How To Survive a Plague: Queer Activism Before 'Gay Inc.' Bought It Off

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courtesy Sundance Selects
Peter Staley in David France's How To Survive A Plague

Two things starkly colored my experience as I went to a screening of David France's fascinating documentary How to Survive a Plague, about the heyday of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), earlier this week.The first was seeing the film through the prism of my feature article in last week's Voice Pride issue, "Does 'Gay Inc.' Believe in Free Speech?" The correlations between the questions the film explored and my article raised of queer activism (and, in a few cases, the actual same activists) were for me many.

I've also never had such a strong experience of feeling like I was watching my current day to day life replicated onscreen, although experienced in a different era and under different circumstances (like in a sci-fi, parallel universe) as when I was watching How to Survive A Plague. Part of this is because David France wrote the first articles in the Voice about ACT UP 25 years ago and my reporting, on similar topics, owes a great deal to his legacy at this publication. Most eerily, I'd spent the day before I saw the film at the Pride march talking for a good thirty minutes to State Senator Tom Duane. The loquacious politician was waxing especially freely as he contemplated his last Pride before leaving the Senate and reflected on his life in politics as the parade passed by. We stood talking about the fights for gay marriage in New York and the right to be able to openly serve in the military in the past tense. To see him the next day in the film at least 20 year earlier, young and lithe (and long before drug cocktails gave any hope to those with HIV), was startling.

For me, the first half of the film was a fascinating exploration of this thought: Aha! This is what queer activism looked like before we were bought off. It's 1987, and gay men were inflicted with a disease that by now had a name (even though it wasn't mentioned much by President Reagan). The answer, the young, tough activists seemed to conjure up, was the educate themselves. Their empowerment was not, unlike today's LGBT movement, to host a gala, go shopping or stand up for Ellen on twiter. Queer people were not yet seen as consumers, even by their (few) advocates. They were largely considered untouchable, and to many Americans, they were willfully deemed invisible.

The response to this leper status in the activist communities portrayed in the film was astounding: to educate and empower queers by understanding science, understanding politics, and becoming so fucking knowledgeable about substantial, intellectually rigorous concepts that they could walk into (by force when needed) drug companies, Congress, the National Institute of Health or the Federal Drug Administration armed with knowledge. And when they did, they knew so fucking much, they could participate in and influence conversations with the world's top scientists and policy makers.

Can you imagine any such thing today? A gay group telling gay people to educate themselves in medicine rather than to go shopping? Afraid of rabble rousing, the line from Gay Inc.'s main lobbyists these days is usually, Don't worry your pretty little head. Leave everything to us. When Queer Rising took to the streets (à la ACT UP) last year demanding marriage equality, the main lobbyists were not pleased. Today's major gay activist groups were nowhere to be found in Zuccotti Park, as Occupy Wall Street staged a descendant protest owing much to forefathers and mothers like ACT UP.

Of course, LGBT people today are in such a different space in 2012 than in 1987, and for those of us who came of age after that era, it's hard to imagine where things were during the heyday of ACT UP. We have a president who supports equal rights for queer people, and who has reversed the U.S.'s policy of denying entry visas to people with HIV. [Note: Jeremy Sapienza points out that the HIV travel ban lift process started under George W. Bush.] (There is a great scene about this policy in the film.) It's a sign of progress that we can entertain other thoughts as an LGBT community other than attempting to stave off the existential demise of all gay men.

But there is still work to be done here. HIV infections have reached a plateau of about 50,000 new infections a year; this number stubbornly refuses to go down (and rates in some populations are even going up). There are serious health risks for people with proper medication for HIV/AIDS (like, as the Times reported last week, an increased rate of heart attacks). But for those who don't get proper medication because of the prohibitive costs (according to the film, about two million human beings a year globally), HIV is still a death sentence.

How to Survive a Plague treats AIDS as a plague, an onslaught demanding the most urgent attention as an entire generation of gay men faced an abyss. Although there is humor in the film (more on that later), there are no corporate tie-ins with the activism, nor anything cutesy about what's happening. In my reporting, I've found that there is little of that same sense of urgency on a large scale in queer activism today; gay people have become consumers, encouraged to think everything is alright, and (largely in the United States) have been led to believe that popping some pills will make everything OK on the HIV front. Fervency about the worldwide epidemic is largely absent in our nation, economic barriers for queer people are too often ignored and, with a few notable exceptions, organized political life in the queer community focuses on the one percent as much as politics in general. But in the 1980s, there was a creative, dynamic, utterly brave and totally in your face attempt to make gays snap the hell out of any kind of complacency.

