On Friday, November 30, I attended a special showing of the documentary “How to survive a plague”, shown in Fresno. Using archival video, the film showcases the efforts of ACT UP and TAG during the early years in the battle against AIDS.
I think what amazes me the most is how much of this battle I was oblivious to, even though I was a young adult at the time. I recognized some of the media coverage of events from having seen it on television while it was happening, but I was unaware, even as recently as Thursday last, that most of the impetuous that drove research was due to pressure imposed by these groups.
Presented in a chronological progression, the challenges faced by those infected, as the community struggled to deal with this mysterious new killer, are laid out for the viewer. The continuing dismissal by those in power of the victims of this illness, the slow movement in funding and research as the death toll climbed, and the clear impression given by many that those infected with HIV simply got what they deserved, are all things of which I was aware.
What I didn’t know, and now completely changes my outlook on a history that I lived through, is how the protests and actions of ACT UP and TAG were instrumental in forcing government and the pharmaceutical industry to respond. It becomes clear that thousands, hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions more would have died without the concerted efforts of a relatively few people, many of whom were also suffering from AIDS.
I remember some of the newscasts of the times, but living here in Visalia limited my exposure to what was really going on. Local news carried little of the struggles, and the relatively rare coverage by network news programs, or network news “magazines”, meant I seldom heard of these organizations, and their activities. What I did see or read was usually filtered, first by the media feed into a small conservative town, and second by my own struggles to hide my sexual orientation, even from myself. I would not have pursued more complete information, even if I had known where to find it, simply so as not to have anyone associate me with homosexuality, or give myself cause to think too deeply on the subject. Yoda, around that same time, said “the Force is strong in this one”, but he might as easily have said “the denial is strong in this one”.
In some ways, that denial may have saved my life. If things had been different, if I had had the courage to examine my feelings and accept what they were trying to tell me, even back then, I might very well have been an early victim of AIDS. I graduated high school in 1976. If I had decided to go to San Francisco and become part of the gay community there, what might have happened? That was the time that HIV was spreading unknowingly through larger American cities, and working it’s way into even the smaller towns. By the time the first cases were being recognized, had I been there and out enough to be part of the community, it might have been too late. I know of at least one of my high school classmates who apparently followed a path similar to that, and died in the mid-80’s, of AIDS. There may have been more, I simply don’t know.
The film becomes almost relentless in the telling of the story, each year more people being diagnosed and falling ill, and many dying. The sheer weight of what Larry Kramer called “a plague” bears down on the viewer as the years roll on. The ignorance, the hatred, and the indifference of many to the plight of the ill almost becomes too much to bear. Then, when we reach 1995 (if I’m recalling my dates from the film correctly), everything changes. The three drug cocktail allows for a sudden turn-around for many, and the film can turn and finish on hope.
My ignorance was revealed to me in this documentary. I did not know of the primary roles played by ACT UP and TAG in the development of today’s effective treatments. I had heard of ACT UP, but usually only in the framework of some ardent protest, with occupations and arrests. I was unaware of the dedicated work done to force those in power to deal with the issue, and the successful strategies used to foment change. I learned a lot.
If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do, at your earliest possible convenience.