“This isn’t gonna be cured for years and years and years. I’m gonna die from this”, says the disillusioned young activist up on the screen. But Peter Staley, co-founder of the activist group ACT UP and one of the main subjects of David France’s excellent documentary How To Survive a Plague (2012), was among the lucky ones. He didn’t die from AIDS, the epidemic which took the lives of so many of his friends, all the while the pharmaceutical industry and the government looked another, either watching their bottom line or busy demagoguing the public about AIDS as a disease inflicted mainly upon gay people for leading irresponsible and/or immoral lives. Instead, back in October, Staley took to the stage after the screening to receive a standing ovation from a crowd of cinephiles at the Bergen International Film Festival.
Yesterday was the official World AIDS Day, and it is because of Staley and people like him that we are able to recognize this day with not only sadness and anger – both healthy and natural feelings and responses – but with some optimism as well. We can note the cautiously positive results when it comes to stopping the rise in newly HIV-infected people worldwide, in Africa in particular, all the while recognizing that the numbers for gay men are actually showing some very disturbing signs of going in the opposite direction (h/t Box Turtle Bulletin). It’s because of Staley and others who dared to question public complacency, while, as the movie shows us, also being able to admit to mistakes. The push for early clearance of experimental drugs to confront this frightening epidemic may in the end have had the uintended consequence of slowing down the eventual medical breakthrough. The question and answer session with Staley on that stage in Norway was a mobilizing and humbling experience, both for what he represented and for personifying a part of gay history that now seem like distant history for some. For the survivors Staley talked about, who wanted to close that chapter in their lives because reliving the desperation and loss was just too painful, the reaction is understandable. For anyone else who left the screening without a new conviction to help preserve yesterday’s victories and win the fights of tomorrow, however, such an attitude would be damn near inexusable.
On World AIDS Day, I also sent a thought to Larry Kramer, author, playwright, unbending activist; but most of all, a life-saving moralist of the American movement for gay rights. Cutting through the clutter of self-interested infighting, his declaration of AIDS as a “plague”, not only gave this movie its title, but the movement its direction and overarching mission. Kramer, still active in his seventies, has never been afraid to tell uncomfortable truths to the community, or at the very least, to formulate the thoughts people of our inclination did not, do not, like to think about, only to shout them from any rooftop in sight, or from atop any available soapbox. You don’t always have to agree with every word of his decades-long warnings against the promiscuity at the center of gay culture or the correct strategy for achieving marriage equality (I know little of the former and am torn on the latter), but at important crossroads in the movement’s history, the authority he’d amassed by his willingness to make himself unpopular, not just with straight people, not even primarily with straight people, has been decisive.
And yet, with all the rage, the righteous moral indignation over injustices past and present, one thing struck me more than anything watching How To Survive a Plague. Over the last 17 months, I have become more and more aware of and appreciative of the power and importance of remembrance. By making this documentary, David France and his subjects have not only done an indispensable job in furthering knowledge of a critically important part of gay history continually at risk of getting erased from the history for reasons of political revisionism; they have told the story of people lost to this plague. Peter Staley, Larry Kramer and countless others had no other choice than to muster the courage to change the course of history for the better, and for that we should all be grateful. But in their survival, they have also taken the time to tell the stories of those who fought alongside them but lost. People just as important but less lucky. These people lived. And they too were loved. Now history will know them.
In my mind, How To Survive a Plague has a spiritual sibling in David Weissman and Bill Weber’s 2011 documentary, We Were Here (2011). To an even greater extent than Plague, a movie often focused on the macro pespective of AIDS activism, We Were Here is an intimate movie about survivors telling the story of what happened when AIDS spread in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Mere years after thousands of queer people of all inclinations had migrated to this promised land of the American West Coast to trade in shame and self-doubt for the fruits of the recent sexual revolution, what came instead was an even graver threat. The personal testimonies of We Were Here describes in heartrending detail the horrifying fear and desperation in the disease’s wake. In the way that both of these movies, in their exasperated sighs of pain, historic and current; in their disclipined screams of mobilizing anger, nudge us toward tribute and remembrance; in how they let us share in hope and sadness, remorse and resilience; they make for the perfect post-World AIDS Day double bill.