This website is an interactive academic
tool for CEA-UNH course:
Gay Paris:
Culture, Society, & Urban Sexual Identity

CEA GlobalCampus | Spring 2009
UNH Course Code: GEN230
Credits: 3 | Location: Paris, France

Monday, April 6, 2009


excerpts taken from Chapter 14: ACT UP: The History of a Political Movement
The Pink and the Black _Frédéric Martel



"ACT UP is a group based on anger." (p. 295)

Larry Kramer: New York
"Larry Kramer acquired a sulfurous reputation by denouncing, in his prophetic novel, promiscuity, back rooms, and the obsession with sex. Because he criticized what was at the time the very essence of the homosexual lifestyle, Kramer was viciously taken to talk in 1978 by gay activists, who denounced his persistent guilt, 'gay homophobia,' self-loathing, hidden moralizing, and proselytizing hatred of sex." (p. 285)

"With 20,000 Americans already dead of AIDS, Kramer hoped for a return to radical grassroots militancy. On March 8, 1987, he created the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, known by the acronym ACT UP. The organization adopted the slogan "AIDS is our holocaust;" it chose the pink triangle as its emblem, but, symbolically, inverted it so that the tip pointed upward, like a weapon that has been turned upside down. An openly homosexual organization, ACT UP chose provocation, as indicated in such slogans as 'The government has blood on its hands.' 'ACT UP is a rude, nasty organization, like the virus that is killing us,' wrote Kramer." (p. 287)

"In conjunction with ACT UP, American homosexuals invented the practice of 'outing,' publicly revealing the homosexuality or HIV status of a person reputed to be a 'closet queen' or a conservative." (p. 287)

The French Context:

In an interview, published by The Observer in England (in June 1991), Edith Cresson (the new French Prime Minister under Mitterrand at the time) is quoted as saying:

"In English-speaking countries most men prefer the company of other men, but most of these men are homosexual - maybe not the majority, but in the United States a full 25 percent of them are, and in England and Germany it's nearly the same thing...I don't know whether that's a biological or cultural fact, but I remember noticing in London - and all the girls make the same observation - that men don't look at you in the street...Anglo-Saxons are not interested in women as women...It's a problem of upbringing and I consider that a kind of illness." (p. 288)

In a later interview with ABC, she went on to add:

"A man who is not interested in a woman, that seems bizarre to me...I think [heterosexuality] is better. Homosexuality is different and marginal. It exists more in the Anglo-Saxon tradition than in the Latin tradition. Everyone knows that. It's a fact of civilization." (p. 289)


It was Didier Lestrade who "wondered whether it might be a good time to create an ACT UP organization in Paris. Lestrade was a reporter for Gai Pied Hebdo and Libération...He marveled at American homosexual life, with its chosen ghettos and communitarian political culture, and even more at the strong-arm tactics of ACT UP-New York. 'I went through the 1980s like the queers of that time: going out, having fun, cruising, fucking, not thinking. We had an irrational side when it came to the disease. Until very late, I was looking the other way.' Lestrade was infected with HIV at a late date - in early 1987, when, as a contributer to Gai Pied, he was perfectly well-informed of the risks. He awaited the signal from his friends to launch the ACT UP venture. He was thirty years old." (p. 291)

Early ACT UP-Paris Activities:

"Militants picketed in front of the National Assembly, manipulating powerful images and words. Their signs were translated into French: 'silence=mort' and 'action=vie.' On December 1, 1989, they demonstrated against the church's opposition to condoms, making catcalls and shouting, 'Condoms are life, but the church forbids them!' They hung a banner reading 'OUI A LA CAPOTE' (Yes to condoms) between the towers of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Later (May, 1990) the prime minister's Service d'Information et de Diffusion was 'zapped' because it has censored the AFLS subway campaign. The city of Paris was hit (June, 1990) for its 'AIDS plan,' which was judged too timid. The Senate was zapped (May, 1991) for trying to make it a crime to transmit the virus and for reinstating homosexuality as a criminal offense." (p. 291)

"ZAPS": (rapid actions against a person, a media outlet, or an organization)

"The organization used slogans that were Manichean ('AIDS: Mitterrand is guilty' 'Got HIV? France prefers you dead'), political ('Infected under Mitterrand, dead under Chirac'), oddly demanding ('Give me T cells, Balladur!') [a reference to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur], provocative and vulgar ('Proud to exist, proud to fist'), and even morbid (at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, militants spray-painted 'Look, the state is investing in your future!' or shouted 'Make way, we're coming!'). The watchwords were often amusing, vaguely Dadaist ('Eat apples to fight AIDS!'), or bordering on self-ridicule ('AIDS is disco'). They could also be sentimental, as in this moving slogan on Gay Pride Day in 1992: I WANT YOU TO LIVE!" (p. 292)

How is this approach effective? Was it needed at the time, given the political context? Still? Why? In what ways could this approach be ineffective?

French Response:

"Beyond the debates and the tone adopted by ACT UP, the former president of the republic's silence on the AIDS issue remains incomprehensible. All in all, the disease, which appeared when he was elected in 1981 and increased tenfold during his two seven-year terms, was never the object of the slightest assessment on his part. Thus Mitterrand failed to address one of the key issues of the century's end, an issue encompassing both exclusion and discrimination." (p. 292)

Did things change immediately, even within the organization?

"There was a real lack of courage on our part. We distributed ACT UP pamphlets at the entrances to gay bars, even though we knew very well that people inside were fucking without condoms. We should have gone in and cleaned out the fucked-up mess inside. For my part, I have always supported a minority position, which was and still is to have the back rooms closed down..." (p. 298)

ACT UP | Aides

"On May 21, 1994, a few hundred militants from ACT UP-Paris lay on the ground on the parvis Beaubourg for the 'day of despair,' among pictures of coffins, slogans about the hecatomb, and, in ACT UP's newspaper, many reproductions of death's heads. A week later, on May 29, Aides organized the 'march for life' from the Palais Omnisports in Bercy to the Eiffel Tower. There were several thousand marchers in a joyful, easygoing, familial atmosphere; in the end, several thousand francs in donations were collected. These two demonstrations in themselves mark the distinction between ACT UP and Aides." (p. 300)

Aides: It's not your fault you are sick
ACT UP: It is other people's fault you are sick

Lestrade: "There is a great deal of violence within ACT UP because of the despair, the anger, and the grief. This despair was put to use, channeled somewhere. Militants were told: 'You're scared, you're angry, you can do something with that anger.' ACT UP is the only organization that channels that anger outward." (p. 302)

"ACT UP also distinguishes itself from Aides in its strong declaration of homosexual identity, transforming a social stigma into a positive identity. Aides may have appeared more 'apologetic' - something for which it has naturally been criticized by ACT UP. In Aides, people are homosexual. In ACT UP, they are queer." (p. 302)

Philippe Mangeot (a student at Ecole Normale and an activist at ACT UP) says:
"ACT UP is a place of circulating desires. I have two fiancés right now: I found both of them at ACT UP. I've sometimes thought the Aides guys were better-looking, though. But the goal of ACT UP is to have the best-looking guys in Paris! ACT UP is a cruising group, but it's also a group where people whose sexuality is not yet defined can come, and where they often have their first homosexual experiences. For example, even the straights in ACT UP are queer! That's a joy to me. There's a process of becoming queer in ACT UP." (p. 304)

The Pink Condom:

"On December 1, 1993, the spectacular action of putting a giant fluorescent pink condom on the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde made all of France smile." (p. 306)

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