On May 21st, veteran AIDS activist Peter Staley marked the 30th anniversary of ACT UP’s “Storm the NIH” demonstration by sharing a video of the pivotal event to make sure the coalition’s demands were heard for greater access to and involvement in clinical research. The group’s protests helped wake the nation up to the reality of the people who were dying and being ignored by the government.
TBT. Getting arrested at ACT UP's "Storm The NIH" demo, May 21, 1990. They had to walk me through NIAID's Building 31 to take me to a police van out back since the front door was surrounded by hundreds of angry activists. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/HuaasoQGJH
— Peter Staley (@peterstaley) July 19, 2018
It was just a few days before George Floyd was killed, on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, which sparked protests against police brutality and an uprising of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and an end to systemic racism. In our latest RS Interview: Special Edition video series, Staley spoke about ways to protest safely during the current health crisis, what the recent Supreme Court decision means for LGBTQ people, the death of his friend and fellow activist Larry Kramer, his respect for Dr. Anthony Fauci, and why he supports the people who are taking to the streets in solidarity and defiance.
For queer people, the month of June — typically a time to celebrate and affirm LGBTQ visibility with parades and events — has also been a swirl of news as protections are stripped and new precedents have been set. Amid the current global pandemic and on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Trump administration finalized a regulation that erases protections for transgender patients against discrimination by doctors, hospitals, and health insurance companies. The size and intensity of demonstrations and rallies in support of black trans people have stunned supporters and bystanders. Seeing the photos and footage from the “Brooklyn Liberation” march in front of the Brooklyn Museum on June 14th, Staley says: “It was the queer community at its finest; it was one of the most beautiful moments in queer history.”
Staley, 59, was memorably captured in David France’s 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague — including his brilliant TV debate with homophobe Pat Buchanan and a stunt that involved covering Senator Jesse Helms’ house with a giant condom — along with Larry Kramer, who died on May 27th. “He didn’t die of COVID, but he died a COVID death,” Staley explains. “Anybody who dies in a hospital during [this time], they don’t want patients to get infected, so he was not surrounded by the community he loves. He died alone in his room. And that was ripping my heart out.”
Although the film has been critiqued for its presentation of medical activism primarily performed by urban gay white men — given that there’s many more voices and faces who took part — it also was the first to reach a larger mainstream audience, reminding a new generation how people put their bodies on the line. Staley continues to advocate for changes and reforms, including access to PrEP, the drug that can prevent HIV infections.
Here, he also offers advice and support for those who are caring about public health and caring about one another. “In the scheme of things, it can be a pretty safe thing if you follow a few techniques. First off: Everyone should wear masks,” he says, going further to explain the science behind viral transmission. “If you’re standing next to someone you don’t know, who’s chanting a lot … move away from them … don’t stand next to them for an extended period… I know we’ll see some transmission from these huge demonstrations, but I think we’re going to be surprised how little is happening.”
Ultimately, he hopes that the Black Lives Matter demonstrators keep up the pressure. “[It’s] an extraordinary youth-driven movement that has been brilliant at its messaging. Finally, there’s a real national discussion on about these issues…. I think we’re going to see some real radical change come out of this…. I’m all in, and I’m just trying to listen.”
Editor’s Note: Peter Staley shared his “apologies for mispronouncing Rem’mie Fells’ last name, and for switching her and Riah Milton’s hometowns. Still, I hope you’ll listen ’till the end.”