How to Survive a Plague

The acclaimed documentary “How to Survive a Plague” tells the story of the emergence of the activist group ACT UP in New York City. Peter Staley is one of the activists central to the film. We sat down with him to hear his thoughts on early AIDS activism, what we should be focusing on today, and who inspires him.

Why is it so important to remember the history captured in this film?

The film captures 10 years of early AIDS treatment activism, from the birth of ACT UP in 1987 to the release of protease inhibitors and combination therapy in 1996 that dramatically dropped the death rate from AIDS. So it’s important to look back because, as we continue to fight AIDS, we need to remember how we got to where we are today. We also need to remember that, as a community, we’re capable of some pretty remarkable activism and pretty remarkable victories. I think it’s very hard to be an activist if you don’t have faith that you’ll have the possibility of succeeding at something. This film really captures a moment where we did remarkable things as a community, so it’s inspiring and that’s why people need to see it—they need to be inspired about activism and our ability to change the world.

Of all the lessons we learned from the early years of AIDS activism, which are still applicable today?

Even small numbers of people can make a difference. I mean, yes, at its peak ACT UP had hundreds of people at its weekly meetings in New York and dozens of chapters around the country. But in the larger scheme of things, it was a small movement. Our largest demonstration ever was only about 5,000 people. We’re not talking about the Million Man March on Washington. Even many of our smaller victories were done with demonstrations that only took a handful of people. Putting a condom on Senator Jesse Helms’ house took about six or seven of us, and shutting down the New York Stock Exchange took about five of us. With good strategy and persistence, even a small number of people can really make a difference. It’s all about creativity and persistence. Those are the lessons we learned back then that can still apply today. We may not have the energy and the large number of people we had back then, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing some pretty remarkable activism with smaller numbers of people.

What do you think activists should be focused on now and into the future?

In the United States, I would definitely say prevention. With the exception of needle exchange programs, the early AIDS movement really didn’t score huge successes on the prevention front. Our nation really has a terrible record of getting serious about prevention. So we’re stuck at this spot where more than 50,000 people get infected every year in this country. The majority of them are gay men. These are very distressing and depressing truths that I think we should finally start to address. We’ve got a variety of tools now to start making a dent in that number of new infections, but it’s going to take money, leadership, and activism to make it happen.

What are you most proud of?

I remain very humbled by having witnessed the birth of AIDS activism. It was surreal. A lot of people remember how terrifying it was at that time—the death, the funerals, and the loss. But there was also a tremendous amount of joy and dark humor and community. That’s what I feel most proud of, the way the gay community rose to the moment. We could have been defeated by homophobia and stigma. But we found our voice and we fought back. It’s a moment in time I’m intensely proud to have witnessed and been a part of. I think all the gay rights victories we’ve seen since then really sprang out of that moment of us showing the country what we’re capable of, our humanity, and how we treat each other. We found our power and have used it ever since.

Who inspires you today?

I’m very inspired by the young AIDS activists I meet—groups like Health GAP here in New York, and now there’s new blood in ACT UP New York. I have not written off the Occupy movement. They inspire me and they’re still doing incredible work after Hurricane Sandy to help with the recovery efforts. That’s the kind of community outreach that’s going to sustain them in the future. They also have a sub-group called Occupy the SEC which reminds me of the treatment and data committee of ACT UP New York. It has a lot of ex-Wall Streeters as members of the group and they are complete experts on our nation’s finance and banking system. Another group I find very inspiring is called, which is fighting against global warming. Groups like these give me hope that new generations are picking up the mantels in various areas and taking action.

What gives you hope?

Each year we get some pretty good news about new tools for prevention and treatment, and about more people getting on therapy worldwide. We kind of have the tools now to wind down the epidemic and all we’re lacking is money and international leadership to finish the job. Hopefully we’ll get even better news in the future about a vaccine or a cure. Cure research fills me with hope—it’s real and it’s happening. Back in the 90s I distinctly remember that almost every AIDS activist had given up hope for a cure. I was one of them. Now that’s a hot area of research and it looks possible. I think there’s plenty to be hopeful about, we just need to finish the job.

Have you seen "How to Survive a Plague?" Were you involved in early AIDS activism? What lessons should we always remember? What gives you hope in the fight against HIV/AIDS? Share your thoughts in the comments below...

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