Outraged over indifference to AIDS, Act Up is rewriting the rules of protest
Act Up up will make you pay attention to AIDS - or die trying
Originally published on June 14, 1992.
Vomit as political prop was Scott Tucker's idea. He has this wit that acts up.
He's an angry man and he means business, but if you get past the megaphone, the blistering rhetoric, the stark gray crewcut, black leather jacket, silver pirate earring and combat boots, there's this impish glint in his eye - the face of a former choirboy who just dreamed up something deliciously bad.
Like the barf-in. You know, a little street Bushusuru to honor our 41st president, back from his tour of Japan, the one where he left his state dinner in the prime minister's lap. Bush was coming to Philadelphia in November for some home-front political repair, and to shore up the sagging fortunes of his former attorney general, Republican Senate candidate Dick Thornburgh. Anticipating this at its regular Monday night meeting, the AIDS activist group Act Up, of which Tucker is a charter member, was planning its own greeting party. Tucker, a 36-year-old writer and activist, was mulling over one of the group's popular chants -
Bush, Specter, Thornburgh, Duke
Don't it make you want to puke!
- when it hit.
"I know," he said, "let's all throw up! "
It was a defining moment. For five years Act Up - the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power - has been rewriting the rules of public protest with just such repulsive tactics. Whether by crowning ultra-conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' house with a giant condom or confronting Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua in the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul with a shower of Trojans and insulting slogans - "Bevilacqua, He's a mess! He's a Nazi in a dress!" - this determined band of rude, irate, inspired radicals are the shock troops of AIDS activism.
And being outrageous. .. well, that's Act Up's signature. But throwing up?
"I thought it was a good idea," said Kiyoshi Kuromiya, 49, another Act Up veteran. "Very timely. "
Kuromiya should know. He once staged a protest against napalm bombing in Vietnam by threatening to torch a dog. Notified of this horrific plan in advance, at the appointed hour thousands of incensed animal lovers joined the curious in the Quad at the University of Pennsylvania - "There were three veterinary ambulances! " Kuromiya recalls - only to be handed fliers reading: ''Congratulations! You have saved the life of an innocent dog! " The crowd might want to direct some compassion, it went on to suggest, to the innocent children of Vietnam.
One person's obnoxious tactic is another's daring statement. After all, these days it takes more than placard-waving to upstage a president. In this context, regurgitation is rhetoric. Tucker's vomit idea was an instant hit. To those in the loose-knit Act Up community, which includes gay and straight men and women, George Bush and Ronald Reagan are the arch-villains of the epidemic, lead architects of a decade-long federal indifference that the activists consider, quite literally, murderous.
So Scott's notion was embraced. Several Act Up members would take the middle of 16th Street outside the Franklin Plaza Hotel, where the dignitaries were ensconced, armed with baggies of clam chowder and oyster stew, and as the chant reached a crescendo, they would ... well, you know, spew.
But there was a problem.
Jon Paul Hammond, a flamboyant dreadlocked dancer and performance artist who helps choreograph many of Act Up's demonstrations, thought there would be something incorrect about wasting real food when, like, people are hungry, living on the streets.
"Jon Paul is very, very good at doing what we call 'connecting the dots,' " explained Linda Friedrich, a 25-year-old lesbian activist usually in the thick of things involving Act Up.
"We all felt 'Quite right!' " Tucker recalls.
Hammond had a solution. He volunteered some of his homegrown mulch, which was politically faultless, and, doctored up a little, looked and smelled just as bad as the real thing.
It was more than perfect; it was just awful.
"We were standing there in the middle of the street, and the chant was getting louder and louder, and then, as we hefted the bags, I couldn't help but notice the looks on the faces of the people closest to us behind the barricades on the sidewalk," says Tucker, chuckling at the memory. "It was, like, Oh, my God, they're really going to do this!, and everybody started edging away. "
Yes, it was horrible, and crude, and it most certainly got everybody's attention, which is, of course, the point. With this group, you either laugh and applaud, or you find yourself edging carefully away.
One of those edging away is Philadelphia's new district attorney, Lynne M. Abraham, who has had her own run-ins with the group. She was appalled.
