Remembering Fear: Andrew Sullivan on ‘How to Survive a Plague’

Andrew Sullivan’s post about ‘How to Survive a Plague’, a new film on the gay civil rights movement and AIDS epidemic is an absolute must read. Key quote:

If you want to understand the gay civil rights movement in the last twenty years, you need to see this film. None of it would have happened as it did, if we had not been radicalized by mass death, stripped of fear by imminent death, and determined to bring meaning to the corpses of our loved ones by fighting for the basic rights every heterosexual has taken for granted since birth. No spouse was ever going to be turned away from his husband’s deathbed again, as far as I was concerned. Never. Again. For me, marriage equality is not an abstract concept. It has always been my attempt to make my friends’ deaths mean something more than tragedy. And it is non-negotiable.

Sullivan’s personal account of living through what he describes as a ‘mass sickness and death that killed five times as many young Americans as the Vietnam War in roughly the same period of time’ is a harrowing read in itself:

People forget that HIV decimated the immune system – but people actually died from the opportunistic infections. These “OI”s were something out of Dante’s Hell. So many drowned to death from pneumocystis. Or they would develop hideous KS lesions, or extremely painful neuropathy (my “buddy” screamed once when I brushed a bedsheet against the tip of his toes), or CMV where a friend of mine had to inject himself in the eyeball to prevent going blind, or toxoplasmosis, a brain degenerative disease where people wake up one day to find they can’t tie their shoe-laces, and their memories are falling apart. Within the gay community, 300,000 deaths amounted to a plague of medieval dimensions. Once you knew your T-cells were below a certain level, it was like being in a dark forest where, at any moment, some hideous viral or bacterial creature could emerge and kill you. And for fifteen years there was nothing to take that worked, just the agonizing helplessness of waiting to die, and watching others get assaulted by one terrifying disease after another.

That type of fear is unimaginable to most people – and to live with it for years defies the boundaries of human tolerance. It’s a topic I don’t know a huge deal about, but Sullivan’s post alone has given me even more respect for the gay community that not only fought to be treated as human beings, but suffered horrors akin to war – and for far, far longer.

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