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An ACT UP veteran on the power of anger in protest

The group, founded to draw attention to the AIDS crisis, has been called alienating. But they’re also more relevant than ever 35 years later.

A dense protest with signs reading “How many more must die?” and “Read our lips: 114,000 dead.”
ACT UP protesting President George H.W. Bush’s AIDS policy in 1991 in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Photo by Dirck Halstead/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In the wake of the leaked Supreme Court decision that threatens to dismantle Roe v. Wade, activists have found themselves in a debate about the necessity of anger in activism. The looming decision stands to not only dismantle a woman’s right to choose but, many speculate, other rights from sexual privacy to gay marriage. That’s led to a discussion about (and a sharp reaction in Congress to) whether Americans should be allowed to protest at Supreme Court justices’ homes, and broader conversations about the role of rage in protest.

To Ann Northrop, a veteran journalist and activist who joined ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1988, the idea that we’re having a debate over the politeness of protest is embarrassing enough on its own, but coupled with the right-wing push to eliminate individual federal rights, is flat-out alarming.

ACT UP is perhaps most famous for its slogan “Silence = Death”— a message born in the ’80s when the US government neglected gay men who were dying of AIDS. ACT UP shouted, screamed, and yelled on behalf of those who couldn’t.

Northrop, who describes herself as “old and cranky,” not only explained the legacy of ACT UP and founder Larry Kramer, but the potency of anger and shaming people in power. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it about ACT UP that struck you back in 1988 and made you join? What made you want to get involved?

Well, I’m a very cranky iconoclast, who has been fighting people in power ever since I came up against my parents in my teen years. So I’ve never had much use for authority figures. I was out demonstrating against the Vietnam War in the ’60s, and then involved with the feminist movement, and all that kind of stuff.

I always loved being out in the streets. When I walked into my first ACT UP meeting, I found a room full of really cranky people, really smart, really funny people who were angry and whose preferred tactic was to go out in the streets and yell about what they were angry about.

My immediate reaction was: I have found my people; this is my home.

It must’ve felt like freedom.

Ann Northrop speaking at a podium.
Ann Northrop at the Stonewall National Monument in New York in 2017.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

It was a freedom — being able to say what I thought, without conforming to some organizational line, or way of acting. I think there is great value in shaming people in power publicly. And that’s really what ACT UP was about: Shaming people in power.

I think one of the things that’s been written about ACT UP and the central narrative is that the organization’s anger is a double-edged sword. Some people say that, yes, you get advancement, but it also comes with alienation.

Well, we were very clear among ourselves. And we’ve said this publicly many times, that we were not there to be liked. We were aware that people didn’t like us. We were not trying to be liked, as opposed to people who work in organizations who are trying to be liked. Those people are trying to create relationships with people in power or whatever, and I would ask, what has that accomplished?

At some point, shaming people is a very effective tactic and can force action. And when you’re talking about life-threatening issues, and people are not willing to talk to you and are not willing to have a civil conversation and not willing to listen to reason; we had no hesitation about going out in the streets and embarrassing them by being very public about what they were doing.

Nobody wants to do this all the time. But it is also very gratifying to work with people you love and respect and work on these issues in ways that offer some opportunity for success. It’s obviously very, very frustrating at the moment because everything is at such a stalemate and headed backward very fast. So it’s not like we’re having a lot of victories these days. But there are little glimmers of hope here and there. I love the high school kids in Florida who are walking out of schools and finding ways to protest. That’s the kind of stuff I just adore.

What about protesting at Brett Kavanaugh’s house? I take it you’re a fan.

Wait. What’s the big deal? This is just phony outrage by the right wing who are making this up to look like victims. It’s perfectly legal. It’s perfectly peaceful. It’s ridiculous and insulting and disgusting that they would even say that it isn’t.

That was child’s play compared to ACT UP and Jesse Helms, right?

Exactly. Did we put a condom over their house? We should have someone do that to Kavanaugh and all the rest of them.

Where would you find a condom big enough?

You have one manufactured. You order one. That’s what they did for Jesse Helms’s house. You find someone who can make it and then you hire a crane to drop it on top of the house and unroll it over the house.