"It was typical of them," she says. "They poured, what, clam chowder or oyster stew all over 16th Street? The truth? I don't get it. I just don't get it. Political activism is one thing. These people. .. I don't know, they're just so rude! "
We're loud, we're rude
Pro-choice and queer!
Death landed with both feet out on the sexual frontier 10 years ago, more than a decade into what they call the "post-Stonewall era," a reference to the watershed 1969 uprising of gays against police at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. All over urban America, girls and boys weren't necessarily being the "normal" children their parents expected. This was either good or bad, depending on how you look at it.
From the gay perspective, life was good in Center City Philadelphia. There were more than 20 bars openly catering to gays within four blocks of Broad and Spruce Streets. The center of the action was the Allegro, four stories of wall-to-wall flesh on weekend nights, so hopping that the party frequently spilled out to the streets. Caught up in the swirl was a whole generation of gays who had never known the closet, who were cheerfully tearing down centuries-old sexual barriers. They were the avant-garde of cultural revolution, widening definitions of human rights, demanding acceptance, shouldering their way into mainstream popular culture. They were loving each other openly, goosing convention and trying to redefine concepts of marriage and family.
Then gay men started dying. Word of a gay plague started spreading in the late Seventies.
"The gay press was following it early," says Tucker, "and people were asking questions: What's going on? What does it mean? The government wasn't doing its job getting the word out. "
And just that fast, how you looked at things became a matter of life and death. The epidemic made that elegantly clear. Self-righteous heterosexuals saw the hand of God in a deadly disease transmitted primarily by anal intercourse, and their self-righteousness bred inaction that meant death. Social qualms about teaching sex in schools meant death. Families that refused to disclose the nature of a loved one's fatal illness preserved an ignorance that meant death. Church prohibitions against contraception and frank sexual counseling meant death. Government policy, no matter how well-intentioned, that delayed the mass availability of a promising treatment until exhaustive trials were complete meant death. Travel restrictions imposed on those afflicted with AIDS that impeded the vital exchange of information and ideas, meant death. ...
Physically, the disease was catastrophic. Intellectually, it was oddly clarifying.
"Basically, the idea of (anal intercourse) drives a lot of Americans bonkers," says Tucker, who believes he would not have contracted the disease if health officials and the press had acted more aggressively in the early 1980s to inform the public of AIDS, and how to avoid it. "An act which I consider one of the most beautiful in the world is obviously an act which a lot of Americans find absolutely disgusting and abhorrent. In fact, to a degree that they think I should die. I find that really interesting. "
For years the deadly epidemic had been doing its work quietly in Africa, spreading among the powerless and forgotten. But when it hit gay America it struck a peculiar cross section that included the highly educated, the well- connected, the fashionable, artistic, inventive and the powerful. There's nothing like a funeral to impart a sense of urgency to life, and those who watched dozens of friends, acquaintances and lovers waste away were understandably impatient with how slowly American society and government awakened to the alarm.
No, impatient is not the word, outraged is.
Over the last five years, Act Up members have made condoms and clean needles symbols of a crusade to reform health care and have forced visibly nervous government officials to grapple publicly with the politics of private parts. They have acted as their own counselors, nurses and doctors, hoarding expensive drugs used in research trials (often with the help of doctors) to operate a free black-market exchange for those who have no health insurance or who can't qualify for drug trials. In defiance of local laws and mores, they hand out clean needles to addicts and condoms to high schoolers. They have promulgated guidelines for the treatment of AIDS patients to a sometimes reluctant medical community. They have forced doctors to tailor the protocol of research trials to better accommodate the needs of AIDS patients and successfully fought for quality community hospice care to comfort and care for the dying. Even critics, while deploring Act Up's tactics, acknowledge the group's important role in pushing research, education and treatment of the deadly epidemic to the top of the public agenda. They are, simply, the first really influential patient advocacy group to rear its head. The health industry will never be the same.
Here in Philadelphia, mere mention of Act Up is enough to send public officials scurrying. Many will only comment on the group off the record.
