How AIDS Activists Weaponized Art to Fight a Pandemic with Jack Lowery | Crooked Media
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July 05, 2022
America Dissected
How AIDS Activists Weaponized Art to Fight a Pandemic with Jack Lowery

In This Episode

 As HIV/AIDS was ravaging the gay community in the 1980s, the federal government was slow to respond owing to anti-LGBTQ stigma. ACT UP–the “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power”–sprang up to hold government officials, pharmaceutical companies, and society at large accountable. One offshoot of that movement was Gran Fury, which weaponized art and graphic design in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Abdul speaks with Jack Lowery, author of the “It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful,” about Gran Fury about its impact and legacy.

 

Transcript

 

[Sponsor note]

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: The WHO elects against ruling monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern, but the U.S. will roll out 300,000 doses of vaccine to combat a growing outbreak. The FDA approves an Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine booster for the fall, as BA.4 and BA.5 cause cases and hospitalizations to climb. The FDA has banned JUUL from selling its products in the United States. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. I remember seeing my first patient with HIV when I was in medical school, a young man who had contracted the virus congenitally, meaning he lived with it his entire life. He was in his teens and had stopped taking his medications, the medications he’d had to take since he was born. HIV is a disease of the white blood cells, the immune system. It literally stops your body from being able to defend itself from infections that a healthy immune system would swat away easily. But this young man’s viral load was so high that his white cell count had been decimated. He was struggling to even swallow because he had a terrible yeast infection of the mouth and throat, something someone with a functioning immune system would never have to worry about. One of the attending physicians with whom I was working was in his sixties. He trained at this hospital and he told me he hadn’t seen a case this bad since the early ’90s, back when HIV was still a death sentence for most patients. Today, it’s more a chronic disease, well-managed if people living with HIV take their medications. My patient had lost nearly 20 pounds, so much weight that I could see his heart beat through his ribs on a physical exam. He’d been complaining about the food at the hospital, which, to be fair, was awful. So after clearing it with my attending, I picked him up some ice cream on the way to the hospital the next evening on the way to a night shift. As he slowly savored it, I asked him why he stopped taking his medicine. “I’m sick of the label” he said. This was 2014, decades since the worst of the HIV epidemic, and yet it continues to carry a crippling stigma along with it. HIV first emerged in the ’80s among gay men. Once vibrant and healthy, people watch their sons, brothers, and lovers deteriorate over a matter of months. Thousands died. And because of LGBTQ stigma, the disease didn’t command nearly the attention from the media, the scientific, and medical communities or politicians that it deserved. Many were openly scornful because it was a disease of gay men. In response to the unwillingness by institutions of power to take this issue seriously, a group of activists led by legendary organizer Larry Kramer came together at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York and founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, an organization dedicated to doing all they could to, well, act up, to force people in power to take the AIDS crisis seriously and to hold power accountable for its failure. One of the first people whose attention they got was this guy:

 

[clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci] But it gives me a great deal of pleasure and excitement to talk about AIDS because it really is one of the few of, or actually one of the only subjects of all of the subjects that we tackle throughout the years where you really have to change your lecture every month.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: In case you didn’t recognize that Brooklyn accent, that’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, 37-years ago, in a lecture about HIV. Because of how slow biomedical research was moving at the time, he became a target of many of ACT UP’s actions. In 1990, more than a thousand ACT UP members protested at the NIH, specifically targeting Dr. Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he still directs. One op-ed written by Kramer opened up with the following line: I call you murderers, an open letter to an incompetent idiot. But he also became one of the group’s most important allies, working with them to engage their input in the planning of trials. And after that protest, the NIAID sped up approvals for various research projects and worked to include a more diverse group of subjects in research studies. One of the most innovative arms of ACT UP, it’s the subject of today’s show: Gran Fury. This was the graphic design arm of ACT UP and the AIDS movement, bringing the movement some of its most thought-provoking imagery and design. My guest today is Jack Lowery. His book, “It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful”, is a history of Gran Fury and a reminder of how far we’ve come in the movement against HIV-AIDS and anti-LGBTQ stigma. Here’s Jack Lowery.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Can you introduce yourself for the tape?

