We Are Still Here

The legacy of ACT UP for today’s HIV-prevention activists

M. J. Murphy
5 min readMay 4, 2018


Photo: Pixabay | CC0 Public Domain license

This reflection was published in early April on the PrEP Facts Facebook group. That group disseminates information about PrEP, a recent HIV-prevention strategy that involves taking prescription drugs before exposure to prevent transmission of HIV. It has been lightly edited for publication here.

I had a rough March and about two weeks ago decided to take an indefinite hiatus from Facebook. Instead, I turned to the mountain of books threatening to engulf my nightstand and started reading David France’s How to Survive a Plague (Knopf, 2016). Given what I do for a living (teach LGBTQ+ Studies) I’m embarrassed I hadn’t yet read it.

Hardback cover of “How to Survive a Plague”

France is a New-York based journalist who had a front-row seat to the emergence of the AIDS crisis. His book chronicles the terrible toll of its first 15 years and the community’s response — largely from the perspective of ACT UP New York.

In the face of what can only be described as a passive genocide overseen by a unfeeling and inhumane medical, pharmaceutical, religious, and political establishment, AIDS activists transformed medical research and patient care.

Poster created by Silence = Death Project | Public Domain

They invented (from almost nothing) direct services for those living with HIV/AIDS; insisted that people with HIV/AIDS be included at all levels of decision-making about research and treatment protocols; engineered a coordinated U.S. national strategy for HIV/AIDS research; designed innovative drug testing protocols with “parallel tracks” so desperate people with HIV/AIDS could access potentially-lifesaving drugs rather than useless “placebos”; created alternative overseas supply chains for drugs yet-to-be approved in the U.S.; translated and disseminated the latest research findings to the community and media; and invented the very concept and practice of “safe sex.”

About 2/3rds through France’s lengthy and heart-wrenching book, I ended my Facebook…



M. J. Murphy

Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies, Univ. Illinois Springfield