In the absence of swift government action, some with H.I.V./AIDS took matters into their own hands. In March 1987, an activist group called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed in New York City. A few weeks later, Staley attended his first ACT UP meeting at an LGBTQ community center. He initially didn’t tell anyone at work about his illness—or that he was gay—for fear that he might be fired. He later quit his job on Wall Street to dedicate his time to AIDS activism.
“It filled me with the first hope I felt since I had been diagnosed,” Staley says. “[I had] the feeling that we were making history, that we were here to change the world.”
In 1987, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) approved A.Z.T., the first AIDS drug. Although it worked for a limited period, there were many side effects, and the drug was too expensive for many people to afford.
So, in 1988, Staley and other ACT UP activists shut down New York City streets in a protest for lower drug prices. Later that year, they demonstrated at the F.D.A. offices outside Washington, D.C., to protest the agency’s slow drug-approval policy. As hundreds of activists chanted “Get to work,” Staley scaled the awning of the building and unfurled a banner that read “SILENCE = DEATH.” The protest made national headlines, prompting the F.D.A. to speed up the release of new medicines.
AIDS activists held many more demonstrations. Staley and others routinely met with officials to help shape the government’s research on new drugs.