If you’ve ever seen the AIDS Memorial Quilt, with each of its thousands of panels representing someone who died from the disease, you might have noticed that a lot of the birth and death years are awfully close. 1969-1989. 1950-1984. 1990-1992. For a long time, anyone diagnosed with HIV knew what to expect: death, and probably soon.
Things are different now. In the new documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” activists from the early days of the AIDS epidemic help narrate the story of how funding for HIV/AIDS research and treatment went from nonexistent to the point where people with HIV can reach a full life expectancy. Some of the narrators are HIV positive, and all of them show their age — gray hair on men who never expected to live past 30, for instance.
“Every one of those wrinkles was hard-won,” says director David France, who has long written about gay issues for GQ and New York Magazine. Hard-won not only because they have lived with HIV/AIDS, but because their journey started in the early 1980s, when the stigma of the disease was so pronounced that drug companies weren’t looking for treatments and some politicians were actively rooting against funding. Two major activist groups spurred action on those fronts: ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group). The members of both were motivated and committed — and unwilling to be nice.
“All the polite, ‘Won’t you please do something to save our lives?’ efforts had spent six years going nowhere,” France says. So the groups tried bolder activism, protesting during a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and a holding a kiss-in in the waiting room of a drug company’s headquarters.
“They did that as a way to say, ‘Get used to it.’ ” France says. “ ‘We’re going to move into your waiting room and make out and the world is not going to fall apart. Then you can hear us talk.’ ”
France says such actions were the only way to get the American public to see gay men as humans That was important when it came to AIDS research, but it continues to be a huge contributor to the gay-rights movement today.
“I can remember being in gay-pride marches in New York where the majority of the sidewalks on 5th Avenue were crowded with moral opponents of the existence of the gay community,” France says. “And now, those people are nuts.”
Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; opens Fri., $8-$11; 202-452-7672. (Metro Center)