A&U’s Hank Trout Talks with Peter Staley About His Memoir of ACT UP, Activism, Love, Loss and Resilience
You know Peter Staley’s face. You’ve seen him in hundreds of photographs: Peter standing on the awning of the FDA building in 1988, unfurling a huge Silence = Death banner, or standing with other ACT UP members on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange with air horns blasting the traders below. You’ve seen him in dozens of news reports about ACT UP’s massive demonstrations, in films about the AIDS pandemic, on magazine covers (including A&U, June 2015), and on numerous television talk shows, like Crossfire, talking about AIDS with ultra-conservative Pat Buchanan. His name is indelibly associated in our minds with ACT UP. But Peter Staley was never just a poster boy for ACT UP. Now, he has told us the rest of the story behind those images.
Staley’s new, much-anticipated memoir, Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism (Chicago Review Press), is, quite simply, a remarkable achievement, the most important memoir I’ve read since Cleve Jones’ When We Rise. His writing is exquisite in several places; his stories are richly detailed, fascinating, sometimes funny, sometimes devastating; and his tone is that of a man driven by compassion, a man who sees obstacles and leaps over them.
After a year at Oberlin College studying music, Peter switched majors to economics at his brother Jes’ urging. Before long he landed a job at Morgan Guaranty. The bank was rife with testosterone-driven homophobia; still closeted, Peter thrived there but had to endure “fag” jokes and taunts. “The toxic masculinity on the trading floor felt Darwinian. Adapt or die,” he writes.
After his diagnosis in 1985, “[m]y new mission was buying time.” Starting with a Discover Magazine article called “Special Report: AIDS, the Latest Scientific Facts,” Peter set out to learn everything about the disease. On March 24, 1987, as he arrived at work, a young gay man handed him a flyer announcing a massive AIDS demonstration in front of Trinity Church. He watched the demonstration on the national news that night. “One week later, I would join these men and women at their weekly meetings of the newly named group ACT UP… I would leave my job on disability and devote what time I had left to the activism I had watched on TV that night.”
For the next ten years, Peter planned and led some of the most infamous, most impactful ACT UP demonstrations of the era. When he left ACT UP in 1997, he and other ACT UP alumni established Treatment Action Group (TAG); he created the invaluable AIDSmeds.com, a comprehensive online data base of medications; he joined in the effort to curb the meth epidemic in the gay community; he served on the Board of Directors of amfAR; and he initiated a lawsuit against Gilead (trial starts in 2022). He is still acting up; he has never given up on “the power of collective empathy.”
Toward the end of the book, reflecting on having survived when far too many of our friends didn’t, Peter writes, “I marvel at being alive. But it is a haunted joy.”
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Peter for this article.
Hank Trout: After a long period when AIDS disappeared from most people’s radar, there seems to be a rebirth of interest in the early days of AIDS activism. What do you think has spurred this renewed interest? Why did you write this book at this time?
Peter Staley: I think the breaking of that silence started almost ten years ago with the release of How to Survive a Plague in 2012. There’s been a fairly constant flow of content ever since, with more in the works. The long silence before then was painful and felt like our early AIDS history was being forgotten. The first fifteen years of the crisis took a huge mental toll on the affected communities. There was a very human response once the pace of funerals subsided. We all needed to catch our breath. Great works about the Holocaust and the Vietnam War didn’t appear until many years later, so the same happened here.
Ever since Plague came out, I’ve received at least one message a week over social media from someone, usually in their twenties, who was inspired by the film—inspired by our history and by ACT UP’s activism. I’ve stayed in touch with dozens of these folks, and some had their lives changed, becoming activists themselves, or entering the world of public health. So I’ve come to appreciate the power of personal and communal narratives. David France touched on highlights of my activism, but there’s a lot more to me than videos of my arrests. My life has been a wild ride, and if one reader is inspired to become an activist by reading my take on that wild ride, then all the writing was worth it.
