‘How To Survive A Plague’ – The Horror And Glory Of Aids

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

Last night I watched ‘How to Survive a Plague’ home alone on my TV.  A little context: HTSAP is a history of ACT-UP – The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power- an activist organization that transformed the way the government responded to AIDS and forever changed drug treatment, drug trials, the FDA, the CDC, and NIH.  As Larry Kramer says in the film, what gay people did from 1987 to 1996, in particular, may go down in history as our greatest humanitarian legacy.

And I am a queer psychologist, sex therapist, and activist who was the first Director of New Jersey’s AIDS service organization, Hyacinth Foundation, back in the mid 80’s.

More personally, many of my closest friends died of AIDS, for three years I co-led a group of men with AIDS, and saw dozens of them die, and by the early 90’s I was burned out.

So when I watched ‘How To Survive A Plague’  I was stunned – instant PTSD – and still can’t get some of the images of dying men out of my brain tonight.  It’s impossible to describe the way a grown man who weighs 80 pounds looks, the way a 30 year old can look like a 90 year old after months of opportunistic infections and wasting syndrome. I recognized many of the people in the film – one was my own doctor for many years.  I racked my brain trying to figure out which of the demonstrations on the film was the one (and only) ACT UP action I had personally attended.  I can’t gauge the impact of this film for someone who did not live through this epidemic.  I’m guessing the down stuff might not be so heavy.

But for me, twenty-four hours later I am left with a profound feeling of heaviness –  the weight of the enormous loss, the loss of a generation of young gay men,  and the gravity of the senselessness of it all.

And yet there is another feeling.

We were grand back then. For many of us, these were our shining moments. We will go down in history for something besides the loss, and it is this:  when the chips were down, with yes, some bickering and infighting, we mostly pulled together, men and women, straight and gay, and took care of our own. 

And we did it in a way that benefited many others besides the gay men stricken with HIV. We felt an intensity and bonding that was a type of spirituality.  We felt authentically alive because we were acutely aware of the fragility of life and because we felt sure our cause was just and good. The HIV epidemic brought out the best in us, and our best was damn good.  HTSAP shows this vividly – and inspirationally.  It’s worth watching just to see how a despised group of people can band together not only to help themselves but to transform medical practice for everyone with life-threatening illnesses.

I’m not the kind of person that believes that everything happens for a reason.  Or rather, I would say: it happens for a reason, but not necessarily a reason that is good, important, or rational.  But I do believe in making the best of what you are given to work with.  The way to do this, beautifully portrayed in ‘How to Survive An Epidemic’ is:

by pulling together, being brave, loving, smart, and leaving a legacy to benefit others.


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