Acting Up in South Carolina

Feb 6, 2018 by Contributing Writer on The Nickelodeon Blog
“Silence = Death” Sign at ACT UP Protest, 1989, Photo courtesy of DiAna DiAna.


In advanced of the Nickelodeon’s screening of BPM, a film about ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in Paris, it is worth remembering that Columbia was the site of an important ACT UP protest in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

On Thursday, April 20, 1989, members from ACT UP’s Georgia and New York branches joined South Carolina activists to protest a 1988 state law that allowed forced HIV-testing, the quarantine of people with AIDS, and the expulsion of students who were HIV-positive.

There was a “kiss-in” in front of the State House and a “die-in” at the intersection of Gervais and Main, blocking midday traffic and resulting in the arrest of 41 protesters.

It was one of the first direct action protests outside of a major gay urban center. Writing for the New York Times Magazine (“The Way I Live Now,” July 9, 1989) David Leavitt, who was part of the protest, recounted watching a television interview with a Carolinian who had participated: “He was wearing a hospital mask … which he’d taken from the room of the first friend of his who’d died of AIDS, and he’d put a SILENCE=DEATH button on that mask … on behalf of those friends who had died as well as for himself.” The man initially hesitated to give his name “then he said his name and the town where he lived … We’d all expected him not to give his name … instead, he’d spoken out, branded himself, gone public. Too many people in his life had died brutal deaths for him ever to be silent again.”

The protest focused attention on the demonization of people living with HIV and was a tipping point for local visibility. Within a few months, in the fall of 1989, organizers were planning the state’s first gay pride march. When the march took place the next summer, on June 23, 1990, participants spontaneously rushed up the steps of the State House where the march ended—staking claim for a political presence in the state.

Adapted from Ed Madden, “South Carolina,” from Proud Heritage: People, Issues, and Documents of the LGBT Experience (ABC-CLIO 2015)

“OUT Here” is a community-curated film series celebrating milestones of LGBTQ cinema.