On November 2, 1992, members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) carried a dead body through the streets of Manhattan. The deceased was Mark Fisher, a gay man and AIDS activist who had died from complications of the disease he spent his last years fighting. His was the first political funeral staged by ACT UP. It would not be the last.
ACT UP’s political funerals took the traditionally private act of mourning out into public. In so doing, they claimed that lives such as Fisher’s had mattered, and challenged the apathy of those who considered gay men and other people with AIDS to be expendable. In that respect, ACT UP’s actions were of a piece with other public memorials, such as the AIDS Quilt. However, political funerals went further, by explicitly arguing that AIDS was not just a public health crisis, but a political one.
Fisher’s funeral marked the first time that ACT UP had carried the intact remains of a fallen comrade in an act of protest. But it was not the first time they used direct action tactics to highlight the deaths of people with AIDS — the rhetoric and imagery of death and dying pervaded the group’s actions. Weeks earlier, ACT UP members had strewn the ashes of people who died from AIDS complications on the White House lawn, in a demonstration that ACT UP billed as a “political funeral.”
Fisher’s funeral departed from the “Ashes Action,” inasmuch as Fisher had demanded that his corpse be displayed as an act of political defiance. Earlier that year The Marys — an ACT UP affinity group to which Fisher belonged — took out an ad in the AIDS activist newsletter PWA Coalition Newsline announcing the formation of “an organization that can carry out the directives of fellow PWAs [people with AIDS] who want political funerals.”1 Shortly before his death, Fisher asked his ACT UP comrades to “bury me furiously,” because “a lot of people … still do not believe that the AIDS crisis is a political crisis.” Fisher wanted his funeral to show the humanity of people with AIDS, as well as to place the blame for his own death on those government officials who “maintained [AIDS] by a degree of criminal neglect so enormous that it amounts to genocide.” “We are taking this action,” he concluded, “out of love and rage.”2
And so, after a service at Judson Memorial Church, Fisher’s friends carried his coffin to the reelection campaign headquarters of President George H.W. Bush. At the front of the procession they held a banner that read “MARK LOWE FISHER/1953-1992/DIED OF AIDS/MURDERED BY GEORGE BUSH.” Bush, as Vice-President and President, had sat at the highest echelons of American executive power since 1981, the same year that doctors first identified AIDS. By the end of 1992, almost two hundred thousand people had died of complications of the disease in the United States alone.
In blaming government leaders such as Bush for the severity of the epidemic, ACT UP inverted commonplace ways of talking about AIDS. Many Americans saw disease as a sign of moral failure — evidence of drug use, of having the “wrong” kind of sex, or of having too much of it. During debates over a 1988 AIDS funding bill, Senator Jesse Helms declared, “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” News media referred to hemophiliacs and babies born with HIV as “innocent victims” of AIDS, implying that other people with the disease deserved their fate. In contrast, ACT UP blamed the severity of the epidemic on policymakers who spent too little money on AIDS programs, backed ineffective public health policies, or stoked popular prejudice against people with the disease.
In 1993, The Marys also staged political funerals for Tim Bailey and Jon Greenberg. Bailey’s funeral was meant to take place not in New York, but in Washington DC. The day after Fisher’s funeral, Bill Clinton had defeated Bush to become president of the United States. AIDS activists celebrated Clinton’s victory, as the new president promised to make AIDS a priority in his administration. However, they quickly grew disillusioned with Clinton’s AIDS policies. Like Fisher, Bailey demanded a political funeral to protest “the government’s lethargy — outright inhumanity — in confronting the AIDS crisis.” His friends and family planned a march from the Capitol to the White House, making clear that they held its new resident culpable for the deaths of people with AIDS.
On July 1, 1993, ACT UP members boarded charter buses from New York to Washington, while The Marys used a van to retrieve Bailey’s body from a New Jersey funeral home. They intended to march with their friend’s open casket and a banner reading, “DIED OF AIDS COMPLICATIONS: GOVERNMENT NEGLECT, GREED, AND INDIFFERENCE.” However, they were met with police, who prohibited the display of Bailey’s remains. ACT UP members objected that they were executing their friend’s will, and surrounded the back of the van. When they tried to remove the casket, police moved in to break up the knot of activists with force, while David Robinson shouted, “What the hell are you afraid of?… That people may get to see exactly what this government does?”
