I think it’s only natural that I’ve found myself reflecting on the AIDS epidemic throughout the duration of quarantine. Though the crux of the crisis took place nearly 20 years before I was born, the impact of AIDS still reverberates in the bones of New York City, the American healthcare system, and the LGBT community. Its presence is a haunting signifier of both how far we have come, and the thousands of victims who were lost to a lethal combination of ignorance and apathy.
Unfortunately, the sudden emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has proved that these kinds of inequities are not a thing of the past, and they never were. The poor and disenfranchised are still becoming ill and dying at disproportionate rates, with little in the way of aid or sympathy from their elected officials, the CDC, or the FDA. As the few remaining AIDS activists grow old and pass away, there are only so many survivors left to remind the American youth of what was neither the first, nor the last struggle for adequate medical care in the midst of a crisis. So how can we learn from our departed elders? Through the archives.
The first time I watched David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague, I was only sixteen. Before then, all I knew about AIDS was that it was a disease which weakens your immune system, and that it was especially prevalent among young, sexually active gay men. In school, I had never learned about the hundreds of protests that finally pressured the U.S. government into funding medical research, authorizing drugs like AZT, and simply addressing the disease by its name. I knew that LGBT people faced discrimination, but I didn’t understand the extent of the United States’ indifference to our pain.
The protesters on the screen were proud gay men and lesbians, most of them in their twenties, all of them impossibly cool in worn denim jackets and original Keith Haring t-shirts. They were larger than life, and at least four years older than I was, which seemed like an eternity at the time. Even though I have since gone to college and entered my twenties, they still seem older than I do—even AIDS activist Peter Staley with his slight build, baby face, and gentle eyes. Perhaps this is because they seem so resigned to the reality of the disease that is ravaging their city, while I’m still struggling to comprehend the changes to my daily life. Or maybe it’s the result of being uprooted from my college in Manhattan. Here in Florida, the threat of contracting the coronavirus is just as real, but the worst of the chaos is muffled by the smothering quiet of suburban life. Activism is happening here, too, but you can’t see it on every street corner the way you can in New York City.
When I watched the film in high school, I never could have imagined that I, too, would live to see a plague. Now, the issues discussed on screen are so familiar that it is hard to imagine a time where I listened in shock and horror—the footage of overflowing hospitals, callous government officials, and growing civil unrest that once astounded me are now a staple of my daily newsfeed. And while the social and political context of the current pandemic is very different—HIV/AIDS was frequently written off as a “gay disease,” while COVID-19 has placed everyone in lockdown, regardless of sexual orientation—the fact remains that in both examples, marginalized people are suffering more than anyone else. Data has shown that Black and Hispanic communities are contracting COVID-19 at disproportionate rates, and the same was true of AIDS in the ‘80s; in fact, it is still true of AIDS today. This is a point where the documentary begins to fall flat. AIDS historians have rightfully criticized France—a white, gay, cisgender journalist—for failing to highlight the variety of people and organizations who were devastated by the disease, and who manned the frontlines of the crisis. Instead, the film largely focuses on white, financially stable activists.
This is a real danger which we have continued to see throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of the cause, white and non-Black activists have always had a tendency to center themselves in their activism, even and perhaps especially when they aren’t part of a group that is facing multiple facets of systemic oppression. As a white, financially privileged person myself, I would be remiss if I didn’t address this criticism. Unfortunately, it is a testament to the lack of diversity in Hollywood that How to Survive a Plague is still considered one of the most well-researched AIDS documentaries to date. So until someone creates a more accurate representation of the fight against AIDS, I think it is worth the watch—if only to learn from the generation of activists before us.
Rewatching the documentary during a global health crisis was equal parts unnerving and encouraging. It was devastating to see how little the United States has learned from its previous mistakes, and even more so when I realized that I wouldn’t have expected anything different. But the resilience and humor of the activists involved, many of them still laughing and cheering while being dragged into custody, was inspiring. They never gave up, and eventually, their demands were met. AIDS still exists, of course, but it is due to their passion that a treatment plan was discovered. I would like to believe that if they could do it, we could do it too.
By Isabelle Robinson
Illustration by Jon Rafman for Dazed Digital