Given my last article about trying to keep conflict out of the LGBT Center, the raucous scenes in the same building decades ago were thrilling to watch. (Indeed, given how the Center would stop allowing public comments even on its Facebook wall to avoid questions from a member of the press a few days after I saw the film, this was all the more fascinating.) In the Center's only public meeting on its policies last year, board member Tom Kirdahy said he didn't like the idea of a Palestinian sympathetic queer group meeting there because vulnerable people, like those in recovery programs, might feel "unsafe" from conflict and controversy. But there was huge, rousing, roiling conflict documented in How to Survive a Plague. Scores of people of people are passionately debating what should be done about AIDS, often screaming at each other in the Center's first floor meeting room. There are no pre-approved talking points. Unlike at garden parties or black tie fundraisers, almost none of the queers are wearing suits. It's direct democracy in what looks far more like an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly than a Goldman Sachs diversity awards ceremony.

As I watched ACT UP get into board meetings of the FDA and storm the campus of the NIH decades ago in the film, I couldn't help thinking how the Center itself (where ACT UP often debated and plotted its shenanigans) does not hold public meetings of its board in 2012. In the film, Ann Northrop is seen passionately debating as a young woman. Last year, Northtrop moderated that one public meeting on the Center's space policies, which went nowhere and resulted in the Center simply refusing to speak about the issue any further.

And the actions ACT UP engages in are almost unrecognizable in their confrontation, even by the most radical Occupy standards of demonstrating. Without giving away too much, I'll just say this: when I met Lt. Daniel Choi to photograph him in front of the White House two years ago, the Secret Service was on top of us before he'd done anything. Simply having handcuffed himself to the fence previously was reason for them to pounce. Yet there's a scene in this film where hordes of ACT UP queers boldly storm the White House fence and throw something unimaginable onto its pastoral, green lawn. Today, I can't imagine that the Secret Service wouldn't shoot them for such an action (and evacuate the entire First Family from the mansion until terrorism and toxicology sweeps could be performed). I thought I knew something of LGBT activism history, but I wouldn't have believed this if I hadn't seen it in the film.

But if the first half of the film read for me as a mediation on queer activism life before it sold out, the second half made me think, Ah, the age old split has always been there.

There were inevitable charges that some ACT UP member were elites, specifically those on the medical science committee, who broke off to form TAG (Treatment Advisory Group). Resentment brewed that some were too close to the drug companies and the government, and some had forgotten the roots of the movement. In this way,it was humbling to see that my reporting on these fights is nothing new. The dilemma over how close activists should be to power (be that power reside with drug companies and the FDA in 1987, or with the White House, corporations and the DNC in 2012) is as old as queer activism itself. (My favorite moment in the second half is hearing an off-screen voice I am sure belongs to Bill Dobbs, a major source for last week's story, screaming in just as cantankerous a manner decades ago as he is apt to now. And then Larry Kramer, who can now be so mellow he wouldn't speak to me for the 'Gay Inc.' article for fear of making gay organizations look bad in an election year, screamed him down.)

The film is weakest, for me, in exploring the split between ACT UP and TAG. It was unclear to me from How To Survive A Plague if and how these groups interacted over the years after the divorce, how close TAG got to the drug companies, and if the two factions resolved their differences after the worst of the plague (in the United States, anyway) was over.

The film is most successful for me in two ways. As the press packet notes, "It's a quirky, but not inconsequential, fact about HIV that the virus made its hideous debut in medical journals just a few months before the first camcorders" hit the stores. The home video which comprises so much of the film holds up beautifully, the audio is shockingly clear, and there is an unexpected elegance in the way France's camera (through editing archival material, as well as shooting new interview footage) has a surprisingly aesthetic consistency. You'd think he and a director of photography had planned an arc with constructed precision, rather than cobbled together found footage.

The other way it flies is in its use of humor. Like African Americans who can get bogged down with "uplifting the race" pabulum in documenting the civil rights struggle, LGBT history can get whitewashed (especially when corporate sponsorship is involved) and trimmed of the sex, aggressive activism, and comedy. How To Survive A Plague made me laugh out loud more times than sniffle (though it did that, too). There's gallows humor through out, and also a kind of uncomfortable laughter born from the shear audacity of what these men and women of ACT UP dared to do. And the scene with CNN proves that the TV idea of "the left," whose representative on a debate show seems less sympathetic to the tactics of gay men with AIDS than a Reagan/Bush I era Pat Buchanan(!), has been laugh out loud funny for decades.

In a way, the creative, comic elements represent one of the greatest triumphs of what those in ACT UP achieved: a refusal to give up being human, even when society shunned them and death stared an entire gay generation in the eye. They still loved, and fought, and kissed, and laughed.

How To Survive A Plague premiered at Sundance in January and is opening theatrically in September. I'll be checking out United In Anger, the other ACT UP documentary (culled from the group's oral history project) next week when it opens at the Quad.

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You can follow staff writer Steven Thrasher on twitter (@steven_thrasher) or reach him by email (sthrasher@villagevoice.com).

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