2015 Research in Action Awards Honoree Jim Eigo's Acceptance Speech
In the end it’s all about sex & death. But in the America in which AIDS emerged, a medieval plague in a modern time, sex & death were the two enduring taboos, especially when the sex was homosex, & the deaths were coming unnaturally young & ugly & in growing numbers. So in the beginning we had just ourselves. Gay guys, to whom this devastation was mostly happening, repurposed our sexual & social networks to create the first AIDS service organizations when government at every level said in effect: drop dead. But the AIDS activism that finally exploded in 1987, ignited by the growing recognition that AIDS was a political crisis as well as a health crisis, was a wider movement from the start. Among us were veterans of the social movements that had inspired the original gay liberation: civil rights, antiwar & feminist. Only some of us were gay, or guys, & only some of us were living with the virus that had been loosed on the city we shared.
So what was the glue? The central social unit of ACT UP was the affinity group, the dozen or so people you got arrested with, a communally constructed cradle of support & care, without which our mass arrests would have been chaos & dangerous to those of us risking arrest, many of whom were made frail by the disease we were fighting to end. ACT UP would change the world, at least our end of it. But at its strongest & most successful it simply amplified & acted upon the affinity group’s bedrock insight: Homo sapiens is a fragile animal, of all the mammals least capable of surviving alone. It’s why we’ve always & everywhere made complex societies that bind us inextricably, one to another, whether we’re comfortable with that or not. To recognize our common humanity is to recognize as well our common mortality: across divisions of age, race, class, sexual identity, gender expression & serostatus we were all in the same sinking boat. The recurring nightmare of the early epidemic reinforced this recognition with brute efficiency. Give us this day our daily death; only the faces changed.
OK, so who did I think I was kidding? In the end it’s all about death. Sex is a mere consolation prize for the individual finitude that sexual reproduction introduced into the system of life so long ago. The sequel to How to Survive a Plague is No One Does. But if human love cannot quite rescue us, it can transform everyone it touches. The support & care of the affinity group exists not just to comfort us but to enable us, even a constitutional melancholic like myself, to act, so that more & more of us live better & longer lives. We after all are all we have. But look around you. We could have done worse. And yet we can still do better. So tonight I would like to invite all of you who are not yet AIDS activists to come join us. ACT UP, Fight Back, End AIDS.