I sat down to watch “How to Survive a Plague,” a new documentary about the history of the AIDS epidemic, expecting to cry, and cry I did: at the hollowed faces of people whittled to almost nothing by a disease with an ugly arc; at the panicked voices of demonstrators who knew that no matter how quickly research progressed, it wouldn’t be fleet enough to save people they loved; at the breadth and beauty and horror of the AIDS quilt, spread out across the National Mall, a thread of grief for every blade of grass beneath it.
I expected to be angry. Here, too, I wasn’t disappointed. The words of a physician on the front lines in the early days reminded me that “when people died in the hospital, they used to put them in black trash bags.” Many politicians mustered little more than contempt for AIDS sufferers. “There’s nothing ‘gay’ about these people, engaging in incredibly offensive and revolting conduct,” snarled Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, at the time. The documentary memorializes that rant and that mind-set, and also shows Helms saying that he wishes demonstrators would “get their mentality out of their crotches.”
What I didn’t expect was how much hope I would feel. How much comfort. While the movie vividly chronicles the wages of bigotry and neglect, it even more vividly chronicles how much society can budge when the people exhorting it to are united and determined and smart and right. The fight in us eclipses the sloth and surrender, and the good really does outweigh the bad. That’s a takeaway of “How to Survive a Plague,” and that’s a takeaway of the AIDS crisis as well.
I referred to the movie, which was produced and directed by the journalist David France, as a history of the epidemic, and it is. But it teases out a specific strand and tells a particular story, focusing on the protest group Act Up, which was set into motion by Larry Kramer 25 years ago this month. He had already sounded an alarm over the rapidly spreading epidemic with his landmark play “The Normal Heart,” and in March 1987, during remarks at the lesbian and gay community center in downtown Manhattan, he bluntly told a roomful of men that if they didn’t take bold steps to make America and its government care, two-thirds of them could be dead in five years.
That same month Act Up — the acronym by which the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power quickly came to be known — staged the first of its many protests, visiting New York’s financial nerve center and blocking traffic there. It occupied Wall Street long before the verb and address were welded together, in an era when ire over indiscriminate greed, manifest just last week by the viral sensation of a Goldman Sachs executive’s resignation, hadn’t been stoked to its current fury. And the group morphed from then and there into a model for the here and now of how social change occurs.
What you probably remember best about Act Up is its theatrical genius (or gall, depending on your sensibility). Its members held a “die-in” during a Mass inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, going limp in the aisles so that police officers had to use stretchers to carry them away. They hurled the ash and bone of fallen comrades over the fence around the White House and onto the lawn.
But if boldness had been the sum of Act Up, the group wouldn’t have accomplished so much. It added enterprise and erudition to the mix. A friend of mine who covered an Act Up demonstration in San Francisco remembers standing in the street, chatting over the phone with a group spokesman and telling him that she would file her newspaper story as soon as she rounded up a certain statistic. Minutes later he called back, said that he had found a Kinko’s store nearby and told her that documents with the information she was seeking had already been faxed to her there.
In “How to Survive a Plague,” gay men and their allies are shown educating themselves about antiviral medications, about clinical-trial protocols, about the Food and Drug Administration approval process. They are shown successfully making the case that the trials should be less restrictive, and the process much faster. Because what they’re saying is so concrete and constructive, scientists can’t avoid paying it heed.
“If you come at a problem in a way that’s just disruptive and iconoclastic, but you don’t know what you’re talking about, all you are is a nuisance,” said Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, when we talked last week. Act Up’s leaders, he told me, knew what they were talking about. As a result, they “cracked open the opaque process” of drug development, altered the patient-doctor relationship and “changed the whole face of advocacy,” he said.
That’s a remarkable tote board, and it’s not all. Act Up gets crucial credit for advancing the acceptance of gay people. A slogan it popularized, “silence equals death,” persuasively argued that gay men had to emerge from hiding so that people around them would see AIDS not as a distant abstraction but as a killer potentially stalking their brothers, sons, co-workers. Those men indeed came out, and people indeed saw. That’s why same-sex marriage is now such a prominent issue, with so many ardent advocates. That’s why the bullying of gay teenagers has become a national concern, and why the conviction of a Rutgers University student for spying on and taunting a roommate who then committed suicide has drawn national attention.
There are still politicians like Helms out there, but not as many. There’s still hate, but not as much. After more than 600,000 deaths from AIDS in this country and about 30 million around the globe, scientists still haven’t found a cure or vaccine. But there are highly effective treatments, and H.I.V.-infected people who get proper medical care — which isn’t, mind you, nearly enough of them — can expect long, full lives. And that’s largely because 25 years ago, a tribe in desperate trouble did something that religious conservatives who can get their minds out of people’s crotches should in fact admire. It elected self-reliance over self-pity, tapping its own reserves of intellect, ingenuity and grit to make sure its members were cared for.
In “How to Survive a Plague,” being screened just twice in Manhattan later this month in advance of an expected fall release, one of the epitaphs for that effort is given by Kramer himself.
“We had the brainpower, and we had the street power,” he says on-camera. “We, Act Up, got those drugs out there. It is the proudest achievement that the gay population of this world can ever claim.”