Save sex/save lives *
Evolving modes of activism
The prerogative to apply names is one of the most contentious forms of power in the late twentieth century. Disenfranchised groups had high hopes for the names and concepts they forged for themselves in the 1960s and 1970s. But the 1980s and 1990s have been a sobering object lesson in the relatively greater power held by science, government, and media to name, rename, and take over the names groups make for themselves. AIDS organisers and activists learned a hard lesson: it is difficult to predict results of discursive battles. But this is not just a problem of securing activists’ meanings. Ideas proposed by activists are taken up and modified by officials, rendering activism partially successful, but without affording activists any real power.
Many view ACT UP’s New York debut in 1987 as the beginning of activism, perhaps including ‘grass roots’ projects by sex workers or ‘self-help’ groups formed by people living with AIDS as proto-activisms. 1 This view counts only the most publicly oppositional work as ‘activist’: demonstrations, angry proclamations, symbolic hand grenades thrown from a position of extreme exclusion from ‘the system’. But even by this traditional definition, ACT UP did not remain totally oppositional for long. By 1989, the organising committees of AIDS conferences were meeting with ACT UP chapters in advance, and by 1992, ACT UP’s ‘actions’ at the Amsterdam International Aids conference were run according to a schedule, partially negotiated with conference organisers, to minimise disruption and maximise press coverage. This is less a comment on ACT UP’s ability to sustain a fully oppositional posture—indeed, they do not themselves hold to this traditional definition—than emblematic of the form that activist politics now takes, at least in the HIV epidemic. Increasingly, radical critique is not so much ‘telling it like it is’ in order to rip the scales of ideology from people’s eyes as it is complexly enmeshed in the process of constructing and reconstructing discursive and institutional power.
The naming of the epidemic provides an easy example of the dynamics of this process. ‘AIDS’ maintained its ideological connection with Western gay men through three changes in nomenclature—Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) disease—which reflected different under-