Acting up a storm: Aids activist Peter Staley on How to Survive a Plague
Stand well back. You can feel the heat emanating from How to Survive a Plague. David France’s fiery, Oscar-nominated chronicle of the earliest years of the Aids epidemic follows the best and brightest activists from Act Up, a 1980s coalition that took on the Reagan administration, Bush the Elder and Big Pharma.
Many of the HIV-positive heroes depicted are no longer alive. But some of the film’s lively stars and commentators have survived the syndrome’s early ravages to bear witness. Among them is Peter Staley, founder of Act Up offshoots Treatment Action Group and AIDSmeds.com.
“This is an important film,” says Staley. “It allows my generation to finally memorialise what we had gone through. A lot of us had put it on an emotional shelf. We needed something like this us to force us to remember, to memorialise those we had lost and to admire what we had achieved. The second audience is the younger audience, especially young gays and lesbians, who didn’t know the history, who thought the drugs magically appeared. They had no idea how hated we were by the US government.”
The film uses more than 700 hours of archived footage from 31 credited videographers. Many of the snippets were found in Staley’s personal VHS collection. A gifted pianist who swapped majors to follow his older brother (a JP Morgan employee) into the world of high finance, Staley was a closeted Wall Street trader when the Aids epidemic hit New York.
“I actually kind of hated the job after I got into it,” he laughs. “I was a US bond trader when the Reagan debt was the biggest in the world. It was a wild time to be a bond trader: the bond rate was reported on the news more than the stock exchange. And it was like being in a high-school locker room. It was homophobic and racist and everybody was trying to out-testosterone the next guy. That was very oppressive.”
Everything changed in 1985, when Staley was diagnosed with Aids-related complex. As John Hurt’s voiceover warns us, “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure”. Staley’s long-term prospects seemed grim, to say the least.
“It wasn’t good. I was caught off guard. It was late 1985, right after Rock Hudson had died and the country was in a panic. There were no drugs. They had only found the virus a year beforehand.”
Facing a sea of myths and misinformation, and with no treatment options, Staley became a pioneering citizen scientist. Working in conjunction with multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, the Treatment Action Group paved the way for the protease inhibitors that emerged during the mid-1990s and transformed Aids into a manageable, survivable disease.
“I just tried to self-educate as quickly as possible,” he recalls. “But everything I read told me I didn’t have much time. I researched every possible option and investigated what political options were available. And that’s what led me to Act Up.”
Two decades on and it’s impossible to overstate the impact Act Up and its associates had on gay and mainstream culture. Their demonstrations were innovative, frequently humorous and remarkably effective. They turned up at mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, poured ashes of the HIV-deceased on the White House lawn and stretched a giant condom over one homophobic senator’s home. Their efforts would not only influence Aids-related research and policy, but would spawn a new generation of gay civil rights activists.
“Definitely. The modern gay rights movement sprang out of Aids,” says Staley. “It’s very important to note there was a community already. After Stonewall there were gay rights organisations. But Aids forced us out of the closet. That FDA demo in ’89 was huge national press. For many Americans, it was the first time they had seen gays on television being angry and demanding to be treated as full citizens. It taught is that we had power if we realised that and used it we could change things.
“By the mid 1990s the FDA had rolled over and we had forced two Republican presidents to spend far more than they intended. We came out of it all completely empowered. We were indignant at our lack of rights. So we went for impossible goals: gay marriage, gays in the military. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime.”
Though great strides have been made, How to Survive a Plague is a timely reminder that Aids hasn’t gone away, you know. Not even among those lucky enough to afford the drug protocol.
“The war burns on internationally,” he says. “The science has moved on. We now have the tools to finish the job. The UN came out with a stunning report saying that we have been able to get the death rate and infection rate down by 30 per cent. We have got infections to newborns down by over 50 per cent. What we need are the dollars and the political will. Otherwise it will come back to bite us.
“The virus behaves in a macro sense the same way it works on the individual. The HIV in my body will eventually kill me. I have to take my pills. Same goes for any community, in New York or sub-Saharan Africa. If we ignore how HIV is spreading, it will take advantage of that. We are seeing a huge increase of HIV in the UK. That’s because we are not facing up to it. The first step is take our head out of the sand.”
In 2008, Plague director David France wrote a startling piece for New York magazine about Gabriel Torres, a bright young doctor who ran a Manhattan Aids ward before a tragic descent into drug addiction. The film, too, reacquaints us with Spencer Cox, the actor turned activist who successfully campaigned to reduce the approval time for HIV medications. In recent years Spencer turned to methamphetamine. He died last December. Why are these tragedies not uncommon among former frontline campaigners?
“We did feel a little like soldiers coming back from Vietnam, ” says Staley. “We had been living these lives where we never thought of our own futures. We didn’t think we had viable careers. We had racked up credit card debt. Then we were back in the real world. I had a very tough transition after ’96. The gay community moved on. It was tired of loss and mourning. It focused on rights and the military. They were more feel-good battles. Some of us never did the adjusting. A few of us did. It was a mixed bag.”
Stretching out beyond the community it seeks to depict and commemorate, How to Survive a Plague stands as required viewing for anyone seeking to campaign about anything. Feeling mad as hell about medical cards or marriage equality? This is the movie and primer in political activism for you.
“When David came to me first with this idea, he did seem to have all the intellectual tools to pull this off,” recalls Staley. “But I was very wary because there had been many who had talked about doing a documentary on this. And they hadn’t pulled it off. Here was this guy who hadn’t made a documentary. I had some concerns. I wrote him an early email and told him why I thought the project was important.
“One reason was that I thought it was crucially important to assert how we had fought for human rights. Act Up was one of the most effective activist organisations of all time. Here was a blueprint for change.”
He laughs. “I didn’t think he’d end up with a final product that would win all these awards, let alone get a theatrical release and an Oscar nomination.”
yyy How to Survive a Plague screens at Triskel Christchurch, Cork, on November 28th