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'We Were Here': Remembering the AIDS Epidemic of the 1980s

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In the summer of 2008, I began the process of creating a documentary about San Francisco at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. As one who'd emigrated to The City in the gay glory years of the 1970s, I experienced our community's exuberance, and the subsequent AIDS-induced suffering and response, firsthand.

After completing The Cockettes with Bill Weber in 2002, I wasn't sure I was interested in making another documentary at all -- certainly not one dealing with such traumatizing subject matter. But sometimes ideas can be germinating invisibly within, awaiting the right catalyst to bring them into blossom.

The catalyst for We Were Here came from a boyfriend who was much younger than I, also a filmmaker. Many times, he'd heard me speak about my years in San Francisco, my stories of loss and community resilience, and he urged me to make a film. My initial reluctance was quickly supplanted by clarity that this was a film that needed to be made, that it needed to be made by someone who'd lived through it, that now was the time.

We Were Here has taken me on an incredible journey of rediscovery -- of forgotten details of terrible suffering, of moments of extraordinary generosity and courage, of residual guilt and shame for when those qualities were not easily accessible, but, mostly, of a kind of bewilderment that this whole nightmare actually happened.

The AIDS epidemic is the dominant piece of LGBT history since Stonewall. It's a mind-boggling, but inescapable, truth. The political mobilization the epidemic necessitated; the healing of rifts between lesbians and gay men; the visibility that AIDS forced upon many who'd been reluctant to come out; and, ultimately, the increased support and compassion from the non-gay world, has hugely shaped the reality in which gays and lesbians now live.

Even though AIDS has dramatically retreated from our conversations and consciousness since powerful medications began to stem the tide of death, it continues to haunt our community -- and so many others around the world. Whether engaging in completely safe sexual practices or willfully barebacking, gay men's sexuality can't escape the shadow of AIDS. Those who are still getting infected find themselves facing a lifetime of toxic medications, which are often only affordable via tenuous government funding. Many forget that AIDS is just as deadly as it ever was for those who can't access treatment.

At almost every Q&A I've done for the film, I've been asked about the prevalence of barebacking, particularly among younger men. The question is generally asked by men of an older generation, many of who feel an unspoken rage that anyone could be so cavalier about continuing to perpetuate this plague. There are not enough "accidental" exposures to keep HIV at epidemic levels that still exist among gay men. Many complexities contribute to that reality, and it must be addressed compassionately.

The messages supporting prevention that come out of We Were Here are not so much delivered through the tragic images of men covered in purple Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions, or the ravaged bodies of other AIDS sufferers, but through the inspiring history of a community responding to calamity with extraordinary courage, compassion, and political determination.

In conversation, in their eloquent Facebook posts, in articles that they've written, younger gay men who have seen We Were Here have told me they are overwhelmed by the realization of what prior generations have had to endure, by the sacrifices made to get us to where we are today. They say that for the first time, they are able to viscerally imagine what it must have been like in the early years, when we watched friends and lovers die terrible deaths, in droves.

My hope is that We Were Here will help engender a complex understanding of what AIDS has meant to our community. I hope that the generations that managed to survive the worst of it will find validation and catharsis in having this story told. And I hope that it provides an avenue for intergenerational conversation, for inspiration, and for a renewed sense of pride in who we are, where're we've been, and where we can still go.

WE WERE HERE premieres on the PBS series INDEPENDENT LENS on Thursday, June 14 (check local listings.)