 

Jack Lowery: My name is Jack Lowry, and I’m the author of “It Was Vulgar & It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic.”

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Jack, we really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us. I really appreciated your book because it engages with the intersection of a number of really important issues. The first is the activism of the gay community in the face of a terrible pandemic–though we don’t call it that–in HIV, and then the use of arts toward civil disobedience. And you bring all those things together beautifully and tell the story of an organic movement rising up to claim both the equality, implicitly, of the gay community, and at the same time to recognize that in order to do that, you just had to shake up the status quo, all toward the idea of scientific research. I mean, it’s a, as a scientist, people don’t really get excited about scientific research, and you had this moment in history when that was about saving lives. And the folks at Gran Fury and ACT UP understood that. So I want to just step back for a second, what motivated you to write this book?

 

Jack Lowery: The impetus for this book was it was very shortly after the 2016 presidential election. I was doing a lot of self-reflection and thinking about, you know, what I was doing with my life, what you know, what I was spending my time writing about, who I spending my time with–and, you know, those kinds of deeper questions that had become kind of, these questions felt more prescient than they had a couple of months before. And I was aware of ACT UP and ACT UP’s strategies and ACT UP’s use of graphics beforehand, but after the 2016 election, I started to really research ACT UP more, read about ACT UP more, and it was through the spring of next year, I was watching a documentary, an old, old documentary made by a German filmmaker called Silence Equals Death, and there was just a quick reference to this group, Grand Fury. And I, I realized in retrospect that I actually wasn’t that far into researching ACT UP, but I thought I was at the time. And so it struck me, I was like, Oh, I’ve never, never heard of these people, I’ve never seen anything written about them. And so I started to look up who they were, you know, what they were doing or what they had done, you know, what had become of its members. And I was struck by how many of these posters that I had seen in footage of activist demonstrations and in reading about Act Up had kind of all come from this one core group of people. And I thought to myself, This is interesting, you know, maybe there’s something here, like maybe there’s something to write about because, you know, then I started to look for a book about Gran Fury. And, you know, if you don’t, if you can’t find the book that you want out in the world, you know, maybe you’re the person to go write it then. So I started to look into what had happened to Gran Fury’s members to see if they would be, you know, available to be interviewed. And at the time, I was, I just started graduate school at Columbia and was about to start teaching in the English department there, and it turned out that one of Gran Fury’s members, Tom Kalin, was on the floor above me. I’d walked by his office probably 100 times. And so, of course, being a Millennial, I couldn’t just go like knock on his door, I had to send him an email and like ask it, you know, if he would let me interview him. And he thankfully said yes. And that was one of the first interviews that I did for the book, and that was in May of 2017, and it kind of just went from there.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm. So you discover this incredible movement of art for activism, for equality, for science, and you set about interviewing members and writing this book. What became clear to you in the process of writing the book that wasn’t altogether obvious when you’d finally crystallized the idea that you’re going to write a book about this group?

 

Jack Lowery: I think one of the things that became increasingly obvious to me, and one of the things that I still find really compelling about Gran Fury’s work is what it set out to do, and how it was very different from most of the political posters and sloganeering that we’re accompanied, that we’re used to. Most political posters or most political slogans are about advocating for or against a specific legislative issue. So, you know, “No on Prop 8” is like, you know, obviously a very, you know, famous one from like my childhood, or “Medicare for All” is, you know, very obvious–

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: My guy!

