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ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, is a direct action movement using protest to bring attention to AIDS and related issues. The first ACT UP group was formed in March 1987 in New York City.

In 1987 and 1988 they held several direct action/civil disobedience protests against Wall Street and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, demanding greater access to experimental AIDS drugs and protesting high prices of AZT. The movement soon spread to many cities around the world. ACT UP was known for provocative slogans and actions, and going for shock value. These included holding actions at high schools such as distributing condoms and explicit sex guides to teenagers (one was titled "How to Fuck Safely" and illustrated with two men performing oral sex); stickers using the pink triangle symbol (formerly used by the Nazis in concentration camps to identify gay men) to make a point about AIDS being analogous to the Holocaust; and their December 1989 protest against the Catholic Church's anti-condom, anti-sex education doctrine during which ACT UP members reportedly entered St. Patrick's Cathedral, disrupted mass and desecrated a communion wafer.[note 1]

Early ACT UP priorities were support for open discussion of sexuality and safe sex in opposition to the religious right, protests against companies pressuring them to change policies rooted in ignorance (such as one airline refusing at the time to admit passengers with AIDS), opposition to the first Gulf War, and most significantly demands that governments eliminate the red tape holding back the approval of new AIDS drugs, while pioneering a colorful if shocking and explicit protest style.[1] ACT UP would soon lurch hard to the left and focus more on demands for more government funding for various things.


After the movement's peak in the early 1990s, ACT UP began to splinter and shifted its focus toward identity politics. Queer Nation would spin off from ACT UP in 1990, taking ACT UP's protest style into the area of fighting homophobia and popularizing 'queer' as a reclaimed self-identifier. ACT UP and Queer Nation groups alike fractured over demands by some that they abandon purely AIDS or anti-homophobia related activism in favor of an agenda of fighting heterosexism, capitalism, racism, classism, sexism, poverty, etc., and from ultra-leftists who seemed more interested in rooting out any trace of "white privilege" or hierarchical structure from their own groups, which extended to demands that everything be done only on the basis of consensus and that groups be led by women,[note 2] immigrants, and people of color.[2] However, one article credits ACT UP Philadelphia's continued success with a shift in membership toward African-Americans and women, and away from white gay men,[3] so this may have worked both ways.

ACT UP groups still exist in a few cities.

HIV denialism and altie woo in ACT UP SF[edit]

Of special note is the San Francisco group, which split into two hostile factions. The original split happened in 1990 between a group who wanted to focus on expanding access to treatment, ACT UP Golden Gate, and a group who wanted to focus on a broader political agenda, ACT UP San Francisco.[4]

Starting in 1994 until a couple of years ago, ACT UP San Francisco got lost in its own special kind of moonbattery, embracing HIV denialism,[5] anti-vaccination, alternative medicine, and radical animal rights including opposition to animal testing of HIV drugs.[6]

To further add to the confusion, on February 29, 2000, ACT UP Golden Gate changed its name to Survive AIDS to avoid confusion with the other group,[7] and on March 27, 2000, the rival ACT UP San Francisco launched a new campaign, "Survive AIDS!"[8] ACT UP New York, ACT UP Philadelphia and ACT UP Boston have all issued statements denouncing ACT UP San Francisco's HIV denialism.[9] A current website claiming to be ACT UP San Francisco is a content farm spamming altie health woo.[10] However, a number of non-denialist activists have since revived ACT UP San Francisco,[11] and their real official website appears to be a Facebook page.[12]


  1. Although the ACT UP New York website describes this as "The news media choose to focus on, and distort, a single Catholic demonstrator's personal protest involving a communion wafer."
  2. Often spelled "wimmin" or "womyn" in that milieu.


  1. Early timeline
  2. See [ Rebecca Lavine, "When worlds collide: Activists look for life after feminism and ACT UP"] and Liz Highleyman, "Radical Queers or Queer Radicals?. Note neither of these articles are against what ACT UP was doing, but still illustrate that bogging down the organization in noisy internal debates over identity politics was the reason for the demise of chapter after chapter as most people found this untenable and left. This was hardly limited to ACT UP and Queer Nation; the Student Environmental Action Coalition underwent a similar collapse in the mid-1990s.
  3. Esther Kaplan, "The Mighty ACT UP Has Fallen: The Philadelphia Story"
  4. Peter Freiberg, "Name Dropping in San Francisco"
  5. Jack Nichols, "Tim Kingston on 'AIDS Terrorism' in San Francisco"
  10. www dot actupsf dot com