One of the brave few willing to confront Act Up head-on is Lynne Abraham, who incurred the group's wrath earlier this year by the way she handled the arrest and indictment of "Uncle Ed" Savitz, the AIDS-afflicted Center City businessman who is accused of luring boys to his apartment and paying them for their underwear and occasional sex acts. Abraham knows firsthand what it's like to be pelted with condoms.
"Hey, I was just grateful they weren't used," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, they've worn out their welcome with me, all four or five of them. ... I have a personal history of supporting AIDS research and of protecting the rights of gay people, but this group alienates people who would be their allies. Their message is obscured totally by their tactics. "
Even some of Act Up's supposed allies agree that the group's shock tactics sometimes backfire.
"These are not bad people, but they are zealots," says one prominent local official involved in AIDS work who asked not to be named ("Look," he pleaded, "I don't need them coming after me"). "... They divide the world up into those who agree with them and those who don't. They can be amazingly effective. But then they do something like getting up at Gov. Casey's inauguration, in front of his family and all his friends, and shout 'F- Bob Casey!' and 'Casey is killing people with AIDS! ' "
The official blames the subsequent loss of $1 million in state AIDS funding on the governor's anger.
Act Up members hear arguments like this often, and it rolls right off their backs.
"This is not something new in radical politics, to say that because we're out front we're sort of hurting our cause," says Friedrich, who, on a personal level, doesn't seem to have a rude bone in her body. "Maybe sometimes we alienate people, but we gain a lot more by our tactics than we lose. "
She points to the successful salvation of Betak, the AIDS hospice in Mount Airy. Betak was about to go under before it even opened until Act Up forcibly occupied the premises, literally moved in and kept it alive.
"We shall overcome by any means necessary," says Hammond. "That's a slogan that, to me, embodies what Act Up is all about. The one part of the message is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, and the other part is Malcolm X's. Without Malcolm there would have been no Dr. King, and vice versa. You need the people in coats and ties who work within the system, but you also need people like us in the streets. The chant is 'Act Up! Fight back! Fight AIDS! ' We need to do that. We're dying. "
Hammond, Friedrich, Tucker and Kuromiya are four of about two dozen regular members of this highly irregular group of urban guerrillas. Scott and Kiyoshi are gay men with AIDS. Neither Jon Paul, who describes himself as "pan-sexual" (about which more later), nor Linda has the virus. They are all gentle people, intellectuals, possessing a fierce energy to change the world. It should be noted that while occupying Betak the group planted flowers.
The epidemic has reshaped the life of each. They see activism as survival strategy, for individuals and the society.
Pre-AIDS, health-care activism was essentially charity. Direct action meant a celebrity golf tournament or telethon. After all, wasn't America's medical system the world's best? How better to combat disease than raise money and turn it over to the docs?
Then came AIDS.
"AIDS is all-encompassing; it's not business-as-usual," says Kuromiya. ''That's why I'm out there on the front lines. This is the new civil rights battleground. "
You do nothing!
You do nothing!
IF LINDA FRIEDRICH EVER DOUBTED she was in a battle, the events of Sept. 12, 1991, cleared that up.
"We were all very excited because Bush was coming to town, and Bush is probably our favorite person to demonstrate against," she says.
Every popular movement needs an arch-villain, and Bush neatly fills that role for Act Up. He symbolized for them a decade of patrician Republican neglect. AIDS currently gets about 9 percent of the budget at the National Institutes of Health, which will spend $9.3 billion in 1993. Given that AIDS in this country is spread primarily through acts most Americans consider repugnant, conservatives feel the federal response is appropriate, even generous.
But try adopting the urgent perspective of Act Up. Try feeling that way after nursing a vital, 38-year-old loved one through a slow death. Try feeling that way when your blood test comes back HIV-positive. Now contrast the $873 million in 1993 federal AIDS dollars with the $3.8 billion in emergency disaster relief allocated after the San Francisco earthquake, which killed 60 people (AIDS has killed more than 127,000 Americans so far). The cost of the first eight hours of the Persian Gulf war surpassed the entire sum spent by the U.S. government to fight AIDS over the last 10 years. America gets worked up about AIDS only when some Sports Illustrated cover star like Magic Johnson tests HIV-positive, and there is proof that AIDS is busy killing decent, likable, admirable Americans along with all those nasty queers and druggies.
