Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club, AIDS and Observing a Plague

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I watched “Dallas Buyers Club” at home. The movie was painful and difficult to watch. It was about people who were dying from AIDS and people who were desperately trying to stay alive by acquiring whatever drugs they could find to combat the disease. Based on a true story, the movie depicted the desperation and the frustration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that drove people to acquire drugs that were legally available in other countries, but not in the United States. 

The movie was depressing. But beyond that, it was overwhelmingly sad. I was not prepared, even though I should have been, for the final black screen featuring a few white words, announcing that Ron Woodroof, the real-life man who is depicted in the movie died of AIDS in 1992, seven years after doctors had given him 30 days to live.

At that point, I was overwhelmed with sadness. For several minutes as I lay on the couch, tears, one after the other, slowly coursed down my face. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of gay men – and others – who had died while their government did little to stop the slaughter. I thought of all the suffering that gay men have been made to endure, not just during the AIDS epidemic but for centuries. I thought of all the sadness, all the heartache, all the injustice, all the hate … And the weight of that sadness pressed those silent tears out of me.

And the survivor’s guilt ebbed forward. As I have expressed here and here, I had lived through all that, but I was deeply closeted, afflicted by the worst kind of homophobia – the self-loathing of internalized homophobia that projects itself onto out gay men. I know there’s nothing I can do about all of that now; I’m simply saying that at times, I am saddened ... and I am ashamed for lashing out at those men who had the courage to live their sexual identity "out loud."

And sometimes I am reminded that I’ve only been out of the closet a little over three years. So much has happened in my life during that time … But there’s so much I’m still learning, still processing. And so, from time to time, I visit what I lived through but was not a part of – the AIDS crisis. There is much I don’t understand but feel a desire to understand. 

Right now, I’ve just finished reading Body Counts, a memoir by AIDS activist Sean Strub (who is my age). Just before and after I watched “Dallas Buyers Club,” I read the following passages from Strub’s book that struck me with force:
“Many of the rich and powerful turned a blind eye to the death and suffering, rationalizing AIDS in religious terms as God’s punishment of homosexuals, even secretly welcoming AIDS as a eugenic societal cleansing.” 
“[T]he government, the pharmaceutical industry, and the entire health care establishment didn’t care if we lived or died. To them, it seemed, the epidemic was an opportunity to profit politically or economically.” 
“Nearing the end of his second term, [President Ronald] Reagan finally spoke the word “AIDS” in public, after twenty-one thousand Americans had died of it.” 
“What did keep us up at night was fear of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a rare fungal infection that in the 1980s was the leading killer of people with AIDS … By 1989, when the federal government finally recommended PCP prophylaxis [an inexpensive widely available drug], 30,534 people in the United States had died from a disease that was known to be preventable since at least 1977.”
In the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s, I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, which had the largest gay population in Canada. AIDS-related stories were in the news regularly, such as the one in the lead photo. But I chose not to pay too much attention. At the time this story ran, we were living in newly-constructed married student housing at the University of British Columbia, where I would be starting law school a couple of months later. We were expecting our first child, who was born three weeks after my classes started.

I can't change the past. I have no regrets for the path I chose. But I can learn about what happened in the gay ghetto back then, and in so doing, express solidarity and expiation.

Seeing “Dallas Buyers Club” and reading Body Counts have once again prompted me to want to learn more about the history of AIDS, not only in the United States, but also in Canada and Vancouver – a history that I lived through but of which I was largely oblivious - by choice.

St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, the first hospital in British Columbia to treat AIDS patients.
It would become "ground zero" of the AIDS crisis in BC.

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