Peter Staley never meant to become an activist — but be glad he did. Because of early AIDS activists like him, scientists were driven to develop life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs, and clinical trials and drug approvals were streamlined to get new treatments in the hands of those who need them most. While the AIDS crisis wreaked havoc on the lives of gay men throughout the 1980s and 90s, Staley was one of the driving forces in the battle for political recognition and resources. As an early member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and founder of the Treatment Action Group (TAG), two of the most influential activist groups in the history of queer politics, he became one of America’s most famous LGBT and AIDS activists.

Peter Staley

The Path To Activism

Sitting at his desk in the fall of 1985, Peter Staley, then a Wall Street bonds trader at J. P. Morgan, could never have thought that he would one day become the driving force of a powerful activist group that would “break into the consciousness” of the society, and make AIDS medications more accessible and affordable. Back then people suffering from AIDS were dying by the thousands, with 3665 AIDS-related deaths in the USA in 1984 alone, largely due to societal neglect and rampant homophobia.

In 1985 a gifted pianist who switched majors to follow his older brother (CEO of Barclays) into the world of high finance learned he had AIDS-related complex, a diagnosis given early on to people who did not yet have full-blown AIDS. Staley’s long-term prospects seemed hopeless, to say the least. There was little going on in the way of research, and people suffering from AIDS were being left to die.

It wasn’t good. I was caught off guard. It was late 1985, right after Rock Hudson had died and the country was in a panic. There were no drugs. They had only found the virus a year beforehand.

Staley did a crazy year of being a closeted bond trader by day and an AIDS activist by night. Going to demonstrations he would hold the placard up to his face to avoid any appearance on the national news. Young activist became the head of fundraising, as a way to help without getting in the news. Eventually that dual life cost him, and his CD4 count got to such a dangerously low level that he went on disability. Staley realized the clock was ticking. So he quit the job and became full-time activist.

Peter Staley



Larry Kramer, who went on to found ACT UP, popped the balloon with a speech at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in March of 1987. A few weeks later Staley stumbled upon the first ACT UP demonstration and realized that had to be a part of it. Young activist got himself to the very next meeting and never stopped going after that.

Peter was arrested 10 times — including once for protesting Big Pharma’s HIV/AIDS drug prices in 1989. He chained himself to a balcony at the New York Stock Exchange with a banner reading “Sell Wellcome” and fake $100 bills that said “fuck your profiteering”. They were on the cover of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and three days later Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of the AIDS treatment AZT by 20%.

Peter Staley

We had to really shake the country up. And one of the quickest ways to do that is to use our so called forth arm of government, which is the press…We were the dying Americans that the country was letting die. And regardless of what Americans thought about gay men and lesbians, they don’t like having it, realizing that their own government is just letting thousands of their own citizens die. So we played to that shame, that guilt, and we gave the whole country a guilt trip.

Nowadays it’s impossible to overstate the impact Act Up had on gay and mainstream culture. Their demonstrations were innovative, humorous and effective. They turned up at mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, poured ashes of the HIV-deceased on the White House lawn and stretched a giant condom over one homophobic senator’s home. Their efforts would not only influence Aids-related research and policy, but would spawn a new generation of gay civil rights activists.

Peter Staley


How to Survive a Plague

The resolve and dedication of ACT UP and TAG activists is the topic of How to Survive a Plague, David France’s award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary about the history of the AIDS epidemic. The film features Staley prominently, although he insists that ACT UP is a ‘leaderless’ movement. He talks about how the movement is always bigger than the individual and it should never be dependent on any one person. “ACT UP led all of us and it was one of the purest examples of people power in American history,” he says in the movie.

When David came to me first with this idea, he did seem to have all the intellectual tools to pull this off. But I was very wary because there had been many who had talked about doing a documentary on this. And they hadn’t pulled it off… I didn’t think he’d end up with a final product that would win all these awards, let alone get a theatrical release and an Oscar nomination.

Staley  says that along with other narratives around ACT UP’s success, How to Survive a Plague focuses on how they became very wonkish, and their “own experts in AIDS research adeptly pushed players like the US government and pharmaceutical companies towards finding treatments”.

This is an important film. It allows my generation to finally memorialize what we had gone through. A lot of us had put it on an emotional shelf. We needed something like this us to force us to remember, to memorialize those we had lost and to admire what we had achieved. The second audience is the younger audience, especially young gays and lesbians, who didn’t know the history, who thought the drugs magically appeared. They had no idea how hated we were by the US government.

Peter Staley


On Modern Activism

These days Peter Staley has been teaching activism 101 to Harvard undergrads. Here, he gets super-specific about what activists will have to do to gain traction against Trump in the years ahead. “ACT UP was known for doing its homework and becoming experts in the issues that we were fighting for. If you really wanna change something, you better know the subject backwards and forwards,” says Staley.

He believes that what’s important is to pick the right targets. There is overwhelming number of possible targets and it’s confusing, it boggles the mind, it makes some people feel almost defeated before they even start. So is you want a to make a real challenge he advises to look at what’s in the range of the possible.

He stresses that one of the most important strategies in activism should be to look for allies on the opposite side. Staley claims that “activism is about plowing through pessimism, to create a tipping-point,” and that the current generation of activists must, “stay clear-headed, love and support each other, as nobody can be on the sidelines anymore.”

We’re in this mess today because too many of us sat on the sidelines. Everyone has to add a little bit of activism to their life. I’m not saying you have to get arrested — I’m talking about legal demonstrations. We just need you to show up at one or two huge anti-Trump rallies every year. We’re gonna need tens of thousands of bodies in the street for this fight.

Peter Staley

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