‘How to Survive a Plague’ documents heroes (and villains) of the AIDS crisis
Ask someone in the gay community what activism looks like these days, and you’ll likely get an answer related to marriage equality, or the right to serve openly in the military, or police brutality and sensitivity to gay issues, or even recognition of trans rights. But 30 years ago, activism in the gay community looked very, very different.
Back then, gay protestors were less concerned with the right to live their lives openly than the right to live, period. The AIDS epidemic — the “plague” in the emotional and fascinating documentary How to Survive a Plague — dragged a lot of gay folks not only out of the closet, but into the harsh lights of the public square. Where once they kept their sexual orientations secret, now not only were they front-and-center as gay men and women, they were also labeled as infected with a dreaded disease; while they were trying to seek the comfort and understanding on their families about being gay in the first place, they were simultaneously seeking funding for AIDS research, treatment with dignity even in charity hospitals and a cure.
Many, if not most, didn’t live long enough to see a movie like this. It was a desperate time. (While there is still no outright cure, time and research and the now-famous protease inhibitor drugs have given hope to millions of HIV-positive people who had previously considered the diagnosis a death sentence.)
Director David France lived through a lot of this personally. As a young reporter for the New York Times, he attended countless meetings and rallies. And while he was there, he saw other people — friends and subjects and sources, a wide swathe of people — pull out old-style camcorders or news cameras and record what was going on. And so he knew a lot of footage existed documenting this contentious time. That’s the lion’s share of what makes up this documentary, much of it never before seen.
France has given us a rangy, rich festival of rare archival footage of a host of people who committed to stirring the pot for change. Largely, that means those involved in one of the most radical groups fighting for the rights and treatment of AIDS victims, ACT UP. And while the group co-founder, Larry Kramer (a lightning rod for the AIDS movement), might seem to be the obvious choice around whom to center his story, France doesn’t go that route. In fact, he doesn’t focus on just one “survivor” of the AIDS plague, but rather on the movement itself.
Although there’s no one hero here, Peter Staley — who fearlessly faced down the likes of Pat Buchanan and Dr. Anthony Fauci (prodding him and the National Institutes for Health into more decisive action) — comes close. The righteous anger of Staley, Kramer and the countless others who marched and protested because their lives were, quite literally, at stake, resonates even today with a deep, abiding respect.
For those who remember the craziness of the era, How to Survive a Plague is an arresting reminder of how far we’ve come. (It’s infuriating to re-watch that disgusting homophobe Jesse Helms bloviating from the Senate floor with the callous hatred and lack of compassion a hunter might evince for a fox killing his hens.) For those too young to know of AIDS as anything more than a “manageable disease,” it’s a wake-up call honoring those who made that possible.
Tom Brokaw may insist that the men who lived through the Depression and fought in World War II were the Greatest Generation, but many in the gay community know differently: Those at the forefront of the AIDS crisis were at once the Greatest Generation and the Lost Generation, a an entire decade of young men cut down in their prime who, literally spoke their dying breaths in the name of justice and dignity not just for themselves, but those who followed them. How to Survive a Plague is their elegy, and forces you to pay homage to countless heroes — male and female, gay and straight — whose names you probably never even knew.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 5, 2012.