Review: 'Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life In Activism' Reminds Us That the Crisis is Not Yet Over

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 29, 2021

In his new memoir "Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism," Peter Staley recalls his life in the closet as a 26-year-old Wall Street stockbroker with a "carefully cultivated straight macho persona." Behind the scenes Staley was just trying to survive after testing positive for HIV/AIDS, and trying to navigate his future with the thought that he only had two years to live.

Everything changed when he was handed a flyer one morning about a meeting of ACT UP in the West Village. He wondered "What was a young gay stud in 501 Levis in a black leather jacket doing on Wall Steet at 7:30 AM?" Staley went to the meeting and his new life began: He quit his job, went on disability, and became a full-time ACT UP activist.

Staley chronicles those perilous years and his personal journey of love, loss, and a movement that changed the course of a deadly epidemic. It is a moving portrait of the commitment and ingenuity of ACT UP to confront government and medical establishment over their mismanagement and hostile neglect of the GLBT community. Staley soon emerged as a media spokesman and strategist for ACT UP's direct action events.

Staley grew up in a suburban Philadelphia household in a supportive family who stood by him when they learned that he was gay and had AIDS.

He returned to the Wall Street shark tank with fellow activists to halt opening trading on the stock market, chaining themselves to the NYSE balustrade, firing off air horns so loud they drowned out the opening bell, and unfurling a banner that read 'Sell Wellcome' in protest of the company's grotesque profiteering off of AZT, the first AIDS drug. The activists had alerted the media, and the spectacle made headlines around the world.

ACT UP ramped up their massive street protests, specifically targeting government agencies including the National Institute of Health and FDA. One of the most infamous events that Staley devised was getting a balloon company to produce a huge condom that would inflate over the house of rabidly anti-gay and racist Sen. Jesse Helms.

But it was Staley's speech at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in 1990 in San Francisco that electrified ACT UP members and impressed hundreds of medical professionals with his message of unity of purpose between the medical establishment and ACT UP members and the GLBTQ community.

He was a cofounder of the Treatment Action Group (TAG), which took a proactive role in tracking the development of AIDS drugs around the world, and drafted papers were presented at International AIDS conferences. TAG succeeded in stopping the practice of double-blind placebo testing of AIDS drugs that was costing lives.

Meanwhile, as with many social justice organizations, ACT UP was suffering growing pains over goals and tactics, and its meetings became more contentious. Staley gives an even-handed account of ACT UP's turf wars.

Staley's speech at the San Francisco AIDS Conference in 1990 went far in getting the medical establishment to take ACT UP seriously and work with them on drug approvals and advanced research as the epidemic raged, even as the politics of the epidemic were obviously costing lives.

His profiles of many key activists and rank-and-file members of the movement who were lost to AIDS, and to medical and government neglect, comprise the heart of the book.

With the development of effective anti-retrovirals in the mid-90s, AIDS was no longer a death sentence — but the epidemic was far from over. Staley remained an activist for AIDS awareness and in other areas of the GLBTQ social justice movement.

Staley reminds us that in many parts of the world, and even the U.S., the crisis is not over. Staley is cofounder of PrEP4All, and now speaks to audiences worldwide on grassroots activism. He continues to confront pharmaceutical companies about drug prices.


"ACT UP and My Life in Activism," by Peter Staley, features a
Forward by Anderson Cooper and is available now from Chicago Review Press.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.