This past weekend I went to the Carlton Cinemas here in downtown Toronto to see a war movie. But not any old war movie. It was a movie about a war I was involved in because that war was AIDS and those battling it were gay men, lesbians and our allies.
We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco documents the story of how AIDS attacked that city thirty years ago, when, by the time a test for HIV was available, an estimated 50% of all gay men there were found to be infected. It’s told through the recollections of a handful of survivors, supplemented by archival footage. You see pictures of healthy young men juxtaposed with later heartrending images of them with ghastly and disfiguring sores all over their bodies.
Although the movie can be unbearable to watch, there’s no turning away from the screen. Because it’s also the story of how gay men took care of their friends and others in the community who were dying, even as they themselves were overcome by fear and anxiety as they faced the inevitability of their own deaths from the same disease. It’s a story of compassion yet it’s also a story of anger at, and political action against, the complacency and reluctance of political leaders to address the issue, even though tens of thousands of Americans were dead or dying of the disease. These men didn’t fight the government for themselves because they knew that they were going to die anyway. They did it so that HIV-negative people would learn how to protect themselves and in the hope that those of us who became HIV-positive would eventually be able to live full and satisfying lives.
Although We Were Here tells the story of gay men and their allies in San Francisco, it’s a universal one in that similar stories can be told about comparable events in other places, including here in Canada.
If we gay men and our allies had not fought the governments and the medical establishments of the day, it’s debatable whether we would have access to antiretroviral medication, and organizations to care for and assist people living with HIV and to teach prevention, that we take for granted today. Indeed, I well remember how, in the 1980s, right here in Canada, some sectors of the population were demanding that people with HIV be quarantined, just like those with leprosy were quarantined in another era, or indeed how, when I was a kid, those with tuberculosis were virtually quarantined.
Gay men of my generation don’t often talk about those days, even though we may privately have moments of quiet reflection on World AIDS Day and, here in Toronto, at the annual Pride Week candlelight ceremony of remembrance held at our city’s AIDS memorial. We don’t talk about those days because it’s too painful and traumatic for most of us to do so. In that respect, we’re like my high school teachers, many of whom were veterans of the First World War, who, for the same reason, never talked about their experiences in the trenches. Indeed, this is the first occasion in a very, very long time that I’ve talked other than to myself about my experiences of those years.
I don’t have many peers of my age because most of them died of AIDS when we were in our thirties and forties, an age when nobody expects to die. Indeed, I lost so many friends to AIDS during those years that I stopped going to funerals because the pain of loss had become so unbearable. One day a friend would complain of a discolouration of his skin that would inevitably lead to a diagnosis of Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the horrifying defining opportunistic infections of AIDS, or he’d lose his sight. Then, before you knew it, he would be hospitalized to wait for what he and I knew would be one of the most horrifying deaths imaginable. I even had to stop reading Xtra!, our local gay and lesbian newspaper, as it would usually contain a couple of pages of photos and obituaries of those who had died since the previous edition had been published. It was impossible to look at those pages without recognizing friends, bar acquaintances and men I’d slept with. Is it any wonder we don’t talk about it?
I wouldn’t presume to speak for others, particularly those who became infected in those dark and difficult days and yet who somehow survived and are still alive today. But I can talk about how I remain filled with survivor guilt to this day. Why is it that I was allowed to remain HIV negative in those early days even though I’d engaged in exactly the same behaviours as my friends and others that led to their own positive diagnoses? Why was I chosen to be one of the fortunate ones (for this is how I see it) to receive my own HIV diagnosis in an era when the infection had become a chronic, manageable disease rather than a death sentence?
Please go and see this documentary if you can, or if not, buy, rent or download it (legally) when it becomes available on DVD. And as you watch it, remember that, still today, despite all the infections and deaths that have been prevented because of thirty years of HIV services and prevention, we have here in Toronto a mayor who would propose cutting funding to public health and AIDS service organizations. Watch the film, get angry, and get out there and fight against the cuts. Doing so is important because HIV will remain preventable, and manageable for those of us who already live with it, only if access to education, support and medicine continues.
We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco. 2011, documentary, 90 mins. Directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber. Featuring Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark and Eileen Glutzer, with archival footage of Cleve Jones and Bobi Campbell. Classification: PG