Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Thoughts after a preview screening of We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco (a work-in-progress)

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | June 24, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living, Media
Tags: Blueboy, Harvey Milk, HIV/AIDS, PTSD, San Francisco, trauma

The thing that haunts me the most from this movie is the look in the eyes of one young we-were-here.jpgguy in the hospital, dying at 22, and he's looking out at the doctor or the camera so stunned, so scared, like he's a little kid waking up from a nightmare begging for help, help me.

There is no help. Or, there is help, but it won't help. Nothing will.

That same look repeats itself over and over in the eyes of the guys in these photos, the archival footage from the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the look of mass trauma that replaces another look, another innocence, the one where shirtless guys lean against one another on the streets of the Castro and smile for the world, will this ever be the same? No, it will never be the same.

Yet I'm struck also in those pre-AIDS photos by the regimentation of the gay clone aesthetic, how homogenous these men appear, somewhat mixed in age and race but not body type or masculine adherence, and one interviewee tells us how he never felt like he could fit in, how in the '70s all these men were busy fitting themselves into rigidly delineated cliques and there was no place for him as an awkward tall guy with long hair and a high voice.

Someone tells us about a speech by Anne Kronenberg, Harvey Milk's now-legendary lesbian aide, a speech she gave in 1979 after Dan White was given the most lenient sentence possible for the murder, where she ended: welcome to the '80s, welcome to the '80s, welcome to the '80s. And I'm not sure if that person actually said that everyone started chanting it or if that's just the way it sounds to me. 1981: a photo in the window of the Star Pharmacy in the Castro, showing a man opening his mouth, pulling back his teeth to reveal blue lesions, and the message, "Watch out -- there's something out there." And then, even on the cover of Blueboy magazine, beside another shirtless coverboy, welcoming you to pornographic pleasure, "A Killer: Kaposi's Sarcoma."

These same men, shirtless on the street in the Castro, now cradling gaunt lovers in their arms and helping one another to feel brave about death. Planning funerals and suicides instead of trips to the baths, shuttered in 1984. Lyndon LaRouche proposes a ballot measure enforcing a mandatory quarantine of all HIV-positive people. Twice.

These were men who had abandoned the hopelessness of secrecy, who had come to San Francisco for sexual splendor, who had finally grasped the invincibility of desire, and then. That shocked look in their eyes. One interviewee, a nurse, tells us how some of those eyes would soon end up in urine cups, sheltered by a paper bag, on the way to research trials to help figure out what caused AIDS-related blindness. Those men wanted their eyes to help someone else.

And another interviewee says, "suddenly my way of being with gay men was okay." Because he'd never figured out anonymous sex, but he immediately took to the sudden intimacy of helping strangers to die, holding them in the hospital and then going into the waiting room to counsel their parents, fathers who might say, "It's harder to find out that my son is a fag than to see that he's dying."

Or, another interviewee, talking about a lover who was a research scientist, after they both tested positive he got them into one of the first clinical trials, a drug that was so harsh that everyone in the study died. Everyone except the interviewee, who stopped the drug because of the harsh side effects. Here he is on-screen, crying so many years later. The whole audience is crying. Some of us start crying even before the movie starts, maybe when the director, David Weissman, says he wants the movie to embolden people who survived those years to tell their stories, and to embolden people who weren't there to ask questions.

"We all suffered, but we also became more beautiful." One interviewee says this, but it's also a central message of the movie: through all this mourning and loss, we have survived. We have survived as a community. I'm not so sure that's true.

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I don't know if it is true either. Looking back like that is like looking into a dark tunnel. I'm not sure if I want to or not, but I'm glad someone is.

Thank you, Greg -- important work, indeed -- to look into the dark tunnels...

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | June 25, 2010 12:45 AM

We barely survived the vast demoralization and the awful rituals of sickness and death, but we survived and the christers hate us for it.

I definitely don't want to see this movie. I doubt I could even make myself go to the theatre.

John Shannon | June 25, 2010 2:41 AM

I am so 'glad' (an unfortunate word considering the subject) that this film was made. HIV/AIDS was and is a wake-up call for all societies and communities. It was a startling example of a disease that was ignored because Gay men were dying from it. Remember that it was not until intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs were contracting the disease that public health officials realized that straight people might be at risk. This story must be told and retold. My generation (I'm 55yrs old) was decimated by Aids as well as the Vietnam war. Present day Christian right wingers and extreme Conservatives are still as ignorant today as the larger society was in the 80's. NEVER FORGET!

Equalitynow | June 25, 2010 1:11 PM

I was there, as a gay woman at ground zero, and busy creating community and raising funds. And next to me were my men friends, my chosen family, and sick as they were they were trying to make life joyful and meaningful. Yes, I have looked into the eyes of beautiful, terrified, young men, dying of the most horrendous collection of opportunistic diseases ever to visit a human being all at once.
Digressing into the phenom of the Castro Clone look, in the middle of this review, surprised me. My recollection is that 501's and clothes from All American Boy, which boys and girls wore was also a statement about looking strong and blunting attacks and stereotypes. And of course looking and feeling sexy and a part of a community. So we all clipped our keys to our belts, and instantly recognized each other on Muni. And felt safer.
I dread seeing this movie, but I know I must. It's my life and I will be searching those images of mustached faces for lost friends and family.

Thanks, Bill, John, and Equalitynow, for sharing some of your memories...

Equalitynow, as for my thoughts on the Castro clone look, I actually found one of the most powerful parts of the movie was when Ed Wolf spoke about how the regimentation of hypermasculinity in the Castro did not allow him space. And then, that the first time he felt like he could express himself in an authentic way around other gay men, and be accepted for it, was when he was taking care of people who were dying. For me this is heartbreaking -- it makes me cry right now, just writing it -- it was so refreshing to hear Ed’s critiques in a movie that isn’t particularly critical of the Castro and its strictures.

When you say, “My recollection is that 501's and clothes from All American Boy, which boys and girls wore was also a statement about looking strong and blunting attacks and stereotypes. And of course looking and feeling sexy and a part of a community,” this is also important. I’m part of the generation born in the 1970s, and so I can’t speak from memory of the time, but I can say that if part of the reason for the Castro clone look was to counter stereotypes, it quickly became its own set of oppressive norms that remain with us today -- I’m speaking specifically of norms for gay/queer males, norms that mimic hetero norms rather than challenging them. For lesbians choosing that particular look, the challenge to status quo ideas of “femininity” is quite obvious, but when gay men enforce those same strictures it quickly becomes oppressive.

ohhhhhhh... i want to see this!

Conrad, I think it will have wide distribution -- it's by the same director as The Cockettes...

This sounds great. I do want to see this one.