Like many sometime anarchists, funky-minded leftists, and radical democrats, I lost my heart at my first ACT UP meeting. For years I’d resigned myself to working in progressive political groups whose structure had all too little to do with their version of a freer society. Suddenly the AIDS crisis had generated a group that recognized organizational structure as political: there were 400 people in the room and most of them voiced their opinions to the other 399 at some time during the meeting. The entire group decided on every action to be done in ACT UP’s name. For people born in a country where political passivity is imbibed along with mother’s milk, this degree of participation was like eating political spinach.
At my first meeting back in 1988, facilitators helped the room focus on specific, agreed-upon topics, but there was also much laughter, spontaneous bursts of chanting, kissing. And weeping: when friends died, no one gave a thought to keeping a stiff upper lip. Activists planning a demonstration actually discussed the need to provide emotional support to fellow ACT UP members who might get upset and scared when they were arrested. (No one with whom I worked politically had ever mentioned emotional support.) Later, at a demonstration, ACT UP took over the street, marching 15 abreast, linking arms street corner to street corner. “Which one of you is the leader?” the police captain asked. “We are all the leader. None of us is the leader,” came the reply. “If you want to talk, you have to talk to all of us.”
Donna Minkowitz is the author of Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates (Riverdale Avenue Books, 2013), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, and Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury (Free Press, 1998), winner of the 1999 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir. A former feature writer for The Village Voice, she has also written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon, The Nation, and Ms., among others. She is currently the restaurant critic for Gay City News in New York.
This piece is excerpted from “ACT UP at a Crossroads,” which appeared in The Village Voice, June 5, 1990, and was reprinted in We are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics (Routledge, 1997), edited by Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan.