The project’s main outcome has been an incomplete yet invaluable archive of oral histories that anyone with an internet connection can access. This material shows that local conditions still matter, that the most vulnerable members of society must be centered and supported and that when ordinary people demand change, they can transform the expectations of what is possible. – Terry Beswick & Eric Sneathan
California Humanities recently asked Terry Beswick, Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society, and Eric Sneathan, a PhD candidate in Literature at UC Santa Cruz and the project director, to share their thoughts about the San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project. The project, sponsored by the GLBT Historical Society, aimed to preserve and share the history of AIDS activism in the Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s, and draw parallels to contemporary struggles for civil and human rights.
What role has and does the GLBT Historical Society play in the LGBTQ community and specifically in the Bay Area?
For 35 years, the GLBT Historical Society has been a resource for LGBTQ people to discover their history and take pride in their heritage. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary people have, of course, existed since the emergence of homo sapiens; we may not have had much visibility, but queers have always been here, and our experiences need to be documented as part of the human condition. With our over 1,000 archival collections, the GLBT Historical Society has one of the world’s largest holdings of historical materials documenting the lives of LGBTQ people. Queer history as a field of historical study is a relatively recent discipline, one that only began to emerge at the end of the 1970s, and the society’s roots date back to that time.
One thing that makes the society unique is that it began as a community-organized, community-centered project in the Bay Area, one that was not exclusively (or even primarily) academic or restricted only to “professional” historians. Even though we’ve grown tremendously, that community-centered focus has always remained central to our mission. Today, we generally unveil three or four exhibitions at the GLBT Historical Society Museum and online every year. The majority of these exhibitions are curated by community members who have consulted the archives.
Over time, the society has become more than a depository of history and an integral part of the living cultural scene in Northern California, with a wide variety of content developed in-house and much more produced independently by researchers working in our archives.
What led you to undertake the SF ACT UP Oral History Project? What have been the results?
The SF ACT UP Oral History Project was initially conceived by Joey Plaster soon after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Early in his presidency, several marches and demonstrations evoked the direct-action tactics of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and other activist groups dedicated to stopping the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. The mobilization of people across the country to shut down airports following the government’s Muslim travel ban mirrored an earlier era of activists occupying the federal buildings, stock exchanges, and transportation arteries of the major urban areas that defined queer life.
The pressure applied by ACT UP and other organizations saved many people’s lives by changing public policy around things like increasing access to experimental therapies for life-threatening diseases, patient participation in clinical research design, and access to health care. These policy changes continue to have an impact even today with other conditions like COVID-19. But ACT UP also profoundly affected queer studies and the continued reframing of gender, sexual, and intersectional politics. Yet, the story and faces of San Francisco’s local AIDS activists had not been well represented in popular or academic accounts of the period. The San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project brought together dozens of people to talk directly about their experiences of loss and courage, so that future generations might better understand the stakes and challenges that defined a generation of activists.
The project’s main outcome has been an incomplete yet invaluable archive of oral histories that anyone with an internet connection can access. This material shows that local conditions still matter, that the most vulnerable members of society must be centered and supported and that when ordinary people demand change, they can transform the expectations of what is possible. ACT UP may not have been an ideal, but it was very much a potent example, one that people can still look to for inspiration and confidence in the face of overwhelming countervailing forces.
This project about activism around the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s coincided with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. What opportunities and challenges did that present for you?
Despite the many disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we did finish our work on this phase of the SF ACT UP Oral History Project. Initially, we had plans to produce a public exhibition of clips from the project at the GLBT Historical Society Museum. With the museum temporarily shut due to lockdown orders, we instead produced an online exhibition. “AIDS Treatment Activism: A Bay Area Story” is lovingly and thoughtfully curated by former ACT UP/Golden Gate member Brenda Lein, who also contributed an interview to the project.
We had also planned to conduct another big round of interviews to fill in some of the gaps in the history we had managed to collect at that point. We wanted to produce some additional public programming that would have celebrated this moment, bringing it back to the bars and community spaces that had given AIDS activism its life. Given the limitations of the pandemic, we had to scale down or modify these plans. We moved our programming online and organized a special summer program series, “Fighting Back: Lessons From AIDS for COVID-19.” Panelists shared stories from the AIDS pandemic that help frame our understanding of and response to COVID-19, considering such issues as community-building, direct action, navigating sex, and the specific challenges faced by people of color and the transgender community. While the scope, pathogenesis, and federal response to these pandemics are distinct, this series provided a virtual space to combat isolation, elucidate useful comparisons and spur meaningful conversation.
Why do you think the humanities and history matter, especially at this time?
This is a time of unprecedented peril for the humanities and social sciences and for history, which is at the meeting point of these two fields. Humanities and social science departments at universities see their budgets axed year after year, and some universities are consolidating or eliminating departments. Government funding for arts and humanities has also been cut substantially. Like the GLBT Historical Society, small cultural institutions face an uncertain future in a city like San Francisco that has become among the most expensive in the world.
And there’s been a complete culture change, with today’s students being explicitly encouraged to take “practical” and “vocational” courses. But these disciplines matter more than ever. The entire premise of a liberal arts education is to instill critical-thinking skills. In an ever-changing world, where disinformation is increasingly widespread, we need a citizenry that can appreciate the complexities of the past and is empowered to imagine an intentional future.