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AIDS: Former Chicagoan Tim Miller looks back at ACT UP years
by Patrick Duvall
2011-07-20

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"I still think that they should still be striving for [ a cure ] , or at least a vaccine," said former Chicago AIDS activist, Tim Miller.

It has been almost 20 years since he left activism, and nearly as long since he left Chicago, but when listening to the passion in his voice, it is as if little time has passed. Miller's view of the early years of the AIDS epidemic is shared by many who experienced that difficult time: "So much loss of life in such a short period of time was difficult to live with," Miller said, "it still is."

When asked whether the LGBT community could handle something on the level of the AIDS crisis today, Miller said: "Again, it's going to be a small fraction of the community that's doing all the work. Always. I don't care straight or gay. … If you care about the polar bears, there's going to be a small group of people working on the polar bear issue. You know, everybody else will be happy to buy a t-shirt about the polar bears, but the very few people are going to be willing to do the work to protect the polar bears."

Miller now lives in San Francisco, dividing his time between the hotel workers union and enjoying the city. But from 1987 to 1993, Tim Miller was a member of ACT UP/Chicago, a close-knit group of activists described in their membership packets as being "united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis."

Originally in Chicago the group was called C-FAR, or Chicago for AIDS Rights, but in late 1988, the changed to ACT UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, based on the New York chapter founded by Larry Kramer.

In August of 1987, Tim Miller was invited to his first C-FAR meeting. At the time he was much like any other young gay man living in Boystown. He spent his nights exploring the punk scene and making his rounds at the bars with a small group of friends, and worked full time at a trucking company during the day. Miller kept up with news stories on the epidemic.

A childhood friend of his had recently become HIV-positive, and, as many during that time experienced, the issue suddenly became much more tangible. He had no experience in activism when he joined the organization, but quickly found his role.

"Luckily we had some seasoned activists within C-FAR," Miller said, "but most of us had done nothing. We were really just sort of kids, you know, going out with our friends on Fridays and Saturdays and enjoying life." Many of the people he met would become closer than family, and many would lose their lives to the disease.

The formation of C-FAR was a reaction to a very dark time for people with AIDS. The medical community had been aware of the disease for six years, and the government issued little response. In the 1986 election, Californians voted on a proposition that would effectively quarantine people with AIDS, the majority of whom were gay and bisexual men. The measure was voted down by a large margin, but the threat still carried weight.

The U.S. Supreme Court also upheld the sodomy laws in 1986 with the Bowers vs. Hardwick decision. This was the second time in 10 years such a decision had been made during a period marked by the most successful national movement for LGBT equality in American history. A report from February of 1988 gave the number of infected Americans at 50,265; 1,343 of these were in Chicago.

ACT UP/Chicago brought people together to fight back. "This [ was ] the option that [ was ] available to us. This [ was ] the option that the City of Chicago, that the State of Illinois, that the federal government left us because of their inaction," Miller said. "We were a pretty difficult bunch to deal with. … We were just inconsolable. We knew what we wanted, and we wanted it now, and we weren't going to wait, you know?"

One of Miller's first demonstrations was at the Chicago headquarters of a pharmaceutical company called Lyphomed, the main manufacturer of pentamidine. The medication stopped the formation of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, one of the deadliest opportunistic infections afflicting people with AIDS at the time. The cost of the required monthly dose was $100 in the United States. After some investigation, members of ACT UP found that Lyphomed was selling the drug for $30 in Canada, and decided that something had to be done. For the demonstration they purchased as much of the drug as possible in Canada, called all of the media outlets, and sold the pentamidine in front of Lyphomed headquarters. A week later the company reduced the price to $60 a dose.

Miller's first experience with civil disobedience on the doorstep of the people responsible for the problem he was trying to fix while police and news cameras looked on was unlike anything he had prepared for. When he was approached for a quote by a prominent local news anchor, Miller froze and pointed the man to more experienced members of the group. "At that time I was incredibly nervous, and at the same time it was exhilarating," Miller said. "We were being proactive; we were doing something … that was hopefully going to help people on a daily basis. I had never done anything like this."

Eventually Miller went on to be the head of the New Members Committee, and even appeared as a spokesman for the group on radio and television programs.

He came out to his godparents by appearing on the The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. For several years he served as the group's treasurer, selling ACT UP/Chicago merchandise to LGBT-friendly stores all over the country. A few times, to raise extra funds, Miller organized large drag parties based out of someone's home.

He also worked as a demonstration monitor. "We usually had, you know, an arm band or something to let the police know that we were monitors, and we would be writing down names of people as they were arrested. Or people would scream at us, so we would know their name," he said.

