By Advocate Contributors
Originally published on Advocate.com December 01 2011 6:24 PM ET
summer of 2008, I began the process of creating a documentary about San
Francisco at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. As one who’d
immigrated to The City in the gay glory years of the 1970s, I’d experienced our
community’s exuberanc, and the subsequent AIDS-induced suffering and response
not something I would ever have imagined myself doing. After completing The
Cockettes with Bill
Weber in 2002, I wasn’t sure I was interested in making another documentary at
all — certainly not one dealing with such traumatizing subject matter. But sometimes ideas can be germinating invisibly within, awaiting the right
catalyst to bring them into blossom.
late 1980s it had occured to me
that if any of us survived that terrible plague, there would come a time when
we would need to share our stories — for our own healing and to help
subsequent generations understand
and honor what we went through, in all its complexity. Having Holocaust
history in my family, I was well aware of the long silence of many
concentration-camp survivors, who were often unable to find words to do justice
to the horrors they’d suffered, hoping futilely for refuge in forgetfulness.
catalyst for We Were Here
came from a boyfriend who was much younger than I, also a filmmaker. Many
times, he’d heard me speak about my years in San Francisco, my stories of loss
and community resilience, and urged me to make a film. My initial
reluctance was quickly supplanted by clarity that this was a film that needed to be made, that it needed to be made by
someone who’d lived through it, that now was the time. And I realized
that I felt personally ready to revisit that painful and complicated history.
Were Here has taken me
on an incredible journey of rediscovery — of forgotten details of the terrible
suffering, of moments of extraordinary generosity and courage, of residual
guilt and shame for when those qualities were not easily accessible, but,
mostly, of a kind of bewilderment that this whole nightmare actually happened.
epidemic is the
dominant piece of LGBT history since Stonewall. It’s a mind-boggling, but
inescapable, truth. The political mobilization the epidemic necessitated;
the healing of rifts between lesbians and gay men; the visibility that
AIDS forced upon many who’d been reluctant to come out; and, ultimately, the
increased support and compassion from the nongay world have hugely shaped the
reality in which gays and lesbians now live.
though AIDS has dramatically retreated from our conversations and consciousness
since powerful medications began to stem the tide of death, it continues to
haunt our community — and so many others around the world. Whether
we are engaging in completely safe sexual practices or willfully barebacking, gay
men’s sexuality can’t escape the shadow of AIDS. Those who are still
getting infected find themselves facing a lifetime of toxic medications, which
are often only affordable via tenuous government funding. Many forget
that AIDS is just as deadly as it ever was for those who can’t access
every Q&A I’ve done for the film, I’ve been asked about the prevalence of
barebacking, particularly among younger men. The question is generally
asked by men of an older generation, many of whom feel an unspoken rage that
anyone could be so cavalier about continuing to perpetuate this plague. It is only willful barebacking that has kept this epidemic alive among gay men.
Whatever complexities contribute to that reality, it is a truth that must be
addressed. Many of those who fought, suffered, and survived those years take it
very personally — understandably — when others don’t feel any responsibility to
participate in the elimination of this plague.
messages supporting prevention that come out of We Were Here are not delivered so much through the
tragic images of men covered in purple Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions or the ravaged
bodies of other AIDS sufferers, but through the inspiring history of a
community responding to calamity with extraordinary courage, compassion, and
conversation, in their eloquent Facebook posts, in articles that they’ve
written, younger gay men who have seen We Were Here have told me they are overwhelmed by the
realization of what prior generations have had to endure, by the sacrifices
made to get us to where we are today. They say that for the first time,
they are able to viscerally imagine what it must have been like in the early
years, when we watched friends and lovers die terrible deaths, in droves.
hope is that We Were Here
will help engender a complex understanding of what AIDS has meant to our
community. I hope that the generations that managed to survive the worst
of it will find validation and catharsis in having this story told. And I
hope that it provides an avenue for intergenerational conversation, for
inspiration, and for a renewed sense of pride in who we are, where're we've
been, and where we can still go.
Weissman is director of We
Were Here, which will be available on pay-per-view and on-demand services
nationwide beginning December 9. Weissman moved to San Francisco, where he continues to live, in 1976. He
previously codirected (with Bill Weber) the widely acclaimed documentary The Cockettes.