The ACT UP Diaries
by Mateo Wilhelm Ebert
Reviewed by Rob Zukowski
Created by Mateo Wilhelm Ebert, a member of ACT UP NY, the ACT UP Diaries is a video compilation made from 1985–1992. It was a critical time in history; one whose impact would shape future generations and help ensure their survival. On the project’s Web page, Ebert states, “I use this channel as a mode of healing from very difficult memories. It is dedicated to the many lives lost to AIDS, and to my friends still struggling to survive. Let the courage and power of ACT UP shine a light on us all.”
The past is not a place to leave behind. It is a treasure trove of hindsight, successes, and failures, all of which culminate into the one thing that we learn from more than anything else: experience. Hence, the importance of projects like the ACT UP Diaries.
Sitting in the back row of my own high school history classes, I questioned why it was pertinent for me to know what happened ages ago. As it often is with youth, my focus then was on the now. That which came yesterday fell short compared to what was happening today. We live and learn.
Flash forward, years later, to a chilly NYC street corner. I, along with other volunteers, were staffing an outreach table for the local LGBT center during a winter holiday street fair. We huddled together to cut the biting winds. One volunteer, a senior member of the community, possessed not only the warmest blanket, but tales of LGBT life past. He spoke of life pre-Stonewall and what the world was like when you were different, when different, in many instances, was worthy of incarceration. I was regaled with stories that even in the dead of winter melted my heart and fueled the flames of purpose to further the causes of the community. It dawned on me that what I was doing on that blustery December day was not just for today. It was a continuation of my community’s struggle. Like the work of activists before me, what I did that day and in the years to come, built upon the legacy of those who stood strong in the past, and would help secure a just future for those taking the reins after me. To look forward with purpose, I first looked backward with awe and thanks.
As a younger person, I didn’t grasp historical significance. But after that December day, I carried with me the importance of knowing where I came from in order to reach my destinations. You can’t complete a societal journey unless you know where it began.
The videos in this project focus on actions, protests and individual activists. In one video—Marta: Portrait of a Teen Activist—we briefly follow the quirky contributions of one dedicated activist. Ebert shares this insight on Marta’s video: “We were demonstrating in Atlanta with ACT UP against the CDC and Anti-Sodomy Laws. Two things stand out: we were chased by gun-toting southern thugs, and (years later) some kids asked me how I added Marta into a shot with so many homophobes…that’s no computer generated effect kiddies. We were there.”
Another portrayed is one you might have heard of: the late Keith Haring. It begins with a newsreel condemning “people who commit graffiti,” and goes on to say that they “often share two things in common, anonymity and a lack of talent.” The video progresses to depict Haring’s rise to fame; fame, I gleefully add, achieved via artistic expressions that spoke to and about the marginalized LGBT community and the struggles of HIV and AIDS.
The ACT UP Diaries represent your roots; they are chapters in a larger story that every generation should be told. They are a glimpse into experiences that changed the course of history and humanity. These were not just any activists; these were people fighting for their survival…and yours. The films are wrought with visions of civil disobedience, arrests, loud calls for the world and the powers that be to hear; protestor’s hands bound with signature police force plastic ties, bellowing messages of forceful hope until the heavy doors of police vans silenced their sounds.
There are images that remind you that history repeats itself. The opposition toting signs reading “gay is sad” and “God did not make you gay.” These are misguided sentiments we still must rage against today, more than thirty years later. Those who fought for us gripped signs depicting images side by side of religious and political leaders and condoms, urging you to “know your scumbags.” There were posters inciting people to “lick sodomy laws” along with images of queer oral activities. It wasn’t a time, nor could it have been, for the sake of so many lives, to coax one into cautious conversation. It was a time to tell it like it was; and if the truth was shocking, then all the more reason for people to hear it.
You will do yourself a disservice by only experiencing the ACT UP Diaries with your eyes and not your heart and your mind. I urge you: Take a step into the past, to a time that shaped your present. Where you come from is paramount as you plot your course. Take this bit of history, and rage against the possibility that this history ever repeat itself.
To watch the ACT UP Diaries, log on to http://vimeo.com/channels/theactupdiaries.
Rob Zukowski, a New York native, has spent twenty-five years in LGBT activism, both personally and professionally. He is a published writer and photographer and is currently pursuing a degree and licensing in complementary and alternative medicine.
Read the article in the April 2013 digital issue by clicking here.