Act Up in Anger
It was September 14th, 1989; more Americans had already died of AIDS-related causes than the 58,000 that had died in Vietnam. And, sneaking into the New York Stock Exchange, wearing suits and fake trader ID badges, carrying chains, handcuffs and foghorns, Peter Staley and six colleagues from ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — were fighting a war too.
Today’s skirmish was over the high price of AZT, the only federally approved antiviral AIDS drug. The sole manufacturer of the drug, Burroughs-Wellcome, had originally priced it at $10,000 for a year’s dosage, and had lowered the price to $8000 only when threatened with a congressional inquiry. AZT was still the most expensive drug ever sold, meaning it depleted both the benefits of those with health insurance and the limited governmental reimbursement programs for those less fortunate. And in the two and a half years since AZT went on the market, Burroughs-Wellcome stock had risen forty percent.
Staley and members of ACT UP had met with Burroughs in January, trying to negotiate a price cut; in April they’d invaded the company’s North Carolina offices, barricading themselves and doing some impromptu redecorating with drills and chain saws (they paid for the damage immediately afterward). In August, study results revealed that AZT could be used as a preventative by people who had tested positive for the AIDS virus but as yet showed no symptoms. This vastly expanded the market for the drug, meaning Burroughs-Wellcome could lower the drug’s price and still suffer no loss in profits. Representatives of ACT UP and fifteen other AIDS groups again met with Burroughs — this time at a safe distance from its offices — to no avail. ACT UP responded by calling for a nationwide boycott of Burroughs products, which include the cold remedies Actifed and Sudafed, and by sticking “AIDS Profiteer” labels on the company’s products on store shelves. But Burroughs wasn’t budging.
So Staley and his cohorts believed that this Mission: Impossible-style invasion was the right thing to do. After the fake badges got them past the security guards, Staley quickened his pace; the nine o’clock bell signaling the start of trading would ring in only a few minutes.
The stock market was familiar turf to the twenty-eight-year-old Staley. The Main Line Philadelphia native says he was the only member of his 1983 class at the liberal Oberlin College to have gone directly into quick-buck bond trading. Staley was a classic Reagan-era yuppie traditionalist — who happened to be gay. Though he had come out of the closet his senior year, upon arriving at Morgan Guaranty he quickly ran back inside; no one was openly homosexual on Wall Street, and antigay jokes were part of the creed. Staley gritted his teeth and played along. Meanwhile, New York’s gay-bar scene was still flourishing, and on weekends, Staley, like many, found himself leading a double life. AIDS was still a small, shadowy threat no one knew much about, but after the boyishly handsome Staley picked up several venereal diseases that first summer, he toned down his lifestyle.
By 1985, more was known about AIDS, and a new test was available to detect the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) believed to be the cause. (Many people who test positive for HIV are asymptomatic, and AIDS may take years to develop. The first symptoms — a depressed immune system and enlarged lymph nodes — are classified as AIDS-related complex [ARC]; a person is described as having full-blown AIDS only after contracting AIDS-associated opportunistic infections like pneumocystis carinii pneumonia [PCP].) Though Staley didn’t know anyone who had AIDS, he had just started a relationship and thought he’d take the test, just to be safe. Then the result came back — he was HIV positive.
After allowing himself one crying bout, Staley, a pragmatist by nature, hunkered down with the latest literature to educate himself. On the advice of a doctor, he adopted an exercise regimen and a healthier diet and quit all recreational drugs and alcohol. Home for Thanksgiving, he broke the news of his illness and his homosexuality to his family — what he calls “the Early Frost double whammy” — and they were understanding. He tried participating in a support group at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the city’s most respected AIDS service organization, but found it “depressing — a lot of people who wanted to whine about their situation,” and left.
Then, on his way to work on March 24th, 1987, Staley was impeded by a sit-down demonstration by 250 angry people. He was handed a flier explaining that the group, formed just two weeks earlier, was called ACT UP and was protesting the Food and Drug Administration’s sluggish release of AIDS treatments. The FDA’s standard procedures could take up to nine years to clear a drug for release; most people who already had AIDS wouldn’t be alive that long. On the front of Trinity Church, ACT UP had hanged an effigy of then FDA head Frank Young; downtown traffic was snarled for hours. The event was reported that night on CBS by Dan Rather, and the FDA promised speedy changes. Impressed, Staley started attending ACT UP’s Monday-night meetings — though at its demonstrations he was always careful to wear sunglasses or hide behind signs so he wouldn’t be recognized in the press by his Wall Street peers and lose his job.
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