ACT UP Protest: When Getting Naked In Speaker Boehner's Office Is the Best Way to Fight HIV/AIDS

To bring attention to HIV/AIDS, ACT UP activists took off their clothes. They protested public health budget cuts with slogans like "People with AIDS are under attack. What do we do? Fight back,” written on their bodies while in House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office.

“With 50,000 new infections each year and a record 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, with only 25% of them with a suppressed viral load, our nation cannot afford to turn its back on addressing the domestic HIV/AIDS crisis,” explains the AIDS Institute in a letter to Washington. The letter, addressing among others Speaker Bohener, states that the automatic spending cuts of $538 million will “have devastating impacts on how our country confronts HIV/AIDS in the United States.”

Several media outlets, such as the Huffington Post, picked up the story of the naked activists. Unfortunately, the focus often falls on the nudity of the activists – rather than why a few of them stripped down.

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP, activists are not the first out protesting in the nude as a tool for nonviolent activism. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are well known for their “I rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. Perhaps you have heard about the Ukrainian women’s group FEMEN who protest topless? But do you know what they protested for?

Unfortunately, often the nude tactic does not ensure media coverage of the cause. Rather, the birthday suits fill the headlines. But the question is; does the tactic get the message across to the general public? In support of these naked protestors, and ensuring their stunt has effects further than whether they went to jail, I want to bring it to your attention as well.

The activists chanted, “ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! FIGHT AIDS!” They put light on HIV/AIDS as an issue of social injustice. As Sue Saltmarsh puts it, the activists provided their naked bodies as proof “that bodies that contain HIV are really no different from bodies that don’t, that they are beautiful and strong, tall and short, skinny and round, and every color of the rainbow.” Not only are the activists trying to prevent the budget cuts estimated to result in 600,000 HIV related deaths, but also reduce stigma.

The “Getting to Zero” Campaign by UNAIDS identifies stigmatization as one of the greatest battles in the HIV fight.

“HIV positive people are no different than someone who has cancer,” said a person living with HIV, “yet, we are treated differently because it’s assumed we got it through sex.” I’ve heard accounts of people concerned to share their status, due to the uncertainty that their friends will remain. Do you think a person with cancer feel the same? Maybe or maybe not. But at least, most people would not think twice about hugging a friend with cancer. The case might be different if the friend has HIV. My question for you to ponder is; if they were to cut funding for another major health issue – such as cancer, what would people do then? Do you think the media would cover the people throwing off their clothes or focus on the reason why they did?

On a happy and ensuring note; hugging does not transmit HIV. Neither does caring about the budget cuts of HIV/AIDS programs and dignity of HIV positive individuals – they are just like me and you.

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Kathrine Flaate

Humanitarian, advocacy, social work, journalism. Interested in gender, migration, human rights, international relations. Oslo-based, heart in Delhi, gained perspectives in the USA.

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