Friday, February 22, 2013

Unremembering AIDS

As the Academy Awards approach, I'm betting on How to Survive a Plague to win Best Documentary, not only because it's the front runner, but because I'm in it.

Well, not exactly. I'm probably in the background of a wide shot or two at some of the LGBT Community Center meetings, and a protest or three. I think I saw myself. But I was, in a very small way, part of the movement, albeit only in what I like to call Decorations Committee. Making banners and posters was certainly not as essential as the work of the more intellectual affinity groups like TAG, whose determination led to so many achievements in drug treatment approval.

Larry Kramer
David France's compelling documentary about the Treatment Action Group (TAG) of the AIDS coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) features people I've lost touch with, but at the time, they were my mentors and compatriots. Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Garance Frank-Ruta and others interviewed in the film, speak for the thousands who, in other ways, helped change the face of AIDS activism and self-empowerment.

This is while I'm writing sections on the sequel to Every Time I Think of You. In interviews and press releases, I described the novel as set in "that halcyon moment after gay rights and before AIDS," when two boys could find each other, survive with relatively little homophobia, and of course none of the problems of the 1980s. It won 2012's Lambda Literary Award in Gay Romance, possibly because I selectively chose one year after gays were practically invisible, and before we started dying so young.

But dagnabit, deciding to make a sequel puts my beloved main characters, Reid and Everett, in a strange time when a looming cloud of suffering was just over the horizon.

The task I've set myself is to remember those innocent days, before the acronyms, before the activism, when rumors and fear and sudden illness began to spread across the country and the LGBT community, when it wasn't even using a four-letter acronym to describe itself.

How do I forget? How do I un-remember those strange days without hindsight? Cassandra may have been a great Greek tragedy character, but a prescient seer in contemporary fiction would be a bit too much.

One advantage I have is placing the age of "my boys" as the same as mine. While I did not come of age in Philadelphia, in nearby Columbus, Ohio, as a young undergraduate in the Dance Department of Ohio State University, I vaguely recall the scant news coverage, the worried conversations and the denial.

That's the hard part; making characters who don't believe what we all now know would happen.

As director France says in the Los Angeles Times feature about his Oscar-nominated film, "'I didn't want to filter it through somebody's memory. I didn't want to put somebody in a chair, mike 'em up, have them say, 'It was a terrifying time.' I wanted to see if I could find in that old footage, the terror,' he says."

A combination of those two elements is a good part of the "other" ACT UP documentary.

A mistake I made was deciding not to be one of those talking heads in Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman's United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. At the time that Schulman was conducting interviews, it seemed as if they would simply be a series of online videos of survivors ruminating on 'the good old bad days' of the movement. Although it would become a life-changing several years (that led to two ACT UP-related novels, Monkey Suits and Cyclizen),  I never felt essential to the movement, merely one of the tertiary young sprites eager to risk arrest by committing civil disobedience.

Jon Greenburg at an ACT UP meeting (before the NIH demo?)
I didn't want to be remembered as a guy who just made some banners and printed out a few press releases (and dated a few of hotties on the "Swim Team.")

So, in United in Anger, again, I'm somewhere in the background, an extra in a cast where others took the spotlight. Okay, I did have the spotlight at a few specific demonstrations, but they apparently weren't worthy of inclusion in either film. For example, I was detained (not arrested, oddly) for interrupting a speech given by New Jersey's then-governor, who opened his speech at the time with what he thought was the most important issue of the day: car insurance.

Two other AIDS documentaries offer other more personal historical perspectives. David Weissman's We Were Here blends historical footage with extensive interviews. Some of the interviewees are acquaintances, as is the director.  

And although that film is specific to the San Francisco experience, the emotional and personal aspect is quite relevant to my research. For me, the tear-shedding moment was a visual montage of obituaries published in the Bay Area Reporter

Why? I edited the obits for several years, including back in the analog, pre-email days, when handwritten obits had to be typed up and fact-checked with grieving partners and survivors (or business-like funeral directors). The experience combined the painful with the professional, as I sometimes had to edit obits for people I knew.

A fourth lesser-known documentary, 30 Years From Here, focuses on New Yorkers, and includes interviews with other people who I'm fortunate to have met and known, like Larry Kramer, Sean Strub and performer David Drake. What's significant, in addition to its expansive coverage of the past three decades of the epidemic, are the people who discuss the very early years. And that's essential to the painful work ahead for me. You can watch it on Hulu.

It's terrific that there are so many visualizations and documentaries recounting these years. Putting that all aside, for the new book, I have to un-remember all this. I have to go back to the time when nobody was fighting this disease, when everyone was scared, before ACT UP, before The Names Project, before The New York Native spiraled off into a bizarre series of articles blaming everything from dolphins to swine flu, before Rock Hudson died, before then-president Ronald Reagan ever said the word "AIDS."

Wish me luck. And wish the folks of How to Survive a Plague luck at the Oscars.

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