Gays of Future Past

For anyone under 30, it may be difficult to imagine a time when the gay-rights movement wasn’t operating at a milestone-a-minute pace. From Michael Sam’s “kiss seen ’round the world” to states like Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin tripping over themselves to let same-sex couples walk down the aisle, change is occurring at such a remarkable pace that it is difficult to contextualize how far we’ve come. Just 45 years ago gays had little choice but to quietly rise above the separate-but-inherently-unequal pre-Stonewall era. And it was only a generation ago that HIV demonstrated just how M.I.A. government and society could be — as long as the plague was knocking on someone else’s door. People who lived during these times were warriors on the front lines of history, but today the pace of change threatens to wash away the past in the eyes of a new generation. Fortunately a wave of artistic and media projects has emerged to remind us of these heroes, to refocus us on the type of activism that helped elevate the LGBT movement and to inspire us to make that final push.

How to Survive a Plague is the best documentary you’ve never seen. David France’s 2013 Oscar-nominated film uses archival video footage to tell the tale of the early days of the HIV struggle, where everyday-Joes-turned-activists Peter Staley, Bob Rafsky and Mark Harrington refused to play victims, taught themselves how to read medical journals and brazenly led the national conversation on treatment and prevention. Plague demonstrates how perseverance and the sheer desire to live can mobilize even the most intractable members of society, save Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan.

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