Peter Staley: ACT UP and a Life in Activism

On February 9, 2022, Peter Staley, an AIDS and gay rights activist, spoke at an event hosted by the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. Staley has been an influential member of ACT UP New York, a group formed in 1987 to end the AIDS crisis. During his time at ACT UP, Staley performed various acts of civil disobedience to bring attention to the cause. Additionally, he is the founding director of TAG (Treatment Action Group) and the co-founder of PrEP4All Collaboration and the COVID-19 Working Group in New York. Global Policy Institute Director Dr. Gabriele Magni led the conversation.

Staley began by sharing a few memorable moments in his memoir “Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism.” Staley began his career at Wall Street as a bond trader. Little did he realize that he was soon going to join ACT UP and be one of its primary faces! As Mr. Staley recounts, his first exposure to the disease was through a movie, where his former partner jokingly told Peter he had a similar cough as the protagonist. This concerned Staley, as he recalls thinking that he was just experiencing a light fever. He went to seek medical help from his personal doctor, who was one of the gay doctors in the city, and thus was in the frontline of the crisis. He took a test, which revealed he had HIV.

The test came in as a shock and lead to a state of fear, anxiety and worry, as Staley did not know what to expect. He decided to tell his family about the diagnosis, which proved to be a difficult task, as he had not yet openly come out as gay. He recalls that it was one of the hardest conversations he ever had. His family was very understanding and supportive, which later helped him deal with the situation. Upon his diagnosis, Staley was eager to learn more about the disease and hoped to buy some time. In 1987, he found that ACT UP was holding a protest near his workplace, which he then decided to join. He attended the next meeting. He knew logically that this was the only way that the community would be able to mobilize and make a difference. The government and the health authorities at the time were neglecting the AIDS crisis. This invoked the feeling of frustration and anger across the gay community, as they felt invisible and alienated from society. A year after joining ACT UP, Staley decided to quit his job and commit full time to the organization. He recalls that notifying his employer with the reason for his resignation was scary, but also liberating at the same time.

Armed with his fighting spirit and a supportive community, Staley went on to organize and perform various acts of civil protest to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. As Staley recalls, the community knew that they did not have much time, which served as a motivator to act quickly and take decisive actions. However, protesting was also scary as it could backfire. Staley described it as “walking on eggshells” because activists had to be careful with their actions.

Two protests were discussed during the event. The first one was the closure of the New York Stock Exchange. Staley and others snuck into the building with airhorns in their pockets and the objective of taking the floor by not allowing traders to do their job. He recalls experiencing a cathartic feeling during the protest. The protest received good press coverage, which then helped to catapult the organization’s message to a broader audience. Another benefit of the protest was that it shattered the misconceptions of the gay community being fragile. The public saw that they were willing to put their bodies on the line to have their messages heard. The second protest was putting a giant condom over the house of Senator Jesse Helms, who was known for his homophobia in Congress. The action was meant to promote safe sex, as research showed that condoms helped prevent the transmission of HIV and AIDS. The protest served as a symbol of empowerment to openly express one’s sexual inclinations, as it was liberating to freely and safely practice their sexuality.

At the end of the event, Staley answered a few questions from the audience. One of the questions asked Staley about his thoughts on the possibility for a vaccine against HIV/AIDS. Staley mentioned that vaccines have been regarded as a holy grail against the virus. However, in the meantime, there should be a focus on PREP. Another question asked him how he views the legacy of ACT UP. Staley responded that the organization was a pioneer in forming a coalition organization, which now has perfected the techniques, inspiring other movements to follow a similar approach. Additionally, he mentioned that ACT UP was a pro-science movement that allowed them to present factual evidence to argue and achieve the desired change.

Overall Staley’s talk was highly inspirational, as it demonstrated the power held within activism. The core message was that unity and togetherness can bring about a cultural change and create a more equitable society. At times, it might be scary to fight for the right causes but taking the first step is already a huge accomplishment. In his closing remarks, Peter Staley mentioned that the youth’s will power and determination, combined with their intelligence, makes him feel highly optimistic about the future.

Written by Jose Miguel Lopez Arroyo, GPI Undergraduate Fellow