Peter Staley has been a long-term AIDS and gay rights activist, first as a member of ACT UP New York, then as the founding director, in 1992, of TAG, the Treatment Action Group. More recently, he cofounded the PrEP4All Collaboration, which pivoted to COVID activism in 2020. Staley was a 2016 Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and is a leading subject in the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague. His memoir, Never Silent, will be published in October. We spoke to Staley by telephone in late July. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Frank Pizzoli: The 20th anniversary of 9/11 signals that threats to our safety are now internal, not external. Hasn’t the HIV/AIDS/LGBTQ community always had internal threats?
Peter Staley: Like some who were in charge of responding to our current pandemic crisis, Reagan and those around him shattered the idea that we all work from the same epistemological playbook by being dismissive of scientific expertise. That, plus a heavy dose of homophobia, allowed him not to lift a finger when AIDS first started, even after being warned that it would turn into a worldwide pandemic. And, of course, it did. So, we see what happens when public health threats of any kind are ignored. Same with COVID.
FP: In 1985, you received a positive HIV test result. That’s when you turned to activism — and you have not been silent since?
PS: I’ve always admitted that I came to activism for very selfish reasons. My HIV diagnosis came first. I was a 24-year-old closeted gay man working on Wall Street in one of the most homophobic, sexist, racist trading rooms in Corporate America, a bond-trading floor. After my diagnosis, I dove into researching the virus, trying to learn everything I could about it. About 18 months later, I was handed a flyer about ACT UP’s first protest on my way to work; I’d never heard of Larry Kramer. Within weeks, I was a bond trader by day and a radical AIDS activist by night. Attending meetings, I was overwhelmed by the glorious feeling of being part of something far larger than myself. I was searching for any type of hope. I decided to devote myself full-time to activism.
FP: Did placing a giant condom on the Virginia home of then U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, known as “Senator No” on AIDS, in 1991, give you hope?
PS: America’s best-known homophobe at the time, Helms was against any federal spending on HIV research, treatment, or prevention, so the condom read, “Helms is deadlier than a virus.” Referring to homosexuals, Helms said, “It’s their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for the disease.” Prevention programs were his first target. Because of Helms, the government wasn’t allowed to fund HIV prevention campaigns targeting gay men. He was the devil, and I wanted to hit him hard. But the custom condom I needed to cover his house was going to cost $3,500. My boyfriend at the time, Kevin Sessums, of Vanity Fair, thought I’d be thrown in jail forever. While on Fire Island, he voiced his concerns to David Geffen, who reacted differently. He put a big wad of bills in my hand, asking that no one should know of his involvement.
FP: During the 1980s and ’90s, when ACT UP and other groups took shape, was the atmosphere both dynamic and fraught with conflict within activist circles?
PS: It was fraught with conflict. People were dying, and we were using whatever energy, money, and resources we had. But it was also exhilarating, forging a new path. I rely on my Martin Luther King analogy: He’s revered now but was very unpopular at the time. Same as ACT UP. We’re hailed now, but we were feared and scorned then, even within our own community. The first few years of the AIDS crisis created a huge backlash against gay Americans, and our national groups were fearful of making it worse. They practiced “don’t rock the boat” politics, but ACT UP blew that apart, saying, we don’t have time for this.
FP: Do your personal narrative and the narrative of Sarah Schulman’s new book, Let the Record Show; A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993, conflict? Comport?
PS: My book, which I wrote before reading a single word of Schulman’s history, is a memoir of my experiences, not a complete ACT UP history. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we have very different takes on why TAG split from ACT UP five years after the movement started. The books are a great companion read for that reason alone. [ACT UP was known for combining inside (talking to those in power) and outside (civil disobedience) strategies to effect change. In later years, competing camps developed around choosing which strategy to concentrate on. The rift ended when key members of ACT UP’s Treatment and Data Committee split off in 1992 to form TAG.]
FP: Regarding current treatment activism, Annals of Internal Medicine (July 6) found that early death rates for Americans living with HIV and getting treatment are no longer very different from those of people who are HIV-negative. And soon, the U.S. Department of Labor will instruct insurance companies to cover the entire cost of prescribing PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV), which should lower initial infections. Having assisted with founding the PrEP4All Collaboration, is the double-edged approach of treatment and prevention at a turning point?
PS: We now have good friends at the CDC, so the Biden administration is giving us renewed hope that we can finally get serious about tackling HIV prevention nationally.
FP: You’ve added COVID to the work of the PrEP4All Collaboration? Make the connection for readers.
PS: Every AIDS activist feels a calling when a new bug hits. We are uniquely positioned to make a difference, having become essential workhorses within the public health establishment. We provide muscle for making sure the politicians listen to the science.
FP: Do you have any “do-over” moments?
PS: I think all of us are haunted by how many friends we lost along the way. Everything we tried just wasn’t fast enough. The same is happening now, with COVID. As I’ve often said, activism is about plowing through pessimism. ❖