Gill Crawshaw: Full Interview
26th November 2018
This is Gill Crawshaw, on the 26th November 2018, recording for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. I'm going to talk a little bit about ACT UP Leeds and about World AIDS Day.
So I was a member, I guess one of the founding members of ACT UP Leeds and I was a member through the late 1980s and early 90s. ACT UP Leeds was a small band of people who used to do the organising. We sort of varied from about six active members to maybe 20 at different times. ACT UP was about direct action; we were a group of people who were united in our anger around what was happening around HIV and AIDS at that time and how people living with HIV and AIDS were being affected and what they were facing. So ACT UP was a group that carried out direct action, or non-violent civil disobedience. We did things that potentially at some times broke the law.
We organised actions, we organised demonstrations and protests to highlight issues, but more importantly, not just about highlighting issues, but we wanted things to change and we wanted to show how angry we were, and we wanted things to be improved. So that's certainly why I was a member of ACT UP, and there were ACT UPs all around the world in fact. I mean it started in the United States. And I think there's a few of us who had maybe seen a documentary or read something about ACT UP New York and other ACT UP chapters in the United States and been very struck by, not just the fact that they were carrying out direct action, but sort of how articulate and how informed they were and how targeted they were in their actions. And that was something that really had an effect on a number of us, myself included, and we wanted to replicate that in a bit of a different way over here because the situation and the healthcare system particularly is very different over here than it was there. But you know that idea of being really targeted in your actions and being as effective as possible was something that was really of interest. I mean, I'd been involved in a couple of, sort of, campaigns and political things. I'd been an anarcho-vegan-punk, part of that scene.
Other members of the group had been involved in campaigns, done direct action, been involved in politics in some way. So yeah, broadly that's where I was coming from and that's where the group was coming from, and I think over the few years that ACT UP was going that we are quite effective and a number of issues, locally and nationally, and there's going to be some more information about that coming up I think in another interview.
Because World AIDS Day is approaching, I was thinking back to some of the ACT UP activities and actions that used to happen around World AIDS Day. We did used to organise actions and demo's to mark World AIDS Day, and they were often about raising awareness of issues affecting people living with HIV and AIDS, and that was a bit like World AIDS Day itself and I think, maybe, ACT UP had a… not straightforward relationship with World AIDS Day, seeing it as being, yes about raising awareness but, for example, one of ACT UP's slogans… and you know we wore badges that said 'Red Ribbons Are Not Enough'. Action was needed, you know. It's no good just having vigils, remembering, and raising awareness. We need to have action, there's so many things that need to change.
If you remember at that time, I mean there was quite a toxic mixture in this country of outright discrimination, misinformation, including misinformation by the government which led to massive ignorance amongst many, many people, which in turn led to prejudice and discrimination, and people being treated absolutely terribly. People being subject to violence, people you know, being treated without any dignity when they came into contact with services, public services, education, the police, private business… All sorts of people would either deny people entry or access to their services, or would treat people, as I say, be outright rude, boot people out of services, or put on rubber gloves before they would even touch people, making people have separate crockery. All sorts of terrible injustices that happened to people at that time. And that was something, of course, that we were really angry about in ACT UP. That's why we said, yeah World AIDS Day is fine, raising awareness though only goes so far. We need to change some of this and change the institutions that are perpetuating this. So, as I say, whilst we did do actions around World AIDS Day, it was not a straightforward relationship and I think for many years I wouldn't even wear a red ribbon to mark World AIDS Day. I was trying to be, maybe, a bit more hardcore than that.
But as I say, quite early on I think the first action, or the first activity that we organised for World AIDS Day, I think was the World AIDS Day of 1990. And often there was a theme to World AIDS Day, and in 1990 ‘Women and AIDS’ was the theme that the World Health Organisation had decided was important, and they were estimating globally I think around a third of people who were HIV+ were women. I guess we took this up, and sort of, our demand was that there should be better information, there should be better information for everybody for sure, but there should be better information for women. This wasn't just something that affected gay men, this was something that affected people across the board and everybody needs to be informed and be able to make informed choices about their lives.
So what we decided to do, and we did take things very seriously and we were very well-informed, I think, about the actions we did. There is a bit of a funny story to this though… So what we decided to do for World AIDS Day that year was to just make a bit of a splash in City Square, and we wanted to put a banner up in City Square, and then we also wanted to sort of, yeah, create this, I don't know how you'd describe it really, I'll go ahead and describe what we did and that might describe it easier. So yeah, we were gonna throw a banner over the Black Prince statue, which is the huge statue in City Square, and then what we were going to do – we were going to wrap some cling film around the nymph statues, or the statues of naked women that circle City Square and the lamps in City Square.
And why we were going to wrap them in cling film was alluding to this lack of information for women, and we were alluding to dental dams. Now dental dams are small squares of latex that can be used as a protective barrier during oral sex for example, and we just thought that people ought to know more about those and not be ashamed of using them and be able to get ahold of those as well because it was quite hard to get hold of dental dams. And so, by wrapping the statues in cling film, we were sort of making an illusion to that. And also there's all these naked women around City Square and, you know, just point that out. Anyway, the funny bit of the story is that we'd, unlike us, this is really unlike us, we hadn't sort of done as much preparation as we might. I think we all thought we knew the statues in City Square quite well, but actually when we got there on this icy morning, I think it was a Saturday morning, World AIDS Day then. When we arrived we saw that the Black Prince was much, much bigger than we'd thought. We didn't have a ladder with us, I think we'd have needed a twenty foot ladder to get our banner over it. So we sort of had to hang our banner, sort of from the plinth over the bottom, and make the best of it.
And then even the nymphs themselves, were much higher than we'd thought, much further apart, we'd have needed miles of cling film to try and get around them all. We did do a couple, we did cling film a couple and we'd done our press release and sent that out. And I'm pleased to say we still got our message out there, and we still got coverage in the press. But it was quite funny that we had this idea that we'd be flinging this banner over the statue and completely encircling City Square in cling film and it didn't quite work out that way.
So, while we were always very serious, and had a serious message, I think we also had a bit of fun and were able to laugh at ourselves as well. And I think, that's one of the things, as I said at the beginning, we were really united in our anger about what was happening to people who were directly affected, people who were living with HIV and AIDS. But what was happening to everybody and what that was doing, and what that meant was that, you know, people who were living with HIV and AIDS were at that time being told ‘your life is over’ and the bit of life that you have, people are going to make it miserable for you because really, you know, you shouldn't exist. So we came together because we were angry and wanting to do something about it.
We did do further World AIDS Day actions as well, and as the years went on we managed to get loads of people along to demonstrations and that was great, you know. We were able to march through town and able to have rallies, we were able to do mass ‘die-ins’ in town, and really, really get the attention of the public and the press, and we were able to make demands as well and to say, ‘This is what we want to change, this is where institutions are behaving wrongly, and this is the treatment that should be available for people who are living with HIV and AIDS.’
I think we were effective in bringing about some specific changes locally, and by working with other ACT UP groups around the UK, and indeed around the world then, I think we were effective in making some changes there.
I was just going to say, you know, why direct action, as well? Because it can be fun, it certainly can be empowering. It can be empowering for the people who take part, for the people who are maybe affected by those issues and see that somebody's sticking up, trying to change things. That's what would draw me to direct action rather than just, you know maybe doing petitions, writing to your MP, those sorts of things. And that was often something we did as ACT UP, we would do that as well, but our core was in the action, choosing our targets, and then yeah, really hitting those targets and trying to make something change.