We Were Here

Published 22, Mar, 2012

Robert Birch says “Once in awhile a film changes lives. Does it also have the potential to transform a culture?

We Were Here

“Of all the cinematic explorations of the AIDS crisis, not one is more heartbreaking and inspiring than WE WERE HERE…  The humility, wisdom and cumulative sorrow expressed lend the film a glow of spirituality and infuse it with grace… ONE OF THE TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR.”  Stephen Holden, New York Times

The Gay Mafia presents…[episode one]

Once in awhile a film changes lives. Does it also have the potential to transform a culture? I’m going to advocate that the feature length documentary We Were Here: the AIDS years in San Francisco could evolve the health and well being of Western queer culture. The challenge? No one wants to watch an AIDS film. The solution? Show it anywhere, anyhow, anyway.

Upon arrival, each of the unsuspecting 160 university students received a ‘sex pack’ complete with condom, lube and safer sex information. Their course explores creativity from multiple perspectives and disciplines. The theme for the evening’s lecture included ‘creative resistance’ and ‘finding your tribe’. As their instructor, I threw out the night’s curriculum and introduced these fresh faced youth to my dear friend and mentor, international AIDS activist and educator Ed Wolf (right, with Robert Birch). We turned on the documentary and let history do the teaching.

We Were Here documents the coming of what was called the “Gay Plague” in the early 1980s. It illuminates the profound personal and community issues raised by the AIDS epidemic as well as the broad political and social upheavals it unleashed.  It offers a cathartic validation for the generation that suffered through, and responded to, the onset of AIDS. It opens a window of understanding to those who have only the vaguest notions of what transpired in those years. It provides insight into what society could, and should, offer its citizens in the way of medical care, social services, and community support. - From the film’s web-site.

Ed, one of the five subjects of the film, We Were Here, was there - at the epicenter of the disease in 1981. Fag fresh to the Bay area he stepped into the maw of the bio-cultural leviathan of G.R.I.D., ‘the gay cancer’, HIV/AIDS. And yet, in the most horrific of days he found his calling: helping hundreds and hundreds die with dignity; consoling friends, lovers and family members by the thousands - all the while navigating his own gay life and the pain of his own personal losses. From volunteer to peer counselor to global educator introducing new prevention tools, Ed has survived and thrived through more than most of us can possibly comprehend. How? By loving our community while taking care of his own health. To fully understand what that means we would have to experience a form of empathy most of us have been highly de-sensitized towards feeling.

A few years ago the SF chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence bestowed upon Ed the title of Saint Sequoia. He responds to this and many acknowledgments with a, “Thank you” and an unveiled invitation to the rest of us, “I answered an ad in the local paper asking for volunteers.”

David Weisman, writer and director of WWH, describes his film as a love letter to San Francisco. He lays out a potent vision of gay male SF history, one that reminds us that for a single brief decade gay men were sexually liberated. For these primarily straight identified students (we anonymously polled their sexual identity at the beginning of the semester) this feature length documentary introduced them to a vibrant, erotically gregarious and politically active queer culture. It also provided visual evidence to the nightmare of near genocide of gay men, including terrifying images of kaposi sarcoma, wasting, and blindness of young men their own age. 

Since showing the class excerpts from the film, many students expressed their gratitude. All of them said, “I had no idea. Our limited sex education tells us nothing of the history of AIDS.” They had never seen men en masse as nurturers, let alone gay men so deeply loving each other. They never knew about the countless women who helped us. Not one of them knew that because of our queer AIDS Ancestors universal health care practices are now available for them today. How could these students have possibly known that thousands of activists, artists, teachers and cultural change agents were ignored by the politicians of the day, wiped out, and in many cases erased from historical memory?

So many young people may never perceive queer folks as powerful, loving, creative warriors of community spirit. How could they when so many of us, even those of us who are Poz today, don’t really proudly claim or even know our own near history, either?

Our society has yet to seriously ask, “What are the cold hard consequences of AIDS on today’s global culture?” Who dares to imagine how the world would have been different today? To do so means to awaken a grief only those who have experienced war or cultural genocide could remotely understand. People do, however, want to understand.

After showing the film I was told by one female student that she brought her boyfriend to class last week. His immediate response was, “I will never make a homophobic comment ever again.” While appreciative of the sentimen,t we know for this young man the work of social justice has only just begun.

Another straight identified journalist student requested an interview of me, his queer Poz professor, for publication because he wanted to “correct his ignorance of AIDS.” After an hour and a half I left him in my office to watch the Men’s Wellness Program’s 30th year on-line retrospective of HIV/AIDS made by a caring 18 year old female and new ally. He thanked me repeatedly and left with tears in his eyes.

Ed said this class represents the first group to watch the film that did not know what they were about to see. Imagine what the world would be like if young people knew the real queer history of HIV/AIDS? Think how the stories of those young terrified fags and their many loved ones who sacrificed so much, who took on the established order and created a new paradigm, could inspire a new generation! Having seen such a profound template of youth power, how might the youth of 2012 step out, fight back and change the world for the better today? This movie needs to be seen.

[Episode 2 explores two other local viewings of the film We Were Here, introduces the Gay Mafia and asks the question, “How do we mobilize today’s young queer men?”]

Visuals: www.wewereherefilm.com

http://edwolf.net/about/ for photo of Ed Wolf

Film shown to students about tribe: How to start a movement: