Wisconsin Acts Up

Historian Dick Wagner recounts the efforts by Wisconsin’s chapter of the radical AIDS activism organization to force lawmakers to stop ignoring and stigmatizing people with HIV/AIDS.

After observing the national actions of ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), especially its moving die-ins, the editors of Wisconsin Light in August 1989 urged the formation in Wisconsin of a Milwaukee chapter. The paper wrote, “Admittedly, confrontational strategies are not for everyone, but we believe that there is a place for those who protest and demonstrate and are not silent.”

Earlier the same year there had been a candlelight vigil at the Federal Building in Milwaukee “to protest the lack of action by the Federal Government in the fight against AIDS.” The nascent Milwaukee chapter was aided in its inception by a visit that same month from two members of ACT-UP New York’s Outreach Committee. Milwaukee organizers and new local president Dan Trzebiatowski were told the ACT-UP organization “fills the gap between AIDS service organizations and the public.” Their advice was to “Forget about good taste. Forget about being nice. You don’t get anything by saying ‘Please.’” Most dramatically, as reported in the Wisconsin Light, “If you’re going to die, die with a bullet hole through your open mouth.”

On the timeliness of Milwaukee’s organizing, they said, “You cannot wait. You can’t deal with something only when it becomes a disaster.” The New York and local organizers visited gay and lesbian bars to recruit support. In its heyday, the Milwaukee chapter had 25 active members.

The kids aren’t all right  

Milwaukee’s main Catholic University, Marquette, was a special target for the group. In February 1990, during the distribution of Lenten ashes by Gesu Church on campus, 300 condoms and 800 non-combative pamphlets on AIDS information were distributed. Earlier, ACT-UP had tried to open a dialogue on the campus response to the AIDS crisis. The vice-president of religious affairs stated that “the university would not compromise the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.” This was understood to mean that there was no possibility of the administration sanctioning safe-sex education on campus, the most effective way, after celibacy, of avoiding HIV infection.

Next, ACT-UP Milwaukee in October 1990 staged a demonstration at a dance held at Marquette University High School to distribute condoms and AIDS information from the State Department of Health. School administrators had security guards physically come between the protestors and the students coming to the dance. Five ACT-UP members were arrested for disorderly conduct. The condoms were a touchy issue for the Catholic school. Subsequent high school demonstrations at Bay View and Whitefish Bay did not result in arrests. A spokesperson for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) said, “While MPS may not like ACT UP’s actions outside the dances, the group was within its constitutional rights of speech and assembly. Students’ reaction to the condoms ranged from ‘thanks’ or ‘eeew.’” Some brochures were found discarded afterwards, but no condoms were found on the ground.

Activist Christopher Fons argued, “If parents and teachers will not teach teenagers about condoms and will not allow us to teach them, not only are they denying us our rights to free speech and assembly, but they are killing their children.” Wisconsin Light proudly saluted Milwaukee ACT-UP for reaching out to high school students. “Sexual abstinence is a nice ideal,” it wrote, “but while we hate to be cynical, for some, especially high school students as well as both younger and older, that’s all it is, an ideal. Asking young people to be chaste and expecting all of them to practice it, is kind of like asking the moon not to rise.”

National actions  

ACT-UP Milwaukee joined in national actions, too. In January 1990, they helped deluge corporate offices and order desks of Galaxy Carpet Mills over discriminatory insurance policies on AIDS coverage. Two Milwaukee ACT-UP members, Jay Hanson and Karyn Teufel, were arrested and charged with “mob action” when they joined 1,000 protestors from around the nation in Chicago to protest insurance company policies. However, ACT-UP Milwaukee declined to boycott local brewing giant Miller Beer, part of the Philip Morris companies.

The issue arose because of large donations from Philip Morris to Jesse Helms, the viciously homophobic senator from the tobacco state of North Carolina. Corporate donations had been made to the Jesse Helms Library and PAC donations to his campaign. The Milwaukee group decided its priority was to focus on Philip Morris tobacco products and thus “to endorse and encourage the growing Marlboro boycott in Milwaukee.” A letter was sent to lesbian and gay bar owners in Milwaukee urging them to pull Marlboro products because the company was “too willing to deny us our freedom and our humanity.” The letter urged, “Teach Philip Morris the price of doing business with our communities.” ACT-UP Milwaukee continued these efforts by demonstrating in October of that same year at the Art Fest reception at the Milwaukee Museum—sponsored by Philip Morris.

Discrimination in health care  

ACT-UP Milwaukee conducted an informational action at a local dental clinic. The group had conducted a phone survey of 200 dentists. The results indicated one-third of respondants were or would discriminate against providing care to people with HIV. Representatives met with the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Dental Association and with the Marquette Dental School.

The action at the clinic was criticized by ultraconservative talk radio host Mark Belling on WISN-AM, who asked, “Should dentists be required to treat AIDS patients?” Belling “repeatedly stated that the majority of AIDS victims are responsible for their condition; that 95% of people with HIV are personally responsible for their infection and should not complain.” ACT-UP complained to the station manager that Belling, “spread dangerous misinformation about AIDS to the public.” Regarding dentists, the activists observed most HIV-infected people were unaware of their status, and “dentists must use full precautions with every patient, every time and that when such precautions are used, ‘the status of both dentist and patients becomes irrelevant.’”

Thompson v. Queers  

Governor Tommy Thompson was a target for ACT-UP in the state. Much of the controversy stemmed over the Department of Corrections. In 1990 Thompson’s own advisory panel made 28 recommendations on AIDS/HIV in state prisons. Despite administrators claiming 17 had been implemented, critics, including Doug Nelson of the Milwaukee AIDS Project, denounced this as a falsehood. Adding to the tension was the death in September 1990 of HIV-positive Waupun inmate Donald Woods who, when being transferred between cells, asphyxiated on a towel put over his mouth by prison guards who feared contamination from his spit through their full riot gear. Another inmate with AIDS, Roger Hillman, sought compassionate release. Hillman, allergic to AZT, had been prescribed a high calorie diet to help, but it was claimed Waupun only provided daily peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Dan Savage, one of the activists (and a future national advice columnist), noted that Wisconsin didn’t (and does not) have the death penalty, saying, “Roger Hillman was not sentenced to death. He is dying. And nobody cares.”

On April 16, 1991, twenty ACT-UP Madison protestors delivered dozens of towels and peanut butter sandwiches to Gov. Thompson’s office. Activists said, “Because of the examples of Donald Woods and Roger Hillman, other inmates with AIDS won’t come forward.” Doug Nelson echoed the lack of support and fear of discrimination by guards and other prisoners. In September 1991, on the one-year anniversary of Wood’s death, accusatory “wanted” style posters went up with the Governor’s face describing him above his picture in block letters as “Public Health Menace” with “Known to Spread AIDS” under it. A particular issue mentioned on the poster was “not following through on his advisory panel’s recommendation for humane treatment of state prison inmates with AIDS.” Milwaukee ACT-UP activist Chris Fons was arrested for disrupting a state Building Commission meeting when he tried to deliver a peanut butter sandwich to Thompson. Fons would later die from AIDS.

Radical measures for radical times  

Isthmus ascribed the local efforts to a new “combativeness” within the Madison ACT-UP chapter. Wisconsinites were described as “looking to still more confrontational tactics used by gays and lesbians in cities like New York and Washington.” Some ACT-UP members from around the country flew in for the main demonstration on the prison issue. Some 150 protestors blew whistles and chanted shame at the Capitol. After marching to the Department of Corrections, 15 people were arrested. The DOC appointed a new panel to review progress on the prison recommendations and included Doug Nelson plus Madison AIDS Support Network coordinator Carole Ahrens. Madison ACT-UP activist Dan Savage said the committee would be closely watched. “If it’s bullshit, we’ll shut them down.” Savage strongly believed in the need to be “radical” to hold public officials accountable. He told the press what he acknowledged was a “horrible thing.” Savage said, “I hope a lot of straight people get AIDS.”

Savage further said, “These are extreme times; gays and lesbian are under assault.” A news story noted, “Madison hasn’t been immune to the nationwide leap in assaults—physical and governmental—against gays and lesbians. Nor has the community been spared the impact of the AIDS crisis.”

