'Overcome Pessimism,' Says AIDS Rights Activist

Former Senator Jesse Helms called Peter Staley a "radical homosexual," like that’s a bad thing: He saved millions of lives during the AIDS crisis. A new memoir could double as a blueprint for today’s activists.
Peter Staley.
PER_Staley_01_vert Source: Photograph Celeste Sloman for Newsweek

On a fall day in 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, hundreds of activists descended on the Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. Blocking the doors and walkways, they chanted, “Hey, hey, FDA, how many people have you killed today?”

The death toll in America had reached nearly 62,000 people, and the protesters were demanding that drugs be developed and approved faster. “A friend launched me onto the overhang of the front door of the building,” says Peter Staley, who hung a huge banner with the now-iconic slogan, “Silence = death.”

As a member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Staley was among those leading the protest. He was 27 at the time and had been diagnosed with AIDS three years earlier. Staley was certain the disease would kill him too.

That day at the FDA was the beginning of changing the hearts and minds of the American people, he

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