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social sciences

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Moreover, the organization's portrayal in the mass media as an extremist organization, led by hysterical and unreasonable zealots, caused many sympathetic individuals, both gay and straight, not to take ACT UP seriously.

In addition, ACT UP's original membership was predominantly white gay men who were well-educated and largely middle class. As much as their social position allowed them both to work with and against government agencies and non-profit organizations, their tactics and the assumptions they brought to their work often did not speak to and sometimes alienated women and people of color, straight and gay.

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The original members' inability to understand fully the way their privileged status as white and male affected their experience of AIDS prevented them from working effectively with other minority groups.

Yet women and people of color--lesbian, gay, and straight--were actively involved with the organization from its inception. For instance, women in ACT UP created venues within the organization to focus more attention on women's issues and AIDS. They also worked with other activists to pressure the Center for Disease Control to recognize that women were at risk for contracting HIV and developing AIDS. Their activities prompted the CDC to include diseases specific to women on the list of AIDS-defining illnesses, so that women could qualify for appropriate treatment and access to drug trials.

Artistic and Cultural Legacy

One of ACT UP's enduring cultural legacies is its creativity, not only in its direct-action innovations, but in its use of art as a tool of AIDS activism. Gran Fury, an artists' collective, was formed in 1988 as the propaganda office of ACT UP. Named after the brand of automobile used by the New York City police department at the time, Gran Fury sought to provoke a political response from the general public, using the techniques of commercial advertising, but directing them toward political ends.

Their graphics disseminated statistics about the epidemic, such as the news that "One In 61 Babies Born In New York Is HIV Positive," offered advice about condoms, and attacked the Roman Catholic Church for its anti-safe-sex rhetoric.

Another graphic associated with ACT UP is its most visible slogan, SILENCE=DEATH, created by six anonymous gay men in 1986, before ACT UP was organized. Originally appearing in white letters on a black background with a single pink triangle pointing up, the slogan alludes to the badge imposed on homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps; but by inverting the triangle to point upward, it not only reclaims a symbol of oppression as a symbol of pride, but it also transforms it into a symbol of hope and resistance. The SILENCE=DEATH graphic has been appropriated by many other AIDS activists and organizations.


Since 1992, ACT UP has declined as a significant political force. Many factors have contributed to this decline, including the election of a sympathetic President in Bill Clinton in 1992; the deaths and burn-out of many of the original leaders of ACT UP; and the success of drug treatments, which have made the AIDS epidemic in the United States and Europe seem less urgent than it did in the 1980s.

Another factor in its decline is that the organization succeeded in making the country more responsive to the seriousness of AIDS and the needs of People With AIDS. Many of the people who were on the barricades with ACT UP now are employed by AIDS service organizations, which have expanded throughout the country.

Moreover, as AIDS has become a more mainstream disease, it has been embraced by the mainstream medical community, and the direct action tactics of ACT UP have come to seem unnecessary.


ACT UP's critics have made compelling cases that its decentralized authority, chaotic processes, and predominant identification with white gay male culture limited its successes to some degree.

Nevertheless, these same critics agree that its political accomplishments were considerable and that it brought innovation and flexibility to AIDS activism. As Nancy Stoller concludes, "Despite its limitations . . . ACT UP is the most significant direct-action organization to emerge from the epidemic."

Geoffrey W. Bateman

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social sciences >> Overview:  AIDS Activism

In the United States, glbtq people have played an integral and often leading role in AIDS activism, greatly influencing AIDS treatment and advocacy.

arts >> Overview:  AIDS Activism in the Arts

In response to the AIDS epidemic, a number of activist groups, including Gran Fury and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, have used art as a means to raise awareness about the epidemic.

social sciences >> Overview:  Chicago

The vigorous Midwestern metropolis of Chicago has been a center of gay and lesbian community and organizing since the early part of the twentieth century.

social sciences >> Overview:  French Gay Liberation Movement

The French gay liberation movement was born during the early 1970s on the foundation of a courageous, if conservative, homophile movement and the thrust of a massive wave of social activism.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay Rights Movement, U. S.

The U.S. gay rights movement has made significant progress toward achieving equality for glbtq Americans, and in the process has become more inclusive and diverse, but much remains to be done.

social sciences >> Overview:  New York City

Off and on over two centuries, New York City has also reigned as the capital of homosexual, transgender, and queer life in America.

social sciences >> Overview:  Political Science

Political scientists have generated insights important to the study of sexuality through research into glbtq participation in formal politics, studies of sexuality as a category of power, and reconceptualizations of the relationship between sexuality and politics.

arts >> Overview:  Symbols

The various symbols of glbtq pride render marginalized communities visible and assert self-esteem in the face of discrimination and oppression.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender Activism

Since the late nineteenth century, transgendered people have advocated legal and social reforms that would ameliorate the kinds of oppression and discrimination they suffer.

social sciences >> Empire State Pride Agenda

The Empire State Pride Agenda, which lobbies New York governments at both state and local levels for equal rights, is recognized as among the strongest statewide glbtq political organizations in the United States.

literature >> Feinberg, David B.

In his novels anatomizing gay life at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, David Feinberg used humor as a defense mechanism, a means to avoid madness and despair in a world that had become nightmarishly absurd.

social sciences >> GetEqual

The direct action group GetEqual has gained attention by its bold action, including civil disobedience, on behalf of equal rights for glbtq people.

social sciences >> Hattoy, Robert

Political operative and advisor to President Clinton, Bob Hattoy was deeply concerned about glbtq rights and the environment.

literature >> Kramer, Larry

Controversial playwright, novelist, and essayist Larry Kramer has been a pioneer in the gay political response to AIDS in America.

social sciences >> Maddow, Rachel

Political commentator Rachel Maddow became the first out lesbian to host a prime-time television news program when "The Rachel Maddow Show" premiered on MSNBC in September 2008.

social sciences >> Pink Triangle

Originally a mark of criminalization and persecution under the Nazis, the pink triangle was later reclaimed by gays both as a memorial and as a celebration of sexual identity.

social sciences >> Queer Nation

The short-lived militant group Queer Nation, which emerged in 1990, made a lasting impact on sexual identity politics in the United States.

social sciences >> Signorile, Michelangelo

Michelangelo Signorile is a prolific, and often provocative, writer and activist whose books and articles, radio show, newspaper columns, and website champion the cause of glbtq rights.


Corea, Gena. The Invisible Epidemic: The Story of Women and AIDS. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Crimp, Douglas, ed. AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.

_____. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.

Epstein, Steven. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Kramer, Larry. Reports from the Holocaust: The Makings of an AIDS Activist. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Stoller, Nancy. Lessons from the Damned: Queers, Whores, and Junkies Respond to AIDS. New York: Routledge, 1998.


    Citation Information
    Author: Bateman, Geoffrey W.  
    Entry Title: ACT UP  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated August 11, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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