Miller would then hand the list over to ACT UP/Chicago's team of lesbian attorneys, who usually secured the activists' release within hours. Miller himself was arrested nearly three-dozen times in six cities for various acts of civil disobedience.

The 20 or so core members of ACT UP/Chicago formed a very close camaraderie. After working long hours organizing the next big demonstration, they would head out to the bars of Boystown wearing their ACT UP t-shirts, leather jackets, and combat boots. Roscoe's, Sidetrack, and The Manhole were regular hangouts for the group. Even when they weren't working, the activists were known for their militancy. For fun they once conducted a campaign in their spare time to stop all the bars in Boystown from playing Donna Summer songs, due to her negative comments about AIDS in the early '80s. Despite many friendly discussions over drinks, some of the bar owners continued to play Summer's music.

Then, as Miller described, "A couple times, we went in with whistles, and when Donna Summer came on, we'd all just lay down on the dance floor, blew the whistles, and the whole thing stopped."

"Silence = Death" was a motto used by ACT UP/Chicago on press releases and printed on stickers they plastered all over the city. During Miller's tenure with the group, ACT UP/Chicago joined with other ACT UP chapters to hold demonstrations at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control that succeeded in speeding up clinical trials of AIDS drugs.

In October of 1989, the group held an action in downtown Chicago featuring a "Freedom Bed" where a pair of demonstrators playfully acted out the use of safer-sex kits. Other members of the group dressed as government officials would then break in on the activists in bed and try to cover up the sex kits.

Soon after, the group organized a torchlight march on then-Gov. James Thompson's North Side Chicago mansion in wake of proposed legislation for people with AIDS. ACT UP/Chicago members also interrupted speeches by both Dan Quayle and President George H.W. Bush and held a series of protests and social marketing campaigns against the Chicago Transit Authority for censoring AIDS awareness posters.

Reports showed that in 1989 AIDS cases in Chicago had grown to 1,729 and increased to 2,617 in 1990.

In April of 1990, Miller helped organize a national ACT UP protest at the Daley Center and the Cook County Building that drew more than 1,500 people. The demonstration was in reaction to a lack of Chicago funding for the disease and to highlight the policy of not admitting women to the AIDS ward of the county hospital.

Activists in medical scrubs and masks threw bloody money at passersby. During rush hour on a Monday morning, a contingent of women stopped traffic by lying on mattresses in the middle of the street. At the height of the event, Tim Miller, Daniel Sotomayor, Billy McMillan, Frank Sieple, and Paul Adams infiltrated the Cook County building, snuck onto a balcony, nailed the windows shut, and hung a banner that read, "WE DEMAND EQUAL HEALTHCARE NOW!" Once the police broke through the windows, they roughly drug Miller out of the building by his feet and arrested him. He had a cracked rib and was covered in bruises, but the next day the AIDS ward began accepting female patients.

The period was a difficult, but rewarding one for Miller. "We pretty much lived ACT UP for a good four years, you know? We were going to meetings several times a week. We were putting in 20-25 hours a week doing ACT UP stuff. It was very consuming," he said.

Years later, when discussing the changes his life had taken with his mother, she asked, "You were such a quiet child. What happened?"

"Life happened," Miller responded. "My friends started getting sick. My best friend from third grade was already HIV-positive at that time, and, you know, maybe part of me was doing it for him." It was the death of this friend in 1993, after the deaths of many others he had met through ACT UP/Chicago, that finally ended Miller's time in AIDS activism.

He watched his friends waste away slowly and then far too quickly. These people perished, men and women he drank with at bars, screamed chants and pumped fists with at demonstrations, and sat with in hospitals.

Miller's story is mirrored by many people living in the community at the time. "People were dying. Lots of people were dying," he said.

In October of 1993, Miller left Chicago behind and moved to San Francisco. For 10 years he worked with homeless youth, passing out safer-sex kits, toiletries, and information on housing. When he moved, his mother asked him not to join the ACT UP in the new city, but Miller assured her that his time as an activist was definitively over.

Today he believes it is the next generation's responsibility to fight for the rights of the community. In his words, "small groups of people can do amazing things." When he began as an activist, he was far from politically minded. "I didn't know about the ACLU. I didn't know about animal rights, I didn't know about abortion rights. I didn't know about any of those things. But you learn, and people can learn, and they can get involved, and they can make a difference," he said.

Tim Miller and his fellow members of ACT UP/Chicago had very little funding and faced an incredibly hostile environment and widespread death on a scale not seen before in Chicago's LGBT community, but they pressed on and stood up for the rights of friends and family and strangers who were dying while mainstream culture did its best to shun them.

When asked how they accomplished so much with so little, Miller said: "We had our fists, our voices, and our feet, and we used them all."


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