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HIV in the Classroom: Making AIDS Activist History a Part of U.S. History

A Conversation With Jim Hubbard, Co-Director of the ACT UP Oral History Project

March 29, 2013

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I think it's very important to have AIDS activism as part of American history, and to do it through individual interviews and speaking from your own experience, your own standpoint. If AIDS activism history was implemented on a universal scale, though, I would be so nervous about the way it would be taught in schools, if it weren't from the mouths of people who were involved.

Yeah, history's a really tricky thing. Depending on who writes it -- and that was another impetus for doing this project. People were starting to write about ACT UP and they were looking in the wrong place for materials. Sarah always talks about someone who was using ACT UP who was using the New York Times as a primary source. And the New York Times would be a horrible place to go, especially for the early days of ACT UP, because it was so antagonistic toward ACT UP, toward AIDS activism. Its reporting on the crisis was very problematic in the beginning. And, so, you know, that's not the place to go. That's a very distorted history that people get from there.

Just recently, it was nice to see AIDS activist history in the papers around the death of former New York City mayor Ed Koch. That was one of the few issues where the mainstream media had picked up that he had missed the mark on so many big questions.

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Oh, yeah. I was in San Francisco at a showing of United in Anger when he died. And there's so much in the film that's an indictment of his administration, just its evil, negligent dealing with the crisis. I was horrified at the way his death was treated, and how he was being made to look heroic because he led New York out of the fiscal crisis of the '70s. Which is not exactly my memory actually, even on that. I think that, as much as he's maligned, that the solution to the fiscal crisis was set in the previous, Abe Beame administration, and Koch was the beneficiary of that.

He was a horror. He wouldn't deal with the crisis, he had no sense of urgency, they were shutting down hospitals, so there were not enough beds. One of the worst things that happened under the Koch administration was how he ordered the head of the New York City Department of Health to halve the number of people with AIDS in the city in order to make it look like they were doing a better job or that they needed less money. It was just monstrous. And the obituaries did not deal with that, or dealt with it in a very cursory way.

What are some of the other places besides the U.S. that you've shown the film?

In two weeks, we're going to Abu Dhabi and Beirut. NYU has a campus in Abu Dhabi. We're doing a whole day in the classroom and screening the film.

The first place outside the U.S. that we showed it was in Ramallah, actually. It's the capital of Palestine on the West Bank. It was amazing, because it was an audience that didn't get to see that sort of material before. The one straight guy in the audience said he had never seen a film where gay people were portrayed positively. Another woman said that she was so inspired by a group that spent years and years using every strategy and tactic they could think of and constantly changing their strategies and tactics in order to achieve their goal, and she saw that as analogous to the Palestinian struggle. That was really great.

I was recently in Stockholm, sort of the opposite end of the spectrum. In Sweden, they're having a national conversation about the AIDS epidemic, because the most famous gay person in Sweden just published a book, a trilogy that isn't quite finished being published, that's about the AIDS epidemic, and I'm told that it's really good about the emotional aspects of the crisis. But, he either completely ignores or is bad about the politics of it. So, it's fostered this conversation about what went on in Sweden and the rest of the world during the height of the AIDS epidemic. So the film was perfect for furthering that conversation.

I've shown it in Berlin at a screening that was arranged by a group of students at Humboldt University. So, there are a lot of universities that are showing the film. I had never heard of Ruhr University of Bochum, which is one of the largest universities in Germany. It's very far in the West, in a city called Bochum.

Was ACT UP Oral History Project involved in the making of How to Survive a Plague?

Not the Oral History Project; but David France, the director of How to Survive a Plague, and I have been friends for many years. We were actually roommates in the '80s. We knew that we were both making films, and we knew from early on that they were going to be very different films. We were looking at the same material in the library.

It's hard to describe it. We sometimes worked together, but mostly they were separate efforts.

Regarding Palestine -- it's so interesting that they saw a parallel in their struggle. Are there any other people who have come to you and said that there are other instances where the story relates to them in some way?

Definitely. When people ask me what I had in mind when making the film, the first thing I tell them is putting AIDS activism and ACT UP into mainstream U.S. history. And the second is to inspire additional activism. I said that from the very beginning while I was making the film, but I had no idea whether it was actually possible. It was definitely a leap of faith. That screening in Ramallah was the test whether other people -- people who were far removed from the situation and place -- would be able to see a model in ACT UP for their own political actions. So, that was incredibly gratifying.

That's happened other times. For instance, I showed the film in Brazil several times and an AIDS activist group in Brazil sort of took it on and have been using it in organizing. They've been showing it and using it as a platform for talking about how AIDS activism should be done in Brazil in the year 2013.

That's happening in Canada, as well. AIDS Action NOW in Toronto is using it for organizing. We always considered AIDS Action Now part of ACT UP. ACT UP in San Francisco -- people there just started a new chapter, and they are looking to the film for inspiration.

We're also doing an academic study guide for classroom use, but we're also doing an activist study guide, as well, so that people can use it to teach people how to organize.

What are some of the different reactions you get depending on what generation is watching the film -- for instance, high school classes full of students of color?

High school students have never heard of this by and large, so they're amazed that it took place. And the general reaction is real excitement. It's the idea that "Oh! Wow! How can we do this for our issues?" That is the basic reaction of young people.

Older people have different relationships to it. It's a reminder of what they did or what they went through in the late '80s and the '90s. So, it's a way for older people to think about their past. I guess radical political action is usually the work of the young, but there's still older people who are doing it and can get excited to think about it.

I always say that ACT UP arose because of the zeitgeist. I believe in these waves of history, and at certain moments, movements arise because they're necessary and there's an infrastructure that supports them. They rise and they lessen in their effectiveness. To me, the people who do the political work at those moments in between when it's not so glamorous and exciting and effective are the real heroes. They're doing the hard work to keep things going until the next moment when it will erupt.

Also, it's really important to me that the nuts and bolts of organizing are an essential part of this film. I don't know that there's another film on any movement that really talks about or shows the things you have to do to make activism work in the way United in Anger does. That's why I think that, as a film, it will continue to be important. It is about a specific movement, but it has so much information in it that is applicable to any other grassroots political movement.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.


Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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