Rainbow Center hosts 'How to Survive a Plague' showing on MLK Day

Students look on during a showing of "How to Survive a Plague" at UConn's Rainbow Center in the Student Union on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. (Allen Lang/The Daily Campus)

Throughout the '80s, being diagnosed with AIDS, acquired immuno deficiency syndrome, was a death sentence in America. Wrongly dismissed as a “gay disease” by politicians on both sides of the aisle, HIV/AIDS positive people with less than two years to live were forced to turn to the black market to access treatments the Federal Drug Administration wouldn’t allow into the United States.

On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Rainbow Center hosted a showing of “How to Survive a Plague,” a powerful documentary about the Act Up AIDS activists that led America through a maze of bureaucracy to the therapies that continue to save lives today.

Many of these activists, including Peter Staley, a former Wall Street broker, Mike Harrington, a film archivist and Bob Rafsky, a PR executive with an adorable daughter, were HIV/AIDS positive themselves. However, they weren’t alone: they were surrounded by friends, family and sympathetic members of the scientific community such as Iris Long, an antiretroviral expert who gave Act Up the inside edge it needed to navigate the pharmaceutical industry.

Fleurette King, director of the Rainbow Center, said that the efforts of heterosexual scientists like Long highlight the shared spirit of collaboration that powered AIDS activism and the Civil Rights Movement while magnifying the voices of oppressed individuals.

“That is critical. You need to also think about where and to whom you can offer your political and cultural capital,” King said. “I hope people can walk away, regardless of your major, your hobbies and your interests, knowing that you can contribute to a movement.”

Activist attempts to change the drug testing and approval process from within, however, would eventually lead to a split with TAG, the Treatment Action Group, eventually branching off from Act Up members more interested in social justice and protest.

“When I was in South Africa I almost interned with a place called TAC, which is the Treatment Action Campaign, which came from TAG and was working on treatment in places like Africa,” said Katie Edelman, an 8th semester HDFS major who led discussion of the film. “It’s cool to see how it spreads.”

Benjamin Plant, an 8th-semester political science major who also led discussion, said the Civil Rights Movement was also mirrored in AIDS activists’ use of non-violent protest against government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and negligent politicians.

“If you listen to Act Up’s slogan, ‘silence equals death,’ that’s very comparable to one of MLK’s famous quotes which is loosely, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,’” Plant said.

Breaking the silence about AIDS and LGBT rights in general wasn’t enough though. Activists also had to speak louder than backwards politicians and the Catholic Church, which had recently reignited its crusade against the use of birth control and condoms, one of the only reliable methods of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted disease. While Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton were all shown to view AIDS with varying levels of disdain and indifference, no one was more outwardly toxic than former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.

Described as “the devil” by a student protester in the process of covering his home with a giant canvas condom, Helms argued on the Senate floor that AIDS was a spiritual and moral punishment for the LGBT community.

These frustrations came to a head at the emotional peak of “How to Survive a Plague,” Act Up’s 1996 march on Washington in which survivors threw the ashes of their lost loved ones onto the White House lawn. By giving up the only thing they had left of their partners and family members, activists forced the world to pay attention.

It was in that same year, 1996, that a scientific breakthrough gave these men - and the women and people of color who remained largely unseen throughout the film - a second chance at life through combination therapies more effective than anything previously on the market.

The timing was hardly perfect, however. Between 1981 and 1996, an estimated 6.2 million people had died of AIDS worldwide according to the Foundation for AIDS Research, an ever growing statistic that continues to be honored by the AIDS Quilt, a traveling memorial to those lost to the disease.

King, who saw the 54-ton AIDS Quilt in person as a student, said it serves to demonstrate how AIDS affects everyone.

“It played a significant role in why I got involved in the HIV and AIDS movement because we brought it to our school,” King said. “It was extremely powerful then and also when they laid it out in DC in the White House, because that’s just symbolic for so many different social movements.”

Throughout the eighties, being diagnosed with AIDS, acquired immuno deficiency syndrome, was a death sentence in America. Wrongly dismissed as a “gay disease” by politicians on both sides of the aisle, HIV/AIDS positive people with less than two years to live were forced to turn to the black market to access treatments the Federal Drug Administration wouldn’t allow into the United States.

On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Rainbow Center hosted a showing of “How to Survive a Plague,” a powerful documentary about the Act Up AIDS activists that led America through a maze of bureaucracy to the therapies that continue to save lives today.

Many of these activists, including Peter Staley, a former Wall Street broker, Mike Harrington, a film archivist and Bob Rafsky, a PR executive with an adorable daughter, were HIV/AIDS positive themselves. However, they weren’t alone: they were surrounded by friends, family and sympathetic members of the scientific community such as Iris Long, an antiretroviral expert who gave Act Up the inside edge it needed to navigate the pharmaceutical industry.

Fleurette King, director of the Rainbow Center, said that the efforts of heterosexual scientists like Long highlight the shared spirit of collaboration that powered AIDS activism and the Civil Rights Movement while magnifying the voices of oppressed individuals.

“That is critical. You need to also think about where and to whom you can offer your political and cultural capital,” King said. “I hope people can walk away, regardless of your major, your hobbies and your interests, knowing that you can contribute to a movement.”

Activist attempts to change the drug testing and approval process from within, however, would eventually lead to a split with TAG, the Treatment Action Group, eventually branching off from Act Up members more interested in social justice and protest.

“When I was in South Africa I almost interned with a place called TAC, which is the Treatment Action Campaign, which came from TAG and was working on treatment in places like Africa,” said Katie Edelman, an 8th semester HDFS major who led discussion of the film. “It’s cool to see how it spreads.”

Benjamin Plant, an 8th-semester political science major who also led discussion, said the Civil Rights Movement was also mirrored in AIDS activists’ use of non-violent protest against government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and negligent politicians.

“If you listen to Act Up’s slogan, ‘silence equals death,’ that’s very comparable to one of MLK’s famous quotes which is loosely, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,’” Plant said.

Breaking the silence about AIDS and LGBT rights in general wasn’t enough though. Activists also had to speak louder than backwards politicians and the Catholic Church, which had recently reignited its crusade against the use of birth control and condoms, one of the only reliable methods of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted disease.

While Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton were all shown to view AIDS with varying levels of disdain and indifference, no one was more outwardly toxic than former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.

Described as “the devil” by a student protester in the process of covering his home with a giant canvas condom, Helms argued on the Senate floor that AIDS was a spiritual and moral punishment for the LGBT community.

These frustrations came to a head at the emotional peak of “How to Survive a Plague,” Act Up’s 1996 march on Washington in which survivors threw the ashes of their lost loved ones onto the White House lawn. By giving up the only thing they had left of their partners and family members, activists forced the world to pay attention.

It was in that same year, 1996, that a scientific breakthrough gave these men – and the women and people of color who remained largely unseen throughout the film – a second chance at life through combination therapies more effective than anything previously on the market.

The timing was hardly perfect, however. Between 1981 and 1996, an estimated 6.2 million people had died of AIDS worldwide according to the Foundation for AIDS Research, an ever growing statistic that continues to be honored by the AIDS Quilt, a traveling memorial to those lost to the disease.

King, who saw the 54-ton AIDS Quilt in person as a student, said it serves to demonstrate how AIDS affects everyone.

“It played a significant role in why I got involved in the HIV and AIDS movement because we brought it to our school,” King said. “It was extremely powerful then and also when they laid it out in DC in the White House, because that’s just symbolic for so many different social movements.”


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.