You seem to have a lot of expertise. Were you there for that?

Unfortunately not. But there’s a video of it online. I think if you go to YouTube or Google or, you know, search “condom on Jesse Helms’s house,” you can watch the whole entire thing.

There’s a lot of chatter (from lawmakers especially) about protests crossing the line. I think you mentioned that the protests at Kavanaugh’s house are incredibly peaceful. Where do you draw the line?

Abortion rights activists hold signs reading “My pussy my rules” and “I demand separation between vagina and state” in a protest outside Kavanaugh’s home.
The protest outside the house of US Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Depends on the place and circumstances. Public spaces, companies, etc. — fine to go inside with signs and noise. Private homes — maintain a decent perimeter, but signs and noise are also fine. Never violence against people and most property. Chalk or other graffiti is usually fine.

Remember, it’s Kavanaugh and other justices, politicians, and cops who are actually invading our bodies and human liberty. Ron DeSantis says [effectively] “I won’t be canceled” when peaceful demonstrators show up outside his Chelsea Piers speech, but he’s the one who’s canceling the free speech and human rights of teachers, students, parents — I could go on.

I want to ask you about the idea of “respectability politics” and how it applies to the queer community. I think one of the more present perspectives and narratives has been that LGBTQ people have had to present themselves as respectable in order to “win” rights. And that marriage equality might be the biggest example of this.

Well, I wouldn’t want to paint with too broad a brush. I think the picture is more complicated than that, and more diverse. There have always been LGBTQ people who were communists or poverty activists or race-involved.

The people who were fighting for marriage in the 1970s, they were considered the great, crazy radicals of their day. I remember when people got married in Boulder, Colorado, and it just seemed insane because the local county clerk decided to interpret the law as not gender specific. She gave marriage licenses to, I think, a couple of couples. And then it got shut down very quickly. But this was just unbelievable that this happened, no one could even imagine it.

I get that — the idea of radicalism being relative to the battle being fought. Marriage equality might not look as radical today as it did in the past.

But the idea of respectability is also sort of true and powerful. I spent some years working for the Hetrick-Martin Institute [a nonprofit organization focused on helping at-risk LGTBQ youth] and going into classrooms all over the metropolitan New York area with kids as young as fourth grade, and all the way up through high school and college.

I wouldn’t call it respectability, but we wanted respect. We wanted not to be seen as disgusting, sinful perverts — which we totally were [laughs] — and you know, that’s the whole thrust of the right wing again, to redefine us as that so they can wipe us out.

So we would say very clearly and assertively that we’re not looking for tolerance. We’re looking for respect as full-fledged human beings who are equal to everyone else in our humanity and our dignity or whatever. Not a sort of homogenized respect, but a sort of sincere, authentic kind of respect. And to that extent, if you want to throw the word respect around, we have been searching for that for decades.

In getting marriage equality to pass, there was this whole idea of painting gay people as “the same.” And I think you mentioned it, that there’s this tension between wanting to be respected but at the same time there’s a lot of queer people who don’t want to be put in the “just like you” box.

Alex, you know, I’m old.

I’m 39, you are not old.

I’m 74. I’m old. But I don’t feel old, I still feel like I’m a teen. And word to the wise, everyone who’s 74 feels like they’re still 18. But what it gives me is some experience and perspective over time. And I can tell you, for instance, that in the second-wave feminist movement of the early ’70s, which I was a part of, we weren’t fighting for everyone to do the same thing.

We were fighting for everybody to have choices.

Reproductive rights activists are not telling everyone to go out and have an abortion, they’re for choice. Similarly, I would suggest that the marriage equality movement was not about saying everybody should get married, it was to offer everybody that choice.

So, do I think marriage is the be-all and end-all? I do not. I am not married, I have no intention of getting married.

Neither do I, though if someone wealthy enough comes along I could be talked into it. But in all seriousness, I think the argument often is that marriage equality has — for better and worse — become the sort of flagship civil rights victory for LGBTQ people. It’s the idea that while gay marriage is a great victory, there are issues, like transgender rights and LGBTQ homelessness, beyond same-sex marriage that are as important to members of the LGTBQ community but get overshadowed.

