ACT UP and LGBTA+ Activism


Let’s talk about ACT UP for a minute. 

ACT UP protesters in front of City Hall in New York in 1992.

As I briefly mentioned in my Like A Love Story review, ACT UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power,  was a major fixture in gay rights activism and HIV awareness in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

After years of government inaction under the Reagan administration in response to HIV, thousands of Americans had succumbed to the disease. This was majorly due to the wide perception that the disease only affected gay men and the rampant anti-gay sentiments across the nation often tied to religion. It’s well documented that the Reagan administration knew for years that the disease was a crisis and chose to do nothing. It’s also widely known that major treatments pushed by the pharmaceutical industry were inaccessible to most due to the price and proven more harmful than alternatives available in other parts of the world. 

ACT UP was started in March 1987 to bring attention to the AIDs epidemic and demanded action on the part of the government that was letting members of the LGBTQIA+ community die. Started by Larry Kramer (1935 – 2020) in the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in Manhattan, the group would go on to engage in nonviolent protests around the country. It was truly a rainbow coalition of various affinity groups that worked towards bringing awareness and action in a time where many of their friends and loved ones were dying.

They put a spotlight on the AIDs crisis and made it known the injustices they’ve endured under a system that didn’t care about them. They made them care by reminding them of their responsibility to protect all citizenry no matter their creed, gender, or sexual orientation. 

Here is just a short list of what they did:

  • Held a demonstration on Wall Street to demand more access to experimental drugs and halt “business as usual” in the face of the epidemic.
  • Protested at the doorstep of the FDA to expand drug access and to speed up the drug approval process
  • Urged the CDC to change their definition of AIDs to include women and needle users
  • Held a die-in in St Patrick’s Cathedral after Archbishop John O’Connor opposed the use of condoms and abortions. This was well after it was proven that safe sex practices helped stop the spread of the disease.
  • Spread the ashes on the White House lawn to for the H. W. Bush administration’s continued inaction had a real body count

The important lessons to take from ACT UP and all civil protests is that they denounced the system loudly. Protests force those in power to listen and to act. It was a slow painful struggle but due to their efforts and countless others, HIV research, education, and medication are more widely available and they continue to work towards more equitable access to these resources. 

ACT UP is still active today. Since the beginning, they’ve advocated that health care should be a human right and still take up that stance today. They have 70 chapters worldwide.


ACT Up (Britannica Article)

ACT UP Historical Archive

And since I love documentaries:

United in Anger: The History of ACT UP (Youtube) (1 hr 33 mins)