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ACT UP Protesters Reflect On AIDS Demonstrations 25 Years Ago

PHOTO BY JOHN WINTERS: Demonstrators march in the ACT UP protests in June 1990 in response to the AIDS epidemic that swept the country at the time.

This story is part of a Thursday series leading up to Pride weekend at the end of the month in which The San Francisco Examiner will spotlight The City’s LGBT community in anticipation of our special section for San Francisco Pride on June 27 and 28.

“When people with AIDS are under attack, what do we do? ACT UP! Fight back!”

Twenty five years ago, the principal rallying cry of the AIDS virus protesters known as ACT UP rocked the sixth annual AIDS Conference in San Francisco. The protesters chanted, sang songs and engaged in civil disobedience for a week straight.

ACT UP San Francisco is seen as a pivotal voice during the early days of the AIDS crisis, winning much public support to increase research funding, change medical processes and otherwise save the lives of those dying.

“They hate us, there are no drugs, no one is doing anything, so we have to push things,” said Tim Kingston, a journalist at the time. Grief “was the motivating emotion.”

Many demonstrators ended up dying from AIDS.

Now decades later, the surviving protesters are engaging San Franciscans with a number of talks slated for the weekend of June 20, reflecting on the history of their movement. The San Francisco Examiner sat down with six former ACT UP protesters to talk about their legacy.


Kingston was a journalist at The Bay Times during the ACT UP protests, though he also counted himself among the protesters.

The ACT UP protesters were a mix of veteran anti-war activists, young 20-something “radical queers,” monied gay men who found themselves fighting for their lives and others. They came from San Francisco and the Bay Area, along with other ACT UP groups nationwide.

Death has a way of uniting disparate people under a single cause, Kingston said.

More than 5,000 San Franciscans had died from AIDS by the time the conference took place in June 1990. This was the site of ACT UP San Francisco’s most influential protests.

As dire as the circumstances were, the ACT UP members smiled as they recalled “giant puppets” and the hope that came from seeing thousands of people united to demand change.

Lito Sandoval was in his 20s when he joined ACT UP, and he was one of the only Latino speakers at rallies.

“I remember going to Esta Noche, a gay bar, and having people going up to me and saying, ‘We were so glad to see you, as not the typical white male,’” Sandoval said.

The ACT UP protesters had a tumultuous relationship with the police, they said.

“We’ll see you on the news, your gloves don’t match your shoes!” was one chant Ingrid Nelson, a former ACT UP protester who is now is a nurse practitioner, recalled. Officers wore gloves while working the protests, fearing the AIDS virus.

Mike Shriver, a former ACT UP protester, found out he was HIV positive shortly before the June protests. He met fellow activist Laura Thomas at Cafe Flore, on Market street, to help him process the news. “I went into shock,” he said.

Many of Shriver’s close friends in ACT UP died of AIDS. But for people who survived the virus in the ’90s, there was hope.

Kingston said the protests helped spur many changes: needle exchanges to prevent infection; new “double-blind” trials as safer routes for AIDS and HIV treatment; and the concept of harm reduction.

Still, the group cautions that the fight against AIDS is ongoing. In 2012, 13,712 people in the U.S. died from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you go:


What: 25th anniversary of protests around the sixth annual International AIDS Conference in San Francisco

Where/when: Magnet, 4122 18th St., 10 p.m. June 19; San Francisco LGBT Center, 1800 Market St., 4:30-7 p.m. June 20; The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St., 12:30-3:30 p.m. June 21

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