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Silence, Death, and the Invisible Enemy: AIDS Activism and Social Movement “Newness”

Josh Gamson
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/800820 351-367 First published online: 1 October 1989


Examining the dynamics and activities of the AIDS activist movement—here, through an analysis based on a participant-observation study of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in San Francisco—provides an opportunity to clarify issues on which social movements literature tends to be hazy. ACT UP mixes strategic action and material targets with expressive action and cultural targets; their cultural activity takes the form of boundary-crossing and the contesting of images. They often have difficulty distinguishing their targets, and are caught both denying and affirming that AIDS is a gay disease. I argue that these actions and dilemmas are best understood in the context of changed forms of domination, more and more an invisible and disembodied process of “normalization,” with the state gradually less directly involved. This argument not only explains the particulars of ACT UP's activism, but also poses challenges to theorizing on contemporary (“new”) social movements.

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