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Time of Misery 

AIDS: Snoozing after the wake-up call

Thursday, Jul 29 2004
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Illustration by Richard Down

When you’re gay, 57 years old, HIV-negative, and three-quarters of the friends and loved ones who’ve meant the most to you in life are dead, it’s odd the way little things can set you off. That’s what happened to me, watching the new film adaptation of A Home at the End of the World, in a scene toward the end when the two leading characters discuss “the spots” on the body of one of them.

“See, it’s faded.”

“It has?”

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And I (who rarely ever cry at the movies) just lost it. How many times had I, and countless others, played this scene in real life? Denial is sometimes the only way to get through the day. And where are we in 2004? Surprisingly enough, not in all that different a place.

“Denial is huge right now,” says Michael Mayer, the film’s director. “I keep reading all sorts of very scary statistics about the rise of HIV infection. And with the political climate the way it is, it seems to me to be a good time for A Home at the End of the World to come out. We should really be talking about AIDS and remembering where it came from and how it started. We’re not through; it’s not over. Far from it. In fact, in the world community it’s just beginning.”

Mayer isn’t an AIDS expert, as the mainstream media would have it, or an activist. He’s simply a gay man who, like so many of his generation, has lost many loved ones to the epidemic. He’s a successful stage director (everything from Thoroughly Modern Millie to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, from The Triumph of Love to After the Fall) whose screen adaptation of novelist Michael Cunningham’s saga of love and friendship arrives at a time when a well-received revival of Larry Kramer’s seminal AIDS play The Normal Heart was unable to find a public, while the television adaptation of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s “fantasia” about AIDS, has received an unprecedented 21 Emmy nominations. And that’s because these days, when the protease-inhibitor drug “cocktails” are extending HIV-positive lives, even as infection rates climb, AIDS seems more marginalized than ever — “part of life” and yet oddly taken for granted to the degree that it’s “off the radar,” save as ’80s nostalgia.

“It was very important to me that A Home at the End of the World not become ‘one of those AIDS stories,’” says Mayer. “In 1982-83, AIDS was a death sentence. And it was as simple as that. A lot of people I knew wouldn’t even know enough to call the lesions by their name — Kaposi’s sarcoma. It was always the way it is in the film, ‘One of those purple things — one of those spots.’ I wanted it to be about that one specific moment in our lives when our friends started dying and we didn’t know what the hell it was. We were looking into a maw of absolute terror and doom.”

And despite all that’s happened since the 1980s in the way of activism, awareness and treatments, we’re still staring into that maw, whether we want to believe it or not. And for the most part we don’t. The disease has killed off the better part of a generation of activists. Those who have followed have yet to rise to the new challenges the disease has created. While the world is alert to the way AIDS has ruined Africa and now threatens China and Russia, complacency has hit stateside.

At the just-concluded International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, it has been noted that 40 million people worldwide now suffer from “full-blown” AIDS — 30 million of them in underdeveloped countries. Only 400,000 of those suffering from HIV infection in those poorer countries are receiving any sort of drug treatment. Since the last International AIDS Conference, which was held in Barcelona, Spain, in 2002, 6 million people have died from the disease. Since 2003, 5 million have become HIV-infected. Estimates are that by 2010, 100 million people will be infected worldwide, leaving 25 million AIDS orphans in their wake.

While the United States has earmarked $15 billion in a five-year emergency plan for AIDS relief, it has been widely criticized by participants in the Bangkok conference for undertaking it unilaterally and not in conjunction with the global fund that reaches 128 countries as part of a collaborative effort. Worse than this unilateralism is an emphasis on sexual abstinence over condom use in U.S.-sponsored prevention programs and the Bush administration’s refusal to pay for generic AIDS medicines endorsed by the World Health Organization and used successfully in many countries. U.S. policies were denounced at the Barcelona conference in 2002, where Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was booed. And this led to the administration sharply cutting back on U.S. participation in the Bangkok conference, going so far as not to allow Marc Bulterys of the Centers for Disease Control to deliver an important Journal of the American Medical Association report on AIDS — childish pettiness typical of all things Bush.

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