LGBT2Q+ History: AIDS Conferences and the Power of Protest

Written on 09/17/2021
Maya Linsley

In June 1989, when the HIV and AIDS epidemic had ravaged its way across most of the planet, the scientific community congregated in Montreal for the Fifth Annual International AIDS Conference. Delegates from around the world flew in to attend, and though they represented different countries, they shared a commonality: not one of them was afflicted with AIDS.

But after nine years of fear and death, AIDS activists were tired of going unheard. In particular, Canadian activist groups AIDS Action Now! and Réaction-SIDA, alongside American organization ACT UP, had something to say about their exclusion. On the day of the conference, a group of protesters stormed the auditorium, took the stage, and opened the event in place of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

"I'll never forget the sight of our ragtag group of 300 protesters brushing past the security guards in the lobby… There we were, the uninvited guests, taking our rightful place at the heart of the conference," writes Ron Goldberg in a reflection posted on ACT UP's website.

While the initial stage-snatch was a hit with the scientists in the audience, the group's ensuing occupation of the VIP section and their barrage of targeted questions, jeers and general taking-up of space didn't go over as well.

"While many praised us… others complained about our confrontational tactics and accused us of "introducing politics" into a scientific conference," Goldberg writes, going on to reflect that "It was as if the only [people with AIDS] that the [officials] recognized were the ones in the same room with them, and that if they addressed our specific concerns, they had 'solved' the entire 'PWA problem.'"

At the conference, the groups presented a document called the Montreal Manifesto. It included calls to action and detailed the failure of the Canadian government to respond effectively to the epidemic, including articles such as "Canada's public health education programs rated least effective in the world" (VIII) and "Affected communities of people with HIV disease have been excluded from federal decision-making" (IX).

Though the conference itself failed to bring forth any new policies regarding AIDS, media coverage of the protesters garnered international interest. Activists, journalists and scholars alike picked up on the conference and its implications – changing the structure of AIDS conferences forever.

The first trial of a vaccine for AIDS was released in 1999, but in 2020, 37 million people worldwide were still living with the disease.

As Goldberg concludes his article: "Today's AIDS conferences find the communities, activists and scientists working together more closely than ever… it is imperative that we stay true to the issues and demands that brought us to Montreal in the first place – the real day-to-day lives of people with HIV."

Maya Linsley (she/her) is a Loran Scholar and undergraduate English major at the University of Victoria, where she also works as a digital humanities research assistant. An avid writer, reader, and lover of all things feline, Maya can usually be spotted biking across campus or lurking in the stacks at the library.

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