AZT Break

For years, the only thing I knew about the culture of the early AIDS epidemic in NYC, I knew from the musical RENT. Sure, I knew more about the disease itself. In fact, in high school I was vice president of a club called the Teen Aids Task Force. We were trained and educated about AIDS, STD prevention, and sex ed, and then we shared our knowledge with the younger middle school students. I knew all about t-cell counts, the dangers of nonoxynol-9, and exactly how much spit you’d have to swallow to contract HIV from kissing (about a gallon. At once.) But I never knew about the culture of the disease and the activism surrounding it; I knew the science, but had missed the history.

‘Actual Reality – Act Up – Fight AIDS!’

tumblr_makkdz5wMJ1rdiofvo1_500I first saw RENT when I was 16. To say it had an impact on me would be an understatement. There’s a lot of reasons teenagers flock to RENT; the rock opera sound track, the gorgeous 20-something actors, the pure unadulterated angst, and the overall message of “be yourself; fight the man!” all make it quite appealing to adolescent theatre nerds, myself included. But there’s a lot in RENT that your average 16 year old misses, including the reality imbedded in the theatrics. The HIV infected characters all take AZT, when they can afford it. They sing and shout about “ACT UP.” What did these words mean to 16 year old me? Not a damn thing.

After reading Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, I decided the time had come to look into the culture and activism of AIDS at a deeper level. I watched the documentary How to Survive a Plague, which I highly recommend. This stirring film follows the history of the early epidemic and the activism of the organization ACT UP.  ACT UP (or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formally founded in 1987, and it’s goal was to bring about legislation, medical research and policies to ultimately bring an end to the disease by mitigating loss of health and lives [1] It was through the action of AIDS activists that AZT, the first drug to treat the HIV/AIDS infection, was released on the market in 1987, a mere 25 months after it’s first demonstration of efficacy. The release of AZT onto the market still holds the record of shortest drug development time in FDA history. [2]

ACT UP also worked to spread medical information throughout the community. The organization created pamphlets and documents based on countless interviews with doctors an

d other health professionals. These people were also invited to come speak at ACT UP meetings, and share their knowledge and research about the disease with the people battling it daily. Those facing AIDS were frightened and often misinformed about the disease and their options for treatment. ACT UP sought to clarify the mystery surrounding AIDS and in the early years of the epidemic, was one of the first groups to take on the role of education for the HIV+ community.[3]

The work done by activists to speed up AIDS research and get the desperately needed drugs into the hands of patients was


and continues to be heroic. Considering the oppression and violence faced by gay men and women, HIV+ men and women, and people who fit into both categories, one cannot help but marvel at the courage of these folks to stand up in front of congress and the world and demand to be heard.

16 year old me me thought “actually reality! ACT UP! FIGHT AIDS!” were just lyrics in a song; a beautiful battle cry for the ignored and persecuted. 26 year old me now knows that these words mean so much more than that.


[2] Cimons, Marlene (21 March 1987). “U.S. Approves Sale of AZT to AIDS Patients”. Los Angeles Times. p. 1.

[3] How to Survive a Plague, Directed by David France, 2012.

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