18 Women Who Made an Impact on AIDS

Maria MaggentiMariaMaggenti

 Maria went to her first ACT UP meeting at NYU and became involved in the coordinating committee. Maria went on to become a screenwriter and filmmaker, notably behind the lesbian films The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love and Puccini For Beginners. She also wrote for the TV show Without a Trace and is currently on the staff at MTV’s Finding Carter.

Polly ThistlethwaitePolly-Thistlethwaite

Polly heard of ACT UP through Maxine Wolfe, and attended a demonstration at Shea Stadium where organizers unfurled large banners with their messaging and took up entire sections during the nationally televised game. She went on to become part of the Women’s Caucus that put on a teach-in about the issues of women in HIV. Polly is now the Chief Librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Amy Baueramy-bauer

An activist early on, Amy came to ACT UP after several years as part of a group called Women’s Pentagon Action. She trained group members in the ways of civil disobedience and how to protest without using violence. She also participated in actions such as Stop the Church, which included a mass die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

 Keri Durankeri

An out lesbian, feminist activist, Keri Duran passed away at the age of 31 from AIDS. She joined ACT UP Boston after receiving her diagnosis in 1987 and became a powerful voice and face for women with AIDS. Keri gave a passionate speech at the Center of Disease Control in Atlanta in 1990 where ACT UP demanded the CDC change their definition of AIDS to include women’s symptoms.

  Heidi DorowHeidiDorow

In her early twenties during the time of ACT UP, Heidi heard about the organization through Maxine Wolfe’s daughter, Karen, and moved to New York to work at the organization in 1988. She went on to work at the Urban Justice Center Organizing Project in New York City and participated in a panel about women’s involvement in ACT UP last spring.

  Urvashi Vaidurvashi

A community organizer, lawyer and activist, Urvashi was a part of ACT UP’s 1988 Republican Convention demonstration and thought it was important that the organization was about healthcare as a human right. Today she is Director of the Engaging Tradition Project at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School and is one of the founders of LPAC, the lesbian political action committee. Her longtime partner is out comic Kate Clinton.

Zoe LeonardThe Whitney Museum of American Art's 2014 Bucksbaum Award Ceremony

Renowned artist Zoe Leonard said she was not “politicized” until finding ACT UP, which eventually came to influence her art in huge ways. She became part of an affinity group called the Candelabras and created display pieces such as tombstones reading “I Died of AIDS Because the Government Didn’t Care.” She also created a famous image of a vagina close-up with the message, “Read My Lips Before They’re Sealed.”  She was one of the founders of Fierce Pussy, a lesbian art collective. Today Zoe’s photography and sculpture work can be seen at places like the Whitney.

Alexis Danzigalexis-danzigvia Facebook

Alexis’s father was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and she joined ACT UP after he passed away. Her mother also joined the organization. Alexis bought a video camcorder to help document actions, although sometimes it was confiscated or got her arrested. She estimates she was arrested about 26 times during demonstrations and ACT UP actions. She was never convicted. Alexis still lives in NYC and works as a grant writer and “creates innovative programs to help at-risk New Yorkers.”


There are so many women who were involved in AIDS activism, and even these brief summaries cannot give enough details on their great amount of work and dedication that ultimately led to a lot of changes in the way Americans (both the public and those in power) treat the diagnosed. Today we celebrate them and say thank you for everything you have done for our community and the world. I highly recommend checking out the ACT UP Oral History Project for full interview transcripts and video clips from the archive.