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How The Activism Of Stonewall Transformed Into The Fight Against AIDS


The Stonewall riots 50 years ago sparked a wave of gay activism at a time when many LGBT people were afraid to show their faces publicly. Just over a decade after Stonewall, a plague would begin to wipe out gay men. This was an ABC News report from 1982.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's mysterious, it's deadly and it's baffling medical science - acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

SHAPIRO: As we mark the 50th anniversary of Stonewall this week, we're going to look now at how the activism of Stonewall transformed into the fight against AIDS.

David France is an investigative journalist. He created the book and documentary "How To Survive A Plague." Welcome to the program.

DAVID FRANCE: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: To start with the big picture, did Stonewall change the mindset of gay people in a way that allowed them to publicly protest in the face of AIDS that they might not have if Stonewall hadn't happened?

FRANCE: What we learned from Stonewall was that the community no longer felt comfortable being as isolated and disenfranchised as it had been. But we had carved out these little kind of pockets of semi-freedom, and Stonewall said, that's not enough. And all the organizations that grew from that time said, you know, we have a right to citizenship. We have a right to kind of all the responsibilities, but all the benefits of, you know, being human, being an American.

And when AIDS hit, what became really clear very early on was that we were being denied really basic fundamental things. And that sense of entitlement is what carried through when we started to realize that hospitals were routinely not taking AIDS patients, that nobody in the public health firmament was doing anything effective in response to the disease. So we started taking care of ourselves by creating organizations like Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Shanti Project in San Francisco that took on the caregiving challenges that the community needed.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about one specific group that sprang up to respond to AIDS - ACT UP New York - which staged protests and actions like die-ins that were deliberately, intentionally in your face.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Stop killing us. Stop killing us. We're not going to take it anymore.

SHAPIRO: Obviously, the group ACT UP was a response to AIDS, but did you see that as an outgrowth of what had happened in Stonewall?

FRANCE: People who were really on the front lines of the formation of ACT UP were a new generation. Six years into the epidemic, 1987, there still was no medication online to treat the disease. There was no public health response on the federal level or the academic level. Nobody was responding to this at all, and this new generation of LGBT folks were outraged. And that's what ACT UP was. ACT UP was a response of outrage.

SHAPIRO: Different cities responded in different ways to the epidemic. How would you compare what happened in New York to San Francisco?

FRANCE: The San Francisco model of responding to the disease was really care-based. It was a - kind of a familial response to the disease. People were kind of helping ease AIDS patients into death in the most comfortable way possible.

The activism of anger and of politics was really an East Coast response. It was an effort, finally, to break down those walls around the ghettos that we had built and to say that we are not going to be able to do this ourselves. We've done so much else ourselves, but we are not going to find a cure to this mysterious retrovirus. And so we started going to the doors of Big Pharma and the halls of scientific research and demanding action from the people who had the training and the background and, really, the ethical obligation to respond.

SHAPIRO: And so when you take a step back and look at this arc from Stonewall 50 years ago to AIDS activism, what lessons do you take away for today, for 2019?

FRANCE: What we learned from AIDS activism is that, really, street action and street organizing can be incredibly effective, that even the most disenfranchised populations - and certainly, the queer population was as disenfranchised in the '80s as any other - can seize power, can find a way to make positive change to end the disenfranchisement. And the fact of that being a possibility, I think, is really the lasting message from that time.

SHAPIRO: Journalist and filmmaker David France. Thanks very much.

FRANCE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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