ACT UP New York votes to expel member accused of harassment

ACT UP at the 2010 Pride March in New York City.
ACT UP at the 2010 Pride March in New York City.
Donna Aceto

At a second meeting that saw member turnout at a level that ACT UP New York has not experienced in many years, 75 of the 91 attendees voted to expel a member of the HIV activist group who was accused of harassing other members.

“Limiting involvement with the group didn’t stop the harassment,” Brandon Cuicchi, the ACT UP New York member who facilitated the Jan. 15 meeting that took place entirely on Zoom, told Gay City News, referring to Carlos Aitcheson-Valentin.

Aitcheson-Valentin was asked to stop attending meetings and protests in August of 2021 while the group’s Harassment Grievance Team investigated two complaints that had been filed against him. In September of that year and after that investigation ended, Aitcheson-Valentin was expelled. He filed an appeal that ACT UP New York did not respond to until April 2023 and only after it received a letter from Thomas Hillgardner, Aitcheson-Valentin’s attorney, in November 2022. ACT UP New York was ordered to respond to the appeal by a state judge in March 2023.

Aitcheson-Valentin filed an Article 78 action in New York State court in January 2023. Those actions are usually used to challenge decisions and actions by local or state government agencies, but they can also be used to challenge actions by organizations that operate under New York law. ACT UP New York was incorporated as a 501(c)(4) non-profit in New York in 1991.

Seeking to overturn his expulsion, Aitcheson-Valentin sued in state court in August 2023, alleging he had been denied due process during his expulsion and that ACT UP New York violated state law and its own policies in making that decision. 

While the initial two harassment allegations were serious, additional information about those allegations and some others were included in a report written by a second Harassment Grievance Team that was presented to members at a Jan. 15 meeting during which the second vote to expel Aitcheson-Valentin was passed.

“On December 1, 2022 World AIDS Day, Mr. Aitcheson-Valentin physically accosted another younger member of ACT UP NY and threatened him with physical violence in the presence of several witnesses,” the report said. 

The report also displayed an undated image taken from his Facebook account that shows Aitcheson-Valentin in uniform from when he was in the Army holding an assault rifle above an image of Brent Nicholson Earle, a longtime ACT UP New York member. The accompanying text says, “It ends with me. You want to see what unleash the power means. Just wait.” The report says the Aitcheson-Valentin picture in uniform and holding the gun was paired with other images of ACT UP New York members. ACT UP stands for the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power.

Speaking at the Jan. 15 meeting, Cuicchi estimated that 12 to 20 people were harassed by Aitcheson-Valentin over time. In 2020, ACT UP New York held a community mediation session, which Aitcheson-Valentin attended, that sought to resolve the conflicts that spawned the alleged harassment. Members were as concerned with Aitcheson-Valentin’s state of mind as they were protecting other members, Ivy Arce, a longtime ACT UP New York member, said at the Jan. 15 meeting.

“[W]hat I wanted to share was the [Harassment Grievance Team] and many [ACT UP] members supported (including the members he was attacking) and considered Carlos’ well being as conflict escalated,” Arce wrote in a chat to Gay City News. ACT UP rules require journalists to get approval from members to quote them in stories. In some instances, members sent new quotes that are effectively the same, but worded differently.

In late 2023, ACT UP New York found a lawyer, Remy Green, who is representing the group pro bono. In early 2024, ACT UP New York sent up a distress signal on social media saying the group’s existence was threatened by the lawsuit. It asked that at least 100 voting members turn out for a Jan. 8 meeting. Nearly 175 members joined that meeting, a turnout that ACT UP New York had not seen in years or perhaps even decades. They voted overwhelmingly to amend ACT UP New York’s bylaws to allow it to use its own definition of a quorum for meetings rather than the definition under state law — something the lawsuit said the group had violated. Members approved every vote ACT UP New York had taken over its 36 year history, and it established the Harassment Grievance Team that later issued the report.

At the Jan. 8 meeting, members expressed that the lawsuit endangers a group that current members and members who may not have attended a meeting or protest in years or decades see as having made significant contributions to their lives and to aiding people with HIV. Speaking at that meeting, Cuicchi said that Aitcheson-Valentin asked “numerous people over months to join the lawsuit.” He remains the sole plaintiff.

On Jan. 16, ACT UP New York filed a motion and exhibits, including the report, in the lawsuit that asks the court to dismiss the case. The motion notes that Aitcheson-Valentin resigned from the group in July 2020. His resignation letter was included as an exhibit. Since he left the group, he has no standing to avail himself of ACT UP New York’s internal policies and procedures, the motion argues. Additionally, the complaints about ACT UP New York violating state law on quorum were remedied with the votes on Jan. 8 and the amended bylaws, so the lawsuit is moot, the motion says.

Hillgardner did not respond to a call seeking comment.  

I was an active member of ACT UP New York from the late 80s through the early 90s. I attended the Jan. 8 meeting and voted “Yes” on all three motions. I attended the Jan. 15 meeting and voted to expel Carlos Aitcheson-Valentin.