Leading Through Our History with Peter Staley

On June 9, Out Leadership’s Todd Sears had a conversation with pioneering gay & AIDS rights activist, Peter Staley about Staley’s story as an organizer, activist, and as part of the HIV+ community. The conversation began with Staley giving a brief background of his life, starting with his time as a bond trader in Wall Street. He became an AIDS activist while still working on Wall Street, but he quickly realized that that was unsustainable, and transitioned to becoming a full-time activist with ACT UP. Staley explained the different forms of activism he engaged in, such as inside activism and outside activism. Inside activism included things such as lobbying and sharing stories, while outside activism entailed things like physically taking to the streets and engaging in guerrilla warfare. He spoke of one instance where he and other activists custom made a giant condom with a political message on it and covered the house of a senator with it in order to send a message about how that politician and his policies were much deadlier than the virus itself.

Staley also talked about his relationship with Anthony Fauci, who New York ACT UP activists spent some years having meetings and dinners with, practicing patient advocacy through the demanding of HIV/AIDS trials, educating lawmakers about the virus, and strategizing about ways to create policy that protected the lives of people with AIDS. They were able to affect the way clinical trials moved forward, pushing the implementation of Large Simple Trials, and changing the way trials for all kinds of diseases were approached in the following decades. These successes exemplify why it is so important to have the affected people (in this case, people with AIDS) in the room when these conversations are happening so that lawmakers can understand the reality of the decisions they are making and they mean life or death for many people.

Shifting gears, Staley then highlighted the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, underlining the fact that – save for climate change – it is the most difficult movement people have had to undertake in his lifetime due to its core goal of uprooting 400 years of global systemic oppression. He explored some of the parallels between Black Lives Matter and AIDS rights and talked about the lessons he has learned from his past activism that help inform his involvement in today’s movement.

When asked what advice he would have for those currently organizing in their communities and protesting in the streets for Black lives, Staley said that rather than advice, he has empathy. He emphasized the importance of showing up – especially as a white man and as part of the LGBTQ+ community, it is imperative to physically show up for other people that are struggling and fighting for equality. It is important both because allyship is not silent – people need to see and feel the support of others for it to be real allyship, and because being united across identity – whether you’re part of the Black community or the LGBTQ+ community, or the HIV+ community – gives more strength and power to every party involved. The conversation ended with Staley addressing the stigma within the community and how it has gotten better over the years, but still has a long way to go before it will be fully broken.

Leading Through Our History - Ep. 2: Peter Staley 2