 

Jack Lowery: Yes. And those slogans are very important. They are, you know, they communicate demands that people are making, and they communicate policy, the demands for policy that will improve peoples’ lives, but it’s not the only kind of political sloganeering. What I started to notice about Gran Fury’s work was that oftentimes they weren’t so much interested in getting you to vote yes or no on this particular issue, but what they were trying to get you to do was to think differently about the AIDS crisis or about people with AIDS. One of my favorite Gran Fruy projects is a poster that reads “All people with AIDS are Innocent.” And it was made in response to something that conservative politicians would often say at the time. They would describe hemophiliacs and children with AIDS as being AIDS as most innocent victims, and that’s a phrase that implies that some people are more deserving of AIDS than others, and presumably those, you know, according to these politicians, as people are presumably, you know, Queer people, intravenous drug users, and so this slogan, “All people with AIDS are innocent” that Gran Fury put out, its only real demand that it’s making is that you think differently about people with AIDS, that you don’t think of some people with AIDS as being more deserving of this illness than others. And I think that that’s a really, that’s what I find so fascinating about Gran Fury is that they weren’t advocating for policy, they were advocating for mindset shifts. But if you think about what happens once somebody makes that mindset shift, think about all the policies that come afterwards. If you think that somebody has who has AIDS deserves that, than you’re going to be treating that person very differently than if you don’t, than if you see their illness without judgment.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Right. That is profound because, you know, you’re what you’re speaking to is sort of the recognition of the art in political art, right? Because great art invokes a set of feelings that changes the very paradigm within which you think you’re engaging. And you’re right, most political sloganeering is really about one particular space and time and one yes/no goal of advocacy. Whereas this is about trying to change a mindset about who the people who live with AIDS or HIV/AIDS are, and also what the nature of our responsibility to health and disease is. And that’s a really, really profound point. And I think sometimes that’s the thing that’s sometimes lost in policy debates is that a lot of this is about the place where emotions and paradigms meet, and that’s where Gran Fury really wanted to live. I want to step back and ask you, you know, we haven’t really defined who Gran Fury is. So you, can you tell us a little bit about Gran Fury, about what they are, about how they came to be?

 

Jack Lowery: Yeah. Gran Fury was a collective of ten people, all of whom were members of ACTUP, which stands for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACTUP was an activist group that was formed in 1987 in New York City, and the way that ACTUP organize itself was a kind of structuring system called affinity groups. And affinity groups were based on, they were like group, they were like smaller cells within this kind of organization. And oftentimes, sometimes affinity groups were just like groups of friends, and they’d all go to like their demonstration together. Other times affinity groups were formed because a certain group of people had a certain expertize. A lot of the members who became part of Gran Fury were either art directors or graphic designers or working artists or photographers, architects, filmmakers–these were people who had a very particular set of skills. And so Gran Fury allowed them allowed this group of people to do the thing that they were best at in service of ACTUP. And that was a kind of guiding principle throughout a lot of ACTUP’s activities. It was an organization that very much encouraged people to tap into whatever skill set they already had. And so a lot of times when people came to ACTUP, they would wind up doing whatever they did in their day job, just for ACTUP. So, you know, people who were accountants or stockbrokers or worked in finance, those were the people who wound up, you know, being the treasurers and, you know, balancing ACTUP’s checkbooks and doing fund raising. People who worked in PR and magazines would often do media blitzes in advance of ACTUP to demonstrations. And Gran Fury is a kind of another example of that, this is a group of graphic designers who lended their skillset in the same way that, you know, everybody else did.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm. And was that, was that pretty unique for the time, to be able to sort of engage people where they were and allow them to leverage their own native skills and interests toward an outcome? Did they innovate that, or was that a model that was that was quite common at the time?

