30 years later: AIDS activism and ACT UP Chicago

From the November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:

30 years later

AIDS activism and ACT UP Chicago

Darrell Gordon, long-time African-American Gay anarchist activist, was one of the founders of AIDS ac­tivism in Chicago.

Chicago—People in Chicago started dying from AIDS a year or two after the first nationally known cases. I started going to forums dealing with AIDS at City College campuses. In 1985 there was a vigil at St. Clement Church. In the 1980s there were “safe sex” par­ties that taught about AIDS and how to use a condom. These were common at the beginning of the outbreak.

While dealing with the fight against the disease, we also had to confront the Reagan administration, which used it as a weapon against Gay rights. Since it was then mostly Gay and Bi men who were affected, it was easy to stigmatize people.

The first political AIDS demonstration I attended was organized in 1986. A food store called Evergreen, at Belmont and Broadway, put out a newsletter calling for the quarantine of people with AIDS, and for them to be forced to wear AIDS ID bracelets. That was a common sentiment of people on the Right.

I was a member of the anti-apartheid solidarity committee for South African Moses Mayekiso, formed by Earl Silbar. I decided to join with others to hold a press conference in front of Evergreen. The guy who ran the store also ran an art festival on Broadway. We de­cided not to boycott the art fair, but to picket the store.

ACT UP grew out of an organization that began in 1984 of Dykes and Gay men against racism and re­pression. It was started mostly by folks from the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Prairie Fire. It con­centrated mostly on anti-racism work, the Pride Parade and U.S. oppression abroad.

Then in 1987, before a March on Washington, there was legislation proposing mandatory HIV testing and quarantine. People were upset about this, but were still thinking in terms of just writing letters.

We decided to do a 24-hour vigil and civil disobedi­ence action the next day at Gov. Thompson’s home in Uptown, which was very successful. Some of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force initially said they would support our demonstration, but then decided not to. I guess they thought it would hurt their relationship with the establishment.


Other activists in New York had similar experi­ences. So we became an AIDS activism organization, first Chicago For Our Rights, then by spring Chicago for AIDS Rights. We pushed for lowering the prices of AIDS drugs, and the release of more of them. By Oc­tober and the national action in Washington, D.C., we had become ACT UP Chicago.

Right away there were two factions in the group. One was largely a single-issue group of mostly white Gay men. Prairie Fire also had its own ideology when it came to dealing with race and class. The group refused the idea of bringing more people of color into the group. Their argument was that Blacks and whites should or­ganize separately in their own communities, and that African Americans could go to social service agencies to meet their needs—at a time when the churches didn’t want to deal with the issues of AIDS and Gay rights.

Because I argued consistently over race and out­reach and class, there was a tension and an attempt to freeze me out. In 1989 I initiated the idea of a People of Color Caucus to do outreach to the other communi­ties. It was geared to both people of color and working class people. It wasn’t an ego thing, but in support of the liberation of all Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans people, not just the privileged in the Lakeview neighborhood.

Other organizations that started subsequent to this were the Coalition Against Bashing, the Coalition for Positive Sexuality—a guerrilla-style activist group concerned with getting safe sex and birth control in­formation to high school students—and Queer Nation.

ACT UP Chicago ended in 1995. Lots of people in our group died, and others left because of the con­flicts. Some just wanted a single-issue movement with a white, Gay, male focus. As AIDS drugs became more available, and Clinton was elected president, the more liberal members of the Queer communities had the idea that a Democrat in the White House would save us, and we could retire from activism. The great message of the 1993 March on Washington seemed to some to be, “We don’t need to do this anymore.”

By 1994, the only active committee was the prison committee. If the group had continued, we would have had to face the question of relating to communities of color as being increasingly the casualties of the epi­demic.


It would have had to become a multi-racial group instead of a predominantly white organization. We could have built on the demonstrations against insur­ance company policies, and public health issues at Cook County Hospital, where we fought to get more beds.

AIDS, a death sentence 30 years ago, has changed. Many people are living longer. but we still haven’t got to the root of the real problem with AIDS, which is hetero­sexism and homophobia. That is connected to the issue of race, class, sexism and the economy as drug program cuts close off access to medicine.

At times Gay men and women did work side by side, but sexism needs to be addressed. Struggling against a misogynist society’s definition of relationships should not be left up to women alone.

AIDS is a global issue today. The Treatment Action Coalition in South Africa was influenced by ACT UP. This time around, I’d like to see an AIDS activist move­ment that’s organized by poor, working-class people.

That is a legacy for reviving the quest for taking control of our bodies as Gay men, too. That movement got co-opted in the late 1970s, but ACT UP essentially tried to reclaim tactics that were initiated by the Civil Rights Movement. No coincidence that it occurred dur­ing a lively climate of racism.

—Darrell Gordon

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