A recent local panel brought together former members of ACT UP to explore the role that affect, or feelings, played in the group during its heyday.
The discussion, entitled 'Affect and ACT UP,' was brought together by the group Feel Tank Chicago to the University of Chicago on March 8, around the 20th anniversary of the emergence of ACT UP/New York. The panelists included Gregg Bordowitz, Ann Cvetkovich, Mary Patten and Kendall Thomas—all former members of ACT UP.
Whenever ACT UP is mentioned in relation to its HIV/AIDS activism, the word 'anger' is often used to describe the feelings of its members. This roundtable discussion hoped to explore how feelings of rage, in addition to many others often overlooked and only understood by those involved, played a role.
The event was moderated by former ACT UP/Chicago member Deborah Gould, who is an ACT UP historian and member of Feel Tank. Gould told the crowd that Larry Kramer was not the founder of ACT UP/New York because no single person founds a movement, and that there were direct-action groups that came before the organization. Though the emergence of the New York group brought visibility to the HIV epidemic, key historical facts are often left out, she said, such as the depth of 'homo hatred' regarding discussions about HIV/AIDS during the '80s. The panel discussion was meant to make people think about this history; commemorate 20 years since the emergence of ACT UP; and focus on the feelings and emotions that drove people to action, and what role those feelings played in the organization.
Bordowitz opened the discussion, revealing how he first tested positive in 1988, came out of the closet, cleaned up and was part of ACT UP for six years. For him, as well as others in his group, ACT UP contained an almost religious quality of belief—the faith that this epidemic would be stricken down in his lifetime. During that time, the group felt an urgency to become activists because of conditions not chosen by them, though there was an element of free will.
'Each person affected could decide whether or not be become an activist,' Bordowitz said.
It is hard to pinpoint or describe the emotions those involved felt, according to Bordowitz. 'It's something we have yet, or ever will be able, to put into words,' he said.
Cvetkovich—who was involved in ACT UP/Austin—focused on the oral histories of those involved in ACT UP and how that oral history is, in itself, a form of activism. She mentioned the ACT UP Oral History Project, a Web site ( www.actuporalhistory.org ) that makes available over 60 interviews with former ACT UP members.
Patten, who was involved along with Gould in ACT UP/Chicago, showed a collection of video clips, photographs and stills from moments in the local group's history. 'We combined sheer rage with sheer joy; goofiness with critique,' Patten said.
What Patten was trying to convey was that, like Cvetkovich said, the organization was emotionally complex.
Thomas was involved in ACT UP from 1988 to 1992. He describes meetings he attended as not only saving his life, but 'exhilarating, enlightening … in a time when we knew we were living in the valley of the shadow of death,' he said.
ACT UP, he continued, offered those involved respect and retreat, as well as a reprieve from the homophobia surrounding the disease at the time.
With the dying out of ACT UP group across the U.S., Thomas added that the feeling is like losing one's world. No longer is there that solidarity, humor, care, affection and rage.
During a Q&A session following the discussion, students and the panelists addressed current apathy towards the epidemic, and whether or not it is possible to revive ACT UP groups. In response, Bordowitz said, 'On most days, I feel apathetic. On good days, I see new things going on,' such as youth creating new and exciting organizations across the country. Most panelists conveyed his apathy, saying that ACT UP was formed out of the emotions of the current time, and they are unsure there is a time and place for that specific organization again.