 

Jack Lowery: It’s a good question. You know, I can’t think of another movement off the top of my head that really kind of organized itself in this way, but that could just be my own lack of knowledge. It doesn’t mean that it had never been done before. But it was also kind of like, I think it was less borne out of like a particular influence from, you know, another group, and more born out of the sense of urgency that was presenting itself in the moment. This is a time period where people who are testing HIV+ are being told that they have two years to live, and oftentimes they wind up living for much less time. HIV testing was not commonplace at this time because there was a big push to quarantine people with AIDS indefinitely, so you have this group of people who no one really knows who, for certain, who is and isn’t going to be sick, unless you’ve already started to develop symptoms. Most of the people in the room have lost partners or many, many friends to AIDS already by the time the ACTUPs formed, and there’s just a real sense of urgency there. And I don’t think that you can really recreate that. It was just, it was very organic. It was very much like, We need to do something. And somebody raises their hand and says, well, I know how to do this one thing. And somebody else says, Well, great, I can put together, I can put together a press release for that. I think it less emerged out of a sense of–I don’t think it was a very conscious thing of like, Oh, we should really get people to, you know, plug-in to whatever they want to do. It was just a kind of organic thing of like, you know, do what you’re good at and, you know, kind of it was a more running-gun philosophy.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Like, do what you can with what you have where you are.

 

[ad break]

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: We’re back with more of my conversation with Jack Lowery.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Why was arts and graphic design such a powerful tool around shaping the narrative? You talked a little bit about the importance of changing paradigms, but what in this particular moment and about this particular movement allowed their art to be so powerful?

 

Jack Lowery: I think one of the big things, one of the, one way of answering this question is to talk about branding, and to talk about the way in which ACTUP branded itself. ACTUP was very conscious of the fact that if you get a bunch of photographers or videographers to a demonstration from the press and you give them compelling footage, they’re going to use that compelling footage for, you know, their nightly newscast or for their newspaper. And so it’s a strategy that ACTUP kind of happened upon of like, Oh, we can tell, like, if we give, if we create really compelling images of ourselves, if we give images of ourselves to the media, our messages will travel further. And so there were lots of ways in which Act Up tried to–I don’t want to use the word “stage” because that has a kind of pejorative connotation to it–but, I mean, actually, it kind of, is what they did. They were staging really compelling images of themselves. And they were do, and I mean, you know, the image that’s on the the cover of the book is of a guy named Kendall Morrison being arrested at a demonstration, an image that, a photograph that was taken seconds after this wound up on the front page of The New York Times. And because it’s such a compelling image, it’s this guy who I mean, he’s surrounded by, you know, six, he’s being dragged off by six police officers. He has no, there’s no threat there. He’s holding a poster and he has a T-shirt on. And there are, you know, there’s not–both of them are Gran Fury projects by the way–and so it’s one of those things of posters and graphics were just one way of helping create compelling images. I think the other thing that art really did for, and this particular kind of branding did for, ACTUP, was that it made ACTUP very recognizable. Silence Equals Death, which is perhaps the best known graphic to come out of ACTUP, it precedes Grand Fury by a couple of months, but was, you know–or actually about a year–but was very much instrumental in the formation of Gran Fury. Silence Equals Death is a very striking image. It’s a black poster with a pink triangle, and it’s says “Silence Equals Death” in white text. And, you know, one of the members of Gran Fury said to me, think about 200 good-looking guys walking down the street wearing that t shirt, it’s kind of a photo op. Like it looks, you just you see it, and it’s a striking image of all of these people who are dressed the exact same way. They’re all wearing the same t shirt. Like, that’s a really, really compelling visual. And I think the other thing that graphics did for ACTUP was that it was a way of creating media for Queer people in a time where media was not being created, in which mainstream media was not showcasing Queer people in a positive light. So something like Gran Fury’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” project, which has its three couples kissing in profile, one gay, one lesbian, and one straight couple. You know, if you’re an ACTUP member and you you’re walking down the street and you see that image appear, you feel seen in the world. You see, it’s a form of, it’s a form of seeing yourself in the media. And it’s also, you know, if you pass by somebody on the street and they’re wearing like a Gran Fury t shirt, like, you know, you know that they’re one of your own. You feel less alone when you see an image like that.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: One of the most powerful pieces that you’re alluding to here is in changing what we think of around norms, and civil disobedience is really powerful because it disrupts the usual nature of a space to force you to consider what’s not included there in the first place. And you open the book with a really vivid description of an example of Gran Fury civil disobedience at the New York Stock Exchange. I was hoping you could describe that, and tell us what was so powerful about that.

