vito russo at an actup demonstration
i am starting this post the morning after i saw the film “how to survive a plague”. it brought back so many remembrances of just how terrifying the 80’s became for us. the uncertainty was palpable and in larger cities the anger was like a cloak that kept the gay community warm. i am humbly amazed at how synchronicity encircles my life.
i called a friend from sin(strength in numbers) and asked him to go with me. we ended up with 10 people going to see it- many of whom i hadn’t seen really for a year or more.there is a scene in the film where mark carrington on doing a film diary and is making a big deal about lighting a cigarette and looking cool. the filmmaker at the time tells him to forget the cigarette after he blows his line and he seems non-plussed because his cool stogie lighting bit won’t be included. the guys i was with laughed out loud in unison at the vanity of it all. it was even funnier because we all laughed and no one else in the theater did- actually we laughed at several bits in the film without accompaniment.
the shots of aids patients of that time are still haunting and rang in that personal nightmare without fanfare or fuss. actually i found the documentary experience utilitarian and cathartic. it gave me the opportunity to reframe some of my terror and uncertainty into something less fearful and maybe even hopeful. to really experience the effects of high-pitched fear and anger that were focused and targeted changed my landscape. it is sad that it took 20 years for me to catch up with peter staley, larry kramer, mark carrington, and the rest of the bunch. but i am very grateful i have had the opportunity to understand.
before this, i knew well that the actions of actup coalesced in a change of the systems we live with. the medical system, the research protocol, and the fda approval process. what i didn’t know what how well planned and well executed the strategies for change were by this rogue band of frightened and angry men and women.
and just like these lgbt heroes from the film. maybe the change can be for the good. all our lives have been touched and tweaked by the demands of those brave and angry individuals. patient-centered care, fast tracked new drugs, open nih board meetings, peer representatives are just a few of the improvements we’ve seen in our healthcare world. absolutely nowhere in my mind is there doubt that the actions taken haven’t saved lives. i know they saved mine. just how many they have touched may never really be known.
i continue to be completely mad for peter staley. it is an unrequited crush that i will carry to my end of days. he did all that was documented in this film, plus he shape shifted the consciousness of nyc gay culture around crystal meth in the early 21 century. he grappled with the drug himself, which was no doubt a side effect of living with the terror of looming death for so long. it was mentioned that there were/are issues for many of the long-term survivors. this is part of my experience, too, and is a blessing (albeit very mixed). to survive is a gift even if it has a costly price tag.
currently i have found myself very angry in my life. my sponsor/friend has passed and i spent many hours volunteering for a friends organization and have walked away feeling empty and burnt. i have removed myself from the fray which has turned down the heat abundantly, but i still have work to do in this arena. this film has lovingly reminded me that my anger can be of good use to me if i allow it to do so. i share in a meeting today that anger is really a signal that something needs work and i might look at anger as an opportunity to change. change takes time and almost everything changes with time. or so i pray.