as a gay disease was doubly reinforced.
When the idea of an ACT UP chapter was first discussed, the need seemed obvious and there was never any doubt that it would be supported. The criteria for starting a chapter was simple – just do it. There was no national organization nor rigid guidelines as to how the whole process was supposed to work. ACT UP existed solely to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic in an “in your face” style so the message could not be ignored. It didn’t take money; it took organizing.
The information about the chapter’s formation was covered in a qnotes article and the community’s response was underwhelming to say the least. Three or four people contacted the organizer, and two of those were from out of town. Hardly enough to present a formidable demonstration. Other efforts were made to garner more support and increase the numbers. Nothing worked, and the ACT UP idea was eventually dropped.
Looking back on the ACT UP failure, it seems clear that the problem lay squarely in the lap of the gay community. At the time, Charlotte was still a rather closeted place. A large number of gays and lesbians were very supportive of our organizations – financially – but only as long as they could remain in the background and be anonymous. ACT UP was not asking for their money and it was certainly not about being anonymous, so it was impossible for many to support it had they wanted to.
Charlotte’s gay community was not an activist community then and it is not one to this day. While a lot of closet doors have swung open over the years, it isn’t often that you’ll find a large group of us protesting or demonstrating – whatever the issue might be. That doesn’t mean the community is complacent; we tend to give our support to State and National groups that will do our fighting for us. And that is not a bad thing. That just doesn’t bode well for forming a local activist organization such as ACT UP.