Read My Lips: Reflections of an Accidental AIDS Activist

Douglas Crimp had been an art critic for over a decade. But in the summer of 1987, a lethal disease was on the rise and he got swept up in another vocation.

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Douglas Crimp's detour into the world of AIDS activism was prompted by a pink triangle. Back in New York from a trip to Germany in 1987, he couldn't ignore this graphic, which was on buttons, stickers, banners, t-shirts, and posters everywhere. An art critic since the early '70s, he admired its simple but striking design and the choice to render SILENCE = DEATH in bold, white Gill Sans font against a black background. As a gay man who was suddenly embroiled in a new epidemic, he was also moved by its message.

That summer, he joined a new AIDS activist group called ACT UP. "That was a lesson for me," says Crimp, who was in the middle of his 13-year stint as an editor of the cultural journal October. "A really, really, smart, really punchy graphic image could captivate and form a community around an issue."

In the gallery below, see other powerful protest paraphernalia that Crimp and his fellow demonstrators used to gain public support for AIDS, stop the New York Stock Exchange, and seize the FDA in the late '80s. Then, in the Q&A that follows, hear poignant reflections from this art and culture academic about the rise and demise of ACT UP, and the enduring problems with HIV/AIDS.

How did you get involved in AIDS activism?

I was implicated in it from the beginning because I'm gay and I had a lot of friends who became ill. Like everyone else at that moment who was directly affected, it kind of took over my life. Initially, I thought I'd do a couple of pieces about AIDS and art in this cultural journal. And then it mushroomed from there. When I started doing research, I met someone who told me to go to ACT UP meetings. This was in the summer of 1987, and ACT UP was formed that March. I began going to meetings, and I just got swept up into the movement. Suddenly, that's what I was doing. I was teaching, I was lecturing, I was writing, and I was demonstrating. I was just completely involved.

Fighting a global scourge. A special report

Maybe it seems kind of late in the game -- from '81 (when the virus was discovered) to '87-- but ACT UP was the beginning of real activism around the issue. It stood for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. It's a bad acronym. You know how acronyms work. They just wanted to have a catchy title.

The individual words sound very violent.

It wasn't violent. It was specifically non-violent. We were trained in civil disobedience. It's a little bit like Occupy Wall Street in that way. It's in the tradition of non-violent activism like the Civil Rights Movement. But, yes, we were unruly.

Our first demonstration was at the [New York] Stock Exchange, as a matter of fact. We were protesting the price gauging of AZT, the first drug for HIV. We shut down the exchange -- not at that demonstration but at a later one, where we got people on to the floor. We did some pretty unruly things. We occupied the Food and Drug Administration, for example, to try and get them to speed up the process of drug approvals. And we really changed things. I really do believe that working in concert with the NIH scientists can really be given a great deal of credit for the speed with which the anti-retroviral cocktail, which is saving so many people's lives right now all over the world, was developed as fast as it was. If you think about it, from 1981, the recognition that there was a new virus in the world, to 1995, when they actually developed anti-retroviral combinations that would stop that lethal virus, that's a short time for drug development. And there was a lot of pressure we brought to bear in order to make that happen. I think that's one of the great achievements of ACT UP.

Why was AIDS activism so necessary back then?

Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. The disease was recognized in 1981. By 1987, he had not spoken the word AIDS. He refused. The first thing you learn in dealing with AIDS is that the medical and social issues are completely intertwined. That's why AIDS became the crisis that it became. That's why Reagan couldn't speak the word. He didn't treat it as a medical issue. He treated it as a social, religious issue. He had a phobic response to it. Koch was also the mayor of New York City. He was considered by many to be a closeted homosexual, and he did very little to combat AIDS, at least from our perspective. It was a very grim time, politically.

It was a devastating time. The New York Times obituaries were filled every day with famous people who were dying of AIDS. There was incredible fear. If you look at the television coverage in the mid-1980s -- of course, now, television coverage has reached new heights of hysteria-mongering -- the irrationality and the kind of hysterical pitch of a lot of that coverage was astonishing.

How so?

The rhetoric had this sense of us vs. them, gay vs. straight. "There are those terrible people who have AIDS, and they might actually infect us, the people who don't get AIDS." There were various scapegoated groups of people in whom HIV was first recognized. It was a very odd mixture of people that included Haitians and people who had blood transfusions.

Young people were getting visibly sick and dying around you, and the sicknesses they were getting were terrible ones that people didn't get anymore, like Kaposi's sarcoma (a kind of cancer that manifests as skin lesions). People were wasting away. Buff gay guys suddenly, over a period of months, looked like dying old men. You would see those images, and they were shown not to solicit sympathy but to solicit fear. If you were susceptible or ill or had friends who were ill, you felt incredibly scapegoated and vilified. There was a kind of incredible hysteria about the so-called lifestyle of gay men, the excessive promiscuity. I could go on and on. It was just a huge range of negative stuff, and there was very little responsible coverage of it.

In fact, there was no coverage of it at first. That was the other problem. The New York Times was not covering AIDS. It never put AIDS on the cover for the longest time. It was like we were living in the midst of this crisis that wasn't being recognized as a crisis by the powers-that-be. All of that brought out the kind of activism that I was a part of.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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