Thursday, January 20, 2011

The 80s: Politics and Protest

Two Roadblocks
In 1986 the gay rights movement experienced two blows to its progress. The first involved the Vatican which issued a statement to Roman Catholic bishops describing homosexuality as "a tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." The letter also stated that officials should withdraw support from gay organizations. This huge reduction in support was a surprise to the LGBTQ community who were already busy with the task of defending themselves against the AIDS panic. 

The second blow came from the United States Supreme Court in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick. In 1982 Michael Hardwick was arrested for sodomy. Georgia, unlike many other states, had never repealed its old laws against sodomy. The case was appealed to Supreme Court; if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hardwick it would nullify all sodomy laws in the U.S. and thus pave the way for other anti-discrimination laws. Unfortunately the court came back with a 5-4 verdict against Hardwick, claiming "millenia of moral teaching" as justification. The impact of this would be that for the next ten years it would be illegal in some states to have private, consensual, gay sex.

Boiling Point
In Spring of 1986 the National Cancer Institute announced that a drug called zidovudine, more commonly known as AZT, showed promise in treating AIDS, but it wasn't available until the following year. When it was released, the drug was priced at $10,000 for a year's supply, thus making it one of the most expensive medications ever sold. In December 1986 Avram Finkelstein led a poster campaign in New York called 'Silence = Death'. The image soon became the symbol for gay activism. The following year a small radical group called the Lavender Hill Mob started media 'zapping' in order to protest the sluggish medical bureaucracy and the lack of funding for AIDS research. 

In March 1987, Kramer was featured as the weekly speaker at New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Center. There he gave a speech which inspired three hundred people to gather two days later and form the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). ACT UP described themselves as "united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis." The groups first goal was to make an early release of all experimental drugs used to treat AIDS. ACT UP thus descended onto wall street to fight the pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome. The protesters laid down in the middle of the street and brown rush-hour traffic to a standstill. 

Other protests ACT UP did involved throwing fake money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and having "Die-Ins" along Wall Street. Similarly, when Northwest Airlines decided to deny tickets to people with AIDS, ACT UP flooded the airline with false reservations. Some members threw buckets of fake blood into public places, shouting "AIDS blood." At the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, Maryland, one thousand people held a protest over a nine-hour period. 

ACT UP's most controversial protest was held in December 1989, during Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Protesters entered the church, laid down, and handcuffed themselves to the pews. Many of the protesters suffered from AIDS and were visibly sick. Several of the protesters were so sick that they had to be taken out on stretchers. Forty-three people were arrested inside, and sixty-nine others were arrested outside. 

Additional/Relevant Reading:
Gay America: Struggle for Equality -- Linas Alsenas, pg. 118-122
History of ACT UP --
Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian Contemporary History -- Reference, pg. 178-179

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