Intersectional Crises in an Anti-AIDS Organization: The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA
by Benita Roth, PhD
Professor of Sociology and History, Binghamton University
Co-director, Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Vice-President for Academics, Binghamton Chapter, United University Professions (UUP)
In the 1980s and 1990s, dozens of social movement organizations arose to fight the government and health care industry neglect of the AIDS crisis. In the U.S. and abroad, dozens and perhaps hundreds of incarnations of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP emerged in LGBT communities -- these were direct-action, militant anti-AIDS organizations that fought for more resources to help people with AIDS and reshape the health care system.
In this talk, I explore the dynamics that led to the birth and demobilization of ACT UP/Los Angeles. I argue that the group's "intersectional crises" -- moments in which inequalities of gender, race/ethnicity and class affected decisions that group members made about the proper course of politics, and especially, about the boundaries of their community -- enervated the group. These crises occurred even though participants in ACT UP/LA were conscious and aware of inequalities and the challenges they represented for creating unity. I examine three quite different intersectional crises within ACT UP/LA: 1) the influx of participants into ACT UP/LA in late 1991 as a result of California governor Pete Wilson’s veto of Assembly Bill 101, a lesbian and gay rights bill, which challenged ACT UP/LA to accept new members not versed in the gender and racial/ethnic stances of the group; 2) disputes with gendered, racial/ethnic and sexualized components beginning in early to mid- 1992 within ACT UP/LA about resources used for a needle exchange project, and about efforts to move the Monday night General Body meetings to different sites around L.A. in order to reach more people of color; and 3) local and negative reverberations about “competing” gendered national protest actions that took place in April 1993 during the “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Rights and Liberation.”
I conclude that conflict over inequalities within ACT UP/LA were enervating for activists, and that the case shows that we need to think concretely and contextually about how all activist spaces are continuously crosscut by large-scale, longstanding relationships of inequalities, making solidarity a continuous challenge regardless of ideology.