Sarah Schulman’s “United in Anger” documents ACT UP


When I came out in the ’80s, I had very little knowledge of AIDS. I’m not even sure I knew what it was. But I found out all too quickly, falling madly in love with a circle of gay men unlike anyone I’d ever known.

Then I watched most of them die.

Getting involved in the AIDS crisis was a no-brainer, despite hearing rumors about how the virus was transmitted. (I’m grateful that the internet had not caught on yet — I can’t even imagine how much misinformation would have spread.) I delivered meals and attended protests and became a Eucharistic Minister so I could give communion to men ostracized by most churches. But my riskiest ventures were those organized by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Larry Kramer formed ACT UP after resigning from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which he co-founded, because it was “politically impotent.” Kramer was angry that the government refused to make an official stand to fight AIDS. He decried the absurdity that dying people were being denied access to experimental trials of AIDS medications. And he believed that the only way to call attention to the disease was through radical and visible political action. Protesters often were arrested for civil disobedience. At once point, an ACT UP demonstration shut down the FDA for a day. The media took notice.

In 2001, lesbian author/activist Sarah Schulman, who spent seven years in ACT UP, tuned in to an NPR story commemorating the 20th anniversary of AIDS. She was dismayed to hear a “history” that essentially denied the role of AIDS activism in scientific advancements and mainstream attitudinal changes toward the disease. The knowledge of what thousands of people dedicated their lives to, despite the homophobia and hatred that people with AIDS experienced (whether gay or not), was fading from public memory.

Unwilling to let the history of ACT UP and AIDS go untold, Schulman called her friend and collaborator Jim Hubbard. They started the ACT UP Oral History Project, a raw database of video interviews with the surviving members of ACT UP. A feature length documentary of the project, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, premiered in February at the MoMA and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film’s distribution. A month later, the campaign had received almost twice its goal.

Here’s the United in Anger extended trailer:

I’m encouraged to see so many women in the film. In my experience, most of the caretakers for dying AIDS victims were women — many lesbian and bisexual. Public action always drew large numbers of women, ready to unite with our brothers to bring attention to the disease and the lack of funding for research. Those of us who were activists then still have that bond with the men who survived. And thanks to United in Anger, that history will be preserved.

Will you see United in Anger? Are you familiar with the work of ACT UP? Is AIDS activism still relevant?

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