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How to Survive the Plague

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24 years after my first ACT UP meeting, I am at the Sundance Film Festival and I am in the audience for the second screening of David France's How to Survive a Plague. I am sitting by myself in the back of the semi-crowded room, and I am crying. Watching this extraordinary film will be for me one of the most important personal experiences I have had at the cinema in years.

I arrived in New York in January of 1988, and within a few weeks, I stated going regularly to ACT UP meetings at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center on 13th Street. I moved here with a bunch of friends from college, and we had all been very involved during school in various activist and feminist and queer politics. We won some battles, we lost others, but as young people in school in the '80s, we were in many ways much closer to the ideals of the '60s than we knew at the time. We thought we could make a difference, and the way we thought best to do that was to gather together and organize.

So when I heard about this new group that was meeting at the Center to fight against AIDS, and against the government that didn't seem to care much about it, I wanted to see what it was all about. As a young man starting a new life, I was also looking for any place to feel at home and to feel a part of some community, and in New York City in 1988, there was nowhere you felt more a part of something than at ACT UP meetings.

During my years in ACT UP, I was always a follower and never a leader. I would join sub-groups within the organization and I would be on committees, and I would show up at demonstrations, and I would scream and shout, and I would get arrested. I would spend a few nights in jail, and many days on busses, to Albany, to Washington, and then arrive where I was told and shout some more, and get arrested again.

By the time the early '90s rolled around something was different. It was like the long shadow of the '60s was fading and I found myself focused on other things: mostly myself, to be honest. I was trying to figure out how to make films, and how to build a career, and how to have a lasting relationship, and how to feed myself dinner, and how to make friends, and how to find a good therapist. How to become an adult seemed somehow, sadly - wrongly-- connected to disconnecting from a community. Many people left ACT UP and took that energy and carried it into their jobs and their professions, or if not, into their lives. But I didn't.

Watching How to Survive a Plague two decades later, I was reminded of so many things. How smart and brilliant and charismatic New Yorkers were and still are. How devastating that period was, with all the loss and all the death, and how many of us are still in some state of mourning. But most of all I'm reminded that we have a voice, that we are stronger together than alone, and that we can be heard, if we don't let others silence us.

How to Survive a Plague is history-telling at its best. It's a film I'll show my two children, now toddlers, when they are old enough to understand. It's a movie that I cannot forget.