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Eye of the Tiger: How To Survive A Plague

plague3.jpgWatching the new and highly-acclaimed documentary How To Survive a Plague was very strange for me. I think that's because the film's story -- the fierce battle against the AIDS epidemic that was fought in the late 1980s and early 90s by AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) and its offshoot the Treatment Action Group (TAG) -- is my story. Not mine exclusively, although I was interviewed for the film and show up in it from time to time (usually in the guise of a much younger man), but of me and a whole army of friends and colleagues, some now dead, many still with us.

One of the visceral things the film brought back for me is the rage that is still almost as fresh as the days when I first discovered it. Footage of virulently homophobic North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms reminds me even today of how much I hate (present tense) this man. I found out he'd died a few years ago when a 'porter called me to ask for a comment, and while usually I'd ask for fifteen or twenty minutes to compose my thoughts, on this particular occasion it came slipping out before even I knew what I was saying. "It's too little, too late." I wanted him to suffer, and I deeply regret that the last few years of his vicious life were spent deep in the fog of senile dementia, leaving not enough consciousness for genuine suffering. His colleagues, including New York's John Cardinal O'Connor, Mayor Ed Koch, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Patrick Buchanan, even the low-level Reagan press staffer who, in a transcript of an early White House daily briefing, is asked about AIDS, and reduces it to a smutty joke worthy of a quick chuckle. Karma be damned - I hate these men, and probably will until the day I die.

Not long ago, a group of us oldsters were reminiscing, and someone brought up the highly controversial demonstration we held at St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC, at which my then roommate, a former altar boy, crushed one of the sacred cookies and threw it onto the ground. We'd taken quite a bit of guff for that demo, and ever since many had questioned whether it was a needless sacrifice of public sympathy. "Do you guys regret that demo?" someone asked, and my friend Patrick did not hesitate a second: "God no. I'd burn the fucking thing down tomorrow if I could."

Of course it's also impossible to see so much footage from so long ago without feeling sadness. We lost so much and so many. But somehow it's different this time. It used to be that I could not look at photographs or films from that period without my eye searching through the faces for the dead. Very quickly, all that grief would become overwhelming, and would rack my body to an extent that was physically painful. But watching How To Survive A Plague I realized that those days seem to be over. I still feel a tug when I see the faces of Howie Pope, or Rand Snyder or David Feinberg. It's not that I've become callous towards it all but now when I see them, I remember other things than just the awful ways they died. The grieving is more-or-less done, and I can remember the things that made me love these men in the first place. It's an enormous relief.

Which brings me to something that I think director David France, another long-time friend, captured in How To Survive a Plague in a way that no one else writing or making movies about ACT UP has understood: the sheer joy inherent in the whole thing. Some of the best people I have ever known I met in ACT UP: decent, courageous, strong, brilliant people committed to changing the world for the better even if they weren't themselves going to be around to enjoy it. We laughed so very much -- the group of activists dedicated to haranguing the New York City Health Commissioner, for instance, called themselves "Surrender Dorothy" -- we sang, we made love (it was no secret that for some time, ACT UP meetings offered the best cruising in all of New York City) and we very consciously tried to make sure that, when the plague was over, there would be something left that would have been worth preserving.

The first time I saw the movie, spotting the marvelous Garance Franke-Ruta at a massive demonstration at the National Institutes of Health wearing a hat in the shape of a medicinal molecule and trimmed for emphasis with dollar bills, made me laugh so loudly I thought I would lose it. If I have one piece of advice for young, aspiring activists, it is to always hold on to the joy, always make it fun. If you lose that, you have lost the whole battle.

Catch a screening of How To Survive A Plague

Originally published at Nightcharm


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Comments on Spencer Cox's blog entry "Eye of the Tiger: How To Survive A Plague"

I have heard many good reviews about the movie can anyone please help me and tell me if the movie will be playing in Texas close to San Antonio. My niece would love to go with me to watch it.

I just saw "How To Survive a Plague" and was blown away. I'm a couple years older than Peter Staley and lived through those years as a gay man in Portland, Oregon.

Back in those days I understood the goals of ACT UP, but I had no idea until seeing this movie how well organized and educated the group was. All we saw in the mainstream press was a bunch of loud and annoying people causing a lot of disruption. It was kind of embarrassing, at the time. Although even before seeing this movie I knew that their actions were one of the reasons I managed to survive through those years.

The movie shows how similar the actions of ACT UP were to other large social movements, such as the Civil Rights movement, the Prague Spring, and others. It's very powerful and clearly moves it out of the realm of "a bunch of loud gay men" into something much, much more. Many of us are only here today because of the actions of Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, et al.

Sadly, the showing that we went to (in the gay area of Seattle) literally had 10 people in the audience, including my partner and me. The younger generation of gay guys will probably never appreciate what us older guys went through. Just as my generation never really appreciated what our fathers went through in the war. It's ancient history.

It's not a very uplifting movie, but it's definitely worth seeing.

thank you for the virtual friendship, Spencer. I will miss you.

Hi Melissa-
I've heard that the film, a must see, is available for legal download on the I-Tunes store.

I don't get it. If he's qualified to write "how to survive ..." why did he die of AIDS?

He didn't write the documentary - he was living through it and his struggles were captured on videos at the time. Rest in Peace Spencer - you fought the good fight for all of us. Your struggles are over now.

Did he die of AIDS or did Meth kill him? The stigma of being a meth addict, is so great, that it is more acceptable to "die of AIDS." Meth changes the brain permanently. I would venture to say that the schism in ACT UP arose as a result of this brain change in some ACT UP members. And the really sad part is that they didn't even know it. Use of meth is inextricably linked with our plague and it continues to fuel new infections. Any discussion of this topic that leaves out Tina, paints a false picture and leads to misguided and ineffective solutions. Did he use Tina? Let's put the blame where it belongs.

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This page contains a single entry by Spencer Cox published on October 15, 2012 5:49 PM.

A Little Smaller Without Her was the previous entry in this blog.

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