Author Sarah Schulman Explains How ACT UP Achieved Incredible Victories for People With AIDS
Treatment for HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically since the '90s. But, because HIV/AIDS still exists, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, still exists to advocate for healthcare reform and research and the rights of people with HIV/AIDS.
In the spring of 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, was born. The upstart organization started making noise and changes to help people with HIV/AIDS.
Sarah Schulman, a writer and a former member of the group, spoke with Inside Edition Digital about the political activist group and how it achieved incredible victories for people with AIDS.
In 1987, ACT UP accomplished a lot in a short period of time, at the height of the AIDS crisis, and had some incredible victories, Schulman said. She discusses this and more in detail in her book, “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987 to 1993.”
ACT UP forced pharmaceutical companies and the government to change how they researched medications for AIDS. “ACT UP forced the food and drug administration to make experimental drugs available to people who were sick, even if they had not been approved,” Schulman said.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg to what this organization accomplished. “ACT UP made needle exchange legal in New York City, which meant that people who were using needles for intravenous drug use could exchange them for clean needles so that they could avoid transmitting HIV through blood contact," Schulman said.
"ACT UP ran a four-year campaign to make sure that women with AIDS could get benefits and get access to experimental drugs," she continued. "And really, ACT UP transformed how queer people and people with AIDS felt about themselves and how we were represented in the mainstream media.”
Not only was ACT UP making waves in the community, but the bold and daring organization’s public protests also made the group difficult to ignore.
They were even able to stop the Catholic Church when they tried to interfere with condom distribution in public schools, Schulman said. “So at one point, the Catholic Church in New York City was fighting public schools who wanted to make condoms available to students to save their lives. And ACT UP thought, this is a state of emergency,” she said.
“We can't just sit back and let the church do this and if it caused people's deaths," she said. "So they made the very bold move of in December 1989, disrupting mass at St. Patrick's cathedral, demanding that the church stop hurting people, not only queer people but anyone who was trying to protect themselves from HIV.”
Controversial protest helped create a shift in how the LGBTQ community stood up for itself, Schulman said. “It was considered a real changing moment in gay politics and in queer power because it was really the first time that people with AIDS stood up to such a fixed, large source of power in New York City as the Catholic church,” she said.
Treatment for HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically since the '90s. But, because HIV/AIDS still exists, ACT UP still exists to advocate for healthcare reform and research and the rights of people with HIV/AIDS.
And because the early years of ACT UP may serve as a template for other activist groups, Schulman has advice on how they can fight for their cause. “I think the most important takeaway is to be focused on concrete goals to educate yourself so that you are the expert to design the solution that's reasonable, winnable, and doable. To present it to the powers that be,” Schulman said.
And if that doesn't work, put the pressure on with "nonviolent civil disobedience so that you can communicate to the public through the media and pressure institutions to change," Schulman said.
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