Protesting like Your Life Depended on It

A former ACT UP organizer explains how his AIDS activism in New York City—and his upbringing on a Texas farm—helped him become a better environmentalist.

Credit: Protesters hold flares and signs during a demonstration at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, on May 21, 1990, calling for more AIDS research by government scientists. The activists also want NIH to put more emphasis on drugs that fight the infections that kill AIDS patients, whose immune systems are weakened by the disease. Bob Daugherty/AP

Do you want to get media coverage for your protest? Use clever props. That’s one of the first lessons I learned when I became an AIDS activist with ACT UP/New York in the late 1980s. And it’s a lesson I still follow in my current work as an environmental activist in Texas.

With no money for paid media campaigns, ACT UP (which is still flourishing) depended on TV and print stories to get its message out. This led to a lot of creativity around how to stage events that would look good on television—everything from carrying colored smoke canisters across the Maryland campus of the National Institutes of Health, to floating a balloon-suspended banner up to the ceiling of Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal.

Members of ACT UP demonstrate during rush hour in Grand Central Terminal in New York City on January 23, 1991.
Credit: Jim Estrin/The New York Times/Redux

I was thinking about ACT UP’s props earlier this year when I organized a press conference for Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA), the Austin, Texas–based environmental nonprofit where I currently work. We were trying to rally opposition to a proposed sewage plant on one of the city’s most popular and pristine streams. Treated sewage still contains enough phosphorus and nitrogen to cause huge algal blooms, which have already suffocated other local streams.

But how to visualize this for TV cameras? The night before our press conference, I asked one of our supporters to fill a bucket with algae from a nearby creek. The next morning, at the start of our event, I placed the bucket next to my feet. Then at a strategic moment, I reached into the bucket, grabbed a handful of algae, and held it up for the cameras. The green goo was the money shot in our TV coverage that evening. Two days later, the sewage plant developer canceled its plans.

My current work might not be that surprising, since I’m a child of the environmental movement. I was six when the first Earth Day was held, and my interest in nature was further fueled by my dad’s subscription to National Geographic and family vacations to national parks. But I was also able to explore nature on my own, since we lived on my grandparents’ farm in central Texas. The creek that runs through our pasture was my after-school playground, where I collected fossils, arrowheads, and wildflowers for class projects. My love for the outdoors continued as a student at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, when I would go on hiking and camping trips with friends.

But I’m also a child of the gay rights movement since the Stonewall uprising happened when I was five. I came out as a gay man while at UT, and as graduation approached, I was unsure about where to live next. I’d only seen a handful of queer adults who were out in non-queer spaces in Austin. I felt that my options would be similarly limited if I stayed anywhere in Texas. On the other hand, I had several friends who were moving to New York City to look for jobs in journalism and publishing. In 1987, two weeks after graduation, I followed them to a place that I already knew was a gay mecca.

Zabcik (left) and Aldyn McKean brief ACT UP members on a protest at the NIH in May 1990.
Credit: T.L.Litt

I was far from unique in thinking that I had to move to a big city in order to be fully out as a queer person. At the macro level, people with different sexual and gender identities exist in every possible demographic, including in every country, ethnicity, and faith. But at the micro level—in homes, schools, and workplaces—individual queers usually find themselves to be the only one, or at least the only one they know of.

That’s why many LGBTQIA+ people have historically moved to big cities so that we can find more people like ourselves. Over time, this urban immigration has built on itself—in fact, LGBTQIA+ communities are similar to other immigrant communities. Word spreads that a particular city is a safe place where queer people can work without getting fired, where they can live without getting evicted, and where they can get medical care without being stigmatized. Equally important are the social benefits, such as an expanded pool for finding friends and partners.

Shortly after moving to New York, I was walking down an avenue one afternoon when I heard a man in front of me talking to his friend about ACT UP. I’d seen some of the group's posters and flyers across Manhattan, and I was curious. I joined their conversation, and the man invited me to my first meeting. I went, and kept going for the next five years. Hundreds of people packed ACT UP’s general meeting every week. The majority of them were gay men, but the group also had a sizeable and influential contingent of lesbians too. It was the first time in my life that I was enveloped by such a large and thoroughly queer community.

The intense passion within ACT UP came from a simple source—we felt like we were fighting for our lives. When I joined the group, there were no effective treatments for the HIV infection that caused AIDS. Most people died within two years of a positive diagnosis. The first truly effective therapy that prevented this death sentence wasn’t widely available until 1996. Many of the people I’d become friends with through ACT UP died before they could benefit. The man who invited me to my first meeting, Mark Carson, died in 1994.

I devoted all of my spare hours to working for ACT UP—even switching to a part-time position at my magazine in order to have more time for the group. I helped organize several actions, which was how I learned firsthand about the importance of props. In 1989, we held a protest to demand that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) speed up its approval of the only medication that could prevent AIDS-related blindness. In order to make the point that time was running out for people with AIDS, we held up clocks and watches, along with posters asking the FDA to “See the Light.” A few months later, the agency approved the drug.