Savage proclaimed, “The only way we can get our issues addressed is by acting radical, lying down on sidewalks, screaming and yelling and making radical demands and saying extreme things, and then when we do that—which is the only way we can get press—we’re dismissed for our extremism.” Savage also became a proponent of outing gay public figures. He and I even debated the outing issue for our local gay cable TV show “Nothing To Hide.” A new group also briefly making its presence known at the demonstrations was the Queer Liberation Front of Madison. Jari Junikka, a graduate student from Finland, got involved with the Front after he was assaulted by two men who wanted to “do some gay bashing.” Hate crime charges did not stick. Junikka stated, “I want to walk hand-in hand with my lover down State Street.” Junikka, also active in Madison ACT-UP, claimed, “The government has blood on its hands because of its negligence.”

Turning points  

In 1992, some 15 members of Madison ACT-UP awarded a “Slammie” to Gov. Thompson. The mock award was created for a protest action in the State Capitol that was also denouncing the controversial film “Basic Instinct” for its depiction of bisexual women “as psycho-killers.” The Governor’s award again was for his “baffling practice of ignoring his own advisers’ recommendation for AIDS education and materials distribution in Wisconsin prisons.” Chants included, “Suck my dick, lick my clit, Tommy Thompson’s full of shit.”

The head of Corrections was once more “under fire for inadequate prison guard training.” Perhaps because of the strong voice of the prison guards’ union, Thompson had taken a harsher line in the past. In 1987 he voiced support for “severe penalties” for knowingly transmitting the disease. And at one point he was for mandatory HIV testing for inmates in the state’s correctional institutions. Later this was changed to assaultive inmates. The issue had arisen over a prison guard who was scratched and bitten by an HIV-positive inmate. ACT-UP also called for the DOC to distribute condoms in prisons. The Governor’s 1992–93 budget instead had a $150,000 reduction for the AIDS drug trial program. Dale Tegman, an ACT-UP spokesperson, said, “To be frank, I don’t care if Tommy Thompson accepts me as long as he doesn’t kill me.” Among the protesters was Heather Rhoads from Les/bi/femmes, a Madison lesbian bisexual action group.

Unlike gay issues where Assemblyman Tommy Thompson had a very negative voting record, as Governor he was generally better when it came to AIDS. Marc Haupert of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin noted, “There was certainly more of a sensitivity in the [Tony] Earl administration on gay concern as it relates to AIDS.” Thompson, however, knew there was concern growing in the general population. Haupert acknowledged that Thompson, after meeting AIDS service people, “remarked that the state is a leader in other things and it should be a leader in fighting AIDS.”

Measurable success  

Thompson supported state financial resources to continue the fight. Most importantly, in October 1987 he established a 34-member Governor’s HIV Infection Advisory Council by executive order. Among the members were Grid Hall, longtime gay activist and board member of the Madison AIDS Support Network, and Jay Hatheway, publisher of the gay magazine Among Friends. Staff included the hard-working state epidemiologist Dr. Jeff Davis. Later, as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson would play a national role on AIDS. His connections would help place Scott Evertz to serve as Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy for President George W. Bush.

The state report’s dedication was to those “Wisconsin citizens who have been, are now and will be affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.” At the time of the group’s report in July 1989, Wisconsin had 465 cases, with 281 deaths, but still was considered a “low prevalence state.” For every known infection, there were “20 or more persons” likely infected, suggesting some 10,000 cases in the state. The report showed 76% of the infected in Wisconsin were gay or bisexual men. A later 1994 report would state, “nearly two thirds of the cases of HIV infection have been reported from Milwaukee and Dane Counties.”

For the Council, “The members…adamantly believe that Wisconsin cannot ignore the personal and societal implications of the HIV epidemic.” Among the recommendations, “Provide culturally sensitive education to gay men and women…materials must be specifically tailored to effectively promote risk reduction within these cultural groups whose members often are at particular risk for HIV infection.” On long-term patient care, “Obstructive attitudes of caregivers, potential patients, and their families must be confronted directly, and assistance provided for modification.” The Council on HIV testing also urged, “regulations and practices…to assure that voluntary informed consent is used appropriately in all settings (e.g. health care, workplace, correctional/custodial).”

The attention ACT-UP chapters in Wisconsin brought to the AIDS fight was sorely needed and produced results.