For days, I've been trying to write about last week's World AIDS Day screening of United in Anger. It's a task I'm not up to - not in a coherent way, at least, not yet. The movie is too big, too beautiful, too terrible, too wonderful. Too close. I urge everyone to see United in Anger, and if it isn't playing near you, to organize a screening.

Here instead are a few thoughts, in no particular order, that it evoked in me.
1) As a gay Catholic child, I spent most of the 80s convinced I was going to die of AIDS during a Soviet nuclear attack. My grandmother and I watched local news nightly, and I remember the shock of the grainy footage of the die-in at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1989. I had little context for the protest, but it seemed obvious to me that if people were dying, the church should be doing something. The church and I have long since split ways, but I still believe this to be true, which is why I have such deep respect for groups like the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who pursue social justice in a Catholic context.

2) This is a movie about love. This struck me most in watching ACT-UP members mid-protest, when everyone's voice was sought out and listened to. I think it takes supreme love and self-discipline to recognize, in a moment of confrontation, fear, and anger, the importance of listening to the people on your side.

3) In the film, Maria Maggenti says "At a time when people were hovering around 'I think we are doing okay in the gay community, I think they like us,' ACT-UP said: so what, why do we need to be liked? We need certain things as human beings, and the reason we are not getting those things is because they don't like us." This is a powerful statement on the nature of unalienable rights. I think it bears remembering. Today, we can see how brave and beautiful these activists were (and still are), but at the time, the choices they made were dangerous, often unpopular, and provocative - even within queer and liberal communities. They were not - and had no interest in being - polite or respectable.

I think that attitude is in danger of being forgotten as we rush to memorialize a moment/movement that is not over. And that's dangerous. When we decontextualize a protest movement from the reactionary, fearful, or apathetic factions of our own community (and those of our allies), it becomes possible to forget that justice is never easy or safe. It is difficult, it is costly, and it must be fought for. But that doesn't make it wrong. As we turn a loving eye toward ACT-UP protesters storming the FDA, can we extend that same compassion and trust to modern activists taking controversial actions now?

BIO:Hugh Ryan is a freelance journalist and YA writer. He is also the Founding Director of The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History. You can see more of his writing on his website,, and more about the Pop-Up Museum at

image: Katie Khouri