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The Vital Stories of ACT UP Shreveport's Small Town Rage

September 16, 2015

Small Town Rage: Fighting Back in the Deep South is a film project that -- when fully funded -- will chronicle the experiences of the men and women who made up ACT UP Shreveport, a group that served as a rare beacon of hope and activism in the hyper-conservative Deep South during the late 80s and early 90s. At a time when public awareness of HIV is ebbing and a disproportionate number of Southerners are contracting the virus each year, we need to hear the stories of the people who broke down barriers in the fight against HIV in the Deep South, both to honor their contributions and to learn from our past.

It is for this reason that the stories told in the documentary Small Town Rage: Fighting Back in the Deep South are so vital. When even talking about HIV was anathema throughout the cradle of the old Confederacy, activists like 17-year-old Alana Oldham and Robert Darrow had the courage and the will to stand up and take radical action in a very reactionary place. Through their advocacy, ACT UP Shreveport was able to facilitate the creation of an HIV clinic and a community-based AIDS service agency, while also drawing national attention to the plight of HIV-positive Louisianans who were being treated like pariahs in a region already brimming with homophobia and religious intolerance.

When ACT UP Shreveport was founded, Louisiana and the Deep South were little more than a footnote in the national dialogue on HIV/AIDS, but today they represent the heart of the new HIV epidemic in America. It is an epidemic that is younger, poorer, blacker and more heterosexual than the one that preceded it, and its national profile is much, much lower. HIV-related coverage in the mainstream media is currently at low levels not seen since the 1980s, when news outlets largely gave the disease the cold shoulder -- another reason why it is so important that Small Town Rage should see the light of day.

Tucked away in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a few blocks away from the commercialized hustle and bustle of the waterfront, sits the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial. Every day, tens of thousands of people go past it on their way down East Lombard Street, but few ever take notice, and I've never quite understood why. I have traveled all over America, visiting all manner of memorials and commemorative statuary and I cannot think of anything that has affected me more than the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial.

When I lived in Baltimore, I would go out of my way to walk by it and linger awhile in the open courtyard, looking down at the parallel lines of antique railroad track that lay across it, and at the massive concrete slabs shaped like cattle cars, etched with the haunting words of Primo Levi. More than anything, I would stand at stare at Joseph Sheppard's imposing 11-foot memorial statue, depicting the emaciated forms of Holocaust victims writhing in agony as a giant flame of bronze consumes them. Beneath that memorial pyre, the words of George Santayana looked back at me: "Those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it."

History is a cyclical thing. The particulars of events might change, but the underlying motivations and rationales that drive those events remain fairly constant. More often than not, humanity fails to heed the warnings of past experience and gets beat upside the head over and over again by the same traps, like some poor schlub in a Marx Brothers bit. Usually, the examples that come to mind from this Mobius strip of human failing are military -- i.e. Hitler being hubristic enough think that his armies could conquer during the Russian winter when Napoleon had failed, or every world power from Macedonia and the British Empire to the U.S.S.R. and America believing it would be the one to control Afghanistan -- but they also include public health issues such as HIV.

As I looked around last fall during the height of Ebola pandemic and saw the destructive manifestation of our collective hysteria -- the political manipulation, the unnecessary travel bans, the unrelenting stigma being directed towards the health care workers who contracted the virus -- I couldn't help but feel like we were living through 1981 all over again. I'm sure that many of you who are reading this article, an article that lives on a website devoted to coverage of HIV-related issues, had similar thoughts last year, just as I am equally sure that the vast majority of Americans never made the connection.

For most of my generation (I'm 29), the morbid realities of HIV's early days are little more than an afterthought, if thought of at all, while an alarming number of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have managed to shove their memories of those times into furthest recesses of their minds. If remembrance of the past is really the best guard against its repetition, then it's safe to say that we as a nation have our guard down when it comes to HIV.

As of now, the directors of Small Town Rage have filmed hours of interviews with the people who were involved with ACT UP Shreveport, and they have raised roughly one-half of the $15,000 budget they need to produce the film. I urge you to head over to their Kickstarter page and donate whatever money you can to help this important movie come to fruition.

Drew Gibson is a social worker and freelance writer based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. He does his best to split his time and efforts between his work as a case manager for people living with HIV/AIDS in Northern Kentucky and the maintenance of his blog, "Virally Suppressed," which covers a multitude of issues related to inequity and social justice. You can follow him on Twitter at @SuppressThis.

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