Gay activists played a huge role in bringing the AIDS crisis into public consciousness; they staged massive die-ins on the steps of the Capitol, took to the streets in huge numbers, and demanded funding so they could receive the care and treatment they needed while their community dealt with a crisis. Now, queer activists — including ACT UP, the group credited with many of the most famous direct actions during the AIDS epidemic — are taking action again, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Queer activists have been protesting and organising around a variety of issues related to how coronavirus is impacting their community. During one protest, activists “wore masks that had ACT UP's logo with the words 'Silence equals death' and the pink triangle to connect this activism to a long period of organising within the LGBTQ community that saved millions of lives. ACT UP is credited with saving millions of lives when the rest of society and the government failed to act,” Natalie James, co-founder of the Reclaim Pride Coalition told Refinery29. “We were trying to draw the analogy not between the diseases, but the queer response of activism and the fact that there was an essential queer response during the AIDS crisis, and we were trying to be inspired by that and emulate that.”
There have been some parallels drawn between the AIDS epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic, namely that large numbers of people died and the government was way too slow to act — especially in response to demographic information revealing who was impacted. It mirrors the lack of concern for victims of AIDS who were mostly gay — a community of people who were viewed as less-than-human at the time AIDS struck.
But there are major differences, too. “One stark difference is that the larger U.S. population and community has been mobilised to address and deal with COVID in a way that didn't happen for the AIDS epidemic,” Brandon Cuicchi, a member of ACT UP NY told Refinery29. “The president is talking about it on TV, governors and mayors are talking about it just two months in, which took years during the AIDS epidemic.”
But even still, the LGBTQ+ population faces particular issues that are unique to their community, and queer activists say those issues require a specifically queer response — one that centres the population who will be most directly impacted.
The links between the pandemic and the HIV epidemic aren't just hypothetical: Jason Rosenberg, a member of ACT UP, was inspired to get involved by his uncle, Richard Rosenberg, who found out he was HIV+ in 1994. He almost died several times over the years, but always managed to survive — until COVID-19 took his life. “Seeing how leadership both locally and federally failed my uncle keeps my drive to seek HIV justice in all areas of the world,” Rosenberg told Phillip Picardi's Fruity newsletter.
"What I saw through him were the discrepancies and neglect of long-term [HIV] survivors and housing for people living with HIV and I think we also see the similarities of neglect of HIV and the neglect of COVID because we're up to over 80 homeless COVID-related deaths in [New York City]," Rosenberg tells Refinery29. There have been other deaths at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, where Rosenberg's uncle Richard lived. COVID deaths at Terence Cardinal Cooke have included several residents on his uncle's floor, which was dedicated to people living with HIV longterm. "There has been a massive death toll on long-term survivors," he says.
Queer and trans youth are being outed to their parents while quarantined with them and kicked onto the streets; LGBTQ+ folks are twice as likely to be homeless, which makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19, as they lack a safe place to isolate or access to basic hygiene practices like sinks to wash hands. ACT UP Philly members staged a funeral outside the city manager’s home after a shelter resident died of COVID earlier this month, as well as issuing a list of demands.
“Poor black people are bearing the brunt of everything that’s fucked up about health care,” an ACT UP Philly member said at the action. “It’s the same thing with COVID. You see the same pattern of behaviour. You see poor black people dying, just like HIV.”
Then there was the tent hospital in Central Park, run by a noted homophobic and transphobic Christian group called Samaritan’s Purse. The group is on their way out of New York City, after the flattening of NYC's curve and, according to activists, an immense amount of pressure from groups like the Reclaim Pride Coalition and ACT UP NY.
Protesters have faced pushback from the police, especially, they say, as their cause gained media attention and therefore became more threatening to the city and state. During their second press conference outside the tent hospital, police made the protesters disperse, despite the fact that they were socially distanced and wearing masks, in compliance with CDC guidelines, “similar to what people do when they exercise or wait for groceries,” says James. She says they were threatened with arrest and given summons.
