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How To Demand A Medical Breakthrough: Lessons From The AIDS Fight

When the AIDS crisis started in the 1980s, the official response was tepid. Then activists channeled their anger into into one of the most effective protest movements in recent history.
ACT UP activist Michael Petrelis shouts "Stop killing us!" in the middle of a service at St. Patrick's cathedral in New York in December 1989. Source: Image from the film "How To Survive A Plague" by David France

In the summer of 1985, Mike Petrelis was savoring life as young, openly gay man in New York City. He'd landed a cool job working for a film publicist who mostly handled foreign art films. He'd found an affordable apartment — not far from the gay mecca of Greenwich Village.

Then one day, Petrelis noticed a sort of blotch on his arm.

He went to a doctor, who ran a new kind of test, and gave Petrelis the verdict: "You have AIDS."

"He was saying that if I was going to be lucky I'd have six months to maybe two years of life left," recalls Petrelis.

He was 26 years old.

Petrelis says he broke down crying. The doctor said he'd give Petrelis a moment to be alone, pull himself together.

And sitting in that pristine exam room, Petrelis made his first act of protest: "I took out a cigarette."

He did it precisely because he knew it was forbidden.

"I was so mad with hearing this news — so angry at the doctor — I thought the one best way to protest would be to light up a cigarette and just smoke it with as much pleasure as I could find," he says.

But in the months that followed Petrelis soon shifted the focus of his rage, as he began to learn just how little the government and medical. And only one private pharmaceutical company was seriously pursuing a treatment.

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