"People in government make deliberate decisions about whose lives count," says Tucker. "And for that, George Bush bears the ultimate responsibility. "
As he would be again in November, Bush was in Philadelphia Sept. 12 to host a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Thornburgh, an event that drew a pricey crowd to the Bellevue that evening.
Linda could identify with the folks going in. She has the wholesome, blond, scrubbed good looks of a nice Republican girl from the upper Midwest. Her father and both her older brothers were Lutheran ministers, and she had grown up in the lap of heartland conservatism. When she came East to attend Bryn Mawr College, she arrived a devout Christian fundamentalist.
That was all just five years ago, before Linda confronted her own sexual attraction to women, before the coming out to her parents, the falling away from the church. As the well-dressed Republicans arrived that autumn evening, she had a strong sense of the turnabout in her own life that had deposited her on the crazies' side of the barricade, chanting rude slogans, shoulder to shoulder with the motley, outrageous, multi-racial, cheerful rabble: "George Bush, on a yacht, fighting AIDS - NO-OT! "
"Our plan was to move the coffin out in front of the barricades so that those people going in and out would be confronted with our message," Friedrich says. "I was close to the coffin when I saw one of the barricades fall over. And within seconds I saw a couple of police with nightsticks up with their arms raised, hitting people. I mean, it happened so fast. There was no warning. I was still behind a barricade, and I saw Kiyoshi being pushed over the top of one barricade by a policeman. "
Linda's reaction was to drop down and play dead in the midst of the ensuing melee. She saw a cop kick one of her young female friends in the crotch. She heard the awful thud of nightsticks on flesh. Then a cop stepped up over her, a pink-faced, strapping blond young man with blue eyes - it could have been one of her brothers.
"One of my feet was touching the barricade," Linda recalls, "and he said, 'Move your foot or I'll break your leg. ' "
She jumped up to find herself trapped between two agitated police horses and retreated, frightened, as some of her friends, bloody and beaten, were being hauled away.
"I think that Sept. 12 really sapped our strength for a while," she says. ''There were reports after that of people wearing Act Up badges being roughed up. We were afraid of the police. We didn't know how they were going to react anymore. It was really a stressful time for us. Up until then we really hadn't had much trouble with the police. They knew us. They knew we were loud and rude, but that we were always nonviolent. Nobody expected that to happen. None of us did. "
You can't hide,
We charge you
FRIEDRICH IS WRONG ABOUT that. Kiyoshi Kuromiya knew.
Almost 30 years ago, before Linda Friedrich was born, Kiyoshi had his head split open with a police baton in a civil rights demonstration in Mississippi. As roots of radicalism go, they don't reach deeper than Kiyoshi's.
"The cops didn't beat me Sept. 12," he says. "I think I know why. I was right in the thick of things, and police were all around me swinging their sticks, when this one cop, who recognized me, pointed his nightstick at me and shouted 'This man has AIDS! ' I think they were afraid to hit me for fear I might bleed on them. "
He was born in 1943 in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. At the end of this year, Kiyoshi expects to collect $20,000 and a formal apology from the U.S. government in reparations, the result of a struggle Japanese Americans have carried on since the day he was born.
"I'm real proud of my government for doing it, even though it's late," he says. "Half of those who were interned are now dead. But it's proof that you can make a difference in this country, even if you are part of a very small minority. "
Kiyoshi stands just slightly over 5 feet tall, with a wide face, pale skin and long straight hair that he pulls back into a pony tail. Despite all the adversity in his life, he remains cheerful, proud of what he's done and, despite his disease, excited about the future.
He lives like a monk, sleeping just four hours a night on a couch in the corner of a dim and dusty apartment where he nursed his longtime friend Temple Minner through a two-year decline until Minner's death in June 1990. When his friend was bedridden and frail after repeated bouts of pneumonia and meningitis, Kuromiya set up their AIDS response office around him. Together they operated a 24-hour AIDS telephone hotline (215-545-2212), an international computer bulletin board for AIDS information, and founded the Critical Path AIDS Project, a dense, intelligent and free monthly magazine that provides the latest medical and resource information regarding AIDS - and which frequently sounds off editorially on AIDS-related issues.
