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In the City of Angels, Love Was Greater Than AIDS

Rev Steve Pieters Commitment to Life Documentary AIDS Crisis
Image: Courtesy Steven Pieters

Rev Steve Pieters who is featured in the film

The director of a new documentary about the AIDS crisis in Los Angeles in the 1980s — called Commitment to Life — talks about some of the courageous individuals who stepped forward in a fight for survival.

When I came out to my mom in the early 1990s, the first thing she said to me was, “Please don’t get sick.”

At that time, the AIDS epidemic was raging, and tens of thousands of people around the world had already been lost. AIDS was still a death sentence, and individuals with HIV/AIDS faced rampant discrimination, isolation, and stigma. For me, coming out was intertwined with fear and anxiety about the virus.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1995, I attended my first AIDS Walk. I saw thousands of people marching to support those living with HIV as well as honor loved ones taken too soon. I learned about AIDS Project Los Angeles and the critical role this organization played from the earliest days of the epidemic. Seeing how the Los Angeles community rose to meet the challenge of HIV/AIDS was empowering and filled me with pride about how far we’ve come. It was around this time that advances in treatment made it possible for those infected with HIV to lead healthy, productive lives. The tide was beginning to turn.

In 2019, APLA Health, formerly AIDS Project Los Angeles, approached me with the idea of making a documentary called Commitment to Life. They felt that the story of the AIDS epidemic as it affected New York and San Francisco was familiar to many, but that Los Angeles needed to be acknowledged for its central — and oft-unsung — role in fighting a global epidemic. No city responded to the crisis quite like Los Angeles did.

As HIV/AIDS began to devastate the city, people from all walks of life came together to show love to the sick and the dying when our own government turned its back on them. An intrepid group of people living with HIV/AIDS, doctors, movie stars, studio moguls, and activists came together to change the path of the epidemic and how the world saw it. When New York activists took to the streets, Los Angeles took to the screens. The city responded to the epidemic by crafting a human element, and changing the culture the best way it knows how — through story. L.A. helped provide vital information, give a face to the disease, and craft a narrative that would resonate far from the coast. Members of the Hollywood community used their privilege and access to power to raise money and help create empathy.

And in the center of the storm was AIDS Project Los Angeles, a committed group of activists who helped care for the sick and dying, while at the same time lobbied those in Hollywood to contribute to the fight. APLA brought together A-list stars like Elizabeth Taylor and people with AIDS to provide resources for care, research, and activism. APLA’s star-studded Commitment to Life gala, the first major fundraiser for AIDS, was instrumental in focusing Hollywood’s energy on defeating not only the disease but the stigma surrounding it. Stars like Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Bette Midler, and Whitney Houston showed their love and support for people with AIDS and helped to galvanize the rest of the country. AIDS Walk Los Angeles, the first of its kind, brought thousands of people into the streets in a public display of support for people living with AIDS.

In Los Angeles, we organized and built critical infrastructure to take care of and protect each other, and everyone had a role to play. Like the virus itself, our story winds through gated communities and neighborhoods of color, government offices and university labs, hospital suites and studio soundstages to tell a story of courage and sacrifice — as well as one of discrimination and unequal treatment.

Commitment to Life profiles some of the courageous individuals who stepped forward in a fight for survival. People like the late Nancy Cole, one of the founders of AIDS Project Los Angeles, who helped provide vital services in those dark early days and was one of the first women in L.A. to go public about having AIDS. Phill Wilson, who, when he and his partner Chris Brownlie were faced with their own HIV diagnosis, became full-time activists and helped defeat the notorious Prop 64, which would have placed people with HIV in internment camps.

Jewel Thais-Williams provided a spiritual home for the African American community to dance and grieve. She helped start the Minority AIDS Project to address the disparity in health care and treatment for communities of color. The Rev. Steve Pieters was the first member of the clergy to be diagnosed with AIDS, and appeared on Tammy Faye Bakker’s talk show to share his message of hope. And there was Elizabeth Taylor, who used her celebrity to advocate for people with AIDS and inspired the Hollywood community to do the same.

Through it all, the LGBTQ+ community found its voice and showed the world the best of who we are as a people — because we were fighting for our lives.

Forty years after the start of the epidemic, there is still no cure for HIV. There are almost 40 million people living with HIV around the world, many of whom do not have access to lifesaving antiretroviral therapy. In the United States, there are more than a million people living with HIV, and roughly 35,000 new infections every year. Our young people are vulnerable and still face stigma and silence around HIV.

On this World AIDS Day, it is our hope that Commitment to Life will help preserve the legacy of the generation who fought the disease from the beginning, and ensure that their work and the memories of those they loved won’t be forgotten. We also hope to energize and engage a new post-epidemic generation who might be unfamiliar with our history – because this story is far from over.

Commitment to Life will premiere on Peacock on World AIDS Day, December 1, followed by its cable network debut on MSNBC in early 2024.

A Conversation with Jeffrey Schwarz - Director of "Commitment to Life"

Jeffrey Schwartz is an Emmy-award-winning director who directed the new film Commitment to Life a documentary about the AIDS crisis in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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