By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Jack Gould
You remember ACT UP, that in-your-face group of gay activists who weren’t afraid to brandish their queerness in the face of straight America? The group that also battled the nation’s complacency with the AIDS epidemic, calling for research dollars and the fast-tracking of affordable treatments?
Many credit the brave street soldiers of ACT UP with successfully challenging the ethos of an AIDS-phobic America, to the point that, through science and public awareness, a disease that was once swift and fatal in the U.S. is now more or less manageable, though still dangerous.
That version of ACT UP is now under attack — by a new generation of gay ideological militants who are challenging the original ethos of ACT UP itself and who are seeking to usurp the ACT UP name for a strikingly different agenda.
These “rebels” oppose conventional AIDS treatments and challenge the basic science of AIDS itself, which sees the HIV virus as the cause of the disease. The dissidents argue that it’s anti-HIV medicine and not HIV that is killing people. Their two main battle cries are “Don’t Take the HIV Test!” and “AIDS Drugs Are Poison!” And they are doing their best to end funding for AIDS treatment and research.
That message rang out loud and clear in a June 22 full-page advertisement that appeared in the Capitol Hill Roll Callurging Congress to “Pull the Plug on AIDS Fraud” and to “Cut AIDS Funding Now.”
Though roundly dismissed by nearly all doctors and researchers, this message has gotten the ear of political leaders, including right-wing California Congressman Gary Miller and South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose country, which is being decimated by AIDS, hosted the 13th annual International AIDS Conference last week. Mbeki has been widely criticized for saying he is not convinced that HIV is the only cause of AIDS.
There are now three dissident groups claiming the ACT UP name. An 11-year-old group in San Francisco has both the largest membership (about 1,335) and the most impact. ACT UP Atlanta formed last year. And last month marked the first formal meeting of ACT UP Hollywood, whose founders include Rex Poindexter, an HIV-positive freelance journalist who decries the high profits of drug companies that produce AIDS treatments as well as the salaries of researchers and activists who’ve made a career of chasing a cure.
“We’re angry that millions of taxpayer dollars intended to help sick patients are being squandered on high salaries and are used to subsidize pharmaceutical-industry production of dangerous drugs that cause deformity, death and diseases indistinguishable from AIDS,” says Poindexter, whose ACT UP Hollywood helped pay for the ad that ran in the Washington, D.C., paper.
It’s dusk on Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood on June 25. A dozen or so curious onlookers have filed into a dingy, rent-by-the-hour storefront, where they are greeted by a video of a demonstration against the Gay and Lesbian Center last winter. The protest, led by the founders of ACT UP Hollywood, was prompted by the center’s refusal to host regular ACT UP Hollywood meetings.
After everyone settles in, Poindexter and fellow group â leader Rodney Knoll welcome them to the first formal meeting of ACT UP Hollywood. Then they begin to lecture the assembled about the “multifactorial” hypothesis: that AIDS is caused by drugs, smoking, poppers (inhaled stimulants), poor diet and stress rather than by a single infectious agent.
In tone, the placid meeting is very un–ACT UP, which, in its heyday, ran by noisy consensus, frowning upon the ideas of leaders. The presentation is cogent, due in large part to Knoll’s breezy, intellectual style.
At first glance, Knoll’s profile seems remarkably similar to the old guard of ACT UP: a youthful, gay man who questions authority and who has educated himself about the science of AIDS. Knoll says that when he last tested for AIDS six years ago, he was negative for the HIV virus, but he worried constantly about getting sick, even though he says he consistently practiced safer sex. He stopped taking the test when he began to doubt the connection between HIV and AIDS. He also harbored doubts about the test’s reliability.
“I just got so paranoid every time I took that HIV test,” he said in an interview, “that I decided to wonder if I was putting my life at risk every time I got hooked up to AIDS Inc.”
“AIDS Inc.” is the term derisively used for the mainstream effort against AIDS. Early on, researchers and activists joined with pharmaceutical companies to push for the development of drugs as the main weapons in the arsenal against AIDS. The dissidents regard this as a premature consensus fueled not by compassion but by corporate capitalism on the part of the drug companies.
Many at the meeting appreciate this critique, including the condemnation of the $200,000 annual salaries of people such as San Francisco AIDS Foundation executive director Pat Christen — while people with AIDS die impoverished.
Knoll and Poindexter note that there are hundreds of unanswered questions about how HIV causes AIDS, and how treatments involving protease inhibitors really work. They say they are worried that with more and more side effects being discovered each year, these treatments, in the long run, will kill more people than they help. Public discussion of these open questions, they contend, is all but silenced.