Last night I Netflix’d How to Survive a Plague, the documentary chronicling the history of AIDS activist group ACT UP, and how they essentially protested the government into making HIV medication more accessible to those afflicted with it. It was a fascinating, informative, heartwrenching doc (made more heartwrenching by its soundtrack of Arthur Russell, the gentle, disco experimentalist who died of AIDS in 1992). I recommend it.
But one aspect troubled me. Why was ACT UP so white? Why, in a documentary about AIDS-afflicted gay men (mostly men) in 1980s and 1990s New York City, were there literally like three people of color in the whole film, only one of whom—Chicano artist Ray Navarro—had a speaking role. Where were the blacks and Latinos who came to symbolize ’90s gay liberation through movies, music, and other popular culture? Where were the blacks and Latinos who lost their lives in far greater numbers than other ethnicities, particularly the whites who ran ACT UP—and continue to do so?
So I googled “ACT Up” and “racism” and the only thing that came up, as it turned out, was the October 1990 issue of SPIN, which was guest edited by Spike Lee. In it, an article by Celia Farber entitled “AIDS: Words from the Front” explores the disproportionate amount of media coverage given to white AIDS activists, when the most disadvantaged communities were the most likely to need public and government assistance. The first few paragraphs describing a “Medicaid mill” in Harlem are some of the most devastating I’ve read in awhile. There’s a quote about heroin dealers putting a cap of AZT in every bag they sold. Fuck. And Keith Cylar, a black AIDS activist WITH ACT Up, provides the pull quote that brought the piece up in my google search, and discusses efforts he has made to get them to be less racist. Cylar was not in the film—he died of complications from AIDS and cardioarrhythmia in 2004. But his efforts are still felt by New Yorkers, whether you knew it or not: he co-founded Housing Works, the health care and housing resources organization that operates a terrific non-profit bookstore and some of the best secondhand stores in the city.
So yeah, I recommend both watching that movie and reading that article, and understanding that the ramifications of that apparent racial disconnect (brought on in part by local and national government and institutionalized racism) continue to this day. Oh, and also, fuck Ed Koch. Enjoy hell.