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Thursday, May 10, 2012




March 17, 2012

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 
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 

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 
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 
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 
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.”



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