Editors' Note: Guest blogger Jim Swimm is a "tall drink of water...with a kick!" A Texan transplant in NYC, Jim's thirty-something, gay, HIV+, and simply trying to make the world a better place.
I recently attended a screening of scenes from a documentary about the people on the front lines in the fight against AIDS in the early years of the epidemic, namely the members/founders of ACT UP. Along with the film's screening, there was a panel discussion of not only the film but the subject matter - the state of HIV/AIDS activism, both then & now. There were people on the panel and in the audience who are featured in the film. It was an exceptionally interesting and emotional evening for everyone there, I'd imagine. It certainly was for me.
According to the film's director (who was on the panel and an ACT UP activist himself), this film is in no small part an effort to reclaim a piece of history for those people who were truly fighting for their lives in most instances. Peter Staley, a member of ACT UP who went on to found AIDSmeds.com, also commented about his hope that maybe the younger generation of LGBT people will gain a better sense of their own place in history by seeing the movie. These are wonderful aspirations and I certainly hope this film accomplishes both of them.
During the panel discussion, something of a theme developed from a comment that was repeated more than once - "We all just stopped talking about it" - in reference to AIDS activism & the disease itself. I left that night fairly pissed off about it all, to be frank. Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute and a prominent figure in the world of HIV/AIDS activism, seemed to be fairly irritated by it all as well, even saying at one point: 'No, WE didn't all stop talking about. Y'all did and just left the rest of us behind'. And I think it's that comment with which I identify so strongly. It certainly sums up why I felt so angered by people discussing how the movement just faded away. I mean...the film is called, How To Survive A Plague, and all I could think - as an HIV+, Gay man is: "I'm sorry, but...who has?" I seemed to have missed that memo, along with about 30 million people on the planet.
Now, don't get me wrong: I have great respect for the efforts of those people that were fighting against such tremendous odds back in the days when an AIDS diagnosis really was a death sentence. I don't mean to disparage anyone, most especially those people who are the subject of this film. There has already been enough infighting and division within the LGBT community in regards to HIV/AIDS. I don't mean to add to the hard feelings. I can appreciate the courage it takes to voice your dissent in any setting, most especially if what you're fighting for is that major drug companies should produce the drugs they know will save your life. And the drugs those activists were out there demonstrating, yelling, and getting arrested to obtain are predecessors to the ones that keep me healthy. Let's face it: I owe my life to those people. But it did upset me to hear these "survivors" of that incredibly difficult period of time bemoaning their lack of historical recognition while pondering what made them all "just stop talking about it", you know? I question whether those folks realize that, though it's changed from those times the spent on the front lines, the struggle to beat HIV/AIDS has continued.
I wonder, what was it these people expected when they walked away from the fight against HIV/AIDS? Did they just assume the next, younger generation (in which I'm included, I suppose) would take up their picket signs and bullhorns without anyone to really guide them? Isn't there a mentoring process when it comes to any sort of civil rights activism? Where were the parents, teachers, and family members that usually pass along their passionate beliefs in these sorts of instances?
Oh, yeah...they're all dead.
Not all of them, of course. No, there are people, like those in the room that night, who made it through that awful time. People who were now sitting there casually pondering why things didn't magically continue to get better when they "all just stopped talking about it". Maybe I'm just too close to the issue, but it did not sit well with me.
Nobody's perfect - I know that. And no one has a rule book for these situations. There are so many factors involved here, not the least of which is the grief with which all of these folks were/are dealing. I know that watching so many of their friends, family, partners, and fellow activists get sick and die must have taken a toll on them. I think what I most wanted to tell those people that night was: there are plenty of us out here that are "still talking about" HIV/AIDS. While we're not chaining ourselves to the doors of drug companies or spreading the ashes of our loved ones on the White House lawn, there are those of us trying to raise awareness of a disease that is plaguing all of our lives. Not only would we love for you to rejoin the fight, we could really use your new perspective. There is so much to learn from your experiences, your insight, your fearlessness.