Activist Ron Goldberg Visits York College to Discuss the Importance of the Act Up Movement 

Goldberg with his book. | Photo by Alejandra Hernandez

By Alejandra Hernandez 

The Office of Academic Affairs and the Urban Health Lab hosted an event with Ron Goldberg, author of Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York. York College is the first CUNY Goldberg has spoken at, which was very significant. 

Goldberg wandered into his first ACT UP meeting in June 1987, and that was when his passion for contributing to the AIDS activist organization began. He became the “chant queen” at ACT UP major protests. 

The event included a reading from the book, a panel discussion on HIV/ AIDS and the ACT UP movement, and a book signing. Goldberg began his presentation with a history lesson about HIV/AIDS. “The thing is, AIDS was not just a medical crisis. It was a political crisis. President [Ronald] Reagan did not say AIDS until 1985, at which point there were 12,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. And he only said it because his friend, actor Rock Hudson, was sick. Not that he did anything to help Hudson, by the way,” said Goldberg. “His first AIDS speech was April 1, 1987, at which point there were 33,000 cases and 20,000 deaths.” 

Goldberg went on to talk about the lack of resources people within the gay community had to go through; even if AIDS affected both men and women, the stigma was that gay people were the “vectors of infection.” Gay people were harassed and publicly shamed for their sexual orientation. 

“[The] gay community’s response to AIDS was to create care networks and organizations like GMHC Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Shanti Project in San Francisco [and] lots of other projects and organizations. It was the gay community, actually two HIV positive men and their doctor that came up with safe sex guidelines which saved thousands and thousands of lives.” 

Goldberg did a reading of his book, which was about the first-anniversary demonstration when ACT UP began. 

“March 24, 1988, Wall Street 2. Attention, attention. The AIDS crisis is over. You can all go home. Just kidding, marshalls. It was six-thirty in the morning, too early for my cool John Lennon glasses, but I wore them anyway. They gave my dazed and panicked expression a little don’t fuck with me attitude…. The whole week the demonstration and the party that evening was like falling in love. Not with a person but with a group. ACT UP was more than just a remarkably effective activist organization. It was the community I had always been looking for. And then David got sick….” 

For Goldberg, it was very meaningful to write this book because people were dying, and he lived through it, which made it even more personal and heart-touching. He quotes Vito Russo, a gay rights activist, “First, let’s kick the shit out of this disease, and then we kick the shit out of the society that let it happen.” The medication available at the time was not safe at all to use, especially since people were not dying of AIDS but of opportunistic infections. He says ACT UP wanted to put the needs of people living with AIDS first and foremost. They had a lot of people doing research that knew the different processes of getting a drug approved, which was the community’s biggest help. Many times officials were unwilling to help and did not care for the health of people with AIDS. 

“To meet you, Mr.Goldberg is an honor because to see someone that continues to do what they started and change the world, not just verbally but through illustration, through a book, is an honor to see that,” said Zynea Barney, a social work major. “And I hope you continue and change many lives.” She also mentioned the importance of meeting people where they are, depending on the knowledge and resources the person has at hand. 

Goldberg expressed that it was very important for young people in activism to demand what is necessary and to show up. Being there is the first step, and everything else will follow. Although it may not work the first time, over time, it will stick, and change will inevitably happen because change is possible. Protesting with love instead of hate is also very crucial. His main goal is to get more young people involved and provide them with information that may not always be accessible to them in their classes. 

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