How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague

So, last Sunday Steve and I had the privilege of watching the documentary How to Survive a Plague at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, presented by Queer Screen.

I say privilege, because this is both one of the best, and one of the most important, documentaries that I have ever seen. This blog post is my way of saying thank you to director David France for putting this documentary together, something which must have been an incredibly difficult thing to do, because of the subject matter involved, and because of the heavy responsibility of portraying the people and events involved honestly and respectfully.

How to Survive a Plague chronicles the activities of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and its off-shoot TAG (the Treatment Action Group), from the epicentre of the AIDS crisis, the gay male community in New York City in 1987, through to the introduction of protease inhibitors/triple combination therapy in the mid-1990s.

I must admit that I cried (well, more accurately, sobbed) at many points during this film, from the visceral sense of fear experienced by these men and unflinchingly projected through the screen, through to the wonderful moments of comradery as they fought for and often won small victories in their long (and ultimately, but much too late of course, victorius) war for fair treatment, and including the tragic loss, too soon, of crusaders like Ray Navarro and Bob Rafsky (the scene with his ex-wife and child in the church after his funeral is especially raw).

Many direct action protests are captured, including the October 11, 1992 political funeral in Washington DC (where activists scattered ashes of the fallen on the White House lawns), and then the funeral of Mark Lowe Fischer in New York just before the 1992 Presidential election, where they took the open casket and chanted pleas for the polical class to listen and do something, anything, right outside the Republican Campaign Headquarters there.

But it is two speeches which for me truly stood out. The first, the amazing speech by Peter Staley to the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco in 1990. That speech is just about perfect in terms of political oratory, conveying a message while also grabbing the audience and forcing them to take on as their own the opinions and priorities of the speaker. The second, more ‘impromptu’ speech, is heart-breaking because of the sense of disunity and despair it revealed – I dare anyone not to be jolted out of their seats when they see Larry Kramer yell ‘Plague!’ to a room full of activists, who are themselves depressed and divided about the scale and severity of the challenge confronting them.

Of course, the documentary ends on a relatively positive note, as we see many of the activists from the archival footage, alive and now doing other, very worthy things with their lives (like most audience members I am in awe of the capacity of people like that to have fought such a long campaign, and then to sign up for one or indeed several more eg Mark Harrington, Peter Staley).

But just because many people in the Western world, and some in the developing world, are doing well health-wise in the fourth decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, does not mean that we can’t do better, both in terms of reducing transmission, and increasing access to treatments (and ultimately, of course, to finding a cure).

And the fact that as a society we are now doing comparatively well on this issue is the exact reason why we should watch movies like this, to reflect on the battles fought that got us here, and to thank and pay tribute to the activists who gave so much to ensure that people who followed would have a better, and more hopeful, existence.

Complaint re Reference to A.I.D.S on Form

My fiancé Steve and I went to Queensland last week on holiday. The main purpose was to attend my mother’s 65th birthday. However, we also decided to treat ourselves to a night in Noosa, and to a massage the following morning, so that we could both de-stress.

But our enjoyment of said massage was compromised somewhat by the ‘client form’ which asked a range of questions about health conditions which could be relevant (for example, whether you were suffering from a shoulder or leg injury etc). One part of this form read “Please circle if you have any of the following” and one of the options was “A.I.D.S”

I could not believe my eyes. First, I find it difficult to understand how a massage could involve any risk of HIV transmission (given there is no exchange of bodily fluids or other means of transmission).

Second, and much more offensively, I can’t recall the last time I saw someone use the phrase AIDS as shorthand to refer to someone who may be HIV-positive. In fact, it may be more than a decade since I saw the conflation of the two, especially on a document which has probably been distributed hundreds if not thousands of times.

I was too shocked to raise the issue at the time, but did take a copy of the form to use as the basis of a complaint to the company which provided the massage. I have written the below email to the company outlining my concern with the form. I have also copied this email to the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities for their information (and possible follow-up).

At this stage, I am giving the company the benefit of the doubt. I am hoping that it may be an ‘innocent mistake’, and that they do not understand how offensive this form is. As such, I am not naming the organisation on this post today.

Nevertheless, should they fail to respond positively to this complaint, or fail to respond at all, I will of course name the company involved so that other fair-minded people can avoid them when they go on holiday and want to relax. After all relaxing is far more enjoyable without an added dose of unjust discrimination.

Dear ,

I am writing today to raise an issue which occurred during my massage at your premises in Noosa last Friday October 12th 2012. In particular, I am referring to your Client Form, which I was required to fill in before having my massage.

This form included a section headed “Please circle if you have any of the following” and one of the options listed was “A.I.D.S”. I find this inclusion to be incorrect and offensive.

First, I imagine that this question was seeking to establish whether a client potentially has a blood borne virus (in this case HIV, not AIDS). I also imagine that this question is at least intending to ensure the massager is able to take appropriate precautions regarding this blood borne virus – although I am having trouble working out what precautions would be necessary given massages do not involve an exchange of bodily fluids and I cannot think of another way of possible transmission that is relevant in this situation.

Could you please enlighten me what the response would have been by your company if someone had circled the response “A.I.D.S”? Is this response supported by scientific evidence and/or advice from the Queensland Department of Health?

Second, and much more importantly, I would like to point out that there is a difference between someone being HIV positive, and someone who is currently experiencing AIDS. While you must be HIV positive to experience AIDS, there are many, many people who are HIV positive who do not experience Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Conflating the two conditions, or using “A.I.D.S” as shorthand for all people who may be HIV positive, is extremely offensive and unnecessary. It reflects thinking from the 1980s and not 2012.

Ironically, if you seeking to protect your employees, the way that you are asking this question may not achieve what you want in any event – if someone is HIV positive but does not have AIDS, then their correct/factual answer would be to leave “A.I.D.S” un-circled.

To rectify this situation, I would ask that you please consult with the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities about both your responsibilities in this area, and, if you must ask people whether they have a blood borne virus, how that information should be sought from the client. I have copied this email to them for their information and follow-up.

I look forward to your reply to this email, including the actions that you have taken to amend this form.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie