Before there was a name for it, there was a voice. Before there was treatment, there was a movement. AIDS activism has revolutionized the way the world approaches health. In the epidemic’s 30-year history—AIDS activists have sparked the imagination and actions of millions fighting for better health, equity and social justice.
AIDS activism had its start with groups like ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Twenty-five years ago this month, Larry Kramer was speaking from his heart in New York and galvanizing what would become the first group to use political advocacy to change the course of the AIDS epidemic.
“I spread the word that I was going to make a speech at the community centre, and an awful lot of people showed up, I’m happy to say,” said Mr Kramer in an interview in 2005. “It was amazing; it was totally amazing.”
“Larry called us together and asked us to help him take to the streets to sound the alarm that AIDS had become the largest killer of young men and women in cities like New York and the government and society was doing nothing,” said UNAIDS Civil Society Partnership Advisor Eric Sawyer. “We were charting a new path—no one had ever organized a social justice activist movement around a health issue, let alone organizing a civil disobedience on health to mirror the civil rights movement. We were both excited and a bit scared as we had no social or legal protections and were being fired from jobs, evicted from our homes and even physically attacked due to societal fear and discrimination.”
One of the things ACT UP was known for was its public and confrontational style. “You do not get more with honey than you do with vinegar; you just do not,” said Mr Kramer in the documentary Age of AIDS. “If it makes them angry enough, maybe they’ll say why are they angry.”
Also ground-breaking was the use of strong messages and graphics such as the Silence=Death campaign which helped break the “conspiracy of silence” around the AIDS epidemic.
Now 25 years into AIDS activism Mr Sawyer thinks the advent of effective HIV treatment has made many people complacent. “There is a false belief that the AIDS epidemic is under control,” he said. “While circumstances for people living with HIV are much improved—nearly 2 million people will still die of AIDS this year and AIDS activism is needed now more than ever!”
ACT UP will mark its anniversary with an old-style march through the streets of New York on 25 April 2012. Mr Sawyer explains that ACT UP and Occupy Wall Street will take to the streets again to demand a financial transaction tax as a way of gaining innovative sustainable financing for global health initiatives such as the AIDS response.
Today, out of the 34 million people living with HIV worldwide, about 6.6 million people in low- and –middle income countries have access to HIV treatment with nearly 8 million additional people still in need.