 

Jack Lowery: Yeah. So at the time, so the year that we’re talking about is 1989. At the beginning of 1989, there’s one approved medication for fighting HIV. It’s called AZT. It’s a failed cancer drug that’s been repurposed for people with AIDS. It has no long-term efficacy. It is basically kind of, the efficacy that peaks after a couple of years. It gives kind of short-term benefits, but nothing really in the long term. It’s the only drug that’s available, and it costs $10,000 a year. And so ACTUP decided to stage a series of demonstrations against Burroughs Wellcome, the pharmaceutical company that manufactured AZT. And the stock exchange demonstration that you’re asking about, it actually wasn’t the first demonstration against Burroughs Wellcome. It was actually kind of the last one, because it was the one that finally pushed them. But they had done several demonstrations up until this point, including I mean, there were members of ACTUP who broke into the Burroughs Wellcome offices with a set of power tools, and basically they like nailed the doors shut in an office and like trapped themselves in there in protest of this, you know, of this exorbitant price that was being attached to the only medication that was available.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Literally being entrapped by the company.

 

Jack Lowery: Right. I don’t know if they were going for that, but that’s a good, I like that. I like that way of framing it. It’s so, ACTUP kept hounding Burroughs Wellcome to try to lower the price of AZT. And so what they finally decided to do was a demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange because Burroughs Wellcome is a publicly traded company, and the demonstration was organized by, or largely conceptualized by, an ACTUP member named Peter Staley. Peter is a very visible, well-known ACTUP member. He owns a book called “Never Silent” that came out in October of last year. And Peter had been a stockbroker for, I believe, J.P. Morgan Chase up until he learned that he was HIV+. And then he quit his job and joined ACTUP. And so he was the one who kind of conceptualized of this demonstration where him and five other people would break into the New York Stock Exchange to disrupt the ringing of the opening bell. And so what they did was they went down to the New York Stock Exchange and they kind of canvased it, like, they tried to do reconnaissance, basically. And what they noticed was that all the traders had these like badge I.D. numbers kind of tacked on to their jackets, and the security guard wasn’t really checking anyone’s credentials. It was sort of like as long as you had this, like, tag on, you know, you could get in. And so Peter and I think six other people from ACTUP got together and they put on what they called “business drag” and they like, you know, pieced together like, you know, their closest approximations to like, you know, what a Wall Street day trader would wear. And they, like, printed out these like fake ID cards and tried to get in, and it worked. They did, they decided to do like a test run. And they kind of got inside and, you know, walking around on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and they see this balcony that’s overlooking the floor of the exchange, and they sort of, like it, it goes off. Like, Oh, yeah, like, we can do something with this. Like, we can sneak back in here, like, we can bring, we can do a demonstration, we can really disrupt this. And so what they decided to do was they made a banner that said Sell Wellcome. Obviously, in reference to Burroughs Wellcome, the company who was the manufacturer of AZT. And then they had, they got all this fake cash that had been produced by Gran Fury, and it was like 20, 50 and $100 bills, and the bills had slogans on them that were like, “Fuck your profiteering, people are dying while you play business.” Another one was “White heterosexual men can’t get AIDS? Don’t bank on it.” And so Gran Fury gave these pills to Peter and the few other people that he was, you know, infiltrating the stock exchange with. And so they snuck in the morning of, and about a minute before the opening bell rang, they handcuffed themselves to the railing of this balcony, and as the bell was ringing, the bell was about to ring, they unfurled their banner that said, “Sell Wellcome”, and then they all pulled out marine fog air horns to drown out the sound of the opening bell to kind of announce like, you know, today is not going to be, you know, business as usual, as they would say. And that they threw all of this fake cash at these day traders that were standing down below. And it’s probably one of the most well-known actions done by ACTUP for a few reasons. And the first is how quickly they were able to effect change. Three days later, Burrows Wellcome dropped the price of AZT. It was like the final thing that embarrassed them into doing this. The other thing that’s really striking about this demonstration is that they did a really good job of coordinating with the press beforehand. So there was a journalist at the Wall Street Journal named Marilyn Chase, who they got in touch with beforehand and told her all about this demonstration. So she had this article that was all ready to go about the price of AZT, what was happening in the demonstration. And then what ACTUP did was in addition to the guys who snuck up onto the balcony, they also had two photographers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange taking photos of this. And as soon as they got their photos, they ran out, unloaded the film, passed it off to a runner, who took the photos they just taken to the offices of the Associated Press. And so you see this, like, incredible planning that goes into it. You see this coordination with the media. I mean, literally giving them these really compelling images and this really compelling story. And I think the other thing that’s really noteworthy about this is that this was like eight people who got together and did this. This was not a–and that’s so, so different than the way that so many or demonstrations are organized today, where it’s all about getting the biggest number of people to Foleuy Square or to, you know, a certain demonstration or a certain march. And, you know, there’s certainly something to be said about the efficacy, about how effective it can be when you get people to turn out in large numbers, but I think that ACTUP is a kind of very interesting corollary to that in that a lot of act up’s most well-known demonstrations were not thousands and thousands of people. It was like eight people who got together and decided to do this. And I think that’s a really, and I think that’s really compelling, too.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It says a lot about the power of planning and coordination and the power of putting your body on the line for something you believe in. And, you know, the idea that we’re talking about earlier, about changing the way something looks, you know, everybody even today, though stock trading is done mainly online, you remember the pictures of these crazy day traders running around the New York Stock Exchange, trying to buy and sell, and that’s an image that you have in your mind. And the disruption of that kind of image to force people to think about what happens and what lies just underneath, the kind of true violence that is perpetrated just underneath, is really where a lot of this power lies. I want to ask you, what do you think is the legacy of Gran Fury and ACTUP more generally?

