Every 9.5 minutes, an American is infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.
AIDS remains an epidemic in America and throughout the world. What has changed since the virus was first named in 1981 is that an American is not dying every five minutes as a result of HIV/AIDS as was true in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What has not improved greatly is sex education about AIDS, as 34 percent of those who become infected and 68 percent of AIDS cases are between the ages of 13 and 29 - largely because of unprotected sex. New York state has the largest cumulative number of AIDS cases in the U.S. at 17.6 percent. Worldwide, 60 million people have contracted HIV, 25 million have died, and they now die at a rate of about 2 million annually.
This photo of protesters is part of the ACT?UP Oral History Project collection.
Currently, the American public has a somewhat blase attitude about AIDS because it is no longer headline news. AIDS is rarely a death sentence because of the development of a "cocktail" of drugs that has enabled people to live with the disease. That cocktail costs between $2,000 and $5,000 per month; however, insurance generally pays a maximum of up to $22,000 per year for drugs.
When AIDS hit in the early 1980s, people got scared, many got sick and died, and a few got really angry and decided to do something about it. One in particular was the writer and playwright Larry Kramer, a founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. He, like a lot of people, felt that the government was not doing enough to address the disease because the majority of people who were dying were gay men and drug users, demographics not held in high esteem. In March 1987, Kramer was asked to speak at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York. He asked half the audience to stand up and, after they did so, told them they would be dead in six months at the current rate of infection and death from HIV/AIDS.
Kramer then challenged to them to take to the streets and develop creative confrontational public protests as means of changing the media's, and of consequence the public's and government's, attitude and actions about AIDS.
On Wednesday April 16, the Lake Placid Center for the Arts screened "United in Anger: The History of ACT UP," a documentary about the birth and impact of the movement launched by Kramer that March evening. The film, which combined archival footage and interviews drawn from the ACT UP Oral History Project, was directed and presented by filmmaker Jim Hubbard, who led a Q&A session following the screening.
"In a sense, I have been making this film for 25 years," said Hubbard. "I first filmed ACT UP in June of 1987 at a Gay Pride march in New York. I remember standing on a corner, and an ACT UP float came around the bend. I found it so shocking because it was a concentration camp float and because people, at the time, were talking about quarantining people with AIDS, a possibility that seemed very real and scary. That was a very traumatic introduction to ACT UP. So I started filming and filmed every demonstration of theirs I could for years.
"At that time, I was the director of arts and productions for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the first church in America to have a memorial to those who died from HIV/AIDS, and our church had developed an array of collaborations with the Gay Men's Health Crisis, Actor's Equity Fights AIDS, and Broadway Cares along with various individual activists to raise funds to support people living with AIDS and use the arts to provide those afflicted with a voice for sharing and a safe place for healing and connection.
The arts community in New York was hit hard. All of us on staff lost friends and colleagues and tried to do what we could, which one time meant for me filming a drag queen fashion show organized as a fundraiser on Fire Island, and an other producing a benefit cabaret where all the artistic talent from the lyricists, choreographers and composers to the musicians, dancers, and singers were living with AIDS.
"The confrontation style of ACT UP hit one Friday morning when I opened the New York Times arts section to see the headline, 'Arrested at St. Patrick's, Now Performing at St. John the Divine, Diamonda Galas,' this referring to the operatic-trained performance artist booked that evening to open her Plague Mass, a heart-wrenching anguish about the emotional impact of AIDS. A couple weeks earlier, Galas, a member of ACT UP, had been arrested for padlocking herself to a pew of the Catholic namesake on Fifth Avenue. As I read, the phone rang. It was the Most Reverend Richard Grein, Bishop of New York, who had Cardinal O'Connor on the line, along with our Dean James Parks Morton, questioning our selection of Galas.
"While we agreed that where better in God's hands and the embrace of his love should such an ongoing horrific loss be expressed and provided a measure of comfort, no question ACT UP pushed such questions to the forefront for many in the social, civic, scientific and political arena as well as we in the spiritual realm."
AIDS tore through the community with a fury frightening to behold. As one interviewed in the film said, "Here I was trying to deal with having the virus - trying to figure out how to keep myself healthy - and then all of a sudden all my friends who were my support started getting sick and started to die."
The damage and fear is far from over.
"Twice on this tour with the film I have heard from people living with HIV that their families won't hug them. They serve them on paper plates with paper cups and plastic utensils, and this is 2014," said Hubbard. "That's a story from 1985, yet it is from today. It is like, where have you people been for the past 30 years? It was utterly shocking."
United in Anger was one of six films held throughout the fall and winter made available by a grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.
"They accept submissions from across the country," said LPCA director James Lemons. "Everyone who is a presenting organization, which is six of us in total, do an initial screening of all films. We whittle that down to 20, we do another screening, we then meet in Baltimore for two days and we fight about which six films get included."
"I thought the film was great," said Dan Sullivan. "I learned a lot about ACT UP. They were able to boil the AIDS crisis down to a very simple message versus a lot of our other scandals, like savings and loan, that are big issues people have a hard time grasping and putting their fingers on."
For information, visit www.actuporalhistory.org. United in Anger can be ordered through iTunes and Amazon.com.