ORGANIZATION | Inducted 2000

The group, which lasted until 1995, was the local chapter of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, a national organization committed to using direct action and civil disobedience to fight AIDS. It challenged both institutional responses to AIDS and homophobic discrimination.

ACT UP/Chicago was the local chapter of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, a national organization committed to using direct action and civil disobedience to fight AIDS.

The earliest responses to the epidemic were silence, fear, homophobia, neglect, and measures that penalized rather than assisted people with AIDS (PWAs). ACT UP advocated for PWAs through large demonstrations, creative zaps, agitprop campaigns, and meetings with medical professionals and government officials. ACT UP had a profound effect on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons, challenging institutional responses to AIDS as well as homophobic discrimination.

The Chicago chapter’s roots go back to 1987, when DAGMAR (Dykes and Gay Men Against Racism and Repression) protested then-Governor Thompson’s perceived support for repressive AIDS laws. In 1988, DAGMAR and CFOR (Chicago for Our Rights) formed C-FAR (Chicago for AIDS Rights), which evolved into ACT UP/Chicago, a group comprising PWAs along with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and non-gay persons, of color and white, who united for the rights of PWAs.

ACT UP/Chicago demanded a multifaceted approach to fighting AIDS. Actions helped lead to Chicago’s tripling and Illinois’s doubling their AIDS budgets. ACT UP/Chicago challenged price-gouging by drug manufacturers, forcibly posted sex-positive propaganda to fight public transit officials’ refusal to post Kupona Network’s safe-sex ads, and protested violence and police brutality against PWAs and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons.

ACT UP/Chicago’s most renowned action was a demonstration by over 1,500 AIDS activists from across the nation that targeted public and private health-care systems. It also highlighted insurance discrimination and a call for national health care. A key demand was that Cook County Hospital open its AIDS ward to women. The ward began admitting women the very next day. All of ACT UP’s direct actions were supplemented by highly visible agitprop that educated and entertained.

This induction is posthumous. ACT UP/Chicago died as an organization in 1995. By then, many participants and supporters had died; others had become service providers; still others were exhausted and disillusioned. In the mid-1990s, with the advent of “life-saving” protease inhibitors, media began to describe HIV infection as a “manageable” disease. Suddenly, the urgency of the crisis was eclipsed by images of beefy men climbing mountains and promoting the newest HIV medication. Many declared the “end of AIDS”; many in our own communities assented.

But the crisis is far from over. Reports suggest infection rates climbing again, particularly among the young. Even for those with access, costly “drug cocktails” do not always work. Many people worldwide lack access to medications. In some of Africa, more than a quarter of the population is HIV-infected. A large, public, and determined opposition to AIDS is still needed.