 

Jack Lowery: I mean, I think the the real legacy is that they made the world a much more livable place for Queer people and people with AIDS. I mean, if you look at where the discussion around AIDS was when ACTUP first formed, California had propositions on its ballots in 1986 and 1988 that would permanently quarantine all people with AIDS, anyone who tested HIV+. By the time that ACTUP is at the height of its efficacy in 1990, 1991, 1992, they have pulled the conversation so far away from that. When Jerry Brown ran for president in 1992, he worked with ACTUP to create a 25-point plan to end the AIDS crisis. I mean, that’s how, and that was in a matter of four years, that ACTUP was able to change that. So I think, you know, they really shifted the conversation around AIDS in this country about what should be done about it, that it shouldn’t be about locking people up indefinitely, that it should be about giving these people health care, that it should be putting money into research into this. If you look at, I think another legacy of ACTUP is that if you look at the amount of federal spending on AIDS research, the graph of that corresponds pretty closely to ACTUP’s beginning and rise. I mean, once ACTUP became a part of American life, it was like the money being put towards AIDS research began doubling and tripling every year. And it had pretty much been, it had been pretty stagnant before. And that, increased funding in AIDS research ultimately brought about the medications that came to market in the mid-’90s that make it possible to live a full, healthy life with HIV. The average life expectancy for a person with HIV today is just two years short of what it is for an HIV negative counterpart, and I think that that’s directly because of ACTUP. There is nothing else that explains that dramatic, dramatic increase in AIDS funding. I think ACTUP was also for a lot of people, one of the first representations of Queer people that they saw in the news, and especially something like Gran Fury’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” billboard, which includes, you know, a photo of a gay couple and a lesbian couple kissing–I mean, for a lot, it’s hard to imagine how shocking that image was at the time. I mean, that could be a Target ad today, but at the time, it was absolutely reviled by the right wing. And it was something that really spoke to a lot of really young Queer people. And I think that, I think that, you know, those are all sort of you know, those are kind of on a macro level, those are a lot of, those are some of ACTUPS, that’s part of ACTUP’s legacy. On a more micro level, there are a lot of policy initiatives that ACTUP was able to change and influence. For years, the CDC did not include women in its definition of people who could have AIDS, and ACTUP launched a four-year campaign to persuade them to start recognizing that women can get AIDS, too. And that recognition had enormous consequences because you needed a CDC-defined definition of AIDS to access Social Security benefits, clinical drug trials–it was a huge, huge win for millions and millions of women, and, you know, other people who weren’t being considered by the CDC, as, you know, having AIDS. ACTUP started, and Gran Fury was a huge part of that project, “Women don’t get AIDS–They just die from it” appeared in bus shelters in Los Angeles and New York and really helped publicize the issue and really it helped galvanize awareness for it. And there are tons of other policy initiatives, too. I mean, the Food and Drug Administration began approving HIV medications much, much more quickly. Both medications that attacked the HIV virus itself, and other medications that helped combat the opportunistic infections that were most common for people with AIDS. And so, yeah, I mean, I think ACTUP, in short, ACTUP made the world a livable place for people with AIDS.