You write humorously about your childhood, including tales of your budding pyromania, being a child prodigy on the piano, and flying a kite into an electrical transformer and causing a major blackout in your Long Beach neighborhood. So… you’ve always been a hell-raiser?
It will surprise no one, including those who knew me as a kid, that I love being the center of attention. The showman that used rainbow-colored smoke bombs to storm the NIH was the same teenage troublemaker back then. I still love causing trouble.
After joining ACT UP, you continued working as a bonds trader at Morgan Guaranty, despite their homophobia. How did you navigate those two worlds, the homophobic environment at work during the day and the freedom to ACT UP at night?
Well, not as well as I thought I was. I held on to the real-world job for far too long, as if it were some sort of life-preserver allowing me to pretend I wasn’t sick. After months of juggling Wall Street and ACT UP, I basically had a meltdown, on Black Monday of all days (when the stock market collapsed). I had wiped that meltdown from my memories of that year, only to be reminded of it while researching the book. I reconnected with my first ACT UP boyfriend, Michael Nesline, to ask him about that year. A few months after the Dow crashed, my T cells crashed too. I quit my job the day after those frightening results and decided to go full hog on the activism with whatever time I had left.
My favorite parts of the book are your very detailed descriptions of the planning and execution of some of ACT UP’s large-scale attention-grabbing demonstrations and disruptions, like putting an inflatable condom over Sen. Jesse Helms’ house (brilliant!). Did you keep contemporary notes that you referred to for your memoir, a diary or journal to rely on?
I’ve never kept a diary, but I’m a fastidious filer. I keep the receipts. In the case of the condom on Helms’s house, I still have the actual receipt for that huge custom inflatable house condom. I have the press releases and news stories that came out immediately after. And on every action I describe in the book, there are surviving comrades, all of whom I interviewed to get the details right.
My Wall Street job had definitely branded me as a rich kid, which I just shrugged off, especially since it was a bunch of non-poor white New Yorkers branding me as such. In relative terms, almost all of us were privileged.
You left Morgan Guaranty in 1988 and became “a full-time activist.” How were you able devote your full attention to activism in such an expensive city as New York? Did your freedom to do so ever cause any friction with other activists?
After five years on Wall Street, I had about $200,000 saved up. But I had also bought a co-op and asked my dad if he’d give me $1,000 a month to cover less than half of my mortgage and maintenance. I was definitely privileged, but not in a trust-fund-baby way. That said, the SSDI and the $1K from dad allowed me to spend 100% of my time on ACT UP. There were only a handful of others in the group with that kind of freedom. My Wall Street job had definitely branded me as a rich kid, which I just shrugged off, especially since it was a bunch of non-poor white New Yorkers branding me as such. In relative terms, almost all of us were privileged.
The only test [of an action] should be, whatever works now. And that often means not doing activism that copies ACT UP.
At ACT UP’s first anniversary demonstration on Wall Street in 1988, you were interviewed by a TV newswoman, identified as “Peter Staley, AIDS Victim.” What did that label say to you about prevailing attitudes toward gays and AIDS at the time? Has the “victim” label has stuck? If so, how do we combat that label?
The prevailing attitudes toward gays and AIDS back then can be summarized as “let the faggots die.” But I was never convinced that the mainstream media’s use of the term “victim” was our number-one issue. I never joined our language police on that one, especially when we went too far and hissed African leaders who were on our side, speaking at an AIDS conference, using otherwise reasonable language. My activism has never involved policing language. I guess it has its place at times, but I always see bigger fish to fry. I definitely don’t stand in the way of others feeling passionate about that kind of activism. That passion eventually turns to bigger fish.
Let’s talk about sex. You write, “Some might ask how could we do all this partying and hooking up when our friends were dying.” And you respond, “Well, how could we not?” Can you elaborate? Why was it important to continue having sex in a time of plague?
