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Harvard library chronicles AIDS activism

Oral history project looks at activists’ darkest days

AMY TOENSING FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Jay Blotcher, in his High Falls, N.Y. home, worked as the media coordinator for ACT UP in the 1990s.

The protesters wore their Sunday best, slipping inside New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral undetected among the parishioners.

They waited until the church fell silent. Then, one by one, the men and women stood in the pews, bellowed - “Silence is death!’’ “Withholding safe sex information is murder!’’ - and crumbled in the aisle, as if dead.

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It was Dec. 10, 1989, and activists from a group called ACT UP had just performed a “die-in’’ to protest the Catholic Church’s position on AIDS.

Jay Blotcher, a native of Randolph, stood outside the cathedral with 4,500 other protesters and watched the police carry out his friends, limp, on stretchers.

“The fact is, what happened inside, that’s what put us on the map,’’ Blotcher, now 51, said last week. “It extinguished the image of us as these limp-wristed pansies.’’

‘The important message of the ACT UP Oral History Project is that this could be you. Anybody could do this.’

Dan McAnespie Hudson High’s football coach (above)
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It was a story of AIDS in the late 20th century, a story that lives on in hundreds of hours of video recordings archived at the Harvard College Library as part of the ACT UP Oral History Project.

That project’s arrival at the nation’s largest college library represents a move to diversify the institution’s holdings and the start of an initiative to store archives digitally and make them available for online streaming.

During the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic in America, ACT UP agitated for greater awareness of the disease, improved access to medical care, and expedited approval for life-sparing medication.

Members’ tactics were often radical: They spread the ashes of deceased AIDS patients on the White House lawn and marched open caskets through the streets of Manhattan. When The New York Times refused to cover ACT UP demonstrations, they faxed the newsroom reams of black paper.

“This was a despised group of people with no rights, so we were thereby saving each other’s lives through our actions,’’ said Sarah Schulman, one of the organizers of the oral history project and a former member of ACT UP. “We wanted the country to know what AIDS looks like.’’

Schulman is a 53-year-old activist and playwright who lives in New York. In 2001, she started collecting interviews with ACT UP leaders, with New York filmmaker Jim Hubbard. She came up with the idea, she recalled, when she heard a radio announcer declare that Americans naturally “came around’’ to accepting people with AIDS.

“I thought to myself, ‘We can’t let them get away with that!’ ’’ Schulman said. “I was 23 when the AIDS crisis began, and many people in my life died of AIDS. I fought in the streets to force this country to change against its will.’’

ACT UP railed against what members called the greed of corporations, protesting the high cost of AIDS drugs by chaining themselves to the VIP balcony of the New York Stock Exchange and gathering with signs to picket people walking into their jobs on Wall Street.

Sound familiar?

“Those kids out at Occupy Wall Street, they’re my descendants,’’ said Blotcher, a freelance writer who also works in public relations in High Falls, N.Y. “They’re kids who are full of idealism and blinded by rage and willing to take a stand, and that’s so important. It’s always young people who push for the next wave of social change.’’

Days after an ACT UP protest, pharmaceutical titan Burroughs Wellcome dropped the price of one of the first AIDS drugs from $10,000 a year to $6,400. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its definition of AIDS to include symptoms experienced by women.

The ACT UP interviews caught the attention of Helen Molesworth, who in 2009 was curator of contemporary art at the Harvard University Art Museums. She fretted that people had begun to forget the discrimination that gay men, along with poor people and people of color, endured during the onslaught of the epidemic.

“There was talk of quarantining homosexual men, talk of tattooing them on the buttocks, talk of enforcing complete and total abstinence, as if that was actually a human possibility,’’ said Molesworth, now chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art. “The homophobia was literally hysterical.’’

She brought the collection to Harvard, first as an audio-visual exhibit. Later, she sought a permanent home for the collection.

“For every transcript you read, you become aware of how many other transcripts you will never read because people had died,’’ Molesworth said.

Harvard acquired the collection with the help of a $500,000 bequest from the Douglass Roby Fund, started by a 1965 Harvard graduate to underwrite research into gay and lesbian culture.

The collection reflects an effort to diversify the library’s holdings, said Alison Scott, a senior librarian for American history at the university.

“Different people who make up American history - queer history, native Americans, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics - all of that needs to be a part of how we form the collection for historical study,’’ Scott said.

The oral history will be the library’s first exclusively digital audiovisual collection, an initial step in a campaign to turn the institution’s vast holdings of CDs, beta tapes, 45s, and wax cylinders into a Web-based repository accessible anywhere.

With funding from the library, Schulman will be able to finish the collection. There are about 70 people waiting to be interviewed. It will take nine to 12 months to digitize interviews already completed and put them online in video format, Scott said.

Those interviews provide a new perspective on the most pivotal events of the movement, as well as more private moments, like group members singing the theme song from the “Carol Burnett Show,’’ while handcuffed on a police bus.

Though ACT UP still exists and advocates for improved medical care for AIDS patients internationally, most activists from the 1980s have retired from the day-to-day activities of the group.

But their memories have been saved. More than 80,000 people have downloaded the interview transcripts currently online, Schulman said.

“The important message of the ACT UP Oral History Project is that this could be you,’’ Blotcher said. “Anybody could do this. It was not to put us on a pedestal and say, ‘Oh, my God, look at what we did,’ but instead show that this is what we did because we had to do it.’’

Blotcher recalls being arrested at a protest. A photo showed up in USA Today. His mother, who died later that year, was less than pleased.

“Oy, my son, the activist,’’ she said, exasperated. Still, she cut out the photograph. It went on the refrigerator.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.

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