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)

Like A Love Story

Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian is a beautiful and brutal love letter to what it meant to be a gay teen in the 1980s. The book tells passionately the ecstasy of first love, the discovery of one’s own identity, the fear of illness, and the rage and activism in the face of systemic injustice and indifference. The story was addictive, heartbreaking, and full of hope all at once.

But what is Like a Love Stoy, exactly?

It starts with Reza. Reza is an Iranian immigrant from Toronto by way of Tehran. He and his mother move to New York to settle in with their new stepfamily. Along with all these changes, he knows that he’s gay and he struggles against it. It’s 19899 and all he can see in his future is informed by images of sickness and death brought on by the AIDs crisis in the news. He fears death and is sure that being true to himself will kill him.

Upon entering his new school he befriends Judy, an aspiring fashion designer. When she meets Reza, she’s head over heels for him. Art is Judy’s best friend and the only openly gay person in the school. Reza is both entranced and fearful of his feelings towards him. 

Both Judy and Art are involved in the local ACT UP organization headed by Judy’s uncle, Stephan. They both look up to him and anxious of the remaining time they have with him since he’s slowly succumbing to AIDs. 

There are a lot of layers in this book. The narrative itself alternates between Reza’s, Judy’s and Art’s point of view. There’s an intimacy to their experience conveyed through the prose. This makes certain points in the narrative visceral and uncomfortable. You feel keenly the emotions of each of these characters and I would argue that that’s where the beating heart of this story rests. The rawness I often felt sat with me in a very good way. 

With that said, it’s an admittingly heavy read. Dark parts of recent history are discussed and shown in all their ugliness. Not just AIDs itself but the indifference shown by the public and the powers that be. The characters in one way or another confront this ugliness but even here, there are signs of cautious hope. It’s a history that needs to be seen. Not just the disease itself but the struggle to bring awareness. It shined a light on an organization that I was only aware of vaguely and has inspired me to look deeper into the history. 

I personally think this is a must-read not just for people who’d like a thoughtful teen romance but readers looking for an inspiring story about identity and a history lesson in LGBTQA activism. It’s for these reasons and more that I loved this book.  

Where You Can Find the Book


Indiebound (Hardcover) // Indiebound (Paperback)

Or your local library! Hey, that’s where I found my copy 🙂

Non-Fiction Book Highlights [December 2017]

For the last year, I’ve been hooked on nonfiction. Being a big history nerd, my shelves fill up pretty quickly with glorious nonfiction picks. Unlike fiction books however, I don’t tend to know what to say about a good deal most of them other than they’re amazing or they read like your typical dry academic text (of course, I’ll be highlighting the former more often than the latter). But I wanted to shed some light on them and I want to convince you (yes, YOU!) to read them!

1) Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

radium girlsThis book was extremely difficult to put down. From the moment I picked it up, I was feverishly paging through it. Despite being a history book, the language flowed like seamless narrative fully bringing each one of the many shining women to life.

There was a sense of doom that hung over the narrative. The book talks about all the girls poisoned by the Luminous Clock companies throughout WWI into the 1930s. Reading about the women’s misfortunes–to their medical problems due to their radioactive exposure to their prolonged fight against time to get justice against the companies who knowingly harmed them–was hard to read but very engrossing.

Recommend if interested in: work comp history, medical history, radium, stories about women, domestic American WWI stories

2) The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

poisonershandbookI finished The Poisoner’s Handbook a little while ago. I was pointed in its direction after reading A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang (a wonderful historical fiction you should also read!!!) which used this book as part of its research.

This book was really good. Its a  superb nonfiction about the development of forensic toxicology in 1920s New York. It was a book organized by poison and how certain techniques were developed to detect these poisons in prominent murders cases. The two primary characters were Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, major in the New York forensic scene. Not only do you get a good dose of history dressed in murder and poison, the book did a wonderful job in bringing both Norris, Gettler and the setting of New York to life.

Recommend if you’re interested in: murder, poison, Prohibition, forensic toxicology, 1920s

3) Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me by Janet Mock

surpassing certaintyI feel like Surpassing Certainty will grow to be one of the most important books I’ve read in 2017. I found myself bingeing the last 100 or so pages and it touched me more than I thought it would. Janet Mock’s reflections on her twenties, the twists and turns in her life, and her journey to find herself and be comfortable with herself really got to me.

Recommend if you’re interested in:  memoir. diverse perspectives (poc, trans, and lgbtqa), learning ways to navigate your twenties or life in general