Zabcik (left, with cap) and ACT UP join the Peoples Alliance Community Organization in June 1989 to protest health-care discrimination and the lack of affordable health care for people of color and people with AIDS.
Credit: T.L. Litt

In addition to the nuts and bolts of organizing actions, ACT UP also taught its members several important lessons about strategy. Because our positions were generally unpopular, we learned how to be resilient. Because we sometimes won, we learned how to be occasionally optimistic. And because we couldn’t win without support from other groups, we learned how to form coalitions. Indeed, that's in the group’s full name: the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

ACT UP has received more attention lately, with several writers citing it as one of the most successful social change movements of recent decades. The group’s history is being told in documentaries like United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague, and in books like Let The Record Show, the most comprehensive account of ACT UP yet published. (A few weeks ago, a friend texted me to say she saw me in old footage of ACT UP on that night’s episode of the Rachel Maddow Show.) But at the time, we had to fight for every little bit of media coverage.

Other causes were more popular, because they were less problematic. For instance, ACT UP was protesting inside churches and setting up needle exchanges, while environmental groups were protecting cute animals and pretty forests. At least, that’s how we saw it. One evening, I was talking with my friend Lee Schy, who was angry about how college students were flocking to other causes but avoiding ours. “They’d rather join Greenpeace than ACT UP,” he said bitterly. Lee died from AIDS in 1995.

ACT UP member Lee Schy gives activists an update on the police investigation into a gay-bashing incident at the Wigstock celebration on September 4, 1989.
Credit: T.L.Litt

Ironically, one of ACT UP’s few connections with an environmental group was with Greenpeace. In 1989, Howard “Twilly” Cannon, who had trained Greenpeace’s activists for some of their most spectacular protests, offered his assistance to one of our members, Peter Staley. Their collaboration led to one of the most notorious AIDS protests ever.

Senator Jesse Helms aggressively fought against any federal policy that could’ve helped people with AIDS or slowed the spread of it. In 1987, he successfully sponsored legislation that effectively banned federal funding for safer sex eduction aimed at gay men. Four years later, Helms received a demonstration on the effectiveness of one safer sex practice—condoms. With Cannon’s help, Staley’s affinity group commissioned a company that made inflatable displays to produce what is probably the biggest condom ever made (it even had a reservoir tip). While Helms was away from home, the affinity group unfurled the giant condom to cover his two-story house in Washington, D.C. The senator never proposed another piece of life-threatening AIDS legislation again.


Members of ACT UP hold up signs of George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Jesse Helms, and others with the word "guilty" stamped on their foreheads, along with a banner stating "Silence Equals Death" at a protest at the headquarters of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on October 11, 1988, in Rockville, Maryland. The action, called “Seize Control of the FDA,” shut down the agency for the day.

Catherine McGann/Getty Images

I’d only intended to stay in New York for a few years, but that turned into a decade, then another decade. In 2011, family obligations finally brought me back to Austin. The city was bigger than when I had left, but it was also more interesting, and it had an active queer scene. Austin is also a hot spot for outdoor recreation, and I spent as much time as possible swimming in Barton Springs, running around Lady Bird Lake, and hiking on the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

And then in 2016, I made an unexpected career change when I was hired by the Texas chapter of Environment America to be its clean water advocate. Last year, I moved to Save Barton Creek Association, one of the oldest citizens’ environmental groups in Texas, to work on water issues on a more local scale.

At first, I thought I was going to have a steep learning curve in my new career as an environmentalist, but I quickly learned how many of my prior skills and experiences were transferrable. I’ve been able to use all of the lessons I learned from ACT UP and other LGBTQIA+ groups about community organizing, media outreach, and policy advocacy.

I also found that I knew much more about environmental protection than I’d given myself credit for, simply because I’d grown up on a farm. In fact, many of the green infrastructure practices that I now promote to protect water quality are things that my grandfather would have recognized, although he would have used a different label—soil conservation—to describe them in the 1930s.

Everything came full circle last fall when I decided to move back to the family farm in order to restore my grandparents’ 85-year-old farmhouse. From clearing invasive mesquite trees to managing the exploding deer population, I’m now interacting with nature on a daily basis in a way that I haven’t since I was a kid. And what about the gay thing? Well, things are different back here too. While I live in a very red rural area, most of my friends and family know that I’m gay, and so far, it hasn’t been an issue.

How applicable is my experience to other queer people? I don’t know. I was able to make a midlife change because I’d already done many other things. If I were a new college graduate now—even in a Texas that’s more gay-friendly than when I graduated—I’m not sure what I would do. Many of the factors that led me to New York City in 1987 might lead me to the same place now.

But maybe not. It’s impossible to overstate how much life for my community has changed—mostly for the better—since the 1969 Stonewall uprising. I sometimes joke that queer people should have the right to be just as boring as straight people. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way—I just mean that if we want, we should be able to think about nothing else but getting the kids to soccer practice, fixing the leak in the kitchen sink, and writing that overdue report for work. We shouldn’t be forced to constantly think about our sexual and gender identities. And we definitely shouldn’t be forced to contemplate how some people think our identities are wrong.

And with that extra time, maybe more queer people will be able to think about what we can do to help protect the environment.

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