Around AIDS, I think I can remember that we wrote some letters to the Social Credit government at the time, in our name. Not because we actually expected a response, but just because we wanted to have it on record and see if they actually said anything, what it would be. They didn’t, but we organized a community meeting. I think it was to take sort of a model around solidarity with Palestinians, actually I think is where the idea came from, saying that we stand side-by-side with these oppressed people. And as a community we wanted to say that people with AIDS are part of our community. We’re standing with them. Probably it was a response to the quarantine legislation, or to talk about it. And I think it was a well-attended community meeting. Several hundred people came. I don’t remember this concretely, if there was anything coming out of it. I think there were follow up meetings and activities. One of the most important things that we got out of it, I think, was just making contact with other people in the community around the AIDS issues and sort of knowing who was who and where they stood, so that when the first meetings of the Coalition for Responsible Health Legislation [CRHL] were called we had some idea of who people were and how to make contact with them.
Let’s see, there was the provincial government under Bill Vander Zalm, the Social Credit government. They were consistently hostile to gay rights. They consistently refused to deal with the AIDS crisis. One of the cabinet ministers would say, “What we said in the army was if you shot yourself, it was a self-inflicted wound” and that’s what their attitude was with AIDS. And then there was talk of quarantining, I think Bill Vander Zalm himself actually came out in favour of quarantining. And they brought in a law, and we discussed this in the Front for Active Gay Socialism in one of our meetings, it was the Health Statutes Amendment Act – Bill 34. And basically what it did was it dusted off provisions for quarantining people with any kind of infectious, communicable disease. But there were already provisions in the law for that. They didn’t really need to bring that up legally, because that was already in place. So, the real reason I think they brought that up was as a propaganda ploy to stir up homophobia and get support from their social conservative base. But I also think that there was a real danger of quarantine, because I think there was enough homophobia. Gay bashings were on the rise. We were beginning to see as the decade wore on bomb threats and bombings of Little Sisters bookstore several times, bomb threats. I remember walking down the street one time and Numbers was emptying out because there had been a bomb threat.
So, the Front for Active Gay Socialism – all of this stuff was happening and, I guess, it was sort of like a radical gay group and it was activism. It was also very social, but also kind of like a learning group – like, we’re learning and we’re discovering things and we’re taking about things. And so we’re dealing with issues like racism and, you know, we’re just educating ourselves and sometimes educating others. And so it was odd because we had the Angles collective, we’ve got the Front for Active Gay Socialism [FAGS], and we’ve got the AIDS organizations sort of forming. So, we were kind of a nucleus for starting different things and then people would get mad at us because we were so radical and [go] off and do something else.
Right. So, my understanding was that the PWA Society and the other big AIDS organization, AIDS Vancouver, were doing tremendous work in terms of supporting people who were HIV positive and people with AIDS in advocating for them, in researching the treatment options, but they were also getting government funding to do so. There was a conscious decision that they could not engage in political activism or advocacy, and there were people within who wanted to have that avenue and who knew of ACT UP organizations in the States. And so it was those people who came out of People With AIDS Society. I was not at the first meeting, but I understand that most of the people there were from PWA. So, it seems like there was a good handful of people, like 30-something, who wanted to have an activist organization. The next meeting they had done some work in terms of reaching out to the community and saying, “Let’s start an ACT UP group.” And that’s when different groups in the community – different people from different groups – came together. I think it was in a church basement, but I’m not sure. There was, I think, at least 60 people that came out, and very diverse. There were of course people, like Kevin Robb, from the PWA Society, but there were also a lot of women – young women, young dykes – involved in the prison justice movement, radical dykes who immediately would see the appeal of something like this. There were Downtown Eastside people, I say in the sense of you know non-middle class, white gay men living with AIDS; some of them were HIV positive who came. And I think probably that connection would’ve been around Socialist Challenge’s work in those areas. Also, there were straight people, young straight people, artistic types but political – political artists. I’m not sure particularly about lesbians and dykes at the time.
Well, now we’re getting into ACT UP. We met in David Lewis’ backyard in Kitsilano, for the first meeting of ACT UP. That would’ve been in ’89. It was advertised as a public meeting as part of how to respond to the provincial government and about two hundred people showed up in his backyard and that formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The first event that we had was at Robson Square and it was a public display of art – three bodies (mummies) being wrapped in linen and being hung upside down. That was a public event; it wasn’t a protest actually. The next protest was July 24 of the Social Credit fundraiser of Les Misérables at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. And there were lots of elements from other members in the community – not just HIV. It wasn’t just an ACT UP protest. There were First Nations people, there were anarchists, there were some Left people, and there was a little ruckus. I did a die-in right in front of the door and while Vander Zalm walked over me, I grabbed his legs with my legs and Lillian tripped over me. Five of us were arrested, included Janis Kaleta, and Ivan Coyote.