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Plague, Overpowered?

Causing a commotion: ACT co-founder Peter Staley and members of ACT UP routinely stormed the office buildings of the FDA and CDC, protesting inaction against the virus that was killing them. From David France’s How to Survive a Plague. Photos by William Lucas Walker

New film tells how AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power may have saved the world
by Nancy Ford

Want to hear a ghost story? A real-life ghost story?

There are ghosts emanating from the White House lawn.

Ghosts, now free of the lesion-covered limbs and Buchenwald-like sunken cheeks and sightless, hollow eyes, today roam freely on another plane throughout Washington DC and beyond. After succumbing to AIDS, their ashes were thrown by their survivors in 1992, through the black iron fence and onto the lawn, in protest of the inaction that was killing them and their contemporaries by the thousands.

There are similar ghosts in Houston, some of their ashes in backyards and gardens, some tossed from the top of the old Cody’s building, now tenant-less and ghostly itself, and into the once-Bohemian Montrose neighborhood’s ether. Mary’s, once Texas’s oldest gay bar, absorbed its share of AIDS ashes in its lawn area, now a paved-over parking lot. But the ghosts are still there.

Every time a legislative body votes against HIV/AIDS legislation in general, or healthcare legislation, as they did de rigueur in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond, do these ghosts take note?

In 1981, a group of gay men in New York City began falling ill with an unexplained malady that caused some of them to develop blotchy, dark lesions all over their bodies. Others would suddenly develop pneumonia. None of them seemed to be able to summon the strength to fight these symptoms with their own immune systems; all of them died. Hospitals placed corpses of AIDS victims in black garbage bags to indicate the biohazard to workers. Sometimes funeral homes would accept their decimated bodies for embalming; sometimes, not.

When it became apparent that the U.S. government, at that time under the direction of President Ronald Reagan, would remain silently indifferent to the effects of this plague, the men and women of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was born of necessity.

They marched. They protested. They draped a giant condom over the tyrannically homophobic senator Jesse Helms’s house. They stormed the offices of the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. They took not only to the streets in protest, but also to the churches. In response to New York Cardinal O’Connor’s condemnation of condoms, ACT UP’s “die-in,” held in the sanctuary at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 as mass was being conducted, made the front pages of international press. Their public heckling forced the issue of HIV/AIDS into the national conversation for the 1992 presidential election, eliciting the famous response “I feel your pain” from then-candidate Bill Clinton.

Simultaneously, amid all the street theater, ACT UP members were also “infiltrating from the inside,” presenting their own research findings to the international AIDS conferences and pharmaceutical companies, intent on accelerating U.S. clinical trials for anti-viral medications that were already available and saving lives in Europe and Japan.

Director David France researched a collection of more than 700 hours of videotape shot by independent AIDS activists, caretakers, ACT UP members, and others to create How to Survive a Plague. In it, he succinctly and movingly tells the story of how a relatively small group of angry, heartbroken, terrified, desperate men and women channeled that anger, sorrow, and fear into a workable, constructive force which may very well have saved the world from being completely overtaken by HIV and AIDS within a ten-year span of the virus’s appearance.

And the ghosts dance.

2012. Plays October 5–11 at Houston’s Sundance Cinemas (


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