It’s Tuesday 1st December 2015. I’m staggering across a small stage in east London, blinded by a spotlight, doused in glitter, confetti and silly string, my grazed knee bleeding through my fishnets, with two Christmas baubles shoved down the front of my leopard print boxer shorts. Around, beneath and on top of me, a melee of men, women, and ‘not applicable’, swathed in sequins, lycra, faux leather and all manner of other luminous man-made materials, roll around in an obscene mass embrace, whilst the Blind Date theme tune plays in the background.
Simultaneously, a stone’s throw away thousands of people line the streets of Westminster, with a rallying cry to the government imploring them to vote against air-stirkes in Syria. The bizarre synchronicity of these two situations – one so off the wall, ecstatic and colourful, the other stoic, grounded and solemn – caused me to consider, a few hours later, whilst I strained to keep my glitter-scratched eyes open on the Overground home, the question “what am I doing here?”
Barely six weeks ago, I found out about a group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power): a friend of mine wanted to go to an event but didn’t want to go on his own (ex-lover likely present), so I said I’d tag along for moral support. I had no idea what I was signing up for, and wasn’t really that bothered; it didn’t occur to me that that evening at The Glory (a rare instance of a gay pub opening in London during the past year), would be the first of my ACT UP Actions, and the moment which would shift my life from ‘before ACT UP’ into ‘after ACT UP’.
The event turned out to be ACT UP’s first HIV/HepC Blind Date event; it was the second of these HIV+ Positive love-ins which saw me scrambling across the stage on the 1st December, World AIDS Day, in celebration of everything positive about being positive. I found the first installment just about baffling (and at times verging on disturbing) enough to know immediately that whatever this was all about, I wanted in. A vague facebook post directed me to ‘an ACT UP event’ taking place the following Tuesday, so with over-emphatically self-assured strides, I entered the world of ACT UP.
I learnt within minutes that HIV diagnosis levels were at an all-time high in this country. I learnt that every year, six hundred people in the UK die of AIDS related complications; that middle aged heterosexual women are fast becoming the most ‘at risk’ group; that seventy-six countries around the world still criminalise homosexuality (forty-two of those are in the Commonwealth); that a simple medicinal preventative exists which could significantly reduce, if not eliminate HIV once and for all, and that this is still a pipe dream for many who live with the reality of HIV every day. I learnt about ACT UP and what they had done during the first AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, how they had acted, fought, and shamed pharmaceutical companies and government bodies into providing access to treatment for the thousands upon thousands of people dying of AIDS during those dark years.
I don’t have HIV. I’ve encountered people who are HIV+ during the course of various jobs I’ve had over the years, but I wouldn’t go anywhere close to saying that it’s an issue that affects me personally. I’m twenty-five, I grew up in an unconventional Jewish household, and, as I’m starting to see, I am one of a rare few people of my age who has any sort of understanding about HIV and AIDS beyond ‘it was a thing in the ‘80s which killed people’ (my thirty-something housemate recently asked me if you could catch it from sharing a toilet seat, and he’s far from alone in that uncertainty).
So, sitting on the Overground at midnight on World AIDS Day, having just production managed, hosted and revelled in ACT UP’s second HIV Blind Date, I asked myself “what am I doing here, covered in glitter after a wonderful evening celebrating diversity in a safe, supportive space, when politicians are seriously contemplating bombing a country thousands of miles away ‘to promote freedom on my behalf’?
Recently I’ve felt quite helpless; discord between societal normalities and my own way of being is increasingly frequent, and I feel unsettled and sometimes afraid. I no longer have a firm grasp on my own gender, sexuality, or identity beyond the wall of my own skin, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to present myself according to what society expects of a young, queer Londoner. I know there are more causes that I support than there are hours in the day, but amongst all of them, ACT UP stood out as the group which puts actions before words. In meetings during the ‘80s, cries of “people are dying!” would ring out if a discussion went on for too long, spurring people into immediate action, and that urgency has been carried forward into the group’s current incarnation.
ACT UP is filling a need I have to feel that I am defined by my actions, not by external labelling; that I am contributing towards breaking down the parasitic societal structures which I have seen spread and consume mercilessly, despite large scale public rejection. I was barely a young adult when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against war in Iraq, to no avail. Nowadays, a legion of armchair activists can sign a petition with a single click, whilst the powers that be write off whole communities with the stroke of a pen. Protest marches are attended as much for subsequent the social media updates as they are for the root cause they represent
ACT UP barely has a website, and its only commodity is the human bodies which comprise it. No petitions, no administration, no bureaucracy. If you have an idea, you act on it. If you have a talent or a skill, you use it. Every element of every action is built on the intent of the people staging it, and nothing less.
“What am I doing here,” when there are a multitude of other causes I could be putting myself behind? I’m acting up; fighting back; and showing that in an age of powerless masses, the individual can still make a change for the better.