VETERAN ACTIVIST Peter Staley attained a new level of notoriety after appearing in David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague (2012). The film follows several key members of ACT UP as they perform various acts of political theater, from occupying the headquarters of a big pharma corporation to draping a giant condom over the house of notorious homophobe Jesse Helms.
Almost ten years after that documentary was released, Staley has written a memoir that recounts his early life as a closeted party boy and stockbroker, to his first realizations that he had HIV, and later to a battle with substance abuse. Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism (Chicago Review Press) proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the personal is political, with Staley turning each of the existential challenges he faced into concrete action to bring awareness to hiv/aids at a time of corporate and government indifference. Staley offers a poignant insider’s account of the internal machinations of ACT UP as well as his later notorious ad campaign warning gay men of the dangers of crystal meth, which featured posters that read: “Huge Sale! Buy Crystal, Get HIV Free!”
Staley spoke to me by phone from his Pennsylvania home in late August. — MH
Matthew Hays: Why did you choose to write this memoir of your ACT UP days at this time?
Peter Staley: It’s been nagging at me for many years, that others tell stories about me, and there are highlight reels, but they’re never the real me. I’ve watched these things and it seems like I’m put on some sort of platform that doesn’t resonate with me. Eventually I wanted to tell my story my way. That was up against this lifetime hatred of writing. And all of it was up against fading memories. There was a feeling I had that in ten years’ time it would be a mistake-ridden book.
The real impulse was the constant response, to this day, to How To Survive a Plague. I’ve witnessed how this history can inspire people. I see it in my inbox on a weekly basis, and it’s the most beautiful part of all of this. Some of those people have gone on to become activists or doctors. They’re not momentary inspirations; they seem to have changed lives. Books have the ability to inspire, too, obviously, so it seemed the thing to do. The book and documentary will outlast me. If it can inspire, it’s worth it. It was a hard pregnancy. A two and a half year birth, in the ER, screaming. To my credit, if I’m going to do something, I don’t do it half-assed. I’m really proud of how it turned out.
Matthew Hays, a regular contributor to this magazine, was a member of ACT UP NY in 1988 and currently teaches media studies at Concordia University and Marianopolis College in Montreal.