By Gabriela Laracca
On April 4 at 7 p.m. in Boehm 145, HIV/AIDS awareness and LGBT rights activist Peter Staley gave his presentation, “Fighting Back: From ACT UP to the Resistance” to a diverse audience of students, staff and local residents. Staley was invited by Dr. Curt Herr of the English Department to spread valuable words of activism in both this main lecture and several other smaller lectures he held throughout the day for specific classes, including Herr’s Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature class.
Staley is known for his work with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), founding AIDSmeds.com and branching off from ACT UP to help form the Treatment Action Group (TAG), a group solely dedicated to pushing research and treatment advances. He was also a primary figure in journalist David France’s 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.”
Having grown up listening to political family arguments, Staley developed a passion for politics and spent his childhood and young adult years dreaming of being president. After graduating from Oberlin College with a degree in Economics and Government, Staley began working at the bond trading desk of J.P. Morgan on Wall Street to embark upon this political path. He hoped to move up through governmental branches after holding this position.
Approximately 2 years before the formation of ACT UP and a month after Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS in 1985, Staley went to his doctor for a bad cough. At the time, his doctor was ordering all homosexual male patients be blood tested. Staley, upon testing, was diagnosed with what was called AIDS-Related Complex (ARC) at just 24 years old. After being told that there were no treatments and the fatality rate was near 100%, he believed that he was not going to live long enough to see a cure. He decided to build a support network of family members.
Sparked by his diagnosis and passion for change, Staley joined ACT UP after being handed a flyer by a young activist in 1987 on his way to work at J.P. Morgan.
During the presentation, Staley mentioned that his boss at the time, Mark Warner, believed that people with AIDS deserved the illness and death for partaking in sodomy. Remaining closeted at work at first, Staley continued to work as a bond trader while simultaneously chairing ACT UP’s fundraising operations before coming out, going on disability leave and becoming a full-time activist.
Described by Staley as “the greatest movement in queer history,” ACT UP demonstrated creatively and passionately for their cause. Some of these protests included the 1989 New York Stock Exchange infiltration to oppose AZT’s high cost of $10k per year, the “Stop the Church” protests opposing the Catholic Church’s views on safe sex and sexuality, the National Institute of Health demonstration in Bethesda, MD and the Ashes Actions at the White House, where members of ACT UP and other activists scattered the ashes of loved ones killed by the epidemic to shame neglectful politicians. Staley has been arrested ten separate times for his activism work.
The New York Stock Exchange infiltration was achieved impressively by just Staley and six other activists. Chaining themselves to the VIP balcony above the main trading floor, they released a banner reading “Sell Welcome,” drowned out the opening bell with Marine-grade air horns, and rained down upon the traders with fake $100 bills reading “Fuck your profiteering. We die while you play business.” Just days after, Burroughs Wellcome decreased the price of AZT by 20%.
Although it did not receive as much press coverage as other demonstrations at the time, the Ashes Action was possibly the most chilling and emotional of ACT UP’s demonstrations. Staley showed a clip of this event, featured in “How to Survive a Plague,” to an emotional audience. With funeral drums pounding through the background, activists chanted “Bringing our dead to your door / We won’t take it anymore” and “Out of the quilt and into the streets/ Join us, join us.”
According to a VICE interview with David Reid, another member of ACT UP, “The government had ignored their funerals. If you won’t come to the funeral, we’ll bring the funeral to you.”
Following the portion of Staley’s presentation focusing on ACT UP and their historical efforts to better the lives of those with AIDS, he discussed ways the audience could advocate for modern issues. He compared recent issues and demonstrations, including the 2017 JFK anti-Trump Muslim Ban protests, Women’s Marches and Parkland, Fla. anti-gun protests to the actions of former AIDS activists.
“You see these students being attacked by 25% of the country and Fox News and being portrayed as monsters but they’re taking that and using it,” said Staley on teenage gun law activists. “They’re fighting back against being attacked and they’re turning it into more blood to feed the story that they’re trying to get out… they’re making it a story that perpetuates what they are talking about, giving them an even stronger voice.”
After the presentation, a Q&A session was held for audience members to have an open discussion with Staley. One audience member that chimed into the conversation was a local resident who was a former member of ACT UP as well. He explained that he has been a lifelong activist, dating back to Vietnam War protests, but he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1998. He also explained that because of ACT UP, instead of taking 5 different medications and 19 pills a day, he just takes one. However, the price of just 3 of these pills costs him $3000/month.
Today, the homophobia rate in the United States sits at 23% and the National Institute of Health AIDS research budget is $3 billion per year. Although ACT UP and TAG have taken great strides towards the advancement of AIDS treatment and research, Staley explained that to this day, they are still hard at work. After 35 million lost and the price gouging of pharmaceuticals still happening today, AIDS activism does not stop here.
“History is being written again and we will be part of it,” said Staley.