Other political funerals followed — Jon Greenberg in New York later that July, Aldyn McKean in New York in 1994, Steve Michael in Washington DC in 1998, and Greg Smith in New Jersey in 2004. The frequency of political funerals for AIDS activists dropped off after the early 1990s, as ACT UP went into decline. By the middle 1990s larger chapters such as New York saw dwindling attendance, while others disbanded altogether. New HIV drugs also became available, dramatically extending the lives of people with the virus. As the number of people dying of AIDS complications dropped off, so too did the occasion to politicize their deaths. However, ACT UP Philadelphia’s political funeral for Greg Smith in 2004 offers insight into the ways that the AIDS epidemic and AIDS activism in the United States have evolved since the advent of effective HIV treatments.
While other ACT UP chapters disappeared during the middle 1990s, ACT UP Philadelphia grew in numbers by seeking out new members from the city’s low-income communities of color. Over the course of the epidemic, AIDS in the United States has disproportionately affected black communities. In 1985, African Americans made up a quarter of nationwide AIDS cases, about double their share of the total population. By 2015, they made up almost 45 percent of new HIV infections and 48 percent of AIDS diagnoses. Within black communities, gay and bisexual men have been particularly hard hit, making up 38 percent of new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men in 2014.
Racial inequality in the U.S. AIDS epidemic stems in part from racial inequality in the country’s criminal justice system. Research shows that mass incarceration of African Americans has fueled the epidemic in black America, and in 2010 the rate of HIV infection among people incarcerated in state and federal prisons was over five times that of people who were not incarcerated. Laws that criminalize HIV transmission have also exacerbated mass incarceration, as they often dictate harsh sentences for sexual encounters in which the scientific likelihood of passing on the virus in negligible or nonexistent.
As a black, gay, incarcerated man, Greg Smith embodied these statistics. Because he was HIV positive, Smith had been convicted of attempted murder in 1991 after allegedly biting a prison guard on the hand, even though HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva. Judge John B. Mariano sentenced Smith to 25 years in prison. ACT UP Philadelphia had protested Smith’s trial and sentencing, and published Smith’s writings about the substandard health care that New Jersey inmates received.
In January 2004, two months after Smith’s death, two busloads of ACT UP Philadelphia members staged a political funeral at Mariano’s home in the New Jersey suburbs. Arriving early on a Tuesday morning, they chanted, “Murderer!” while carrying a black casket to the judge’s front yard. Whereas earlier political funerals had focused on government neglect of the epidemic, Smith’s funeral called attention to the injustice of government action, in the form of laws criminalizing HIV transmission. Nevertheless, their message echoed earlier political funerals in fixing the blame for Smith’s death squarely on government officials — in this case, the judge who had sentenced him. AIDS activist Waheedah Shabazz-El recalls that for Smith’s funeral “we all went out there and turned [Mariano’s] town upside down, put flyers on the neighbors’ cars, and knocked on the neighbors’ doors, and woke up everybody up. ‘Did you know there’s a murderer that lives across the street in that house?’”3
ACT UP’s political funerals turned personal grief into public protests that challenged the ways that many Americans understood the AIDS epidemic. They aimed to show that AIDS was neither moral retribution nor a strictly medical problem, but rather a political crisis that exposed deep-seated prejudices in American society.
As of this writing, the United States faces another health care crisis, as Congress stands ready to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Experts have estimated that scrapping the law will kill more than 43,000 people a year. Should that happen, ACT UP’s political funerals will be a powerful example for today’s activists of what love — and rage — look like in public.
Brier, Jennifer. Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Crimp, Douglas. AIDS Demo Graphics. Seattle: Bay Press, 1990.
Joy Episalla, interviewed by Sarah Schulman, ACT UP Oral History Project, December 6, 2003.
Ron Goldberg, interviewed by Sarah Schulman, ACT UP Oral History Project, October 25, 2003.
Gould, Deborah B. Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS. University Of Chicago Press, 2009.
Treichler, Paula A. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 1999.
Woubshet, Dagmawi. The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.
- Quoted in Debra Levine, “How to Do Things with Dead Bodies,” Emisférica 6.1 (Summer 2009). Return to text.
- Quoted in Deborah Gould, Moving Politics; also represented in slightly different form at DIVA TV. Return to text.
- Joseph A. Gambardello, “Activists Protest at Judge’s Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 30, 2004; Waheedah Shabazz-El, interview with author, June 5, 2012. Return to text.