The night before Minner died, sensing the end was near, he and Kiyoshi broke open a bottle of champagne to celebrate his life. He died at dawn.
Coming of age, Asian and gay, in an all-white California suburb in the oh- so-wholesome 1950s, Kiyoshi's childhood was, well, different. He had his first sexual encounter at age 8, with an older man in a public park. He went back for more. It wasn't until he read through the Kinsey Report in a local library reading room as a pre-teen that he discovered, to his surprise and relief, "that there were other people like me. " He helped found the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at Penn, and went on to win a further degree of notoriety in his adopted hometown by writing The Collegiate Guide to Greater Philadelphia, famous for its brutally frank restaurant reviews.
After rejecting what he calls the "vocational training" approach to architecture at Penn, Kiyoshi sought out architect-philosopher Buckminster Fuller.
"Part of what I'm doing now with the Critical Path AIDS Project grows out of the fact that Fuller, who was my mentor over these last 10 years or so, provided a framework for dealing with world-encompassing problems," he says. ''Fuller asked very large questions: What is the universe? Why are humans here? And he determined that we were here to gather information and to solve problems.. .. I'm applying some of what I learned through him into this area, gathering information in the most technologically efficient method and getting it out as fast as possible, doing it not only locally but internationally. "
Kuromiya is the quiet oarsman of Act Up, a prodigiously energetic, selfless thinker who lends weight and authority to the group without ever raising his voice. He travels all over the world to participate in forums on AIDS and to facilitate the free flow of information, yet still finds time to play tournament Scrabble. While much of Kiyoshi's work goes on behind the scenes, the activist who once threatened to napalm a dog hasn't lost his feel for the streets.
"Direct action works," he says. "Other things work, too. But when all else fails, direct action gets results. "
Diagnosed with lung cancer more than 15 years ago, he was told he'd have only a few more months to live. So Kiyoshi felt he was living on borrowed time long before he tested HIV-positive three years ago.
"I assumed, all through the mid-'80s, that I was HIV-positive and asymptomatic," he says, "but I didn't bother to take the test until 1989. I was very sexually active all through the '70s and '80s, and I knew I had engaged in all the high-risk behavior. "
Extreme behavior, in Kiyoshi's view, is how nature and civilization advance.
"I have no regrets," he says. "I don't even go so far as to say that AIDS is a dreadful consequence. I don't know what happens when people die. I don't know what happens to all the creative energy. I don't know that there hasn't been a lot of change in the gay community and in health care generally that hasn't had some very long-lasting good results. Some people who have been diagnosed say, 'This is the most devastating and significant and wonderful thing that has ever happened to me; it really turned me around; it changed my perspective and it caused me to do things that would never have made inroads in my life. ' That's true of me. I've been through a lot of phases in my life, but this is an important one. I am doing something I really like to do. I'm doing exactly what I want to do and what I feel I should be doing. "
Health care is a right!
We need more than points of light!
JON PAUL HAMMOND LOST something important in that Sept. 12 demonstration.
He lost his coffin.
"You know, the one that was filled with ashes and spilled over the barricade and started the whole thing?" he says. "The one the police said was a smoke bomb? It wasn't. It was filled with kitty litter. I've been hauling that coffin around to demonstrations for years. Believe me, it tears my heart out that it's gone. I shouldn't have dropped it. It was my best prop. I really miss it. "
Jon Paul, 31, is Act Up's performance artist. No. Jon Paul is himself a performance - tall, lean as a dancer, goatee, his hair a wild, dreadlocked tangle pulled into a half-hearted ponytail, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, black combat boots.. .. If there's a giant prop at an Act Up demonstration, and there often is, Jon Paul is usually under it.
