Two months into lockdown, while checking in with an old friend from Act Up San Francisco, he described his reaction to the rapidly rising number of deaths. “I’m acknowledging them, but I’m not feeling them, just like the old days,” he wrote. “That comes later.” I stared at the sentences, glowing in the dark, in recognition.
We had met in 1989, and I once told him getting old while H.I.V. positive was one of the most-punk rock things he ever did, though the list is long. “What they’re all experiencing in three months is what we lived through for years,” he added. “I’m still alive though,” he said; he’s been saying this for decades, a mutual benchmark of success for many of us.
When Dustin contracted what was likely Covid-19 six weeks later, my Act Up network provided information about the disease and his care. And when I felt our doctors were failing us, telling us only that “we didn’t meet the criteria for testing,” and acting as if we were trying to cheat our way into being tested, I thought of Larry Kramer, an Act Up founder, as I demanded from them, loudly, to be cared for.
When Mr. Kramer died three months into the shutdown, I mourned him by reading some of his work and found his historic 1983 essay, “1,112 and Counting.” Back then, that was an alarming number of people. It was also just slightly less than the number of new coronavirus infections in New York City alone the night before he died, May 26 — a decline. And it is just slightly less than the number of people killed by police last year in America, according to the research group Mapping Police Violence. The ones we are able to count.
This was also the night after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Health care is a right” was an Act Up slogan before it was a Democratic Party platform plank. Many of my friends in the group went into public health to make the changes needed to save lives. I have written before about how AIDS activists who did this work don’t get enough credit for having tried, during those first days and all the days after, to tell Americans that our health care system was potentially as deadly as the epidemic it failed to control.
Despite an internally contentious history, Act Up became a model for how a movement sustained continued work and mobilization, work that sometimes took decades. Much of mainstream policy now around substance abuse, touch hunger and viral transmission comes from the work of these activists. These same activists are now offering their expertise, in online sessions and in writing, about strategies for harm reduction while meeting social needs during an epidemic. The practices of safer sex can inform us on everything from going to the grocery store to creating a pod — a group of people you trust enough to live with or see regularly — to going to work.