We sat down with filmmaker, journalist and director David France and gay rights and HIV activist Peter Staley to talk about their brand new documentary film How To Survive A Plague, which chronicles the astounding progress of the modern gay rights movement and how the gay community dealt with the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s.
Why was it important to make a documentary like How To Survive A Plague?
David France: I wanted to go back and do a project about the early years of AIDS, which I had covered as a print journalist and it occurred to me that somehow in our collective recollection of what happened in those years, we kind of condensed everything. We thought of the early years as being sad and then better, but what was lost in that recollection was what it took to get to one place to the other. It took this tremendous epic movement of mostly gay men and lesbians,originating in New York but moving around the globe, to change so much about the way, first of all, what we think about the community in the larger media, and then to transform science and medicine and pharmacological research in a way that people have benefitted across the globe.
The idea that this was lost, that this movement that Peter and his colleagues had invented out of thin air and out of a desperation, which produced these tremendous victories, seemed to me to be a burden of responsibility to carry forward.
What do you want How To Survive A Plague to achieve?
DF: I want people to remember what happened. I want people to recognise that AIDS in the plague years, before there was effective treatment, wasn’t just a period of tragedy. Although it was marked by these intense tragedies. These deaths were just unstoppable and the loss that we’ve all had to carry since then, but it was also a time of great news.
Before HIV or AIDS activism it gave (gay) people, at least in the United States, perhaps more than in the UK, a real role in public life.
We were isolated. We were living in these geographical ghettos. We were hated – officially and culturally and rejected by everybody across the board including our families.
To go from there in 1981 when AIDS first hit till 1996 when the drugs were finally discovered, promulgated and brought out; and HIV was survivable, that was also this period of amazing cultural integration and this revolution of the way we exist in society.
Peter Staley: I hope it inspires young gay men and lesbians, and really shows them their history and how we got to this point. It shows them the power of our community.
It shows gay people at their best. In one of the worst moments we ever faced we rose above it. We took care of each other. It was extraordinary and beautiful. At the same time, it’s something very important, for my generation, to help us remember and memorialise what we went through and to remember the friends that we lost.
A lot of us didn’t process those years, and this film and others that have come after it, and looking back, is something we need to go through. We need to honour the sacrifice of those that we lost and the extraordinary work they did that allows all of us to live happy long lives these days.
Is the gay community as politically charged today as it was in the 80s and 90s?
PS: Yes it is charged up. AIDS forced us out of the closet. Either we laid down and died and got wiped out or we had to stand up and come out of the closet and fight back.
Once we did that, we realised that as a community we had immense power and this film just shows it beautifully.We had this innate power as a community and that launched the modern gay rights movement. Especially in the States with
gays in the military first and nobody ever thought we’d have close to 20 states now in the US with gay marriage.
Gay marriage is now happening in the UK and across Europe and countries in South America. This is just something I would never have dreamed of.
There are massive amounts of activism around, but I wish there was a little bit of it to be brought back to finish
the work on AIDS. I speak out about that a lot these days because obviously, the crisis is not over. It’s liveable but the virus is still infecting way too many gay men and we need to fight that. We need to slowly wind down this epidemic. We have the tools to do it.
With the sharp increase of new HIV infections, particularly amongst young gay men, how does that make you feel, when you see that happening?
PS: It’s frustrating, but I don’t feel anger towards younger gay men who are not responding to HIV like my generation responded to it because it was two very different times. My generation changed its behaviours and fought against HIV / AIDS.
It became the issue in the gay rights movement because all my friends were dying in front of me. In the absence of that death, which only happened because of the amazing success of the activism we did, you have a very different challenge, you have apathy.
There’s a lack of fear and without that fear, which is an incredible motivator for behaviour change and activism, it’s a very different battle.
So I’m not casting blame, I think if I was a 22-year-old HIV-negative man now I’d be pretty oblivious myself. I think it’s human nature. We just have to accept that and work around it and use social media and tell the real story about how living with HIV still is something that nobody should want to face a life of.
It’s still quite challenging. You have to take the medication for the rest of your life. You have to remain anally compulsively engaged in the healthcare system in order to not screw that up because, if you mess up on your meds you will eventually get sick. There are still people with HIV who die. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone and we need to give the real picture.
DF: We have to keep on talking about it. That’s what we’re not doing. People are making decisions about their own
lives in a total vacuum thinking, ‘So I’ll take a pill a day’ and if we were talking about it collectively as a community we might be up to convey the information that Peter is talking about. That these pills are really tough pills. It might give you a near normal lifespan but it’s not going to give you, necessarily, a near normal life. We don’t know what people are going to be like 50 years out on this medication.
PS: Plus the stigma is horrible, and you’re going to face a life of that stigma: Dating, finding a boyfriend or a future husband, you’ll find a massive challenge. It is a massive challenge for people who are HIV and that’s horrible but that’s the reality that we’re faced with these days.
Interview by Jake Hook and Greg Mitchell
This interview was taken from Issue 1 of THEGAYUK (2014) Subscribe for FREE and never miss another issue.
The editor and chief of THEGAYUK. All in a previous life wrote and produced songs on multi-platinum records.