"All this is incredible theater," he says. "When I'm doing demonstrations, I'm doing theater, the greatest kind of theater there is to do. It's the theater of life. We're acting out over issues of life and death. I look at myself as an artist, and my medium is politics. "
At a demonstration in April, two college students in suits and ties jumped out into the middle of an Act Up die-in on Sixth Street and held up "Re-elect Bush" signs.
It made for a tense moment. Civil Affairs Unit police officers moved closer, but didn't know quite what to do. Then Hammond seized the initiative. Holding on to one end of a long banner the group had been parading with, he stood up and began skipping around the counter-demonstrators, wrapping them up in yellow. It broke the tension with laughter. The college boys had just been upstaged by a master.
Hammond's mother was Scottish-German, his father African American. He grew up in a Friends group home in North Philadelphia and lived with the nickname Fruitcake as he bounced from one school to the next as a bright but deeply unconventional youngster. He was accepted to Sarah Lawrence College, but dropped out to dance with a modern troupe in New York City and work as a go-go dancer and prostitute at night. He traveled to Europe to participate in peace demonstrations in the early '80s, and wound out the decade teaching English in a school in China's northeastern province of Jilin, where he learned to sing arias from Chinese opera and incorporated them, along with the music of Prince, into "the first performance art piece ever performed in Changchun. "
Nothing about Jon Paul is easy to explain. He recently exchanged vows of commitment with a woman he's been living with, but that doesn't mean he's settled down to heterosexuality, or even monogamy. He remains free, he says, ''to explore my man-loving man-self. "
Let him explain:
"I'd say I'm much more attracted to men than women in general. But I've had about four or five really strong relationships with women. I don't consider myself bisexual, I consider myself pansexual, exploring all the sexualities that are out there. I mean, I go dancing and I have an incredibly sexual-type experience when I dance for hours and go into like a trance. To me, that's part of my definition of sexuality. It's not just two genders doing what they can do together. I don't feel locked into the definitions, gay, straight, bi. Just like my racial background. I'm not black and I'm not white. I'm not bi. I'm me. "
He gets a blood test every year, and is oddly fatalistic about AIDS. He says he practices "safer sex," but indulges in some "risky things," and expects to be diagnosed as HIV-positive eventually.
"I refuse to let AIDS dictate everything to me," he says. "I come to Act Up because, of all the political work I've done, this really crosses a lot of boundaries. It forces people to deal with sexual issues, class issues and with racial issues, and it forces people to deal with the fact that so many people have been just left out of the picture in this country. "
Silence equals death
Action equals life!
BY DESIGN, ACT UP HAS NO ORganizational hierarchy, but it is Scott Tucker's personality more than anyone else's that defines it in Philadelphia.
Scott's the one with the megaphone. He's typically first through police barriers, usually first to get slugged or arrested. He leads with his mouth, and his chin.
It was Scott, for instance, who stood up at a City Council session two years ago and accused the city's elected representatives of being ''murderers" for cutting the city's AIDS appropriation.
"Scott Tucker is the most obnoxious one," says Councilman Thacher Longstreth, who describes Act Up as the "lunatic fringe" of the AIDS effort. ''There was a time about 10 or 15 years ago when their antics might have done some good, but the wheels have been in motion against this thing now for a long time. At this point they're just absurd. I think we all realize that the possibilities of this epidemic are so frightening that more government help is necessary, but the city isn't exactly a bottomless well. They are people making asses of themselves. At that meeting two years ago we were not appropriating enough money for AIDS research to suit Scott's fancy, so he stood up and started screaming that we were creating another Holocaust and that we were worse than Nazis. I'm one of the ones who fought the war so that people like him can stand up and shoot their mouth off. I took offense. I got up and walked over and offered to punch him in the nose. I guess you could say I acted u p. "
According to Tucker, the councilman didn't offer to punch him, he elevated a patrician middle finger.
Scott lives and works in a tidy three-story Lombard Street rowhouse that he shares with his lover. His third-floor office is crammed with books, computer hardware and file boxes. Off to one side is a weight-lifting bench and barbells.
