Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism

“The early days of the AIDS epidemic were marked by prejudice, ignorance, and political strife — but the grassroots work of pioneering activists changed the conversation, sparking the fight that generated real change, and eventually, strong action from national and international leaders.” [1]

ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) is an international direct action advocacy group working to affect the lives of people with AIDS to bring about legislation, medical research and treatment, and policies to bring an end to the disease by mitigating loss of health and lives.  It was formed in 1987 in New York City after Larry Kramer spoke out against the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (now GMHC), which he had co-founded, at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center and encouraged the audience to form a new organization devoted to political action.  Three hundred people answered his call, met soon after the speech, and formed ACT UP.  Some of this group’s history was chronicled at an exhibition that recently closed.

Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism” was an exhibition at The New York Public Library from October 4, 2013 through April 6, 2014  in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.  The title of the exhibition comes from a 1988 speech entitled “Why We Fight,” given by writer and activist Vito Russo at two ACT UP demonstrations and excerpted here:

“AIDS is really a test of us, as a people. When future generations ask what we did in this crisis, we’re going to have to tell them that we were out here today. And we have to leave the legacy to those generations of people who will come after us. Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes—when that day has come and gone, there’ll be people alive on this earth—gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.” [2]

The free exhibition examined the pioneering work of AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S., especially in New York City.  The exhibition was divided into categories, including Changing Perceptions of People Living with HIV, Safer Sex and Needle Exchanges, Public Mourning,  Healthcare Activism, and HIV Today. The New York Public Library has preserved the archives of important organizations and individuals involved in AIDS activism, including Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Gran Fury (an AIDS activist art collective), and ACT UP NY, and items from these collections were used in the exhibition, including video footage, pamphlets, books, buttons, and journals.

In conjunction with the exhibition, The New York Public Library hosted a series of programs and screenings related to AIDS activism.  There was a screening of How to Survive a Plague, followed by a discussion with the film’s director and others.  In January, they presented “How to ACT UP,” a program on effective activism strategies from current and former members of ACT UP.  There was also a film series drawn from the Library’s collections, which was curated by Jim Hubbard, the director and coproducer of the documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP.  The Library also provided the opportunity for twelve people- artists, writers, and activists- to take a series of workshops with artist, writer, and activist Avram Finkelstein to create site-specific installations in four library branches—across the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island—that explore the ways that HIV and AIDS are currently affecting these local New York City communities.  Participants were to form working groups, develope installation concepts, and execute the installation, as well as participate in a public program in the Library site to launch and discuss the installation.  The finished product is set to launch in May.

The exhibition seemed to have been received mostly well by the public.  In some reviews online, visitors described how they appreciated that the exhibition did not back down from the difficult issues that prevented people from talking openly about AIDS in the past, and also that it did a good job of chronicling the hard work of AIDS activists and the need for AIDS activism in the first place.  However, there were also criticisms that the exhibition did not discuss anything after about 1997, and some people thought the exhibition treated the AIDS epidemic as finished, rather than the ongoing crisis it still is today.  Perhaps other institutions will pick up where The New York Public Library left off by bringing the discussion of AIDS activism into the 21st century.


Some sites of interest:

More on the NYPL exhibition

ACT UP Oral History project


ACT UP videos on YouTube


[1] “The New York Public Library Presents New Exhibition: Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism,” The New York Public Library, September 9, 2013, http://www.nypl.org/press/press-release/2013/09/09/new-york-public-library-presents-new-exhibition-why-we-fight-remember.

[2] Vito Russo, “Why We Fight,” ACT UP Demonstration, Albany, NY, May 9, 1988, speech transcript, http://www.actupny.org/documents/whfight.html.

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