What was the ACT UP movement in Leeds?

An extract from a talk given by Mick Ward in September 2018 on the history of the AIDS activist group, ACT UP Leeds.

Duration 02:28


So, ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (it's an American acronym, there you go, it's a nice, vibrant, doing word). So that was established in New York in '87, at which point the crisis in New York was huge. Famous getting together speech by Larry Kramer which formed the group. Very, very focused on action. And it spread relatively quickly through '88 up to the '90s. So most major European cities – Paris, Berlin, etc had it. Leeds was actually one of the first. London and Leeds shortly afterwards; Manchester was one of the very first to establish an ACT UP.

And different ACT UPs came about in different ways. In Leeds, what happened was it was a coming together of some LGBT activists. And that was a mixture of people who'd been around for some time, involved in things like Gay Liberation Front, etc. And women who'd been involved in the strong, very strong women's movement we had in Leeds; some lesbians involved in that. But crucially as well, a number of people came at it from a strong political activist role. And that was certainly my past; I'm an old Trotskyite, trade union, and my direct action work had been involved in a lot of direct anti-racist action. So I and some friends came from a very strong thing of: you deal with some of this on the streets. And, as a result of that, ACT UP in Leeds always had a very strong equality focus. Apart from, it was really obvious, but some ACT UPs were, for instance, really focused on the idea of individualism, particularly in America. Ones like ACT UP Golden Gate was entirely focused on treatment issues. ACT UP Philadelphia, interestingly, were probably the best at intersectionality, and so on. Leeds was very strong on that focus.

But I think the main thing about thinking about how ACT UP worked, is, [what] was always core, was about action, and direct action. What you didn't get in ACT UP meetings was tons and tons of debate about definitions. I don't think we ever had any terms of reference. I don't think we ever went, 'Oh, this is for us'. If somebody had an idea and was passionate and could get a few people around them to gather it, then we did summat. I don't know whether you've seen any films of ACT UP meetings, there's a really clever thing. Like you didn't clap any speakers, coz that wasted time. You went [clicks fingers a few times] and you'd just get a little ripple that what you were saying was heading in the right direction. You weren't allowed to do big speeches, you weren't allowed to do political stuff; it's all around action.