Tolls on the number of people infected and killed by a disease have been an unavoidable modern-day nightmare that has plagued screens across the world. Intermittently throughout the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, the number of those taken by the AIDS epidemic that spiked in the late 1980s starts at just over half-a-million in 1987 and climbs to 1.2 million by 1989.
The numbers are catastrophic, and they really put into perspective what a deadly pandemic looks like. Or what it looks like when the government ignores your faction of life.
Every faction of the gay community has its own battle. At times they’ve been divided over their different fights, but fighting back against authority has always been in the DNA of any LGBTQ+ movement. While the disease was “mysteriously” killing gay men, thousands took to the streets pleading for a cure.
The loudest of these voices came from Act Up, a grassroots group that took it upon themselves to end the AIDS epidemic. The epicenter of this epidemic was Greenwich Village, New York City. This is where leaders of the LGBTQ+ community, like Larry Kramer and Peter Staley, fought word-for-word with New York politicians, demanding equality and progress toward a disease that was 100 percent fatal without a cure.
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So much like today, in a time when people aren’t asking for ridiculous demands, peaceful protestors during the AIDS crisis would be dragged away by police into vans. While police brutality has continued under the eye of America, in the 1980s, the LGBTQ+ community was losing two wars: the one against the police and the one against AIDS.
With no one coming to their aid, gays became their own doctors, drug smugglers, physicians, drug dealers— a product of a society ignoring their needs.
The eerie score of cellist Arthur Russell throws the viewer into a helpless abyss. The most haunting example of this comes when protestors throw the ashes of their friends and AIDs victims over the fence guarding the White House. It has to be one of the most dynamic images of the neverending LGBTQ+ struggle.
Act Up does end up making a difference in the long battle against AIDS, but it’s not before the disease has taken over 8.2 million lives worldwide.
These are the numbers you see when a government doesn’t step in.
How to Survive a Plague is available to stream on Amazon Prime.