I like to watch documentaries on Netflix. I also like to watch a lot of material from gay culture. So in between the two, Netflix thinks that I am a very classy gay man. But anyway, I recently watched How to Survive a Plague. I later watched Paris is Burning again and decided to look up some information about the larger-than-life characters in the show. What I found was an example of how bad this plague was and how devastating AIDs was to the gay community.
How to Survive a Plague is a documentary about activists in two different groups demanded better treatment options and care for everyone suffering from HIV/AIDs and how it resulted in getting new medications and more options available for those people who were infected. I was a child when most of this was going on and had no concept of just how many people died from AIDs and AIDs-related causes.
The film was startling, horrifying and infuriating. So many people were silenced and ignored while everyone was slowly dying. The stigma surrounding AIDs as a “gay disease” was palpable. The sad fact was that with gay people and junkies sharing heroin needles being the most effected by this plague, no one in the pharmaceuticals industry felt very motivated to figure out better alternatives for treatment and work to extend infected peoples’ lives.
After a third viewing of Paris is Burning, I decided to get on Wikipedia and see where everyone was today. The movie was released in 1990 and shot before that. So it has some years on it. When I started looking up the major people involved in the movie, I found that so many of them were dead from AIDs related causes. It was staggering. A list of people who survived and are still living would be much shorter.
Here is a list of all of the stars as listed on the Wikipedia page.
Dorian Corey – Died 1993 – AIDs-related complications
Pepper LaBeija – Died 2003 – Heart attack following diabetes complications
Willi Ninja – Died 2006 – AIDs-related heart failure
Octavia St. Laurent – Died 2009 – AIDs-related complications
Angie Xtravaganza – Died 1993 – AIDs-related liver failure
Venus Xtravaganza – Died 1988 – Homicide
Kim Pendavis – Died 1992 or 93 – Heart failure
Venus Xtravaganza’s death was covered in the movie. She was a transgender woman who was a sex worker that was found dead, stuffed under a motel room bed about four days after she had been murdered. Her murder was never solved. But due to the rate of violence against transgender people (especially in the 80s), it seems logical that her death was related to her gender identity.
Of the 9 people listed as major cast members of the movie, 7 of them are dead. And in the film, none of them were old enough to die from natural causes. So all of their deaths were premature. But this really does to show how deeply the gay community was affected by the plague of HIV and AIDs. It causes so many deaths and robbed us of so many amazing people.
Paris is Burning remains a time capsule of a culture that could have easily been forgotten because most of the people involved in it had died. The documentary itself is important not just for its showcasing of gay and drag culture, but for its intersectionality about a time and place in American history that had a major effect on the entire world. Unfortunately, a lot of the stars of the movie are not here to see how the world has changed and how things have improved for the LGBTQIA+ community as well as those suffering from HIV/AIDs infections.
When the documentary, How to Survive a Plague, discusses all of the people that were lost due to AIDs, it never really hits home until you see the people who aren’t there. Some managed to survive the plague and work towards a better, more healthy future, but others didn’t. A plague is, by definition, so bad because it’s so difficult to survive.