There's a connection here. His T-cell count, which indicates whether his immune system is normal or vulnerable to an AIDS-related illness, fluctuates, but so far Scott has stayed healthy in the six years since he tested HIV- positive. The length of time between discovery of the virus' presence and the onset of AIDS-related illnesses keeps lengthening. There are some who were diagnosed a decade ago who still have not developed AIDS. Maybe they never will. Staying in shape, mentally and physically, has to help. So whether he's blowing off steam with the weights or the word processor, Tucker is doing the same thing. He's fighting for his life.
"And I'm a pretty scrappy guy," he says happily.
He is political through and through. After a couple of gay-bashers badly beat him in Center City several years ago, at a time when City Council was considering a gay rights bill, Scott didn't go to the hospital, he called a press conference. Even his choice of how to describe himself is political. He has had relationships with men and women in his life, but he doesn't call himself bisexual - for "political" reasons.
"I chose to identify myself as a gay man," he says. "Because if someone is going to stigmatize me for being queer, I'm going to give them queer in spades. I am going to identify with what the bigots hate. I am."
He traces his coming of age sexually to a relationship he had with a middle-aged man when he was 15.
"It wasn't really as exploitative as it sounds," Tucker says. "Exactly how is a gay teenager supposed to have a 'normal' introduction to sex? The first thing you learn as a gay growing up is: The policeman is not your friend; you're going to have to find your family outside your home; school can be a. .. concentration camp; religion can be deadly. You have to take all the idols of the culture and smash them, or you're not going to make it. "
One of the early idols to go, he says, was the notion of the Doctor As Your Friend.
"I had a fairly wild sexual history. And I had my share of the usual STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). I remember when I was 20, I went to the clinic at Broad and Lombard, which is, you know, the infectious Vatican in the city, and there was this gray-haired doctor there, who thought he was being very kindly, and he said to me as a 20-year-old gay man, 'Well, you know, you can stop having anal sex. ' And for a man of his generation this must have made perfect sense. I can't imagine him saying to a woman coming into that clinic, you know, 'You can stop having vaginal sex. ' I told him to f- off; he was talking to the wrong person; times had changed; and I wanted a different doctor. We are as entitled to our sexuality as anyone else is. "
Tucker's left-wing politics were given direction by the epidemic.
"Act Up ties together all of the pieces for me," he says. "It lets me be an up-front gay radical; it lets me be an intellectual; it lets me be a hell- raiser; it lets me get in the face of politicians and it lets me do practical work in the streets, like giving condoms to school students and clean needles to addicts. Really, for the first time in my life I feel like Act Up puts together all the pieces of my personal life and politics. "
He says he would have been involved in the AIDS movement, which he is now working to broaden into a more all-embracing social movement for national health care, even if he were not infected himself.
"I have dark moods about the world, but I basically bounce back. .. ," he says. "I go right along. I haven't been death-obsessed, any more than any poet or artist would be.. .. It wouldn't make a damn bit of difference in my case if I was HIV-positive or not. Because this movement is one of the defining events in health care and American culture right now, and I would want to be there in any case.
"This epidemic is not an act of God. The virus was a natural event, but the dimensions of this epidemic, how far it spread and how fast, without public education, all of that was created by human beings and institutions. It did not have to happen. This epidemic is many epidemics, including homophobia, race panic and class panic. It has everything to do with hatred and fear of gay people, African Americans, drug addicts and a potentially explosive underclass. Beyond that, I have no sense of why this is happening to me. I never felt like God is picking on me. I never bought all the metaphysical horse s- about justice in the universe. There is no justice in the universe. You make justice. That's why I'm a radical. "
And though it may seem that way when the veins in his neck bulge as he leans into his bullhorn in rally after rally, Scott hasn't lost his sense of humor. Many of those put off by Scott Tucker don't realize he's putting them on.
Like when he was questioned by police after his arrest in the Sept. 12 demonstration. Scott listened as the investigating officer, a gray-haired man in a conservative suit, offered a brief summary of what happened. According to the transcript:
Officer: "... Two demonstrators crawled under the police barricades and grabbed a plainclothes officer by his legs, and pulled him toward the barricade line. This action caused other officers to come to his assistance. Tell me everything you know of this event."
Scott: "No, that's not what happened. I only go for the legs of men I know."