Before AIDS, people got sick, went to their doctors, were told what to do, and got better—or worse and died—and that didn’t change until HIV had been among us for five years or so. Since the drug companies weren’t coming out with effective medications, and since the federal medical establishment seemed to be in no hurry, and since the government didn’t seem to have a plan, gay men and women stopped looking to others for a solution in their fight against AIDS. They started making noise, joining together and making a loud noise, making charges against the pharmaceutical companies that they were making obscene profits off ineffective drugs for AIDS. They fought against the FDA, which had no sense of urgency about releasing drugs that might be helpful to persons with AIDS, and against the whole medical establishment, which didn’t understand that it would practice medicine better if it worked with the affected populations instead of only operating on them. Gay men and women came together at a meeting in New York in March, 1987, and heard the irascible Larry Kramer make the charge that if AIDS was a medical crisis, it was also a political crisis. They formed AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in March 1987, and on March 24, 1987 stopped traffic on Wall Street to demand greater access to experimental drugs and a coordinated national policy to fight AIDS. This was the beginning of AIDS activism. It happened during the Reagan Administration and during the George H W Bush administration, both of whom had allowed conservative attitudes against gay people to infect their response to AIDS.
How to Survive a Plague is a documentary by David France that opened last Friday in New York and on Thursday here in Boston. It appears to be made up of videos made by participants in these meetings and demonstrations, using handheld videocams. The documentary is about ACT UP and its fight against the federal government. The documentary is messy, immediate, clear, and extremely powerful. If you don’t know this story, you should see this documentary. If you want to be reminded of it—it’s been a long time—then get yourself to this movie.
Much of what happened as a consequence of AIDS and ACT UP and Larry Kramer proved that Larry Kramer was right. He was the nearest thing we have to an Old Testament prophet. It’s never comfortable living at the same time as an Old Testament prophet. People get tired of being bullied by a man who says he speaks for God. But when Larry Kramer shouts out into the middle of a meeting of ACT UP that has lost its way, “PLAGUE!” and all go silent, it is clear that Larry Kramer was right, The reason our medical research establishment operates the way it does today and the reason clinical research is conducted the way it is today, is, in large part, because of Larry Kramer and ACT UP. They didn’t mind being rude if they could save our lives. How to Survive a Plague makes clear that there are millions of people who are alive today because Larry Kramer and ACT UP learned how to push the federal medical establishment, including the FDA, and the pharmaceutical companies, to keep searching for effective drugs that would save our lives. The ACT UP motto is ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS. In case you missed it, FIGHT is the operative word.