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. Literally, literally saving lives. And the important thing to remember is that’s not just here in the United States. That’s abroad. A lot of the research that they advocated for turned into the medications that finally were being manufactured abroad as the pandemic of HIV/AIDS affected large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa. We’re in this really odd moment right now when it comes to the LGBTQ community, because on the one hand, we’ve seen a lot of progress in, you know, everything from same-sex marriage, the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” to the level of acceptance and embrace in the general public as a function of a lot of what ACTUP and Gran Fury had done. At the same time, we’re seeing a lot of backpedaling, particularly in red states, in anti-LGBTQ policies, whether it’s the Don’t Say Gay Bill in Florida or a whole raft of anti-trans bills that we’ve seen across the country. And at the same time, we’re watching a somewhat insidious pink-washing campaign, whether it’s, you know, the military or it’s, you know, you name the corporation, that on the one hand gives to anti-LGBTQ politicians and on the other, you know, flies it’s Pride flag. As we think about that legacy of ACTUP, how should we be thinking about this moment–and you know, if you could sort of channel the people that you got to meet in the researching of the book–how do you think they’d be feeling about this moment right now?

 

Jack Lowery: I can tell you that they’re very dismayed by this moment. I hear what you’re saying about, you know, the strides that the Queer people have made since the ’80s and ’90s, but things like gay marriage and, you know, being able to serve in the military are sort of, a lot of the ACTUP folks aren’t really like, you know, that thrilled about, you know, the sort of few advances that Queer people have been able to win. One of the really important lessons from ACTUP is the importance of creating images that show the future you want. If you if you go back and look through television coverage, news coverage, newspaper, magazines, before ACTUP, they would always show people with AIDS in these really kind of dire situations, in these really dire situations. They were always alone, you know, extremely sick, frail, no agency. These are people who are sick, and they’re clearly sick and dying. And that is, and I don’t want to dismiss the reality of that, that that was, you know, what so many people with AIDS did experience towards the end of their lives. But what ACTUP did was say, This can’t be the only image, we have to create other images of what people with AIDS look like. And so ACTUP starts making–as we were talking about earlier–it’s really important to help create these images of people with AIDS advocating for themselves, of being in public, of not willing to just kind of die alone. And I think that that lesson of the importance of creating images of what you want the future to look like is something that I think still has a lot of potential for today, both with the bills that you were talking about earlier, and with a lot of other issues as well.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I really appreciate you joining us to talk about ACTUP, about Gran Fury, about the use of art to drive science, to take on HIV/AIDS, and to empower the Queer community. That was Jack Lowery. His book is “It Was Vulgar $& It Was Beautiful.” I highly recommend you check it out. And Jack, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

 

