The American HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80’s was a monumental event in queer history.
An event so big and life altering, that is still having a drastic impact on us today. Though we know much more about the disease today and how to protect ourselves from it, there’s still a lot to be learned from those who were there at the very beginning of the epidemic. The autoimmune disease, first called AIDS in 1982, brought with it not just a physical sickness, but also a social stigma that left the people who had contracted it with nowhere to turn. For many HIV positive members of the queer community the social stigma is still a problem today.
Because of the way HIV/AIDS is viewed throughout society, it’s not often that we’re taught what it was actually like to live in a time where an unknown virus was killing all of your queer friends. Though it’s unlikely that we will ever truly be able to understand how the pioneer activists of the american HIV/AIDS movement felt at the time, here are a few documentaries that try to scratch the surface.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
Stories from the Quilt tells the story of how the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt was created. The quilt, named as the largest folk community art piece in the world, is a project dedicated to celebrating the lives of those who have died of AIDS related causes. The film describes the social circumstances at the time by telling the stories of five men who are memorialized in the quilt, as well as depicting the actual creation of it.
How to Survive A Plague
This is a documentary you’ve probably heard of, but could never bring yourself to watch. Streaming on Netflix right now, How to Survive A Plague describes the way that two groups in the 80’s, ACTUP and TAG, became frustrated with the government’s lack of response to the crisis and took matters into their own hands. The film includes real footage and historical documents from the time, as well as interviews with surviving activists.
We Were Here
Perhaps the most heart wrenching doc on the list, We Were Here focuses on different perspectives on HIV/AIDS from that time period, including interviews with a counselor, a nurse, an artist, and a political activist. The film is set in San Francisco, the place that became the height of the activism circuit for HIV positive people during that time. The documentary shows the city change from a place of liberation to the center of the epidemic that cut the queer community down in more than one way.
Even Me is a documentary that is important to the history of HIV/AIDS because it defies the way we think about the disease. Focused on the experiences of the elderly, people of color, and even heterosexual people who deal with HIV/AIDS in their daily lives, Even Me dispels the myth that the disease is a “young, gay, male” problem. These participants are open and honest, and everyone, even doctors, can take away a lesson about love, life and sex from the people chronicled here.
Cover image courtesy of Getty Images.