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What marriage equality’s advocates can learn from ACT UP’s AIDS activism


By Jacob Combs

On its website, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation is celebrating its 30 year anniversary with a collection of archival photos marking the three decades that have passed since HIV and AIDS sprung onto the scene as a matter of national importance and one fundamentally connected to the livelihood of the LGBT community.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the New York premiere of “How to Survive a Plague,” the powerful and passionate documentary chronicling the success of ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy group that transformed the national debate on the disease and its treatment in the 1980s and 1990s.  In his review for the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney wrote, “Words like ‘important’ and ‘inspiring’ tend too often to be meaninglessly attached to non-fiction filmmaking, but in the case of David France’s compelling snapshot of a revolutionary period in AIDS treatment, they are amply justified.”

As a young gay man who didn’t live through the worst days of the AIDS epidemic, “How to Survive a Plague” felt like the most important LGBT history lesson I’ve had since I watched “The Times of Harvey Milk.”  Because director David France chooses to tell the story of ACT UP not through a narrative of the institution as a whole but rather primarily through the individual experiences of several of its founding members, the film manages to demonstrate the effect that the government’s failure to take the AIDS crisis seriously had not only socially, but also personally.

What struck me most while watching “How to Survive a Plague,” though, was how instructive Act Up’s success can be for other social change movements, including our own marriage equality effort.  As France’s film demonstrates, two of the most significant elements of ACT UP’s success were its ability to foster and engage a community and its members passion for educating themselves.

I think those two elements are also what makes Prop 8 Trial Tracker so powerful, and indeed it were part of what drew me to the site back in the beginning of 2010.  Before I started reading P8TT, I knew almost nothing about equal protection law, terms like rational basis and heightened scrutiny, the history of marriage law in the United States, or the complex path a case takes from a district court to the Supreme Court.  Here at P8TT, people who aren’t legal experts but who are genuinely passionate about marriage rights and LGBT advocacy in general can educate themselves and engage in dialogue and debate about how we can effect action.

The power of this model has become especially clear to me through the last few weeks as the political landscape of Amendment One in North Carolina has shifted.  I feel personally that I have already learned so much about North Carolina and about the nuances of a state which is much more complicated than any simplistic politicial narrative.  I feel that Amendment One’s opponents have a good shot of defeating it at the ballot box if they can educate both voters and advocates about the truth of what the amendment would really do.

Amendment One is just the first of many ballot challenges that the marriage equality movement will have to grapple with this year.  Each state that will take up marriage equality referenda in the fall are unique and pose distinct challenges and possibilities.  But as ACT UP’s success shows us, our commitment to self-educate as a community creates the potential for us to educate others.  It’s how we became so engaged with the Prop 8 trial throughout its time at the district court and the 9th Circuit.  And it’s how we will continue to build upon our victories in the future.


  • 1. Adam Bink  |  April 2, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Cool piece, Jacob.

    I felt the same way re connecting to the AIDS epidemic after seeing The Normal Heart. I'll have to put this on my list.

  • 2. Bob  |  April 2, 2012 at 10:29 am

    great article indeed,,, "two of the most significant elements of Act Up's success were, it's ability to foster and engage a community,and it's members passion for educating themselves"

    I remember well living through the plague,,,, of significance,, AIDS outed us,,,, gay men in hospital beds dying could not deny the fact they were gay men,, special units were created within hospitals staffed by volunteer dr's and nurses who chose to work with us,,,, I highly recommend this film documentary of the plague in San Fransisco,,,

    and remind us all this scene played out in hospitals around the world,,,, it also brought the lesbian's out in full force to assist us and resulted in a connection as community which perhaps was not there before, this alliance was significant to our struggle,,,, and from there also the broader community as a whole,,, who fought to make it a political issue,,, ACT-UP,,,, was the driving force and glue that galvanized the movement and success of getting us through the plague,,,,

  • 3. Sagesse  |  April 2, 2012 at 10:42 am


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