In the face of so much death, the only way to get out of bed each morning was to live life full-out—to laugh at death, to love each other passionately before death rips you apart. The French film BPM, which dramatized the director’s memories of ACT UP Paris, captured this dichotomy beautifully. It’s the best AIDS film ever made. Each week of whatever time we had left was filled with demos, funerals, arrests, dance clubs, a new drug called Ecstasy, endless meetings, hospital visits, and constantly proving that safe sex worked through endless experimentation. It was all so painful and beautiful at the same time. I hope I capture it in my book because the history books rarely do.
ACT UP was known for both outrageous public media-seeking actions and “insider” activism—meeting with government officials and pharma companies’ representatives. Can you elaborate how the two forms of activism complemented the other? What lessons should today’s activists take from that two-pronged approach?
The only test [of an action] should be, whatever works now. And that often means not doing activism that copies ACT UP. One of the reasons TAG split off was that the street activism was no longer working. After three to four years of non-stop coverage, “AIDS demonstrators” became yesterday’s news. One of the most beautiful demonstrations in the history of this country was the ashes action at the White House. It shocks audiences today when they see it, but what they don’t know is that the press ignored it. All of this coincided with the treatment activists finding strong allies in the public health establishment, and that coalition was definitely getting things done—a constant stream of small victories that eventually added up to major breakthroughs.
With all of that happening at the same time, the split worked. It stopped the infighting, and everyone could get back to work.
It’s crazy, but I’m busier than ever, especially around COVID. I joined a bunch of younger activists to launch PrEP4All, and it quickly became one of the most influential AIDS groups in the country, using a savvy game of deep research, building allies in Congress, using leading news outlets to shame our targets, teaming up with legal experts, and taking pharma to court.
When protease inhibitors were added to the medication regimens we were on, suddenly, we felt “We’re going to live!” exhilaration. How did your activism change once an HIV diagnosis was no longer a certain death sentence? How did goals and tactics change?
Most of my friends pivoted to the international problem—the vast access inequality to treatments that’s giving me so much déjà vu these days with the COVID vaccines. Personally, I suffered from real burnout after ten years of non-stop activism. My transition after having my death sentence revoked wasn’t easy. A lot of us had issues. But I never completely stopped. I was on amfAR’s board, and I launched an educational website for people with HIV. The international work that amfAR and other activists pivoted to was night and day compared to earlier activism. It was true coalition work with a fully diverse set of activists from around the world, which is much closer to today’s AIDS activism.
Since resigning from TAG in 1997, you continued your activism, taking on the crystal meth epidemic among gays, helping David France assemble How to Survive a Plague, taking on Michael Weinstein and AHF for their denialism about PrEP, supporting Dr. Fauci through the Trump circus, and spearheading a class action suit against Gilead for monopolizing HIV treatment and prevention. At a time when you could understandably retire from activism, what continues to drive you? What is left for Peter Staley to accomplish?
It’s crazy, but I’m busier than ever, especially around COVID. I joined a bunch of younger activists to launch PrEP4All, and it quickly became one of the most influential AIDS groups in the country, using a savvy game of deep research, building allies in Congress, using leading news outlets to shame our targets, teaming up with legal experts, and taking pharma to court. AIDS activists have become huge players in public health. When a new bug hits, we can be the muscle that forces politicians to listen to the scientists, and the public health establishment loves us for this. We can swoop in, and quickly make a difference. We can save lives. I still find that thrilling.
Looking to the future of LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS activism, what do you see as the most important next step? That is, where should activists be focusing our attention now? What do you see activists doing today that gives you hope in the midst of this forty-year-and-counting pandemic?
With the LGBTQ community, our trans siblings are under constant attack by the Trumpists, so we should remain laser-focused on a community-wide defense to protect them. Internationally, there’s a huge backlash by far-right leaders against the progress we’ve made in leading democratic countries. With HIV/AIDS, it’s access, access, access—to PrEP, to treatment, to health care, to housing, and at some point, to vaccines. But I’m hopeful. I still think I’m going to live to see HIV vaccines and, ultimately, a cure.
Hank Trout interviewed Martina Clark for October 2021’s cover story.