After Peter Staley gave an abbreviated account of his life and accomplishments, the topic of conversation turned to the present and the future.
He was conflicted about whether ACT UP would have the success it had had it started in today’s social and political climate.
A poll taken at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis showed that 80% of Americans agreed that the United States should spend more money on AIDS research.
“You Can’t Do This Now” Staley said, referring to the fact that 80% of Americans agree on anything.
Staley invoked the Black Lives Matter movement to describe how he thought American society would now react to ACT UP: The group would have been called “threatens” by conservative media, he said.
Even in her current work with PrEP4All, Staley sometimes struggles to stay positive.
“We are in a time of frustrated optimism” he said.
Many of the people he works with are in their 20s and 30s, and while his view tends towards pessimism, he says he is inspired by the drive of the young people he works with.
“At the end of the day, we need vaccines and a cure. [for HIV]”, he said.
He is “stick with” its assumption from several years ago that a vaccine will be available by 2030.
Staley then took questions from the audience, the first of which concerned her feelings on social media.
“Social media has become an excellent militant tool”, at its inception, Staley said.
ACT UP should plan protests well in advance, but with social media groups could get organized in an afternoon.
One downside, however, is that groups aren’t strategizing for protests as much anymore, he said.
ACT UP protests would be unified in messaging, from the slogans on the actual picket signs, to the chants the crowd would shout, to the actual actions of the group.
Staley said that even with apps like Zoom, organizers have a harder time capturing the emotional temperature of the room.
For example, he said, if a group wanted to hold a protest at Penn College, it would be easy to pick up a subtle whimper if someone suggested they protest outside the president’s office. If anyone else in the room offered to paint something on campus bright red in protest, a few interested people “ooh” and “aah” would be enough to shake things up and make this vision a reality.
Another question Staley answered was about the current “culture war” that conservatives across the country are going after the LGBTQ+ community, especially against transgender kids.
Staley called the “pendulum swing” a little “frightening.” But then he said he was “encouraged” by the unity shown in the LGBTQ+ community when the Trump administration began cracking down on transgender Americans in 2017.
“I think the pendulum swing looks pretty pathetic…” he said.
“We are going to win this.”
The last question Staley considered concerned the current “Face” HIV diagnoses – specifically, how that face is getting less white
Staley said that even at its inception, ACT UP had a small diversity problem: About 80% of members were white gay men, while no more than 7% were people of color.
He stressed the need to tell more stories about HIV, and he was encouraged by the emergence of shows like “Laid” which are “to correct” the narrative of HIV in America today.