It's awards season. Remember when you couldn't turn on an awards show and not see people wearing red ribbons? What happened to the ribbon? Obviously AIDS is still a part of the fabric of society, but time and medicine have changed how people view the disease.
I moved to New York City in the late '80s and can vividly recall attending funerals and memorial services for so many friends. It was truly a frightening time of uncertainty and, in many cases, despair. David France's Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague has brought AIDS back to the awards shows and is teaching a new generation about the early days of the disease. I was absolutely captivated watching the power of the activists as they fought for pharmaceutical treatments during the early stage of the epidemic; the strength that they managed to muster even as many were dying around them; and the ultimate unraveling of the group as they fought amongst themselves when they no longer knew what they needed to fight for next.
In some ways that horror feels like a lifetime ago, and yet it still seems so fresh in my mind. When I put out a novel that deals with that period in our history, I heard from several readers that it took them right back to that moment and they too were living through it all. What the documentary does so beautifully is that it asks the question that was on the minds of so many once they realized that the drugs were working: What next? I knew people in the early '90s who sold their life insurance policies because they were certain that they were going to die, and yet they are still around in 2013.
This started a dialogue among people I know. Some still believe there is a huge stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. Others are very open about living with this manageable disease and treat their medicine regimen as an addition to taking vitamins. But it differs based on what they are taking. Some are lucky enough to take one combo pill once a day and never give it a second thought. Others have had tough times on the medicines and have ended up in the hospital, not from an opportunistic infection but from the drugs themselves. Still others are slaves to their drug regimens because of the rules surrounding what they take, rules regulating everything from the exact time of day that a given drug must be taken to the temperature at which it must be kept.
People are living with the disease, and yes, people are still dying from it. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who is resistant to certain drugs and who can tolerate them and get their viral load down to undetectable levels. My friend Brian had to make a choice between being a victim and putting a "positive" spin on it. "Knowing your status alters you -- mentally, physically, spiritually -- and it takes time to 'get' the reality of it," he said. "But I fight every day to center myself and find my light in the midst of it all."
People never know what others are going through in their private lives, but sometimes a filmmaker can get them talking. There are so many different stories to share, no matter what year one may have contracted the disease, where one is in one's personal journey, or what medicines one is able to take. Peter Staley made a powerful statement in the film: "Like any war, you wonder why you came home." Many HIV/AIDS veterans alive today live with guilt that they survived when their friends didn't. Many still question why they may have an easier time managing the disease while others around them are in a constant battle.
So, yes, AIDS is back at the awards shows this year, represented not by ribbons but by Mr. France's documentary. I am really glad that he has inspired this dialogue, which is taking place everywhere from talk radio to online circles. Years may have passed, but AIDS hasn't gone away.