A requiem for the fallen from the early days of AIDS

Published: November 5, 2011

2011 marks 30 years since HIV/AIDS was first reported among previously healthy homosexual men in Los Angeles and San Francisco. For those of us who survived—the gay men of my generation and our allies—it is a bitter-sweet moment. HIV is treatable now. We can live. And the pandemic proved to be vastly greater in scale and scope, and to have taken the lives of many more men, women, and children than anyone could have imagined in those first years. Yet the early stories of HIV among gay men still define the history of AIDS, and still define us. Each of us lives with our own fallen, with buried lovers and lost friends, men we cared for, fought for, helped die. And we live with a terrible mix of memories of that dark time—the indifference of government, the hate speech of detractors, the incredible kindness of caregivers, and of our brave men and the certain death they faced.

We Were Here, a documentary film by David Weissman, tells the story of those early years in one gay community, San Francisco, during the 1980s. Weissman makes a wise choice by focusing on just five people to tell this epic tale. Middle aged now, and deeply marked by the years of loss, we hear from a nurse, a community activist, a volunteer, an artist, and a florist who sold his wares on Castro Street. The stories they have to tell are harrowing, and the images we see of beautiful young men reduced to wraiths, have lost none of their power with time. But if there is one central theme linking these utterly human and vivid accounts, it is resilience.

The florist knows that funerals are becoming all too common and starts to give flowers away to those who cannot pay. The volunteer, a shy man never at home in the easy sex scenes San Francisco was famous for, finds his skills as a compassionate listener suddenly needed as the party scene screeches to a halt. And he gives of himself with real generosity. The nurse, a woman of great groundedness, finds dignity even in caring for the bodies of patients who have died. For the artist, the personal tragedies of lovers and friends dying continue to mount, and we are left amazed that this man can still find it in his heart to try again, love again, and live on with the memory of his lost circle. The community organiser, the most overtly political speaker of the five, recalls the moment when the mainstream narratives changed, and the rhetoric of blame and exclusion gave way to a wide recognition of the courage and compassion of the gay community as we struggled to take care of our own. His recounting of successful blood drives among the lesbian community in the city, “because our boys need blood” (and gay men were barred from donating), is almost unbearable in its tenderness. AIDS, although it killed so many, marked a signal turning point in the acceptance of gay people as citizens, as members of caring and committed communities.

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