Jack Lowery: Thank you for having me.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now. As of Thursday last week, there have been 307 confirmed cases of monkeypox across 27 states in the United States. That’s up nearly two-fold since the week before, suggesting that monkeypox is spreading rapidly. Across the world, there have been over 3000 cases, a thousand alone in the U.K. But last week, the WHO chose not to issue a public health emergency of international concern over monkeypox, choosing instead to watch carefully. For their part, the Biden administration announced a plan to issue up to 1.6 million doses of vaccine to anyone who’s worried about exposure. But here’s where it gets complicated: the main vaccine, JYNNEOS, has limited availability. The administration will release 56,000 doses immediately, and they plan to make another 240,000 doses available over the coming weeks. Overall, it plans to release 750,000 doses by the end of the year. But the CDC’s vaccination plan also allows local and state authorities to supplement vaccinations with an older vaccine called ACAM2000, which has far worse side effects, particularly in people who are immunocompromised. The vaccination plan is admittedly a bit of a mess. First, it doesn’t define exactly who should get vaccinated and when. And without a robust approach to surveillance and high-risk communities, many who need a vaccine may not get one. Second, because this outbreak emerged in a community with a high risk of HIV and the immunocompromise that it causes, the lack of the early availability of the JYNNEOS vaccine could force people who could have bad side effects to take ACAM2000. All of this, of course, is happening under the threat of that never-event scenario that Professor Rimoin laid out for us a few weeks ago, that monkeypox becomes endemic in U.S. rodent populations. That scenario gets likelier every single day. It keeps spreading in the population. And in another reminder that COVID is not over:

 

[news clip] Now the FDA is independent panel, rather, of vaccine experts voted on Tuesday to recommend modifying the vaccine, for the first time, to specifically target Omicron.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: The FDA has approved an Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine booster for the fall. This is happening as BA.4 and BA.5, distant cousins of the original Omicron variant that hit us last winter, are enriching themselves and leading to higher rates of COVID cases and hospitalizations. Though the Omicron-specific vaccine was designed to target the original Omicron, it’s been shown to mildly increase antibody titers to BA.4 and BA.5 too. Though the exact formulation remains unclear, the Omicron-specific vaccine is likely to be delivered as a Bivalent vaccine, meaning it includes some of the original vaccine and some of the new Omicron-specific vaccines. This new booster is expected to be marginally more beneficial, though it does highlight an important question: are we too far behind in our case against a moving target? In a coauthored op-ed explaining his vote against the new vaccine in an FDA advisory panel, the Director of the Vaccine Education Center, Dr. Paul Offit, raises the important point that updating our vaccine arsenal will cost money Congress has proven uninterested in spending. Perhaps it’d be better to invest the additional money into research for a more comprehensive vaccine rather than an updated one that already seems outdated. Finally, this happened a few weeks ago:

 

[news clip] After a two-year review, the US Food and Drug Administration announced today that it will ban all vaping and e-cigarette products sold by JUUL.

 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: That’s right. The FDA took the sweeping step of banning JUUL from selling its vapes and its pods in the U.S.. The FDA is ruling came over shoddy data of potentially harmful chemicals users may be exposed to while smoking the product. JUUL, which started with the ostensibly honorable intent of providing a smokeless alternative for people with nicotine addiction, was soon beset by the “growth at all costs” attitude that pervades Silicon Valley. They began marketing their products to teens, which led to a massive surge in teen vaping and a whole new rise in nicotine addiction. While the ruling will certainly be challenged in court, it’s an important warning to the vaping industry. You can learn more about JUUL and its rise in our episode, Bejeweled, with Lauren Etter, the author of “The Devil’s Playbook.”

 

That’s it for today. On your way out, don’t forget to rate and review. It really does go a long way. Also, if you love the show and want to rep us, I hope you’ll drop by the Crooked store for some American Dissected merch. We’ve got our logo mugs and t-shirts, and our Safe and Effective tees are on sale for $20 off while supplies last. America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producer is Tara Terpstra. Veronica Simonetti Mixes and masters the show. Production support from Ari Schwartz, Inez Maza, and our awesome summer intern, Ella Price. Our theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard, Michael Martinez, and me, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Thanks for listening.