‘Help us, we’re dying’ was the main claim of Aids activists during the 1980s and 1990s. Many weren’t receiving the medication they needed, because it had to be approved by State institutions first.
In order to effect change and essentially survival, a group formed called ACT-UP, short for Aids Coalition To Unleash Power. The movement began in New York City, but many chapters in the UK followed.
AIDS activism has been one of the most successful social movements to date. New York-based historian Sarah Schulman has come to London to explain how we can learn from it for fighting current inequalities.
In part of a four-day event and in collaboration with the London Artists Projects and Queer Tours of London, the award-winning Aids historian and ACT-UP activist Sarah Schulman is hosting events across the city, at Rich Mix, SOAS, and the ICA. Their goal is to resurface a topic that has not at all disappeared and to harness the power of coalition politics and queer liberty.
Sarah says: ‘In the first five years of Aids, 40’000 people died and the government did absolutely nothing. That’s where the activism came in. I have been covering the topic since the beginning and now return with a book on the history of Aids activism.’
Her book isn’t about nostalgia, she says, but about helping activists learn from it today.
‘Given how many different kinds of people are under attack at the moment, we need to work together,’ adds Sarah. ‘Let’s aim to elevate each other in our different circumstances and resistances, while retaining basic common values of justice.’
The opening night took place at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, where Schulman’s powerful documentary ‘United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP’ was screened, leaving spectators moved.
Much has changed since the early days of ACT-UP. Medication has become available and less people are dying from the disease, yet still: women are still not represented in medical trials, there is still a huge amount of stigma attached to Aids, and there is a great silence surrounding the topic.
Schulman believes it is important to take what has been learnt through activism in Aids and apply it to different topics – whether these are regarding fascism, gentrification or climate change – ‘I like to think of it as a big tent concept.’
Four days of coalition politics and queer liberty:
2 May, 7pm – 9:30pm, SOAS: Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York
Sarah Schulman reviews the roots of Aids activism in Feminism, Civil Rights, and Black Power, presenting ideas from her current work-in-progress Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, New York (out in 2020) which is the result of 188 interviews conducted over 18 years. Rejecting the whitening of Aids history, and examining the movements’ mistakes as well as victories, Schulman will share ideas and information with the hope of stimulating new approaches and attitudes to working together effectively for change.
3 May 6:40pm – 8:30pm, ICA: Which Way Forward? Sarah Schulman in Conversation with London’s Queer Communities – Panel Discussion + Q&A
Schulman is joined by artist and writer Travis Alabanza, performance artist and party promoter Lewis G. Burton, East End Sisters Uncut member Aviah Sarah Day, and co-founders of the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration (CTDC), Dr Nour Abu-Assab and Dr Nof Nasser Eddin, all of whom play a role in maintaining London’s queer social and political architecture, to discuss the future of the cultural and LGBTQ+ landscape in a gentrified London.
4 May, 6:30pm – 8:30pm, ICA: An exhibition by American artist and experimental writer Kathy Acker, accompanied by readings of Sarah Schulman and a discussion with Matias Viegener