“Protests by a vulnerable population like the LGBTQ+ community pose a threat to the NYPD and the mayor's authority during this crisis,” says Cuicchi. “I think the mayor and NYPD are especially sensitive to any criticism of their actions during this crisis and our critiques clearly were well received by our community [and the media] and the mayor doesn't want his messaging drowned out by critiques.”
“I want to acknowledge that many of the people present at press conference were white and I think that's why we were not immediately arrested and brutalised,” James says, citing examples of the way homeless folks in the subway have been treated by police and the way Black and brown residents have been overpoliced and threatened with social distancing arrests. “But I think many of us believe they came down on this group that was clearly social distancing and engaged in a First Amendment protected activity so hard because we had been so successful at gathering press coverage and putting spotlight on this issue and we had become more of a problem for the state in that sense.”
The groups have also spoken out against the homophobic ban on gay and bisexual+ men (as well as some other people who fit into certain categories defined by their sexual partners) giving blood. While restrictions have been loosened for gay and bisexual+ men who have been abstinent for at least three months, New York City is facing a massive blood shortage and gay men are still being denied the opportunity to donate blood — including New York Senator Brad Hoylman — and plasma that could help develop treatment for the virus — including Bravo TV host Andy Cohen.
“The FDA is sending this message again that if you’re gay, the only way you can be a good, clean, charitable person is if you don’t have sex,” Dr. Jack Turban, a resident physician in psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital, said on The Daily Show, which he says negatively impacts the mental health of LGBTQ+ people.
And then there’s the fact that two drugs that have specific uses for many queer and trans folks have been shown to potentially be effective in treating coronavirus. Those drugs have been fast-tracked for clinical trials and, while activists say it’s important to use whatever tools (or drugs) are at our disposal to treat the virus, there are also concerns for how using these drugs to treat coronavirus patients could impact access for queer and trans folks who need them.
Clinical trials have begun for testing oestrogen and progesterone in treating COVID-19, after research showed that cisgender men have been infected at higher rates and admitted into the ICU at higher rates. The hormones are often used by transfeminine individuals, and at a time when many trans people are having trouble accessing medical care, these trials raise even more concern about access to medically necessary treatments.
"If they find that oestrogen helps men survive coronavirus trans women will once again be left in the dirt, with no consideration and no help because all our hormones will be used by hospitals to help men," Lina Qutainah, 20, wrote on Twitter.
Those aren’t the only drugs that activists are concerned about, however. ACT UP is no stranger to fighting Gilead Sciences, the makers of remdesivir, an HIV medication that was authorised for emergency use to treat suspected cases of COVID-19 earlier this month. Last year they, along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were at an oversight committee hearing to fight back against the company’s price gouging of their PrEP medication. Now there are concerns that the company could gouge the price of remdesivir, making it inaccessible to people who could benefit from it for coronavirus treatment and the people who need the drug to treat their HIV.
For those new to Gilead Sciences, the $22 billion pharma company has a long history of price hiking live-saving HIV meds and price gouged taxpayer funded PrEP at over $2,000/bottle. Remdesivir was also developed with taxpayer money. We cannot let them profiteer a pandemic. https://t.co/XSKbt9b7rO— ACT UP NY (@actupny) May 8, 2020
“Our trans and HIV+ community relies on reliable access to drug supplies and the fact that potential COVID treatment could overshadow the needs of the trans or HIV+ community is disturbing,” says Cuicchi.
The fight continues. New York activists are now demanding accountability from the city and state for allowing Samaritan’s Purse to come in in the first place, and they are pursuing action for having their press conference shut down, which they believe is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Norman Siegel, a former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, agrees. He wrote a letter on the protestors’ behalf, saying, “You cannot constitutionally nor legally ban/suspend protected fundamental First Amendment rights of all New Yorkers.”
Queer and trans activists have always been on the frontlines — from Stonewall to the AIDS epidemic to the coronavirus pandemic. As long as their community continues to be disproportionately impacted by crises and ignored or actively endangered by the people in charge, LGBTQ+ people will do what they’ve always done: fight for the most marginalised among us, including themselves. By going out into the streets, Cuicchi says, “we want to show our community, our LGBTQ+ and HIV communities, that we are watching and we have their backs.”