You know, [LGBTQ activist] Urvashi Vaid, got married, after all her radical complaints about it, because she saw the need for it. And so I resist the scorn heaped on the marriage equality movement. Did a lot of people who wanted marriage for themselves then not pursue the kinds of activism that we would have liked them to? Sure.

But there are also a lot of AIDS activists who stopped being activists when they got the drugs in 1996. They walked away from that because their needs were taken care of. People generally act out of self-interest. And it is a very finite number of people who are willing to commit themselves to a bigger vision, and put themselves on the line for something more than just their own self-interest.

There’s a pattern that you’re pointing out, I think. That activism swells, and then falls off.

There’s an ebb and flow in my own activism. There have been many years when I’ve been very active, when I’ve been out in the street, getting arrested, going to various meetings every night of the week, and devoting my life to it. And then I take a break, and I may spend a couple of years sort of regrouping, taking care of the rest of my life, re-energizing myself, and then plunging back in when something else catches my interest and feels compelling.

I don’t think we should expect people to keep up the really heightened activism every second, but we do need people all the time. So maybe we can take shifts?

I want to ask you about strategy in activism. It seems like queer people have had to maneuver in various ways, think about how we are perceived, and then adapt to that, all to get what we want. Is this a cogent strategy?

Sure. Oh, absolutely. I only wish there was a strategy though.

When the movement was early, there were a definable number of people who were doing it. And believe me, they had clashes among themselves. But as the LGBTQ rights movement got more and more professionalized, and organizations were created, like the Human Rights Campaign, they sort of asserted themselves as taking over the strategy.

Some people fought back and said, “Fuck you, who are you to set the strategy? You’re idiots and narrowly thinking about your own fundraising or whatever and keeping yourselves in jobs.”

And other people just walked away because they didn’t want to have the fight.

It’s not empowering for people to have large organizations running things.

What I yearn for constantly is more grassroots activism. And I see some of it. I was with Gays Against Guns at a demonstration in Times Square, about Texas and gun violence. But I always think that what we need is more of the local grassroots activism.

A crowded protest in Times Square. In the foreground a sign reads “FUCK GUNS.”
The Gays Against Guns protest in Times Square.
Ryan Rahman/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

That’s what you want to see in our current political climate.

I’m feeling very pessimistic at the moment about where this country is headed. I think we’re really in a horrible, horrible mess. And I would like to think that with the Roe v. Wade decision, and with things like this Texas massacre, enough of the American people will be jolted into something resembling sanity to hold off the Republicans in these midterm elections. But that’s a very optimistic view right now on my part, and may turn out to be wishful thinking.

And you said you’re more of a pessimist.

Well, here’s my other standard phrase: Human beings are a very unsuccessful species, driving ourselves to extinction lickety-split. Have a nice day!

Haha! I mean, interview over. Let’s go home!

Have a great weekend! [Laughs]

But wait, don’t go! What should we think about when we’re thinking about our LGBTQ rights this year as we celebrate Pride? The whole idea of protesting for our rights just kind of feels surreal in this moment.

Pride is, well, it’s shameful in that it’s lost its political edge in a lot of places. It should never be just this mindless celebration, it should always be political.

I’m very upset and angry that it has turned into this corporate celebration. Selling out to corporations that are spending far more money supporting right-wing politicians? It’s unbelievable to me that we are so blind to that and so willing to sell out to them.

Was there a time when we wanted corporate support? Sure.

I’m happy to have them support us. But I’m not interested in celebrating them when they are giving so much money to right-wing politicians who are passing all these laws that are killing us.

You know, I don’t care whether people are out in the street or writing letters to politicians or making phone calls or talking to their friends and family or whatever. I just want people to do something. And to get off this celebratory pride float crap and get political.

Can they not see that they are, every last one of them, under attack, and that the right wing would like us to disappear, and will do everything in their power to make sure that happens? It keeps them in power. It keeps them fat and rich. And if we are so, so willing to just walk off into oblivion, I don’t know what else to say.

Wake up? It feels like you wanna say wake up.

Turn your pride into protest. Join the Queer Liberation March in New York or wherever you are or start your own protest march instead of the Pride Parade.