I remember seeing the first TV reports about a mysterious new disease called "AIDS" when I was a closeted young man in Canada. They started with images of gaunt, almost skeletal gay men losing hope as fast as they lost weight, which were followed by clips of fundamentalist preachers gloating that everything they said had been vindicated. Here, they announced, was God's judgment on perversion. They were not alone. Even the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was privately saying he suspected they were right.
As I watched this witch hunt, I backed deeper into the closet, and deeper into despair. Indeed, I ran to the very back of the closet and tried to nail it shut. The illness was gleefully labeled "the gay plague," and victims were treated like lepers, denied even the basics of compassionate care.
Back then, everybody knew how the story of AIDS was going to play out. It was going to rage through gay people and prostitutes and injecting drug addicts across the world and kill them all. Here was a disease for which there was no cure, killing people who were widely despised. There would be no political action. There would be only loss.
Except that's not how it turned out. The story of AIDS did not turn into a tragedy, even though we lost 34 million people across the world. No. It turned into a story about how people overcome tragedy -- and achieve the seemingly impossible. The most reviled groups in our society came together. They organized. They appealed to the sense of compassion that resides in all of us. And they did something extraordinary. They got the resources to stop the disease in its tracks -- and if we continue on the current course, we will end AIDS in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of my sons. We will have won a victory over this virus.
The story of how we got from those gloating fundamentalist preachers to the last days of AIDS is due to an extraordinary range of people, but for today, I want to talk about one. My friend Larry Kramer -- novelist, playwright, activist, fighter -- is unwell at the moment, and while I wait and pray for his recovery, I want to tell you about what he achieved in his life, and why every one of us should be grateful to him.
The documentary How to Survive a Plague shows you Larry at his ferocious, eloquent best. It opens in a New York in despair. Gay men and drug users are dying in epidemic numbers, their government will not even say the name of the disease killing them, and the pharmaceutical companies are saying any treatment will be decades away. The government regulatory bodies in the U.S. are insisting on such a slow testing process -- taking at least seven years -- that they are effectively condemning to death anybody who is diagnosed with the disease. Larry was one of the infected. As far as the authorities were concerned, the message was, "Go die quietly." They clearly hadn't met Larry Kramer.
A handful of gay men, their heterosexual supporters, and concerned doctors gathered together. Larry told the attendees of one of the first meetings, "Until we get our acts together, we are as good as dead." He explained that just as gay people had organized, in the face of hatred, to fight for the right to live and love without police persecution, they were going to have to organize for the right to live. They formed a group called ACT UP -- a cry in the dark. Since nobody was listening to them, they decided that they had to make themselves heard.
They stormed the offices of the federal regulators and refused to leave until they were listened to. "This government has the resources to deal with the epidemic, and they won't do it unless we force them," one activist explains in the film. They shut down train stations and thoroughfares throughout the city. They took the ashes of their loved ones, killed by inaction, and threw them onto the White House lawn, crying as the ashes blew into the air, "I love you."
One of the leading Republican senators, Jesse Helms, said they should "shut their mouths." They were dismissed, laughed at, and ridiculed. But then something else happened.
People began to listen. They saw their pain and their humanity, and they began to respond. The pressure from ACT UP grew into pressure from the wider public. The government was forced to allow faster drug trials and divert far more money into AIDS research. As a direct result, the first treatments were found -- and millions of lives were saved.
It's a model of how democratic change works. You organize peacefully, you gather the evidence, and you appeal to the hearts of everyone around you. Then you win. Larry was its beating heart.
If we continue to fight with the tenacity that Larry has taught us, we are, on the current trajectory, going to do something incredible. We are going to beat the AIDS virus. We will achieve a world without AIDS. More than any other story I know, this one reminds us of the strength and indomitable force of the human spirit. If we put our souls and all our strength behind a fight, we can achieve anything. The power of the human spirit is the greatest power on Earth.
Peter Staley was a bond trader with JP Morgan on Wall Street until he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the first wave of the crisis. Like Larry, he was certain he was going to die. He played a key role in all the activism alongside Larry not for himself -- he was sure it was too late -- but for the next generation. He believed it was what he had to do. He told a conference, "Some day there will be a people alive on this Earth who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought, and in some cases died, so that others might live and be free."
Larry Kramer lived. Larry Kramer won. Larry Kramer is alive. He survived a plague, and thanks to people like him, millions of us will too. I want to take this chance to publicly say something to him. Larry, whenever I feel like giving up, whenever I feel knocked off my feet, I will click through to YouTube to watch a clip of you, and I will get back on my feet and back in the fight. We will never forget you.
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