I was struck recently by a brief interview in OUT (or on their website anyway) with Peter Staley, a former member of ACT UP/NY and the Treatment Action Group (TAG), and one of the main protagonists in David France’s recent documentary, How to Survive a Plague. Staley laments the popular amnesia about the battles that he and many others fought in the 1980s and early 1990s to educate themselves and others about their disease, and to press for a government response to the epidemic. Although the film has raised some awareness among a new generation of gay men about the role of ACT UP and TAG in radically changing the meaning of HIV and AIDS for many in the United States, infection rates are still rising among gay men, and especially gay men of color.
Toward the end of the interview, Staley says, “We walked away in 1996, and it’s not over; it’s getting worse–and this time we’re not paying attention.” That’s true, up to a point. ACT UP did undergo a marked decline in the mid 1990s, but not everyone left the movement. ACT UP Philadelphia perhaps remained the most intact of the remaining chapters, as members worked to bring low-income people of color into the group by working with drug treatment programs, halfway houses, and AIDS service organizations with mostly poor and minority clients. Like many others fighting the HIV epidemic in black communities, they never “walked away,” and one goal of the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project is to show that AIDS activism didn’t end in 1996 any more than the AIDS epidemic did.
The Staley interview resonated with me especially because I encountered it as I was preparing for a presentation at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on ACT UP Philadelphia‘s evolving work during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although the group worked on a number of issues, including prison healthcare, affordable housing, and federal funding for needle exchange, I spoke about their advocacy for low-priced medications for people living with HIV and AIDS in the developing world. With that in mind, I was delighted to see (via Joe.My.God.) an announcement that South Africa will begin offering a version of Atripla, which combines three antiretrovirals in a single pill, for only $10 a month. By way of comparison, the patented version of the treatment costs $2000 a month in the United States.
South Africa has its own tortured relationship to AIDS, including former President Thabo Mbeki support of HIV denialists, and astronomically high infection rates driven by structural inequalities that remain from the apartheid era. Given all that, it’s wonderful to see good news coming out of the country that reflects the hard-won gains made by an international coalition of dedicated treatments activists over the years, including Staley and ACT UP Philadelphia alike.